The Ground of Goodness

As regular readers know, one of the things I've been pondering a lot over the last two years on the blog is the ground of values, goodness, and morality. (In 2018, for example, I posted a lot about "the metaphysics of morality" and "moral hallowing.")

The common humanistic objection to this quest of mine is this: "Why do you need a 'metaphysical ground' for morality? Why just can't you be a decent human being?"

There's a subtle judgment at work in this critique. Religious people, it seems, need something to nudge them toward being a decent human being. For religious people, the good, the implication goes, just doesn't seem attractive enough to act on for its own sake. All of which paints the religious person as a sort of moral idiot, someone stunted in their moral development, someone who needs a Parent (cosmic or human) to tell them to be good. The humanist, by contrast, simply doesn't need that Parent, doesn't need some supernatural or metaphysical Source or Ground to tell them to be good. Who cares if there is a God, just be a decent person. It's really quite simple. The humanist expresses a heartfelt desire to be a decent human being, and can't understand why religious people need something more than that.

Well, here's why we need something more than that.

The humanistic appeal to being a decent human being is totally narcissistic. The motive to be a decent human being rests totally on pointing toward my own magnanimity. I choose to be a decent human being because, of course, that's what decent human beings do. And I'm a decent human being. So why can't you be such a magnanimous and decent human being like me?

To be clear, both the humanist and I agree, for the most part, about what a decent human being looks like. What we're talking about here is the motive for being a decent human being. For the humanist, the motive is your own magnanimity, your own goodness. You are good because well, you're good. You love, respect difference, volunteer, and sacrifice for others all because you're an amazing person. You don't need anything else to do the good, because you've got yourself. And if others need something more to prick their consciences or prod them to mortify their self-interest, well, they not a very good person compared to you, for whom virtue comes easily and naturally.

For the religious person, the motive for goodness isn't narcissistic. I don't justify the good by pointing toward my own magnanimity, my own innate, natural goodness. For the religious person, we follow the good because the good is true, the good is real. Religion gives goodness a metaphysical, ontological ground. The good exists outside and independently of my own decency and magnanimity. Yes, I desire the good because I find the good beautiful and compelling. The good draws all good people. There's enough decency and magnanimity in me that makes me, intrinsically, want to be decent and magnanimous solely for the delight decency and magnanimity brings me. Along with enough empathy to want to reduce the suffering of others solely for their happiness. The humanistic argument, that goodness should have an allure and appeal all on its own, is true. It's just incomplete.

I think I'm a decent person. But when I sacrifice for others, placing their interests above my own, I don't point toward my own goodness as the reason I'm doing these things. I point to something outside of myself, toward a goodness that exists independently of my virtue, toward a Source that brings my virtue into contact with reality. I am good not simply because I am magnanimous. I am good, or try to be, because its the truth.

I'm sure you are a decent person and desire to do decent things. But there's more to goodness than you telling me just how awesome you are.

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