On Being Good

On Being Good

Be good my child and let those who will be clever”

There is something about this saying that has always grated against my basic instincts. I have heard it quoted on various occasions throughout the course of my life and now, with the perspective of old age, I believe I have finally come to a decision in its regard.

In my humble opinion the words “good” and “clever,” should be switched. If you are sufficiently clever you will realize that being good is distinctly to your advantage. In other words, it’s clever to be good and it’s good to be clever. I am, of course, using the word “clever” as a synonym for “smart” or “intelligent.” Those are the broad terms, and they include being good within their scope.

Human beings did not become the dominant species on planet Earth by being good, they did it by being clever. “Good” and “evil” are terms which only apply within the realm of human civilization. Civilization is a bit of cleverness devised by human beings to increase the probability of their survival. Thus, anything that aids civilization is “good” and anything that harms civilization is “evil.” To apply these terms to Mother Nature is inappropriate — an anthropomorphism. She simply does not operate in that manner, survival of the fittest is her mode.

In the past, and right up to the present, morals and ethics (being good) have often been taught to our youth as something for which they will receive reward or punishment depending on their degree of adherence to the cultural mores. The reward or punishment will be administered here on Earth or, should they escape that, in a heaven or hell thereafter. This is short sighted and a disservice to the young — an insult to their intelligence. Many of them will see through it far too easily and be left without a moral compass. It is much better to teach them morals and ethics as pragmatic and the result of intelligent deliberation by their peers. An appeal to their intelligence is more effective and permanent than threat of punishment or promise of reward. When an individual develops a personal precept that runs counter to the mores of their particular culture and he or she is forced to abandon actions based on that precept by the threat of punishment, most likely the precept will still be retained.

“A person convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.”

However, if they are persuaded to abandon their precept by an appeal to their intelligence then they are truly changed. I believe the best moral guide for civilization is The Golden Rule.

There is another aspect of the saying at the beginning of this essay that I find odious. I suspect it has served as a sop to dissuade some people, primarily women, from attempting to be clever. Those with the traditional dominate position, primarily men, did not want to be challenged by those whom they felt should remain subservient. Considerable progress has been made recently in the West at overcoming this basic male insecurity. There remains some residual, but it is increasingly subtle. However, it is still glaringly obvious in other regions of the world, particularly in the Middle East. In Saudi Arabia even allowing a women to drive a car is somehow seen as a threat to male supremacy. Any society that systematically suppresses the intellectual expression of half their people is its own worst enemy.

“Be clever my child and let those who will be good”

Robert L. Mason

Mendocino, California


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Wednesday, February 2nd, 2011 On Being Good No Comments