Goodness is sometimes defined as that which satisfies desire. Things are not good in themselves, but only as they respond to human wishes. A certain combination of colors or sounds is good, because we like it. A Republic the Americans consider the best form of government because they believe that this more completely than any other meets the legitimate desires of its people. A little boy who after tasting with gusto his morning's oatmeal would turn for sympathy to each other person at table with the assertive inquiry, "Good? Good? Good?" He knew no good but enjoyment, and this was so keen that he expected to find it repeated in each of his friends. It is true we often call actions good which are not immediately pleasing; for example, the cutting off of a leg which is crushed past the possibility of cure. But the leg, if left, will cause still more distress or even death. In the last analysis the word good will be found everywhere to refer to some satisfaction of human desire. If we count afflictions good, it is because we believe that through them permanent peace may best be reached.
It is good to eat candy, to love a friend, to hate a foe, to hear the sound of running water, to practice medicine, to gather wealth, learning, or postage stamps. But though each of these represents a natural desire, they cannot all be counted equally good. They must be tried by some standard other than themselves. For desires are not detachable facts. Each is significant only as a piece of a life. In connection with that life it must be judged. And when we ask if any desire is good or bad, we really inquire how far it may play a part in company with other desires in making up a harmonious existence.
Goodness is the expression of the largest organization. Its aim is everywhere to bring object and environment into fullest cooperation. We have seen how in any organic relationship every part is both means and end. Goodness tends toward organism; and so far as it obtains, each member of the universe receives its own appropriate expansion and dignity.
We know a person when we see him, and are quite sure he is not a thing. Yet if we were called on to say precisely what it is we know, and how we know it, we should find ourselves in some difficulty. No doubt we usually recognize a human being by his form and motions, but we assume that certain inner traits regularly attend these outward matters, and that in these traits the real ground of difference between person and thing is to be found. How many such distinguishing differences exist? Obviously a multitude; but these are merely various manifestations of a few fundamental characteristics. Probably all can be reduced to four, — they are self-consciousness, self-direction, self-development, and self-sacrifice. Wherever these four traits are found, we feel at once that the being who has them is a person. Whatever creature lacks them is but a thing, and requires no personal attention. These four are so likely to go together that the appearance of one gives confidence of the rest. If, for example, we discover a being sacrificing itself for another, even though we have not previously thought of it as a person, it will so stir sympathy that we shall see in it a likeness to our own kind.
Intelligence, skill, beauty, learning—we admire them all; but when we see an act of self-sacrifice, however small, awe falls on us; we bow our heads, fearful that we might not have been capable of anything so glorious. We thus acknowledge self-sacrifice to be the very culmination of the moral life. He who understands it has comprehended all righteousness, human and divine. But how does self-sacrifice accord with self-development? Will he who is busy cultivating himself sacrifice himself? Is there not a kind of conflict between the two?
In action we seek to accomplish something, and between that something and ourselves some sort of valued connection must be felt. Every wish indicates that the wisher experiences a need which he thinks might be supplied by the object wished for. It is true that wishes and wills are often directed upon external objects, but only because we believe that our own well-being is involved in their union with us.
When we talk of sacrifice, we refer merely to the first stage and outer aspect of the act. Underneath, self-interest is guarded, the individual giving up his individuality only through obtaining a larger individuality still.
We hunt out what we value most; we judge what would most completely fulfill our needs; and then we abolish it. Abolish it for what? It’s for nothing but the mere sake of abolishing. This is to turn morality upside down; and in place of the ideal of abounding life, to set up the pessimistic aim of impoverishment. There is nothing of this kind in self-sacrifice. Here we assert ourselves, our conjunct selves. We estimate what will be best for the community of man and seek to further this at whatever cost to our isolated individuality. By this dedication to a deserving object sacrifice is purified, ennobled, and made strong. We speak of the glorious deed of him who plunges into the water to save a child. But it is a foolish and immoral thing to risk one's life for a stone, a coin, or nothing at all. "does the object deserve?" we must ask, "or shall I reserve myself for greater need?"
Acts are excellent in proportion as they are sure, swift, and easy. When we undertake anything, we seek to do exactly that thing, reach precisely that end, and not merely to hit something in the neighborhood. Occasions, too, run fast, and should be seized on the minute. Action is excellent only when it meets the urgent and evasive demands of life. Faltering and hesitation are fatal. Nor must action unduly weary. Good conduct affects its results with the least necessary expenditure of effort. When there are so many demands pressing upon us, we should not allow ourselves to become exhausted by a single act, but should keep ourselves fresh for further needs. Efficient action, then, is sure, swift, and easy.
(Adapted from Project Gutenberg's The Nature of Goodness, by George Herbert Palmer)