Back to Philosophical Primer
Why be Good?
An revised version of this page appears in my book
"New Skins for Old Wine"
I first started thinking these thoughts when I was at primary school. I
was always a well behaved, serious and (baring a few lapses) responsible
young man with a strong aversion to physical violence. I was brought
up to be kind and considerate of others, in short to be good. While
on one level I found this ethic to be comfortable, in that it went along
with inclinations that I found to exist within myself, on another level
I was aware that I could not readily explain why anyone should adopt it
if they were not personally inclined to do so. Over the years I have mulled
this problem over and wish now to record the present state of my thoughts.
from Dungeons and Dragons
I want to begin this discussion from what may be thought a strange perspective:
that of someone who plays Dungeon's and Dragons. It is as a player of this
game that I have come most clearly into contact with other people's ideas
about good and evil and have been forced to develop my own notions in response
to their attitudes and assumptions. For those readers who are unfamiliar
with Dungeon's and Dragons, I should say that it is a game in which each
participant takes on a character: much as an actor might adopt a role in
a play. The main differences are that: first there is no script, and second
the characters tend to have magical or other extra-ordinary powers (such
as prowess as a fighter, a burglar or an acrobat). The characters interact
with each other in an imagined context suggested and maintained by a referee
or director (generally known as the "Dungeon Master"). Each character is
specified in terms of many variables such as their intelligence and dexterity
- these do not concern us here - but the key variable, and the one that
concerns us here is their "alignment".
Alignment is a two-dimensional variable. A character can be either good
or evil (or somewhere in between) and at the same time lawful
or chaotic (or somewhere in between). At the centre of this set
of choices lies the pure neutral character, who can be variously viewed
neither good nor evil, and neither lawful nor chaotic
partly good and partly evil, and partly lawful and partly chaotic
beyond such descriptions.
Lawful and Chaotic
The lawful and chaotic tendencies are readily understood. An extremely
lawful individual is predictable, logical, methodical, decisive, does not
lie and keeps his word; on the other hand he is rigid in his thinking and
is keen on rules, procedures and formalities. An extremely chaotic individual
is the exact opposite. He is erratic, irrational, carefree, indecisive,
and flippant; on the other hand he is creative and intuitive in his thinking:
and prefers to deal with each case as it comes and on its own merit. Obviously,
these two personality types are conflations of sets of related tendencies,
but for game purposes they are very useful.
Good and Evil
The good and evil tendencies are less easily understood. Often, good characters
are seen as boring and as constrained to act in conventional ways: always
helping the down-trodden and putting themselves at needless risk for inadequate
reasons. Equally, evil characters are seen as more interesting to play
and as free of constraint: able to do exactly as they will without concern
for the judgement of others.
As best as I can discern it, the typical player of Dungeon's and Dragons
understands good and evil in terms of the conventional notions of
selflessness and selfishness. Given that a major objective in
playing the game is the accumulation of treasure and the enhancement of
prowess in whatever field of specialist expertise has been chosen for the
character, a built-in conflict between such a theory of "goodness" and
the practical good of the "good" character is evident. Of course, such
a conflict is not restricted to the playing of Dungeon's and Dragons, but
is inherent in the real life of anyone who adopts the altruistic theory
Are Good and Evil
In terms of the game, there is a general assumption that every alignment
is equally valid and acceptable: though it is a minority of players who
choose to play evil characters, and most antagonists (role-played by the
Dungeon Master) that the players meet are evil. The equal validity of good
and evil stems from the fact that the preoccupation of the people playing
the game is to enhance their own characters by gaining resources and honing
their expertise in the school of experience. This objective can be served
whatever alignment the character espouses: so all alignments are equally
valid, and it is up to the player to succeed while behaving in ways that
the Dungeon Master allows to be in accordance with his alignment.
This is all reminiscent of "cowboys and indians", where two groups fight
each other: the goodies and the baddies. The former seek to use fair
means to achieve a noble objective while the latter seek to use
means to achieve an ignoble outcome. While in a Hollywood film the
outcome is never in doubt, in a game of Dungeon's and Dragons it is entirely
possible that the forces of evil may triumph, and good for them
if they do!
As soon as there is a clear objective in a situation, the notion of
arises. A good plan of action is one that will (plausibly) obtain
the desired outcome, a bad one is one that seems liable to fail.
In this sense, an evil character is just as much in search of a good
plan as is a good character: he is just as concerned to achieve
(what he perceives to be) his own good. In this sense, it is clear
that good and evil are not equivalent. While it is quite
possible to talk about good without using the word evil,
it is impossible to talk about evil without using the word good.
I suppose that this is why most people adopt the altruism theory of goodness.
According to this theory, the evil person pursues their own personal advantage
at the expense of the well-being of others, whereas the good person pursues
the advantage of others at the expense of their own well-being. Note the
exact symmetry here.
Discounting the fact that few people who claim to adopt this theory make
any notable attempt to put it into practice, I think (following the American
Philosopher Ayn Rand) that this theory is incoherent. After all, if an
individual is not concerned for their own well-being, why should they be
concerned for that of others? Equally, if they are concerned for the well-being
of others, why should they not be concerned for their own: are they themselves
not human too?
In contrast, it seems to me that the only basis possible for benevolence
towards another is the twin recognitions:
I assert that rights arise from the objective
dignity of the the human being. Hence, an infant has rights not in
as far as it can intimidate and blackmail its parents into caring for it
by playing on their instincts - and need for sleep - but rather in as far
as it is a human being in its own right and so due respect. It simply doesn't
matter whether it is able to bully adults into serving it.
that the other is "another such as myself"
and that symmetry requires that the other must be attributed every right
that I wish to claim for myself.
Right is Might
Opposed to this view is the ancient and terrible notion that "might
is right". This illiberal philosophy claims that the ideas of "right"
and "ability" are interchangeable. It partly arises from a liberal aversion
to external moral authority. It is asserted that no-one other than the
moral agent him/herself has the authority to determine what is right and
what is wrong for him or her. It is further maintained that if he is to
determine what is right and wrong for himself in terms of his own nature,
the most obvious criterion to apply is ability. In other words, the agent
do (is morally free to do) whatever (s)he can do (is practically
free to do). All that remains is that (s)he be inclined to do it!
If pursued vigorously, this view leads to the conclusion that the common
notions of good and evil are redundant distractions from reality. It is
asserted that the wise man can see through these categories to a deeper
value: their own excellence, and that this is to be advanced by whatever
means are available and effective. As Voldemort eloquently puts it:
"There is no such thing as good and evil,
only power and those who are too weak to obtain it."
This way leads to Faschism in politics and Satanism in religion.
[E.R. Rowling: "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's
The same illiberal view can arise in theology. Some
believers - intent on defending the full sovereignty of God - assert
that because God is all-powerful and free of all extrinsic constraint,
any Divine action is good just because it is a Divine action.
The King of the Cosmos could never do wrong whatever He might do: not
because of the character of His actions but just because of who it is that
acts. In other words, because God is able to do something then He is necessarily
right to do it, if He does so. This attitude is typical of Calvinists,
some evangelical protestants, and also - sadly - of conservative
Is Law equivalent
to Good and Chaos to Evil?
It is often said that evil is a form of disorder and that good is nothing
other than order. While I generally agree with this, one valuable insight
I have obtained from playing Dungeons and Dragons is that one cannot identify
"order" with "law" and "disorder" with "chaos" (as these terms are used
in Dungeons and Dragons).
Law itself can be disordered: when it does not correspond to
justice, the objective truth about how people and things relate to each
other. Law can easily become its own justification and what should be at
the service of the poor and weak be transformed into a means of oppressing
them. The poet William Blake saw this clearly, and wrote of it at length.
What seems "chaotic" to the legalist may in fact obey subtler laws - of
which his closed mind cannot conceive - and from the correct perspective
manifest a beauty and order that transcends his meagre experience. What
might seem to be a pandering to wickedness may in fact be simple kindness
towards and sympathy for a repentant soul: these being core aspects of
justice. Equally, without good law there is no basis for trade or any kind
of community life; and unpredictability and spontaneity per se are a great
cause of anxiety and fear. Good is neither sterile certainty nor chaotic
uncertainty, but a subtle
blend of both that arises from the nature of the objects involved as
they interact with each other. It is the fractal beauty of the Mandlebrot
Wickedness is an
Often in Dungeons and Dragons (and in drama in general) once the villain(s)
have been identified as being wicked, no further explanation of their motivations
is furnished. It is enough for Shakespeare to say that Shylock or Richard
III is evil; for Dickens to tell us that Bill Sykes is a bad lot; for Exodus
to inform us that Pharaoh hardened his heart; for Donaldson to tell us
that Lord Foul simply despises the world.
This is nothing more than dishonest politics. The tactic is simple:
once one has attached the tag "villain" - or "terrorist"
- to a character, then all sympathy for him vanishes and any interest in
whatever legitimate motives might exist which would explain - and even
justify - his actions evaporates. This is clearly in the interest of those
who are political opponents of the supposed villain, because they will
then avoid having to answer whatever claims on justice their foe might
It seems to me that wickedness
is no motive for anything. No matter how depraved an individual, his actions
will always be intended to obtain for himself some desired objective. This
might be money, prestige, sexual gratification, a heroin rush or revenge;
but whether it is despicable or not, it will be perceived by the individual
as being good for him or her. It therefore seems that in order to understand
good and evil are, one must ask how a moral agent comes
decide what objectives (s)he
is to pursue and against what criterion one can evaluate some choices as
and others as improper.
What is Good?
Following Ayn Rand, I propose that:
what is "good for a moral agent" is that which contributes
towards his persistent existence.
Given my definition of Life as "constancy
in flux", this is equivalent to the statement that "what is good for
a moral agent" is that which supports his life. To be is good. It
is good to be alive.
The purpose of life
The purpose of any
living creature is simply to continue to be the creature that it is. Nothing
less and nothing more. This is just as true of an amoeba as of a (wo)man.
When God created the world, He looked on what
He had made and saw that it was beautiful.
"And God saw everything that he had made,
and behold, it was very good." [Gen 1:31]
Beauty and goodness are closely related, and in fact one's first response
to something or someone that is good is an intimation of beauty: in the
case of a person one might say that they have a beautiful soul.
God is good
Note that God is the ultimate good for any contingent moral agent, because
is self-sufficient and totally robust. The Divine Trinity is unchallengeable
being: Eternal Life HimSelves. For
a finite creature to somehow gain an association with God, to be granted
a participation in His
Divine Life would be to gain a firm
basis for its existence, not subject to the vicissitudes of the material
The two C's.
Note that I have not properly answered the question "What is good?" (except
in the sense that God is the ultimate good of all) but rather "What is
for me?" This does not seem to be an adequate response, as
often "good" relates to the action of an agent on behalf of a beneficiary
other than himself. In the case where the agent and subject differ, one
can say that "what is good for a moral subject is that which supports
life", but the question then arises:
"Why should one person do good to another?"
In attempting an answer to this question, I shall consider two words that
I think characterize the benevolence of one person for another. These are
co-operation and compassion.
Co-operation is the easier of these to understand. It amounts to a number
of agents acting together in order to achieve as a group what they are
unable to achieve as individuals. This is a theme central to Dungeons and
Dragons: where each character - with their own specific strengths and weaknesses
- plays his or her own distinctive part, to the advantage of the team of
When an agreement to co-operate is concerned, it is clear why each party
should serve the good of his fellows. Each is contracted to a purpose or
role, and upon its success their own advantage depends. When such a contract
is habitual, as in a family, friendship or
tribe: then the individuals concerned start to see the safety of their
own lives as dependent upon the well-being of the group, and feelings of
belonging, affection, loyalty and patriotism quite reasonably arise.
Compassion is altogether different. This is a concern for the other, when
they have apparently nothing to give in return. There have been times
in my life when I have only survived because of the support and care
of friends and family. I have never really been able to repay the
people who helped me, sometimes at great cost to themselves; and I
suppose that the people involved would
say that they do not care about this: that the satisfaction of seeing me
get through the situations that I was in is sufficient recompense for their
This is very kind of them - but what can one mean by that word
Is there a sensible motivation behind kindness, or is it just an
instinct? Moreover, if it is an instinct why has it evolved? It must have
some utility. Somehow, being kind must benefit the person who is
kind: else the cost of compassion would be an unproductive drain
on the resources of the kind person, and be selected against in
In some instances of compassion the situation is even more extreme.
The Missionaries of Charity, who tend the dying in Calcutta, obtain no
benefit whatsoever from the poor souls to whom they offer brief respite.
The brave individual who dives into a bitterly cold and fast flowing
river in a reckless attempt to save someone who is drowning not
only stands to gain nothing from the act (except perhaps gratitude if they
succeed), but also puts their own life at significant risk. What is the
rational basis for such heroic action?
Wisdom and Knowledge.
It seems to me that if a rational moral agent were to have clear and certain
knowledge concerning what course of action would be for its greatest benefit,
then that agent would have no choice but to do what it knew "to be right".
This would be no less the case if the course of action indicated had unpleasant
aspects that somewhat detracted from the - nevertheless - optimal outcome.
Hence, if someone knew that a regime of chemotherapy
that would make their life a total misery for months on end would - without
doubt - prolong their life for twenty or thirty years, then I have little
doubt but that they would put up with the pain and unpleasantness for those
months. It is only the lack of certainty of outcome that makes one want
to give up in the face of pain. "What is the point of all this suffering,"
one asks, "when I may not be any better off after it than I was before?"
Ignorance is freedom
Hence, no well informed rational moral agent can ever be inclined to do
anything other than what is good for themselves. The only basis for recklessness
and imprudence is a lack of clear and certain knowledge (episteme)
of consequences. The drug addict risks his/her life with their every fix,
because the near certainty of the rush outweighs the mere possibility of
death. The freedom
to do what is wrong (or even to choose the lesser good) is totally dependent
upon ignorance of what is for the best.
The relationship between "seeking one's own good" and "being a good
person" remains unclear as yet. Indeed it must be remarked that most people
would say that these two are in opposition more than congruence. The first
is "selfish" and the second "selfless".
In a mirror, darkly
Wisdom, I propose, is the knack
of being able to judge in a context of uncertainty and partial knowledge
what is in fact good: which action will tend to benefit the agent in the
end. This is a most needful skill. It is borne of personal experience,
a regime of habitual critical self examination and the study of the observations
and conclusions of others. It is a matter of "fuzzy
logic"; of intuition and insight; distinguishing the "signal" from the
"noise"; the application of general rules; and the weighing of conflicting
expectations. These elements of wisdom themselves come into conflict, and
the core of the matter is the
judgement as to which should be given precedence in any particular situation.
A truly wise person will be able to chose most often and accurately what
is a beneficial course of action, whereas the foolish person will often
What is Evil?
As I have already said, I view evil as a form of disorder: unreconciled
conflict between rival forms. Evil
is nothing in its own right, neither does it have a form. Indeed its
very core is uncoordinated formlessness. I suppose that evil is more akin
to chaos than order: for unqualified chaos is certainly disorder, and a
certain kind of order is characteristic of beauty.
In general, evil tends towards dissolution and in particular to the
end of life: death.
Evil per se can have no purpose. The purely evil villain is an impossible
mirage. His wickedness
is characteristic of internal conflict and confusion, resulting from embittering
past experience and/or genetic predisposition to mental imbalance
The three R's
To further elucidate the idea of "evil", I next consider three words that
characterize it. These words are recklessness, ruthlessness and remorselessness.
This is a moral agent's characteristic failure to give due weight to negative
consequences that might be harmful to their own personal interests.
It is the attitude of a desperate person or of an addict to gambling or
drugs. The attention of a reckless individual is focussed narrowly
on the immediate satisfaction of appetites or aspirations. He discounts
term or wider outcomes, possibly because he does not believe
that he will live to see them. His slogan is "Eat, drink and be merry:
for tomorrow we die!"
The virtue opposing recklessness is hope,
because this instils a conviction that one's long term interests
are worth taking into account. In the absence of hope, it is reasonable
to be reckless. Apart from anything else, the excitement that will
follow close in the wake of recklessness is an effective distraction from
morbid feelings of futility and despair.
This is a moral agent's characteristic failure to give due weight to negative
consequences that might be harmful to some other parties interests.
It is the attitude of a psychotic or embittered individual. The attention
of a ruthless individual is focussed on his own desires. He disregards
the interests and concerns of others, except in as far as these can be
used as levers to manipulate other people into serving his own immediate
purposes. For the ruthless individual, ends can always justify whatever
means seem necessary to conveniently attain them.
The virtue opposing ruthlessness is charity,
because this instils a conviction that the interests of others should be
taken into account. However, the basis of this conviction
is as yet unclear.
This is a moral agent's characteristic failure to admit that his recklessness
or remorselessness has ever led to negative consequences: either for himself
or others. It is a form of conceit: a refusal to acknowledge any
possibility of personal imperfection, and implies a refusal to learn from
past mistakes. If unmitigated, this is the unforgivable
"Sin against the Spirit", because it then admits of no change or development.
The virtue opposing remorselessness is faith,
because this instils a conviction of objective standards against which
personal conduct may be measured. Without faith, all is subjective and
relative to self and the only clear judgement that of death itself.
What is the rational
basis for kindness?
I now propose to address the main question outstanding from my analysis,
namely "why be good?" In other words, what is the rational motive for a
moral agent to be co-operative and - more particularly - compassionate?
This may seem to be an impossible question to answer, as any rational motive
would seem to amount to a basis for personal gain which then excludes true
One possible answer is apparently provided by Our Lord, when He tells us
that every act of kindness will be rewarded
by God in the Kingdom of Heaven. For those of a certain disposition, no
further answer is required. One should be good simply because this will
result in an eternal
reward and one should avoid evil because sin results in eternal
punishment. This is only one small step away from an entirely extrinsic
conception of ethics.
While I do not doubt but that kindness and all virtue will be rewarded
in The Kingdom, I am not so sure that this primarily means that God will
hand out accolades and extrinsic recompenses. Rather, as a Platonist,
I believe that virtue brings its own rewards; that indeed this is definitive
of what virtue is: but how can this possibly be true of compassion?
Scope of Vision
Postponing yet again any consideration of compassion, I propose that the
major demarcation between good and evil is "scope of vision". The good
person takes into account - as best (s)he can - the wider and long-term
effects of their actions, including the effects on other people and on
the environment. The evil individual is only concerned with personal and
Individualism and Eternal
As I have already intimated, there is no point in taking account of the
long-term when faced with personal demise. I think that there is no good
individualist basis for ethics without the central Christian concept of
"Eternal Life". A person faced with the prospect of death, will inevitably
be more concerned with the quality of the present moment: which he definitely
has, than that of the rest of his life: which may never be! If the wages
of sin are death, then so also is death the motive and justification
for sin. Without the prospect of Eternity, it is simply not sensible to
be prudent. A person faced with the prospect of Life
without End, will inevitably be more concerned with the quality of
the rest of his life than with that of the next short interlude!
Communism, Fascism and Genetics
In the absence of a belief in Eternal Life, the only reason for taking
the long term view is a commitment to the good of the family, tribe, clan,
society, state, religion
or culture to which one belongs: for this may persist as a form
of life, "constancy in flux",
far beyond one's personal death. Where there is no hope for the individual,
there may yet be hope for the state.
It is certainly in the interest of the "selfish
gene" that individuals should have an instinctive commitment and loyalty
to the long-term interests of the sociological group to which they
belong. Equally, it is in the interest of the concept equivalent of the
gene (the "meme") that any
sociological or political theory or philosophy or outlook should encourage
its adherents to common action and to adopt a long-term outlook.
In both cases, the motivating cause (gene or meme) will not persist long-term
unless it has the characteristic of making (either instinctively or persuasively)
those individuals that carry it (either genetically or ideologically) take
into account long-term survival factors.
Even if such a commitment to the long-term common good of the state
or society could be made rational, which I dispute, any hope for the community
over and above that for the individual is an illusion. In the end states
fail, societies fall apart, cultures decay. There
is no hope in Kings. Ideas - such as Platonic
philosophy - may survive (as records) the collapse of the culture that
gave birth to them, but what is the point of an idea surviving - even such
a noble idea as Platonism - if the idea is a notion of what is good for
people, and as such has been falsified by the extinction of its adherents?
Moreover, the heat death of the Cosmos awaits all life. In the end, all
in this world is subject to futility.
".... for the
creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the
will of Him who subjected it in hope;
because the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay
and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God. We know that the
whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now..."
Why, then, should the individual sacrifice his own short-term gratification
to enhance the medium-term survival of something other than himself
when he has no more hope for its long-term future than his own?
this basis, to be good would seem to be silly; and those people who chose
to be good can be dismissed as ignorant of the true state of affairs.
Game theory is the study of what participants (not necessarily competitors)
in a game
in order to achieve the success criteria set them.
actually chose to do and what
they would be best advised to do
Some games are simple and some very complex. Some are "zero sum": there
is a fixed overall benefit, which is shared out among the players in accordance
with their success; if one player does better then others must do less
well, and some are not: it is possible to generate benefit from nothing;
and it is not necessary for one player to do another down in order for
the former to do well. While zero-sum games are necessarily competitive,
others - such as Dungeons and Dragons - are not. Dungeons and Dragons is
almost the epitome of non-competitive games, because generally it is a
loosing strategy for a player to be antagonistic towards his or her fellows.
The greatest game of all is real life. The object of real life is simply
to survive while enjoying the journey on the way. The game of real
life can be thought of as the interaction, competition, co-operation and
conflict between myriads of moral agents: each with his/her own resources,
skills and abilities to be employed in accordance with his/her personality
and ethic. For a moral agent to win in this game is simply for them
Genes and ideas play their
own meta-games along side the game played by the moral agents. Those moral
agents that are successful tend to produce more physiological progeny.
They pass on to their offspring genes that may have helped form the very
behaviour and outlook that helped the parents to succeed. This means that
genes that contribute to a successful ethic (and help the moral agents
that practice this ethic to succeed) themselves tend to persist and spread
in a population. In a similar way, a moral agent can engender spiritual
progeny by a process of communicating ideas to his or her associates,
convincing them of the validity and utility of his or her vision. Ideas
are also more generally communicated as a matter of culture, and those
that people readily concede to be advantageous - whether in fact they are
in fact so - will spread and succeed; as long as they are not so harmful
as to cause those who adhere to them to perish.
Given a definite and constant objective, changes in circumstance necessarily
result in changes in "winning strategy". A robust and generally applicable
winning strategy must have an ability to transform its context into an
environment that suits its own characteristics.
I shall now outline how this is the nature and effect of kindness: the
"do as you would be done by" strategy.
An isolated individual is at the mercy of the mob. While the strong may
persist for a while in a chaotic environment, even they will not prosper
for long - either as individuals or as despotic gang leaders - because
there is no basis for stability or security in such a situation.
Attempting to recruit others to a mutual help association, where those
who are for the time being strong defend those who are vulnerable is a
strategy that will recommend itself to individuals of perception. They
will realize - perhaps only implicitly, but this is enough - that if they
commit themselves to such an association they stand to increase their own
prospects for survival at exactly those times when this is in most doubt.
The cost of helping others when one is young, alert, healthy, strong and
resourceful is minor - even when a degree of bravery is called for - compared
to the easily foreseeable benefit of receiving reciprocal aid when one
is old, sick, weak, tired or impoverished.
In the presence of such a mutual help association (most obviously characterized
as a circle of friends) it doesn't much matter who provides what aid to
whom, or whether the costs and benefits equalize out. Even those who happen
- by chance - only to provide assistance to others and never in fact require
any help themselves benefit in principle by having the security
of knowing that if they did ever need help, it would be available. As psychological
reassurance alone, this is invaluable. It makes it worthwhile to innovate
and take risks that otherwise would be imprudent.
The fact that the association supports its weakest members - in spite
of the fact that there is no reasonable prospect that they will ever repay
the kindness they receive - is a signal to any who doubt that they would
themselves receive support in the future that it will surely be forthcoming.
This is the rational basis for an unswerving commitment to the dignity
of the human person. Everyone is to be valued, and accorded substantially
the same rights, in order to ensure that everyone can have confidence that
if they ever fall into need, they will definitely receive aid: just because
they are human and not on the say-so of some bureaucrat, physician, priest,
social worker or judge.
In the political arena, this is the social democratic "welfare
state", characterized by the aphorism "from those who have to those who
need". In the religious context, this is Our Lord's vision encapsulated
in the parable of the Good
Samaritan: where need and kindness and neighbourliness are all that
is important. It should be obvious that Stalinism
is a total reversal of the Gospel Ideal. For Jesus, the well-being of the
individual is paramount, and individuals are well advised to show compassion
to each other in order to underwrite the social contract that will in turn
support them in their hour of need. For Stalin, the well-being of the state
is paramount, and individuals should be forced to serve its interests so
that it will survive.
Of course, compassion can only be a successful strategy if it is practised
in community. A single kind individual who has no success in recruiting
others to the cause will simply be exploited by ne're do wells, parasites
and scroungers. For him to persist in kind and compassionate behaviour
is irrational and foolish. His resources will be depleted at the expense
of scoundrels, and when he is in need he will have no-one to turn to. Moreover,
there is no incentive for any other individual to join our lone "do gooder",
because they do not stand to gain enough security from the kindness of
their single friend to recompense the outpouring of resources on the ungrateful
many that such an imprudent association would involve. Charity and compassion
make no sense in such circumstances.
The strategy for self benefit by compassion and kindness towards others
would make no sense if it were ineffective in recruiting others. However,
as yeast in dough [Mat 13:33], such a strategy
will typically transform a rabble that acts only on short-term immediate
gratification into a caring and compassionate community.
"The kingdom of heaven is like a grain
of mustard seed which a man took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest
of all seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes
a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches."
This is at least part of the message of some of Our Lord's "Kingdom
Parables". Every act of spontaneous kindness, of a generosity that looks
for no reward, is an act of education. It invites and challenges those
who witness it to associate themselves with the way of living it exemplifies:
because in so doing they will increase their own security. In effect it
puts into the minds of those outside the present circle of friends the
idea that a society in which such behaviour was common place would be a
pleasant and prosperous one, much to their own personal advantage.
"You are the light of the world. A city
set on a hill cannot be hid. Nor do men light a lamp and put it under a
bushel, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. Let your
light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory
to your Father who is in heaven." [Mat
Anyone who realizes that this strategy is desirable must seek out a goodly
number of others who are similarly inclined. Only when a certain size of
fellowship has been attained will the life-style become viable. This is
the basis of any convent or monastery - or
for that matter! Indeed it is the very foundation of the idea of
The idea is to bring together enough like-minded individuals: committed
to kindness and compassion, so that these values become viable.
Once such a group forms, it is able to stand up to external assault much
better than would the people who belong to it if they were isolated individuals.
Identifying and recruiting a fellowship of disciples was the first objective
of Our Lord in His campaign to found the Kingdom
"In these days he went out to the mountain
to pray; and all night he continued in prayer to God. And when it was day,
he called his disciples, and chose from them twelve, whom he named apostles"
Should a group so formed once loose sight of its reason for being, namely
compassion, then it will splinter and fall apart: for it has no rationale
apart from this, which is its very principle of life.
"You are the salt of the earth; but if
salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no
longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trodden under foot
Finally, I wish to consider three problems for the theory that I have outlined
"What is the rational response of a compassionate society to the
"Is it rational to take revenge when harmed by an evil-doer, or is it better
to turn the other cheek?"
"This theory is absurd, as it makes out that being
kind is selfish!"
A perennial problem for the compassionate society is how to deal with its
criminals. These are individuals who have come to the conclusion that they
can successfully live according to norms that are diametrically opposed
to its fundamental values. They will refuse to do valuable work and instead
sustain their lives by deception and exploitation of others. In the end
this path will lead some of them to the most cruel of acts.
Note that criminals can only prosper as a small minority in a generally
law-abiding, trusting and co-operative society. They are, in effect, parasites.
As long as their number doesn't get out of hand, and as long as the harm
that they do to individuals is covered by some form of formal or informal
insurance scheme, they will do no real harm. They are then just an inevitable
aspect of life; an annoyance and nuisance, but something that it is prudent
to tolerate rather than oppose:
"The kingdom of heaven may be compared
to a man who sowed good seed in his field; but while men were sleeping,
his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. So when
the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared also.
It may even be that criminal elements will organize themselves in a form
of co-operation and exclude others who wish to adopt thievery as
a life style. If so, an equilibrium might be obtained between the law-abiding
majority and law-breaking minorities. In principle this might be a viable
modus vivendi - it is often assumed to be so in the context of Dungeons
and Dragons: in order to give a context for the character class of "thieves"
or "rogues" - but in practice (think of the Mafia or Triads, for example)
it is not. Criminal gangs are not generally concerned with the long-term
health of the society on which they prey and would tend to destroy it for
short term gain.
And the servants of the householder came
and said to him, 'Sir, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then
has it weeds?'
He said to them, 'An enemy has done this.'
The servants said to him, 'Then do you want us
to go and gather them?'
But he said, 'No; lest in gathering the weeds
you root up the wheat along with them. Let both grow together until
the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Gather the weeds
first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into
Attempts to socialize criminals are largely doomed to failure. This is
because many of them will have correctly realized that they can
prosper most easily by behaving in anti-social ways: so long as the preponderance
of society remains orderly and co-operative. Talk of concern for others
and decency will fall on deaf ears: just because the criminals are objectively
correct in their analysis of their situation and prospects. Their self
interest is only to dissuade
others from adopting criminal patterns
of behaviour, and competing with them for business!
Of course, some individuals will have no great attachment to the life
of crime that they have adopted, and given sufficient support will repent
and start a new life. Others - as I have already indicated - will not
respond to gentle persuasion and encouragement.
Tough on Crime
The first response of a state to criminality is policing: an attempt to
monitor and enforce law-abiding behaviour. This is naturally coupled with
a judicial system which tries and convicts the guilty with the aim of punishing
their misdemeanours. As I have outlined elsewhere, the meaning
and purpose of punishment can vary widely. All that I will say here
is that it is very unwise to set about hurting the criminal with the vindictive
aim of exacting revenge simply because the most plausible outcome of such
a policy is that they will become embittered,
vengeful and confirmed in their life of criminality.
Tough on the Causes of Crime
The second response of a state to criminality is the provision of a certain
minimum subsistence for its citizens. This can either be done coercively
via taxation and the redistribution of wealth, or voluntarily via almsgiving.
In both cases the rationale is simple: if the poor are allowed to go hungry
they will be forced to steal. If they are looked after - at least to a
degree - then they will tend to be more content with their lot and be less
inclined to turn to thievery or revolution.
The important point here is that it is in the immediate and direct self-interest
of every productive member of society that the poor (if not the sick and
aged) are cared for - at least to a degree - in order to maintain good
order. The more wealthy an individual is the more important to them this
becomes. Simply put, it is less costly and worrisome (not to say more pleasant
and decorous) to dissuade the poor from dishonesty by feeding and clothing
them than by building high walls around your estate and employing dozens
of security guards to patrol its borders!
Turning the Other Cheek
Before attempting to evaluate the injunction of Our Lord that we should
do good to those who wrong us, we should first clarify exactly what He
does and doesn't say. This teaching is addressed to one individual who
is hurt by another. It is not proposed as a basis for law, but for a personal
ethic. It cannot be used to rationalize one's failure to resist injustice
inflicted by some powerful or cruel agent on some other vulnerable or gentle
soul. Our Lord was himself quick to denounce injustice meted out on others
by religious leaders, even if He is not recorded as ever leaping to the
defence of a third party.
"You have heard that it was said, 'An
eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.' But I say to you, Do not resist
one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to
him the other also; and if any one would sue you and take your coat, let
him have your cloak as well; and if any one forces you to go one mile,
go with him two miles. Give to him who begs from you, and do not refuse
him who would borrow from you."
In effect, Our Lord is giving advice as to how one should respond when
being bullied. I shall now
suggest a number of rationales that might lie behind Our Lord's injunction.
"You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love
your neighbour and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, Love your enemies
and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father
who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good,
and sends rain on the just and on the unjust."
"For if you love those who love you, what reward
have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you salute
only your brethren, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the
Gentiles do the same? You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly
Father is perfect." [Mat 5:38-48]
The Apostle Paul explains Our Lord's teaching in what seem to be self-contradictory
terms, saying that adopting His ethic will result in the evil-doer being
punished more harshly by God.
"Bless those who persecute you; bless
and do not curse them .... Repay no one evil for evil, but take thought
for what is noble in the sight of all .... Beloved,
never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God; for it is written,
'Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.' No, 'if your enemy is
hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him drink; for by so doing you
will heap burning coals upon his head.' [Pro
25:21-22] Do not be overcome by evil, but
overcome evil with good." [Rom 12:14, 17,
This is a direct application of Old Testament teaching.
It would seem then that if one had a genuine concern that one's enemies
should not suffer, one would be advised to take reasonable revenge (perhaps
on the basis of "An eye for an eye and a tooth for
a tooth" [Exod 21:24; Lev 24:20; Deut 19:21])
in order not to expose him to God's greater exactions! This is a nonsense,
as is shown by Jesus' prayer for the soldiers who crucified Him:
"And Jesus said, 'Father, forgive them;
for they know not what they do.' And they cast lots to divide his garments."
Jesus didn't compliment them on their hammering technique, or go out of
His way to help them in their affront to his Life: instead He prayed to
His Heavenly Father that they not be punished for their actions. It should
be noted that there is a tension even in St Paul's account of the matter,
shown by the fact that he concludes it by saying: "Do
not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good." [Rom
Maintaining the Initiative
The last thing that a bully expects is for his victim to co-operate in
his own degradation.
"So when the first [brother] was dead
.... they brought the second .... [and] after him was the third made
a mocking stock: and when he was required, he put out his tongue, and
that right soon, holding forth his hands manfully. And [he] said courageously,
'These I had from Heaven; and for His laws I despise them; and from Him
I hope to receive them again'. Insomuch that the king, and they that were
with him, marvelled at the young man's courage, for that he nothing regarded
the pains." [2 Mac 7:7, 10-12]
Such a response is liable to be so unlooked for, that the bully will be
taken aback and re-evaluate his course of action. It may occur to him that
his victim is somehow enjoying or approving of what was meant to be unfair
treatment: if so, that treatment must be modified. It may even make the
bully realize that his victim is just as much an agent or person as he,
himself: not just a passive subject suitable for abuse.
Someone who is at the mercy of another can recover some integrity and
quasi-independence by a free offer to co-operate with the means of injustice
being inflicted on them. To struggle forlornly against torture or oppression
is to loose one's last shred of humanity. This is, of course, often the
precise purpose of the perpetrator of pain. On the other hand, to say with
St Laurence the deacon: "You can turn me over, I am quite roasted on that
side now", is to regain one's dignity by means of ironic humour.
It may be that the cruel individual is unconscious of the injustice that
they are guilty of. They may not be aware of the harm that they are doing
to the other. They may think of him as sub-human,
fit only to be a slave and to fall in with whatever
whim might suggest itself to their will. If so, then the offer to do more
than is demanded may bring them up short and make them realize that their
victim is human too: with property and the right to dispose of it (and
their time and effort) as they will. It may be a burning sense of shame
that the writer of Proverbs refers to when he says that coals will be heaped
on the head of the evil-doer as a result of his victim exercising benevolence
If the evil-doer is shamed, a great good will have been achieved: for
an ignorant person, intent on oppression, will have spied some glimmer
of the truth and started out on a journey of conversion to justice.
Failing all the above, there is one remaining advantage in following Our
Lord's advice. It is a means of detachment. Deprivation of worldly goods
- including bodily integrity, health and indeed life itself - is only a
form of suffering for the man who is attached to them. For the great of
soul, for whom mortal life itself is no more than a shadow of Eternal Life
with God, no external injustice is of much account. What is paramount is
that he himself remains pure of heart, and suffering is a great means to
this end: if accepted and welcomed as such. Clearly, an excellent way to
detach oneself from any particular created good is to disown it, and Our
Lord's injunctions to "go an extra mile" and
the other cheek" [Mat 5:39-41] can
be seen as signalling a technique for harnessing the oppression that was
common in the experience of His contemporaries to the service of personal
Kindness cannot be Selfish!
It may be objected that in arguing that it is selfish and rational to be
kind I have eviscerated kindness and compassion of all their moral excellence.
This is misguided. It cannot be stressed too much that the virtues of kindness
and compassion remain exactly what one might ever have thought they were:
a real concern for the well-being of others founded on a respect for them
as "another such as myself". All that I have done is argue that there is
a sensible motive for cultivating these virtues, and that this simple fact
simply explains why they are virtues rather than foolish conceits. The
rational motive behind all singular acts of compassion is simply to bring
into being a compassionate society from which every-one (including
and in particular the person responsible for the act of kindness
in question) will benefit.
"May Thy Kingdom come, and may Thy will
be done: on Earth as it is in Heaven." [Mat
"Amen! Come, Lord Jesus!" [Apoc
To summarize. I have argued that:
Hence, it is sensible and "selfish" for a person to be good, simply because
this improves their survival prospects in the face of an uncertain and
hostile world. It is not irrational or weak or foolish to do good to others
with no prospect of reciprocal benefit. Rather, it is sensible, prudent
and wise to do so.
What is good for the individual is that which
helps him or her to survive.
The "good person" is characterized by being
co-operative and kind.
Co-operation serves the self interest of the
good individual by allowing him/her to take common cause with others.
the self interest of the good individual:
by setting an example to others
so that they realize that they would themselves benefit if people were
in general kind
and are encouraged to adopt such behaviour themselves
in order to associate themselves with a developing social group of "kind
which is better able to sustain itself when subject to privation, difficulty
or external assault than a set of lone individuals
in order to transform his social context into
a generally compassionate community
so that when (s)he is in need (s)he will be able to rely on others coming
to his/her aid.
Adopting the "do as you would be done by" strategy is therefore akin to
investing in a form of Social Insurance
and Psychological Assurance.
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