Goodness Me! – Discussion Highlights

These are some personal reflections on “goodness” sparked by a recent discussion at the Harvard Humanist Alumni Boston Discussion Group.  The tag line “Good Without God” is marvelous on many levels, but it makes me queasy because I’m not sure what “good” really means.  Whatever it means, I’m quite sure we can accomplish it without the help of any gods. But I didn’t feel comfortable claiming to be “good” until I had a better idea what it means. The discussion didn’t completely dispel my unease, but it did crystallize my thinking and impel me to post.

First, Do No Harm

I do feel fairly clear about what might be called “passive goodness,” i.e. avoiding the unnecessary infliction of harm on others (or, I would add, on myself).  Cruelty, lying, cheating, stealing, violence — all can cause injury to others, and also make me feel bad about myself.  Whenever possible I try to avoid them. Would I tell a lie to save someone’s life? Of course. I might even tell a little “white lie” to avoid hurting someone’s feelings, if I were confident that the harm it might cause were minimal.  I would steal if I were starving, etc.  But as it happens I have the luxury of avoiding active badness almost all the time.

I’m also comfortable doing things that some religions condemn if I’m confident that they don’t cause harm. Most of the “seven deadly sins” don’t trouble me as such, unless they are pursued in a way that causes injury (to me or others): lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, even pride. While wrath may have its place, in general I do try to avoid it. And I’m not sure envy is ever harmless, although it may not always be possible to prevent. And even though I feel no intrinsic compunction about the other “sins” any of them can be injurious if pursued to excess.

It was pointed out the other night that the concept of avoiding harm resonates with the injunction of Maimonides: “That which is hateful to you, do not do to others.”  While few would disagree with this, we all felt that a robust idea of “goodness” means more than simply refraining from active badness. Some religions might see a life of passive meditation as the supreme good. A Humanist, however, would not consider that to be an especially “good” life. “Goodness” requires something more.


Perhaps the simplest form of active goodness is common courtesy. Being pleasant, listening attentively, expressing sympathy, not interrupting. Sharing, waiting your turn, avoiding conflicts. Simple niceness will not solve the world’s problems. But it does improve the texture of our daily lives, and I do try to accomplish it.

The Categorical Imperative and The Golden Rule

There is another type of minor-league “goodness” that I practice because it makes me feel good. I think of it — perhaps mistakenly — as having something to do with Kant’s “categorical imperative,” that we should live by principles that we can will to be universal laws.

One example is jaywalking. I happily ignore traffic signals and markings, so long as I don’t require any driver to brake. My reasoning is that I would be happy — either as walker or driver — with a world in which this behavior were universal. I hate jaywalkers who make me brake, when I am driving, so I don’t inflict that on other drivers. (Of course I have no compunction about stopping traffic when I have the right of way.)

Another example involves busy coffee shops. I don’t take or “reserve” a seat until I have received at least part of my order. If everyone followed this rule the available seats would be put to their best use, and nobody would ever have to stand with his/her order because otherwise available seats had been “reserved.” Most of the time this works out — someone gets up by the time I receive my order. But I consider it an acceptable price to pay, for acting in accordance with a sound general principle, that I occasionally have to stand for a while. (I don’t follow this rule if the coffee shop is empty since in that case putting down my coat doesn’t risk anyone’s inconvenience.)

I’m not sure how much further this idea can take me; I haven’t tried to apply it in more serious contexts, but I do feel that jaywalkers who block traffic, and people who “reserve” seats in busy coffee shops, are not my idea of “good.”

There’s a resonance between this idea and the “Golden Rule.” I am in these cases behaving the way I wish others would behave. But to my mind “do unto others as you would have them do to you” is so broad as to be meaningless, unless you limit it to the minor-league domain of niceness. I would like people to give me all their money; so I should give them all my money? There are lots of things I would like that I don’t do, that it would make no sense for me to do. To my mind this — as a fundamental principle — is incoherent.

Competence and Goodness

Competence is obviously not goodness; an evil person could be highly competent.  But I submit that incompetence, especially extreme incompetence, is incompatible with goodness. A bad person intentionally causes harm. A “good-hearted” but incompetent person means well, but causes harm all the same. Lying may require an intent to mislead, but telling the truth requires competence: a person who doesn’t know what’s true or believes other people’s lies will say things that are just as false as if s/he were intentionally lying. The promises of an incompetent person are just as unreliable as those of someone who has no intention of keeping their word. A person who is insensitive to the feelings of others can hurt them as badly as if s/he acted with intentional cruelty. While from a religious perspective intention may make all the difference, in my view a highly incompetent person is scarcely distinguishable from a truly bad person.

Charity and Service

I give money to a variety of charities, mostly because it makes me feel good, and less guilty about what I don’t do. I am especially generous to several charities that cater to the homeless and indigent in the Boston area. I do this specifically so that I will feel less guilty about not giving money to panhandlers. I don’t give handouts on this theory: if I don’t like what people are doing — and I hate being asked for alms — I won’t pay people to do it, thus encouraging them to continue and others to emulate them. On the other hand, I always buy Spare Change newspaper because it gives homeless folks a chance to earn an honest dollar, and because the organization gives them opportunities to work their way out of poverty. I also give generously to musicians and other performers who I like, both to help them and to encourage them to entertain me.

I avoid “service projects,” despite the fact that many love them. An example might be gluing together scarves to keep homeless people warm in the winter. This is a kind idea and I wish all the best to people who want to do it. I am even attracted by the community aspect of getting together with a bunch of nice people to do something virtuous. I don’t particularly enjoy gluing (or whatever), and I’m not particularly good at it, but if those were the only considerations I might sometimes go or sometimes not. This further argument, however, almost always keeps me away: If I am going to spend an hour working for homeless people it is both more enjoyable and vastly more productive for me to do something that I enjoy and am sufficiently good at to be well compensated for, then to donate my earnings. In the example of scarves, the (say) $100 I could earn might buy two dozen scarves professionally made in a third-world factory, as opposed to the handful of amateurishly-glued scarves I might make.


In the discussion I raised the question of what we thought we would do if we were faced with a motorcyclist trapped beneath a burning SUV (as happened recently in Utah). A dozen bystanders tipped up the SUV and pulled the cyclist to safety. I don’t know whether I would be so heroic. I kind of hope I would, but I can easily imagine myself being too timid, and coming up with rationalizations for inaction. One of us pointed out, however, that there isn’t much point dwelling on such extreme examples because we really can’t know in advance how we would behave.


Apart from the sketchy ideas outlined above I really don’t have a formal framework for resolving moral questions. There is no Humanist Bible. The most important rule I try to follow is to think about these questions — both in the abstract and when possible issues arise. I try to be sensitive to when I may be causing harm, and take the time to consider whether there is a better way to proceed. And I am deeply skeptical of anyone who claims to have a formula or holy book that purports to answer the question of what is or isn’t good.

Why Try to Be Good?

One participant the other night said that s/he has no particular interest in being good. It really is a fair question: since there’s no danger of divine retribution why bother being good at all?

Anyone of course will be influenced by the likelihood of real-life rewards or punishments. It’s obvious that we avoid committing crimes if we think we might get caught, and we can be motivated to do do good deeds by the prospect of applause or compensation. The behavior is good but these cases are uninteresting because they reflect simple self-interest.

What’s interesting is a situation in which a good or bad deed will never be known, or will never have consequences for the actor. In these cases there is only one non-religious reason to be good: that it will make you feel better than if you behave badly.

Call me a cockeyed optimist, but I believe that this is usually true for most people in most circumstances. The only explanation I can offer for this happy fact is that most people I know have been brought up with good values in a relatively healthy society. They are hard-wired to feel good about themselves when they behave well and badly about themselves if they don’t. When this is true it is once again a matter of self-interest — thoughtful, enlightened self-interest — to behave well.

It must be acknowledged, however, that not everyone feels this way, and for anyone there will be situations in which other considerations outweigh concern about one’s future feelings. Some people evidently feel no guilt, because of organic defect, faulty upbringing or the coarsening effects of a hard life. It’s easy to call them names — “sociopath” for example — but ultimately we are just lucky there aren’t more of them. There are intermediate cases: someone who thinks s/he will feel no guilt but then is wracked by it (Lady MacBeth), and someone who fears guilt but finds in the event that s/he feels nothing (MacBeth himself).  I would like to think, however, that most of us would do the right thing, absent a strong countervailing motive. I personally have the luxury of indulging my sense of self-satisfaction almost always because there happen in my life to be relatively few motives that tempt me to behave badly (according to my own values).

Regina Spektor sings a wonderful song about someone who finds a wallet. It ends as follows; I get chills at the final note:

I’ll take your wallet
to my local blockbuster
they’ll find your number
in their computer
you’ll never know me
I’ll never know you
but you’ll be so happy
when they call you up

Empathy and Dignity

I think the basis for our desire to be good — such as it is — lies in empathy, our capacity and propensity to put ourselves in another person’s place, to feel — to some extent — their pain and pleasure as our own.

Adam Smith explains in “The Theory of Moral Sentiments” that empathy for others, while natural, is naturally much less intense than concern for ones own feelings.  One might imagine someone who is truly more concerned about the feelings of others than about his or her own feelings, but this is more likely to be pretense than reality. And I much prefer the real world, in which people pursue their own interests, tempered by a reasonable measure of concern for others.

It was also pointed out the other evening that empathy varies depending on the degree of kinship with the other person. Stephen Pinker argues in “How the Mind Works” that our empathy for others is proportionate to how many of our genes the other person shares. While I would argue that the mental systems evolved through pure genetic natural selection have in many cases been co-opted for broader social purposes I acknowledge the fact that empathy is variable: One typically has greater empathy with relatives than with acquaintances, greater empathy with friends than with strangers, greater empathy with people “like me” than people who are “different,” etc.  One of us pointed out the other night that even nice people can be affected by unconscious racial bias, e.g. in employment.  I can’t be sure that I am free of this, although the breadth of my contacts with people of different cultures and races may be helpful. My only thought about how to correct such bias is to be aware of the possibility and to attempt to consciously compensate for it whenever possible. I perceive the problem of variable empathy as especially problematic in the extreme case where others are “depersonalized” so as to be excluded altogether from empathy. Humans seem all to ready to do this to “the enemy,” or even just to someone from a different tribe. A minimum level of empathy for all other humans, however different, would go a long way towards mitigating the most horrific atrocities.

Greg Epstein wrestles with the definition of goodness in “Good Without God,” and settles on a somewhat different formulation, Sherwin Wine’s concept of “dignity.”  (p. 90)  I had the privilege of hearing Wine speak at the New Humanism conference in 2007. He was an extraordinarily powerful speaker: clear, forceful, witty, wise. I didn’t know him personally but I still felt shattered when I learned of his tragic death, in a car crash, just three months later. Wine’s idea of “dignity” is composed of four elements:

  • high self-awareness
  • willingness to assume responsibility
  • refusal to find one’s identity in any possession
  • sense that one’s behavior is worthy of imitation by others

This is a powerful combination, which I can easily imagine has the ability change lives. To me, however, it appears to be a recipe for self-actualization, rather than a formula for any sort of goodness.  Someone following these principles would quite possibly be effective in leading others, but where they might lead seems undefined. From my perspective the missing component is empathy.


For the sake of argument, the other night, I threw out the idea of perfection, supposing that it would be quickly dismissed.  To my surprise it sparked a lively interchange. One participant expressed the view that perfection is impossible; that whatever our idea of goodness we are doomed in the real world to fall short of the ideal. But another participant asked what we strive for if we don’t seek to achieve perfection. I was taken aback at this idea since in my own life I try to do a good job and avoid doing a lot of damage, but I never even think about perfection. The idea has a 19th century ring to me; “Excelsior!” Yet I wonder whether that attitude is the way in which really significant accomplishments are achieved! Another participant recounted a wonderful story — too personal I think for me to repeat here — about how “perfect” life can be.

Individual Goodness and the Good Society

One striking feature of the other night’s discussion was the way the conversation veered again and again between individual goodness and social health or illness. We are responsible as individuals for our own behavior. But our ability to be good and our desire to be good are inextricably dependent on the quality and character of the society in which we live. Contributing in whatever way we can to the health and fairness of our community is perhaps one of the most important elements of active goodness.

I mentioned last night a book that I am currently reading entitled “The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger.”  It presents extensive evidence for the proposition that once a society reaches a certain level of wealth — which the developed world has long achieved — additional wealth adds little to happiness, health, and many other indicia of well-being.  Those desirable characteristics are, however, very strongly correlated with low income disparity between rich and poor.  The authors contend, based on extensive and persuasive data, that inequality correlates with (and arguably causes) a host of social ills.  If the book sustains this argument it may cause me to shift my own political views sharply leftwards, more closely aligned with European socialism than with any mainstream American political movement.


3 Responses to “Goodness Me! – Discussion Highlights”

  1. 1 Jim Farmelant
    September 28, 2011 at 9:32 am

    In the last paragraph, Bob writes:

    “It presents extensive evidence for the proposition that once a society
    reaches a certain level of wealth — which the developed world has long
    achieved — additional wealth adds little to happiness, health, and many
    other indicia of well-being”

    I would note that many utilitarians have long made the case for at least a
    moderate redistribution of income on the basis of the principle of
    diminishing utility – that is the principle that for an individual, as her
    income increases, the augmentation of her total utility from each additional
    unit of income decreases. If a person makes say $20,000 a year, then an
    increase of her income by say $2000 is likely to bring her a significant
    increase in satisfaction. However, if this same person had instead an
    income of $200,0000 a year, then an increase of $2000 will likely bring her
    much less increased satisfaction. Therefore, if the objective of public
    policy is (as utilitarians maintain) to maximize the total utility of
    society (i.e. the sum total of the utilities of each individual), we should
    not shrink from policies that redistribute income from the affluent to the
    less affluent. The main reason, from a utilitarian perspective, from
    avoiding a complete equalization of incomes would be concern over weakening
    incentives, since if incentives are weakened too much, then total production
    will fall such that total utility would be diminished rather than increased.
    So historically, most utilitarians have advocated moderate redistributionist
    policies of the sort that European social democrats long advocated. And to
    the extent that it is possible to reduce reliance upon monetary incentives
    (presumably by shifting to non-monetary incentives), then from a utilitarian
    perspective an ever more egalitarian income distribution should then be both
    more feasible and obligatory.

  2. 2 Robert Mack
    October 3, 2011 at 12:17 pm

    David Brooks wrote a column in the Sept. 30 New York Times titled The Limits of Empathy: http://mobile.nytimes.com/2011/09/30/opinion/brooks-the-limits-of-empathy.xml He argues that empathy is too weak to make people good, especially when it is in their interests to be bad. He contends that only moral “codes” can guide people towards goodness.

    I don’t deny that empathy is relatively weak, especially when compared to self-interest. But I don’t think “codes” — presumably written on stone tablets or disappearing gold plates — are much help either. Perhaps the social forces of guilt, shame and the threat of punishment are the only powers strong enough to compel goodness. But they can be used for bad as well as good purposes.

    At the end of the day I still think that goodness is primarily based on compassion. That empathy is relatively feeble is a problem, but not one that can be solved by invoking some deus ex machina to save the day. Our real task is to nurture compassion, in ourselves and in others, in the hope that it may prove strong enough to counter, most of the time, our baser impulses.

  3. 3 Rekha Vemireddy
    October 10, 2011 at 11:48 am

    Excellent post. I appreciate your candor, and hope that you will appreciate mine.

    Your comment that passive meditation would not seem to create a particularly good life to a Humanist, struck me as a bit odd. If many more people were passively meditating much of their free time, wouldn’t society become less materialistic than it is now? I think Rick Heller wrote an article in The Humanist about how meditation could be useful for reducing materialism, over-consumption, and the environmental and social problems created by over-consumption.

    Your comments about Sherwin Wine’s moral formulations seem to run into the same problem wherein you draw a clear line between self-actualization that is healthy and positive and morality, as if a more self-actualized person is not necessarily more ethical. Of course he or she would be more ethical. If everyone focused on and developed higher self-awareness, behaved more often in ways that they would like others to behave, assumed greater responsibility for their actions, and so forth, we’d have a better people and a better society. That would be “good,“ correct?

    Is your formulation for morality to do whatever “feels” good if you were nicely brought up in a healthy society, because you were hardwired to feel good when doing good or hardwired to feel bad when doing bad? How do you define a healthy society? What about the rabidly racist, sexist, xenophobic, anti-Semitic, neocolonialist, and homophobic 1950s-60s America? The ones with lower levels of inequality? Are the individuals from unhealthy societies just doomed to behave badly more often?

    Following from my comments above, I believe that greater awareness/interest in reality is the route to greater morality and a healthier society. I believe that is the focus of Humanism, as well as Atheism. Otherwise, why spend all this energy on denying the existence of supernatural forces? I think greater self-awareness is a part of greater interest in reality. I also think greater self-awareness and greater awareness of reality would increase effective empathy. If you are out of touch with your reactions, wouldn’t you be less able to accurately put yourself in others’ place? If you are less aware of the reality of who others are, wouldn’t that again reduce your ability to put yourself in their place?

    N.B. I’m not sure that this is the “blog of the new humanism magazine” at this point. It no longer appears on the New Humanism webpage, and is no longer actively run by the New Humanism editor. So you might change it to “blog of Harvard Humanist Alumni” or whatever purpose it now suits.

Comments are currently closed.

%d bloggers like this: