“Am I a good person? Deep down, do I even really want to be a good person, or do I only want to seem like a good person so that people (including myself) will approve of me? Is there a difference? How do I ever actually know whether I’m bullshitting myself, morally speaking?” -David Foster Wallace
eth·ics (ˈeTHiks) noun -moral principles that govern a person’s behavior or the conducting of an activity.
mor·al (ˈmôrəl) noun plural noun: morals -a person’s standards of behavior or beliefs concerning what is and is not acceptable for them to do.
What drives us to be good people, do good things, follow laws, be charitable and kind, show compassion and empathy toward our fellow human beings? Many of us will give full credit to our parents for instilling a strong sense of morality in us, showing us how we are to navigate in this world, doing the least amount of damage to others as we possibly can. Others may cite religion, church, The Bible/Quran/Torah as a significant guiding force in their lives, advising them on ways in which they can be a decent, albeit flawed, human being. Shoot, some of us just don’t want to go to prison.
What about fear? Is there an element of fear guiding us to do right? Maybe we’re afraid of what society will think, how our families will view us. Perhaps we fear Hell. If you were raised in the Christian church, chances are you’ve heard terrifying tales of burning in Hell for all eternity, or having the Rapture (second coming of Christ) happen, and being “left behind” because you weren’t good enough. I can vividly remember being a little girl (we’re talking single digit age here), and my grandmother having me watch a movie, A Thief In The Night, which follows a few women and their lives after the Rapture, having been left behind. One of the major plot points in this movie is whether or not Patty, our protagonist, will take the “Mark of the Beast”, or be executed for refusing to do so.
Now, I was an impressionable little girl, and of course, lacked a true understanding of what this movie, and the entirety of the concept of a Biblical Rapture really meant. This movie was shown to me as a sort of scare tactic: to make me so afraid of being “left behind” by Jesus, and left to fend for myself in an apocalyptic world filled with evil and violence, that I would behave myself, and follow God. That movie fucking terrified me! I can remember falling asleep that night in my grandmother’s huge (King) bed, her on one side, me on the other, with that movie on my mind. When I awoke the following morning, her side of the bed was empty, the blankets having been pulled up, and the pillow still had the imprint left by her head. I was instantly frightened, sure that Jesus had come, like a thief in the night, and I had been such a bad little girl that he deemed me unfit for Heaven; that I’d been left behind without my family, and now would have to go head to head with the Antichrist, or be killed.
Let that sink in. I was a little girl! That was a relatively traumatic childhood event, and is comparatively innocuous, compared to other stories I’ve heard from friends and family also brought up in a religious household. Generations of children have been, and continue to be raised, to fear God, His wrath, and what will happen to us should we not toe the line. Imagine if we taught our children the exact same scenarios, but removed God from them. If we told our children that if they didn’t behave, their families would leave them and they’d be left by themselves in a violent world where they’d likely die a gruesome death, or that they’d burn in a pit of fire for “bad” behavior. Well, that’d be child abuse, and I don’t know of a single, legitimate therapist that would disagree with me on this. But, throw some Holy Father in the mix, and BOOM! Plain ol’ child abuse magically becomes a highly encouraged way of teaching our children right from wrong!
So, again I pose the question: what drives us to be good people? Do we choose not to kill people because we don’t want to go to prison? I’m sure that’s probably part of it, but realistically, the majority of us also recognize that taking the life of another person is rarely an acceptable thing to do. Where does intention come into play? Let’s look at this for a moment.
If we make the decision to refrain from committing crimes and atrocities against other human beings largely because we fear Hell, does that mean we’re actually a good person? (Please note: I don’t think that a person of faith necessarily only does good deeds for fear of God’s wrath.) What about atheists with an ethical code? They obviously don’t fear Hell, nor do they have any issues with incurring the wrath of God, as they don’t believe in the existence of either scenario. So, why would an atheist strive to lead the life of a good, kind, law abiding person? What matters more to us: the act, or the intention? If I do good things, but my intentions are self serving and fear based, are those acts really, truly, good? Hell, Satanists have a strong code of ethics that guide them, as well, and many of them aren’t bad at all. Don’t rape people. Don’t kill anyone or anything, except in self-defense (though, that one is my own loosely interpreted version), et cetera.
Are you a good person? If you think you are, why are you? What makes you good? What drives you to do the “right” thing? How do you define righteousness? Does your righteousness include piety and self adulation? Do you exist from a place of fear, or a place of genuine love? Do you spend more time focusing on the “wrongs” of others, or how to make your own self a better person, every day?
There’s an adage, “The road to Hell is paved in good intentions”, which has been attributed to multiple people over time. Essentially, this means that, we can have good intentions all day long, but if we don’t follow through on those good intentions, with good actions, then our intentions weren’t really very good. Conversely, then, would it stand to reason that good actions without good intentions would be bad, as well?