A Christian friend I grew up with recently asked me, “What do you mean when you say that humans are innately good? (I, most assuredly, am not) What causes us to do bad things?”
I replied, “I’m sorry you feel that way. How many bad things do you do every day? Do you wake up and spit on the cat? Do you drop your brownies in the trash bin instead of the toilet just to annoy everyone? Do you knock your wife one for not cooking your eggs just so or burning the toast? Do you walk outside to get the paper and kick the neighbor’s new puppy just for kicks and giggles? Do you run all the red lights and kill a few people on your way for work every day because you have nothing better to do? Do you have a few affairs each week and cheat on them with a whole set of other affairs you are having? Do you steel what you want and do anything you like regardless of the consequences?”
Additionally I commented, “If you’re not innately good, we can reasonably assume, you’d be doing these things and worse, and more than this, we can guesstimate that you’d revert into a wild poop slinging wilder-beast monkey man who masturbates too much. But low and behold! This is not the case. You’re civil, and you try to be a good and respectable person. This is innate goodness, plain and simple.”
So, admittedly I must disagree with those who think like my friend. Unless you’re a psychopath or a sociopath we can deduce from life experience that most sane people are not bad… they’re mostly good most of the time. Not always, it’s true, but most of the time. Granted there are a lot of assholes out there… but they’re not “rape your poodle” evil. They’re just unthinking, uneducated, stubborn A-holes who need better disciplining.
If you do more good in a day than bad, no matter what you may believe, you’re more good than bad. It’s that easy!
What I think most Christians are getting hung up on is that they’re mixing the concept of pain and suffering with cruelty and the will to power and coming up with the concept of sin. But Eastern philosophies have addressed suffering quite elegantly… and it’s not a lack of morality due to any supernatural cause so much as a natural condition.
But because many Christians are all hung up on this moral high horse, they’ve proceeded to set barely conceivable and quite nearly impossible standards for what it means to sin because they believe in the metaphysical nature of sin–even without ever having a clear concept of what it means to sin other than it has something to do with transgressing God’s law–which itself is subject to interpretation. Metaphysical claims not withstanding though, even if you are a sinner, odds are, if you are a mentally healthy individual, you are still probably doing more good than bad. So what causes us to do bad things you might wonder?
We’re NOT perfect! We’re each of us fallible, imperfect, and prone to make mistakes. Some more than others, depending on our circumstances, how we were raised, cultural upbringing, our mindset, and numerous other conditions and factors. It’s one of the stamps of our animal imperfection, our biological weakness as mere primates. Welcome to the human race!
Christians are basically creating their own sense of right and wrong, good and bad, and using what they know—whether they get it from their holy leaders or from the Bible directly–to try and formulate ways of thinking which tie into the ecumenical whole. But this is, in all intents and purposes, relative moralizing. Which means they are doing what Atheists and secular humanists do when we practice moral relativism.
How we derive our notion of a sense of “good” and “evil” is mainly a cultural and social phenomenon which varies according to the beliefs and customs of each individual set of peoples. This also makes it relative according to our philosophical understanding of what “good” and “bad” means in our everyday discourse.
But I think there is a higher goodness which transcends our very notions of it. It is the goodness we have yet to achieve. It is the evolved version of goodness, if you want to think of it in natural terms, and it is unknown to us because we have not yet met it. It can only be glimpsed on the horizon, a direction we are moving toward, it is reflected in what the Buddha taught: Not to do any evil, to cultivate the good, to purify one’s mind. When we do progress enough thus enabling ourselves to accomplish such a feat, it will make the achievement that much more meaningful. Call it a truism if you wish, because it seems so obvious as to actually constitute a truth. But the Buddha also taught good and evil were consequences of pain and suffering, which themselves were illusions. So again, we know the concept of “good and bad” resides in our minds.
For this same reason we know the opposite of goodness is that which brings unnecessary suffering into the world. Suffering is a natural state, part of existence and partially because we have advanced sensory nervous systems which have evolved to alert us to specific dangers, but excess and unjust causes of pain and suffering threaten our well being and safety. I feel, if life cannot exist without such evils, then death must be the ultimate evil, and so goodness is that which alleviates the suffering and strife and helps us progress to a happier, healthier sort of existence. Basically, this is good and evil as it exists in its natural state.
The ethical concept of good and evil, however, is definitely subject to individual and cultural interpretation. Although I’m an Atheist, I agree with Sam Harris that Buddhism contains “spiritual” types of experiences which can enhance our lives. In his book The End of Faith he goes on to explain:
Without denying that happiness has many requisites—good genes, a nervous system that does not entirely misbehave, etc.—we can hypothesize that whatever a person’s current level of happiness is, his condition will be generally improved by his becoming yet more loving and compassionate, and hence more ethical. This is a strictly empirical claim—one that has been tested for millennia by contemplatives in a variety of spiritual traditions, especially within Buddhism. We might wonder whether, in the limit, the unchecked growth of love and compassion might lead to the diminution of a person’s sense of well-being, as the suffering of others becomes increasingly his own. Only people who have cultivated these states of mind to an extraordinary degree will be in a position to decide this question, but in the general case there seems to be no doubt that love and compassion are good, in that they connect us more deeply to others. (Harris, p.191)
But more than this, many of the philosophies of Eastern philosophy are much more sophisticated than any Western religion. The reason for this is Western religion is mainly comprised of stories, myth, fables… and the philosophical complexity of them only comes after the fact when people are trying to grapple with the ideas and make them fit according to their world views. And then there is religion to regulate exactly what you’re allowed to think, and so you are inevitably faced with the wearisome ultimatum to either follow suit, follow the herd trying to avoid the black sheep at all costs, or be ostracized for your lack of faith. If you choose the prior, you are stuck with living the unexamined life, because you’ve never stepped outside of the framework of your religious faith long enough to see what it looks like from the outside. According to Socrates, the unexamined life wasn’t worth living. Why? Because you’re not living according to what you have come to realize by yourself, you are living according to the direction of some higher authority, enslaved to the ideology of an institution, and this is organized religion in a nutshell. Eastern religion starts off with the ideas, and asks you to think about them that you might become enlightened, and be set free. This is, in my humble opinion, a much more philosophically advanced position to start from. It just so happens to also be the more reasonable option, since under the religious scheme you risk the danger of being perpetually indoctrinated, suppressed, controlled and are never truly free–even when freedom is promised you in return for your faithful obedience. Whereas, to side with Socrates, the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, and the sages you can set yourself free, and liberate your body, soul, and mind.
In his book What the Buddha Taught, Walpola Rahula states, “Buddhism recognizes that humans have a measure of freedom of moral choice, and Buddhist practice has essentially to do with acquiring the freedom to choose as one ought to choose with truth: that is of acquiring a freedom from the passions and desires that impel us to distraction and poor decisions.”
There is something, however, genuinely humanistic about Buddhist philosophy which gives me hope that humans can still progress beyond their own feeble mindedness and become something better. It’s a hope I subscribe to mainly because I tend to be somewhat of an optimist, a rarity among skeptics and atheists. I guess it’s just another one of my many appreciations.