Wednesday, December 22, 2010

"Light" Conversation

“Would you like some cola?” A smile, and an extended paper cup.
“No, thanks, I’m good.”
“Some of this?” Popcorn. Large.
Smile. “No, thanks.”
“You don’t have to be so good!”
“Well, I am a good person!” Casual shrug.
“Yeah, you are. It is true.” Serious. Quite serious. As if the words were meant.

I was taken aback. I paused, suddenly unsure. I had ventured my self-professed goodness in a frivolous moment of light conversation with someone I have only met a few times socially. And his quite serious agreement on my goodness left me thinking.

1. Was I really good? How good was I? If all the people I’ve met in my 35 years were to meet in a room and talk earnestly to each other about me, would they all agree in that I was a good person? Or is that even important, if I believe deep inside that I am a good human being? Would that belief be enough (given our superb ability to delude and justify our actions to ourselves!)?

2. How good does a person have to be to be known as good? Put another way, how much bad is a person allowed to get away with before he or she is thought of as – well, not that good?

* * *

Cornmarket Street, Oxford, cold and just slippery enough to keep the lone walker interested, kept my thoughts company as I sought to dissect the issue (in my usual annoying way).

The Definition of Human “Good”ness – A Theoretical Approach
I tried to paraphrase human goodness. It ought to be a simple exercise, oughtn’t it? Have we not all been told what is good and what is not from early childhood – in our schools, in our homes, in our churches? Do we not all have a moral compass, a conscience, which keeps us on the straight and narrow every single day? If so, does that not mean that we must all inherently be able to differentiate the good from the bad?

Right? I thought so. So, I decided to test my little hypothesis with a few simple and relatively random questions.

a. Is a person good if (s)he is open and non-judgmental? Or does that make (her) him lazy and uninterested?

b. Is a person good if he shares his thoughts honestly? Or does that make him insensitive?

c. Is a person good if he follows his heart? Or does that make him selfish?

d. Is a person good if he listens? Or does that make him a pushover?

e. Is a person good if he thinks? Or does that make him complicated?

f. Is a person good if he laughs often and loudly? Or does that make him crass?

g. Is a person good if he cares about how his actions affect others? Or does that make him a doormat?

h. Is a person good if he does not harm anyone knowingly?

i. Is a person good if he does not kill or maim?

j. Is a person good if he does not impose on another human being?

k. …the list goes on!


Intuitively, for most of these questions (‘a’ to ‘g’), there seems to be two diametrically opposite perspectives. This is embarrassing! Let me explain it away as cultural differences! Okay?

But, isn’t there anything common to the human world? Isn’t there some black and white? We all have common emotions and only the same five (okay, six, in deference to some of our more gifted brethren) senses – there has to be some common thread, some common understanding of good and bad that ties us together!

Questions ‘h’ onwards look much more promising, much more concrete! The answers are a resounding ‘Yes!’

At first glance. Alas, as we dig deeper, these questions appear just as embarrassingly non-binary. Question ‘i’, for instance, renders all soldiers inherently and irredeemably "bad" (and we all agree that soldiers are heroes)!

The ones that do appear to be binary (‘h’ for instance) also seem impractical – is it practical for any person to go through life without harming anyone knowingly (think about the interview candidate who is competing against other individuals for the same job)? Question ‘j’, similarly, fails the practicality test in that it potentially renders all human exchange or interaction “bad”.

This is not looking good (at this point, I was starting to question why the word exists at all?)!

But, then, maybe I was looking at this all wrong, I thought. Let’s change the approach, then. Let’s go by a much more practical approach – given that “good” and “bad” are relative things, let’s try and categorize a human being as “good” by using the oft-quoted and seemingly quite observable barometer of societal reaction to the individual.

Defining Human “Good”ness by Societal Reaction – A Practical Approach
The approach appears feasible and a pretty good approximation of an individual’s “good”ness, I felt. You’re a good parent if you’re taking care of your family, you’re a good citizen if you’re paying your taxes and doing your duty to your nation, you’re a good child if you’re taking care of your parents, and so on.

This is much more straightforward! Now, we’re getting somewhere!

Unfortunately, as so often happens when the snow starts melting (perhaps because of a particularly hot idea! – sorry, it is 2:30 am), I slipped in my cockiness.

As my knees made a sudden and rather disagreeable acquaintance with the wet white hard ice on the sidewalk, my head began to spin. Again!

A few cracks emerged in the appropriateness and assumed accuracy of this approach:

1. Can an individual be a good parent, a good spouse, a good child, a good citizen, a good community person at the same time? If not – and it does appear not – then which role takes priority over the other, and who decides that?

2. Is society better qualified than the individual to determine his or her “good”ness? Intuitively, it seems not, given the history of societal and community-inspired / condoned malpractices the world over through the ages including the present day and the oft-recorded instances of the individual going against his peers and his society to set things “right”!

3. Given that human beings are intelligent; do they not adapt their behavior and external selves in the social context to ensure that their peers like them? One may argue that this proves that societal pressure is a strong motivator to be “good”, but that is neither true (being “good” outside and “bad” within closed walls should not, I think, make one a “good” person) nor pertinent to the questions I was mulling over. If, therefore, we accept that we do adapt our external behavior in such a manner (and there seems to be no ready reason not to), then the accuracy of this approach seems inherently flawed.

4. By the same token of human intelligence and societal tendency to conform, is it also not true that societal reactions or expressions (i.e. the reaction of individuals we encounter frequently in formal or informal settings) will also be biased towards being indirect or subtle, thus seriously jeopardizing the premise that societal reactions reflect – to any individual – how that individual is perceived in terms of his level of “good”ness?

* * *

In the absence of other approaches that may better define an individual’s “good”ness, this leads to some very serious questions, indeed: if it is so difficult to define the “good”ness of a human being, what keeps us “good”? Alternatively, is any one of us “good” at all? Or, does “being good” even matter?

Given that it’s almost 3 in the morning, I’m tempted to say that I’ll dwell on that another, night. But, I’m tempted even more to leave it at that, and just end with a conciliatory smile:

“I’m good!”

* * * * *

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