Bad Is Gradient. Good Is Absolute.


IMG_3108People tend to think of “good” and “bad” as being dichotomous. A person is either a “good guy” or a “bad guy”. Because each person tends to believe that he / she is one of the good guys, deciding whether someone else is good or bad begins with positioning that person relative to one’s self. The character of a person who believes something different than what we believe or who wants something different than what we want is immediately suspect. At the same time, while people are usually not oblivious to their flaws, an understanding of one’s own motives and a presumption of one’s own fundamental goodness can absolve a lot of sins.

The primary flaw in that logic is that people assume that both goodness and badness are gradient, and that somewhere along the spectrum a person crosses the line from good to bad. We divide ourselves into teams on an arbitrary basis of what choices and beliefs and desires are acceptable and which are not. One person might believe that stealing even one chocolate bar is unacceptable, while someone else will draw the line at stealing 7. Meanwhile, the first person will excuse a person for disliking dogs and the other believes that opinion is unforgivable. However, the fact is that very few people are good. Maybe nobody is good. Likewise, very few people are bad in an absolute sense, and perhaps there is nobody without any redeeming qualities. Rather, good is an absolute, and most of us are just failing to various degrees in our attempts to achieve it.

The issue might seem semantic, but our assumptions affect our worldview. When we assume that we are good, and that anyone who doesn’t share our “values”, broadly defied, is bad, we are not only dismissing that person’s conclusions but also their motives. A person who is wrong becomes a person who is “bad”, and a person who is bad becomes a person who is “evil”. We get to a point where we feel justified, if not sanctimonious, in foregoing basic social niceties. By contrast, when we assume that we are all struggling and mostly failing to be “good”, we can start to have real conversations about what “good” means and how we can get there.

This is not to say that I’m a moral relativist. I do believe that there is such a thing as absolute goodness. It’s just to say that I don’t work from the assumption that I am the one with the answers about what goodness is and I don’t feel entitled to impose my beliefs about goodness on others. By the same token, I subscribe to Professor Chris Hedges’ rule that the only behaviour that cannot be tolerated is intolerance. Which is a winkily ironic way of expressing Kant’s categorical imperative that the limit of freedom is that which impedes another’s freedom.

Another consequence of understanding that goodness is not something to which I am inherently entitled is that goodness becomes something I have to work for every day. I can less easily forgive the bad things I do and the ways I treat others badly on the basis that on a fundamental level I am a “good guy”. Equally, this way of thinking allows for people to change – forsaking a prior belief or behaviour is not conceding to having been “a bad guy”, but is rather a step forward in a constant struggle to be better. And this applies not only to allowing for ourselves to change, but in allowing for other people to have changed. When we eliminate the line between good and bad, we are less quick to see a person as irredeemable.

I tend to describe happiness in not dissimilar terms to how I describe goodness; specifically, I define happiness as an ideal state that, while attainable, cannot be sustained without constant effort. It is not the sum total of our past behaviours, whereby I can justify doing bad in one moment because I did good in a prior moment. Both happiness and “goodness” must be created and manifested constantly, and can never be  born of complaisance. If I lied yesterday, I’m not unredeemable, and I don’t need to justify my lie; I can decide to do what needs to be done to make things right today, and to try to do better tomorrow. If a friend tells me that they disagree with something I’ve done, they’re not saying that I’m a bad person, they’re trying to have a conversation in an attempt to help both of us be better.

We’re all allowed to not have the answers, and it’s the responsibility of all of us to keep learning and to keep struggling to be better. We should be critical of ourselves, and of those we care about. We should be forgiving of ourselves and others. We should not define our teams by “good” and “bad”, we should define our teams by “struggling to be good” and “complacent”.

Posted in: Faith, Progress

2 thoughts on “Bad Is Gradient. Good Is Absolute. Leave a comment

  1. Hi!

    Good arguments.

    I appreciate your use of complacency. It seems to imply some potential for future redemption. So be patient, even with the complacent, for even they might be moved to struggle to be good (again).

    I also appreciate the concept of struggle to be good. It might help to define the struggle a little also.

    For me, it consists in the constant flow of choices and decisions we must make. That crucial moment between each decision.

    Because in that space is where we choose to be good or bad. And if we choose to be bad, we have yet another chance to choose to fix it and be good.

    Anyhow thanks for the mental gymnastics.



    1. Thanks so much for the feedback, Tim! You might enjoy today’s post “Shame on Me” about our impulse to excuse our own behaviour and to not let ourselves feel the shame associated with our bad behaviour. I hope you’ll continue to read and comment!!

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