How Shall We Be Good?

October 31, 2010 3 min read

It is a question we don’t ask often enough. 

You think we would. Individuals ask it of themselves often. Many religions push us to consider personal good works. And I suppose that we naturally assume that all those individual contributions will add up to a collective good.

The problem is that a lot of things that I think are “good” may actually be contradictory to what you think is “good.” If our goods are at odds, then together they add up to no progress at all.

I, for instance, may think that creating wealth for my family so that we don’t become a burden on society is a pretty important Good. You, for instance, may think that creating a system that cares for the less well-off in our society is a pretty important Good. Those two Goods will probably run afoul of each other some day. 

My research (surveys/interviews with 2000 people from over 20 cultures) has shown that there are eight big categories of Goods – I call them the Eight Great Goods. They are: Life, Stability, Society, Growth, Belief, Joy, Individuality, and Fairness. When I asked almost 1000 Americans to prioritize these in the order they would use them to make decisions, only 71 people had exactly the same ordering of the eight Goods as at least one other person. So, as you can see, there is a very high likelihood that you and I will have different priorities of how we make Good decisions. In fact, our disparate definitions of what it is to be good may actually end up making us hate each other. Because of our different definition of goods, we may even think of each other as evil. 

Strong words, yes… but, I believe I have just described the state of American politics today… which most of us agree is not ideal.   So is there a way around it? 

I believe there is, or I wouldn’t be writing this.

We need to sit down together as families, organizations, communities, and particularly as a nation to clarify what our priorities are. We need to ask and answer the question: How shall we be good?

That will not be easy. 

As Americans, we can all pretty easily agree that life, liberty (Individuality), and the pursuit of happiness (Joy) are important – we’ve been raised to believe they are fundamental rights in our country. But consider for a moment what it would be like to have to prioritize these. There would be crazy debates.  If life were really the highest priority, would you ever send troops to Iraq to die and kill others in order to defend the Iraqis’ right to freedom? But, if liberty is more important than life, why haven’t we declared war on China?   These are the kinds of debates that would ensue. And they are important discussions to have.

But, if we could decide on these priorities (with an associated set of rules to govern them), think how much less random our national policies and laws might feel.  Political policy depends a lot on where legislator attention is focused. Today Congress could make its decisions based on costs, tomorrow on values, the next day on political expediency. You can see what a mess that would be…. Oh… wait… that IS what’s happening right now!

But with a discussion, debate and some decisions about the priorities of our Goods as a nation, maybe we could avoid some of the acrimony around our political processes. Maybe we could achieve real consistency in our policies and national direction. A well-run company could never survive without a clear set of priorities – even if it is hard to arrive at the specific order. A well-run nation requires no less hard work … and probably even more focus.