Is “good” a learned attribute of humanity, or are we born with it? Is it true that infants are innocent, or are they sin incarnate? Is baptism necessary, in order to cleanse an unclean body to ensure placement in heaven?
This questions bare many theological ties, however, they are questions that have been asked for as long as humanity has uttered the ultimate existence question, “Why?”
First, we must decide what is truly “good.” As a 21st Century resident, my perception is that morality is mainly based around religion and its various incarnations of the Ten Commandments. All versions of western religion have these basic tenants for good will. Outside of the bible, morality has been discussed. Plato described the Cardinal Virtues in his dialogue with Socrates. They are as follows:
- Prudence - able to judge between actions with regard to appropriate actions at a given time
- Justice - proper moderation between self-interest and the rights and needs of others
- Temperance or Restraint - practicing self-control, abstention, and moderation
- Fortitude or Courage - forbearance, endurance, and ability to confront fear and uncertainty, or intimidation
These of course, are all western ideologies. For an eastern look, I want to examine Hindu, mainly because it encompasses the largest percentage of eastern followers. The entire basis for Hindu ethics relies in Dharma and Karma. Dharma is discussed so vastly, it’s almost impossible to make a simple list; dissimilar to the western equivalent.
Karma is understood in Hinduism as a universal law of cause and effect. Positive actions produce positive effects; negative actions produce negative effects. To act dharmically is to act in a karmically positive manner. When one acts dharmically, one necessarily produces positive karma. This karma is cumulative: one accrues karma, positive and negative, not only throughout the course of one’s life, but throughout the course of one’s multiple rebirths. It is karma that determines one’s rebirths.
So, now that we’ve broken it down a bit, let’s look at the various motivations for being good.
Western Theology is largely based upon the “do good or go to hell” approach. If you want to get into heaven, be a good person.
Eastern Theology focuses upon the reincarnation aspect. If you are a good person in life, you will be rewarded in your next life.
Both of these approaches are very similar and are quite self-serving. If you hold belief in an after-life, there is motivation to be a “good” person. But, what if you don’t believe in an afterlife? How can an individual who thinks “dead is dead” be motivated?
There are several ethical theories that address the issue of morality outside of religion. The first is very similar to reincarnation, but the locus of fear is different. Basically, consequences of one’s conduct are the ultimate basis for any judgment about the rightness of that conduct. Thus, from a consequentialist standpoint, a morally right act (or omission) is one that will produce a good outcome, or consequence. If an action yields a positive outcome, it is moral.
Returning to Socrates for the second, he argued that “if the gods approve of some actions it must be because those actions are good, in which case it cannot be the gods’ approval that makes them good.”
Evolutionary theory also posits a morality stance. Within the confines of the evolution argument, it is argued that an organism will take all measures for survival. This means that, ultimately, an organism will act in the best interest of the group, in order to save itself. Most of this theory is discussed in the book The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins, and others.
Returning to the original question, are we innately moral? I argue that it is a yes, we are born with the genetic makeup to be good moral people; however this is not always true. If that were the case, there would be no need for the Justice System. Mutations exist within the human genome. The X-Men are real – they are psychopaths. Mutations within their DNA and chemical imbalances cause the “selfish gene” to act against its survival programming.
Being “good” or “moral” is a selfish act. It is necessary for the survival of the species. It comes in all forms of ideas. If all humanity acted in an immoral manner, we wouldn’t survive as a species. Humanity wants to be good for its own sake.