What Makes Good Good? A Case For Compassion

Those who have subscribed to the comments or keep an eye on the recent comments sidebar will know that the discussion started by my post “What Is Good?” It seems that we have two views colliding that stop at key points. One says that goodness simply is doing to others what you would want done to you: that’s goodness, it has its own rationale and its own reward. The other says that goodness simply is what God wills or commands, and without such a grounding, morality is not “objective”.

To stimulate further discussion (and, as always, stir things up a little), let me offer for consideration #27 of the 40 hadith of An-Nawawi:

I came to the messenger of Allah and he said: “You have come to ask about righteousness ?” . I said:” Yes.” He said: “Consult your heart. Righteousness is that about which the soul feels tranquil and the heart feels tranquil, and wrongdoing is that which wavers in the soul and moves to and from in the breast even though people again and again have given you their legal opinion [in its favor].”

It seems to me that Christians too have often appealed to conscience as a guide. Indeed, the Baptists historically (although not so much recently) have emphasized this.

This is not to say that conscience gives us some objective standpoint from which to evaluate good and evil. Our moral sensibilities are shaped by culture and upbringing, and can develop as we mature. But that is not necessarily a problem. One can take kindness as a basic principle and still acknowledge that its application in different cultural and situational settings may differ. But it seems to me that, if there is no basis in conscience and reason for morality, then even if one had a sacred text that told us inerrantly and objectively what is good, we’d be in any way helped or benefitted by it.

I’m not sure whether, in practice, there is that much difference between a view that says that there may not simply be an absolutely “right” and “wrong” thing to do in every single situation, and one that says that there is but that we as human beings may not always know what it is.

But I do find troubling any view of morality that claims to be Christian and yet seems to have nothing in practice to do with either the fundamental principle of the Golden Rule, or with the actual suffering of victims. Could it be that Christian morality is less about specific deeds, and more about compassion, even though we may still be left debating what the appropriate expression of our compassion might be in this or that situation?

One of the participants in the recent discussion seems to always reply to such arguments by asking “But what makes being compassionate good?” I don’t see that compassion being by definition good is any less coherent than saying “Whatever God wills is good by definition”. Indeed, the latter viewpoint seems problematic because it either leaves us with a God that “just happens” to command and will that which seems morally good to us as humans, or with a God who can command anything and thus make it good. It doesn’t seem to me that the attempt to define away the Euthyphro dilemma by saying “God’s will always corresponds to the good” actually solves the philosophical problem in any obvious or meaningful way, or offers something that is genuinely a third option.

  • Paul N

    I think Euthypro's dilemma is solved by defining goodness(piety in this case) as God himself. The way to discover what is good and bad is to understand God himself. This makes Socrates' question (see Euthypro dilemma link) moot. God loves piety because God is piety, to be pious is to be like God.If one was to maintain that there existed something called goodness that was absolute and existed outside of human experience (was similar to a physical law of the universe) — and also maintain that this was somehow separate from God, I think you would have to forgo any claims to a monotheistic belief. I think people can be divided into two camps here by the way they answer the following question: Can God change his mind about what is good or does he have no choice because it is his nature?This can be reworded for the athiests as such: "Can people change the definition of what is good? (This is not finding a better understanding, but rather fundamentally changing the definition based on new cultural phenomena.)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12617299120618867829 Angie Van De Merwe

    Definitions of abstract concepts that play out in the real world in action, will always differ in "outcome" because of personal, as well as cultural, differences in understanding.These personal differences in understanding of meaning is wrought within the whole condrum of what the person has experienced and learned, as well as what is the cultural interpreting focus…Where one culture may value democracy and value individual freedom, others would subscribe to tradition's understanding of value. These "good things" can be understood in sacrifices and martyrdom, as well as the representative spiritual examples.

  • Paul N.

    Upon a little further research — please credit most of my above comment to Thomas Aquinas as he said it first… and probably better.http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Euthyphro_dilemma

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12617299120618867829 Angie Van De Merwe

    Maybe the question should not be "what is good or compassionate", but what is right. Good is based on action, while justice (or "right") is based on ideals. The ideal of individual freedom and choice is the basis of human rights and cannot be denied to anyone! The only exceptions to the "principle of universiality" of human rights, is for thsoe who have subverted human rights for others, as this promotes "justice for all". In our postmodern multicultural world, America's "right" to seek freedom and justice in promoting democratic government has been considered to be in opposition to "what is good or compassionate". The world does not live by the principle of compassion and goodness, but on the basis of law. Otherwise, we have chaos and anarchy, which is what America fights and stands in opposition to…

  • http://abandonallfear.org.uk Lex Fear

    What is this 'Golden Rule' that Christians are supposed to follow?I've only seen atheists mention this rule – perhaps they have some sort of atheist bible/religion that describes this, like the 10 commandments or something.I've never read Jesus' reference to the 'golden rule' anywhere in the new testament or indeed the old.I've never heard of the 'golden rule' mentioned in a church either.I don't subscribe to a 'golden rule'. I don't even believe in one. I fail to see how making a case for this 'golden rule' has any effect on Christian morality.Please specify which religion the 'golden rule' is taken from and what it means as it is most definitely not Christian.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03089281236217906531 Scott F

    Jeez, Lex. The Bible's version of the Golden Rule is Matt 7:12"So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets." (NIV)

  • http://www.sophiesladder.com Jeff Carter

    How about this: Good is someone who loves his enemies. He blesses those who curse him. He prays for those that mistreat him. He gives to anyone who truly asks. He sends rain on the just and on the unjust. Is this what you would call compassion? If we are Christians should we not get our ideas of good and God from who Christ is?Everything, even the Old Testament, must be re-interpreted in the light of Christ.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    Thanks, Scott. I will, unless I hear otherwise, assume that Lex simply somehow missed the use of "the Golden Rule" as a shorthand way of referring to this famous teaching attributed to Jesus, and is not opposed to the teaching of Jesus itself on this matter.

  • http://abandonallfear.org.uk Lex Fear

    "Jeez, Lex. The Bible's version of the Golden Rule…"So does the Golden Rule predate the bible as suggested by Scott F, or is it an extrapolation like the Trinity according to James.I only ask because I see atheist constantly refer to the golden rule and wonder why if it was a biblical command, why they would follow something they do not believe in – it therefore appears to me that the 'golden rule' does not belong to Jesus.Call me a purist but I dislike the strain of thought that all religions are more or less the same (along with Christianity) and I dislike intensely when people attempt to dismiss the teachings of Jesus, then assume them and attribute them to something completely outside of Christianity. People who, in order to justify a lifestyle that is purely based on Judeao-Christian concepts but too are obstinate to admit this fact, instead re-write history and philosophy to fit in with their secular world-view.More effective than burning books IMO.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    Lex, I'm still unclear as to what your objection is. Were you unaware that "The Golden Rule" is a historic Christian shorthand for the saying attributed to Jesus in the New Testament, "Do unto others what you would have them do unto you"? Or do you not like the fact that the whole thing isn't being quoted? Or do you object to non-Christians following the rule – and if so, why? Would Jesus object? "He who is not against us is for us"The "silver rule" is sometimes used to refer to the negative form, "Don't do to others what you wouldn't like done to you". That's much more widely attested.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07033350578895908993 Suzanne McCarthy

    Here is a mention of Mozi, fifth century. I don't know whether it makes compassion seem less important if we know that it is an ideal shared by non-Christians or not. "The doctrine of univeral love is the most famous and original of Mozi's contributions to Chinese thought. We have already noted the negative side it in his condemnations of offensive warfare, condemnations which could jst as well have been made by thinkers of the COnfucian or Daoist schools. But Mozi alone of all Chinese thinkers was not content merely to condemn adts that are harmful to others. He went a step further to proclaim that men should actually love the members of other families and states in the same way taht they love the members of their own family and state, for all are equally the creatures and people of God." Reference is on my blog.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12617299120618867829 Angie Van De Merwe

    If the Golden Rule is "true", then it must also be applicable to atheists, as well as believers! The Golden Rule is universal and is represented in some form in many of the great traditions of faith.I still believe that the question should remain focused on justice and not goodness, as without justice there is no goodness. Evil is unjust and is the absence of the good. As we are to "do justly", not just "love mercy", those who adhere and try to "teach" another to "love mercy" are not "doing justice" where it concerns the "other". This is what Paul's argument is in Romans to the Jew and Gentile on the issue of judgement. The Jew and Gentile had different reference points and so, defined goodness (righteousness) differently. Paul commended them to humble themselves by ceasing to judge their brother. Goodness is the seeking of justice for another, and this is the issue of human rights in good government. Any religious tradition that does not uphold the universiality of the 'human', should be annihlated….

  • http://abandonallfear.org.uk Lex Fear

    @Angie Van Der MeweSo you prescribe to the evangelical Christian notion that atheists should follow the teachings of Jesus as well as Christians?I don't see anyone answer the question yet – does the golden rule predate Jesus or not?I don't think people even understand the teaching of "doing unto others…" and have warped it into some kind of hippy teaching of going around being nice to each other.Has anyone considered how a drug user should treat others? how a sado-macisist should treat other people? What about a depressed self-harmer?Well if they treat others the way they treat themselves then they're operating completely within your 'golden rule' logic – but they are not acting in Christ at all.No, I think the 'golden rule' and the teachings of Jesus are very different – and I think that possibly this 'golden rule' is a warped and degenerate version of what Jesus actually said.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    OK, I'm still not clear on what you're saying. What I'm hearing is that you think what Matthew attributes to Jesus in Matthew 7:12 was not actually spoken by him. Although I've heard it said that the golden rule is universal, the version I've heard quoted as stemming from Hillel, Confucius, and others, is the negative version. As Hillel put it, "What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor". There's an important distinction between that and the positive version. Islam also has the positive version, but it post-dates Christianity and drew much from Christian sources.I wonder whether here too we see how Matthew was in dialogue with emergent Rabbinic Judaism, since Hillel's version supposedly offered a summation of the whole of Torah.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07033350578895908993 Suzanne McCarthy

    I don't see anyone answer the question yet – does the golden rule predate Jesus or not?My mistake, Mozi is fifth century BC, at the time of Confucious and took the Golden Rule farther than Confucius.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12617299120618867829 Angie Van De Merwe

    Lex Fear,I didn't say anywhere that evangelicalism demands an atheist to submit to the Golden Rule, so I don't understand you.Kant's categorical imperative says that one should act in a way that they wish it were universal. But, Lex, you make a good point. Even though the Golden Rule is the "ideal", the world is not the ideal, nor are all people. But, in principle, the Golden Rule presupposes that one will put themselves in the other's shoes.But, this is hard to do, as even if we treat someone as we would want to be treated, doesn't mean that that is what they desire. We are different. But, we all would desire to be respected as separate persons, with free choice, and other differences….that is universal…

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13762457754800411233 beowulf2k8

    Lex, inasmuch as "do to others what you want them to do to you" is tied to "love your neighbor as yourself" with its implied command that you love yoursel, your objection to it is moot. And as for your apparent offence at atheists approving the command to treat others as you want to be treated while ignoring other biblical commands, iti is stated by Jesus that this one command "IS all the law and the prophets." Not merely that is summarizes it, but that it is it, or perhaps is all that matters from it. If that is the case, then treating others as you want to be treated is all that matters (not belief in certain doctrines or the practice of certain worship rites or initiatory rituals). The problem you have with this is that it can make atheists as approved of by God as yourself, ore moreso. And you think it denies the commands to believe in Christ. But what if the commands to believe in Christ are only there to make us believe that he has the authority to summarize all of the torah by this one new command? What if all our rituals and dogmas are only there to keep us interested in Jesus and the Bible so that we will eventually stumble on his golden rule and foolow it? What if those who are outside our fiath tradition have stumbled on it ahead of us, and so entered the kingdom of God ahead of us as also the harlots entered ahead of the Pharisees according to Jesus? All these possibilities fill the orthodox with rage and thirt for blood, but for everyone else they repesent the hope that God is indeed more gracious than he is represented by all orthodoxies.

  • http://abandonallfear.org.uk Lex Fear

    Well, I am glad to see some critical thought on this "universal" rule which is supposedly what human beings are meant to adhere to regardless of creed.However, I try not to take just one line of Jesus teaching and elevate it above others so I will not be following this 'golden rule'. There is also the prickly question of whether one such 'golden rule' can really govern human relationships at all without the support of other rules, negative or otherwise — sorry it's just too, way too simple.You see, I find I approach people differently according to their personality and temperament. For example, I enjoy intense debate, but not everyone does or appreciates differing ideas from their own. If I am to show them respect and win their friendship I should choose a different tack.Perhaps Paul put it better when he stated:"Even though I am a free man with no master, I have become a slave to all people… When I was with the Jews, I lived like a Jew… When I was with those who follow the Jewish law, I too lived under that law… When I am with the Gentiles who do not follow the Jewish law, I too live apart from that law… When I am with those who are weak, I share their weakness… Yes, I try to find common ground with everyone…"@beowulf2k8You presume too much about what I think… and you lost me after a while because you don't use carriage returns but I can tell you are omitting something (purposefully?) when you state:"iti is stated by Jesus that this one command "IS all the law and the prophets." Not merely that is summarizes it, but that it is it, or perhaps is all that matters from it."(sic).The first law is: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and mind, the second is similar, to love your neighbour as you do yourself. This fulfils all the laws of the prophets… oh how conveniently the first law is forgotten on the alter of convenience.So if the second law is "golden", what is the first law? Diamond, Platinum… ?Now, I think you should all pull up your pants and have a rethink about this 'golden' rule and what makes it so golden, and why, if we are to accept it as such, as Christians, we should ignore the rule before it?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    Hi Lex. Once again, just to clarify, the term "Golden Rule" is used as shorthand for "Do unto others what you would have them to unto you", not "Love your neighbor as yourself". Not that there is anything wrong with the latter, or with the other (even more neglected) one you were highlighting. It is a just a historical convention – I honestly don't know how old it is or when it originated, but would be interested to hear from others who may have some light to shed on that.

  • http://abandonallfear.org.uk Lex Fear

    Then it was beowulf2k8 who was confused, for he was referencing other rules.Finally I am glad to read that you wish to know the origins of this 'golden rule' for this is only what I enquired in the beginning.I want to know if the origin is in fact from Jesus' words or not.If it is, then I want to know why this particular phrase Jesus used is elevated above others by Christian and non-Christian alike (particularly non-Christians, since I want to know their motivations behind picking out one specific line by Jesus and why they bother at all).Of course, if the 'golden rule' is not of Christian origin, then the point is moot.My only objective is that people question why they believe such things and follow them, test these rules to their logical conclusions, and accept their findings – accept that there only reason for their lifestyles sometimes come down to the religion or culture that they spurn.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    Actually I was asking about the origin of the shorthand way of referring to it. But the origin of the moral principle itself is worth investigating. Personally I'm not aware of anyone before Jesus who articulated it in positive form, although obviously the "silver rule" version can be traced earlier. The origins of the latter, at least, are probably lost in pre-history.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X