As a nonbeliever, I am often challenged on this position. Why should kindness and compassion matter to me? What is the incentive to be good? Where do I get my sense of morality, ethics, and integrity? Either I derive some benefit from it, or it is imbued in me by a higher power.
To be frank, I don’t know why I care about being good. When I lost my faith years ago, it never occurred to me to reconsider my commitment to being a decent person It’s not as if losing religion made me lose my moral compass – it remained separate, and if anything improved, long after I departed from my religious convictions. I am far from alone in this experience, and as far as empirical evidence has shown, most nonreligious people are as decent as anyone of faith.
Skeptics and cynics will no doubt chaff at this claim, believing that I am in fact benefiting from having moral concerns: more people will like me, well-needed favors will be reciprocated, and my body will release hormones that will make me feel good. Indeed, these factors may very well account for the evolutionary origins of altruism and empathy, which are the bedrocks of morality and virtue. We’re a social species, and we need these biological developments to promote bonding and group survival. Society has become larger and more complex, and therefore these factors have been extended to a much wider circle, encompassing not only kin and close friends, but complete strangers, even on the other side of the world.
But what does any of this mean? Is human goodness really reduced to being nothing more than an evolutionary advantage? Baring any evidence that it’s been implanted in us by God (be it directly or through interventions in our evolution), scientific findings increasingly suggest it.
But so what? To my knowledge, the exact origins of moral behavior remain unclear, but even if it were deterministic, that doesn’t lessen the beauty and value of compassion towards others. Human nature is a fickle and often abstract concept, and we’ve long shown a capacity for both monstrous evil and immense selflessness. We don’t have to be good, even if we seem to have natural inclinations for it. We’re just as liable to benefit from duplicitous – appearing to be good – than we are from doing the real thing. I won’t pretend I’m any different: I can be highly questionable in my character, my treatment of others, and my ethical conduct. There’s not a person who has ever lived that hasn’t demonstrated some dark aspect of their nature – no one is wholly innocent, even when they try.
Yet despite the unsavory elements of each of our characters, many of us still manage to do good things without compunction. Emmanuel Levinas, one of my favorite philosophers, noted how most people will automatically pick up something a stranger dropped in front of them and return it to them. They do not pause to rationalize whether or not they should commit to this favor, or if there is good reason to – it’s just something we’re taught to do by the wider society around us. The Golden Rule is nearly universal, and while humans differ as to what we define as fair and just, it’s clear that we humans have an intrinsic desire to promote cooperation, honesty, and goodness, whether or not it’s to our benefit.
The moral ambiguity and fecklessness of human behavior doesn’t make me cynical about the existence of true goodness within our species. If anything, our ethical failings are a cause for even more admiration. The course of human history – though grim and punctuated with immoral horrors – is nonetheless mostly one of steady progress. Though our moral development is often times uneven and far from linear, on the whole, we’ve improved considerably since we first emerged as a species.
More people live better lives than ever before, and come to develop an advanced ethical, legal, and moral framework. There now exists concepts of human rights that were pretty much alien in most human societies, yet taken for granted today – ideas like freedom of speech, freedom of belief, democratic representation, and so on.
Of course, “we” doesn’t pertain to all humans, and even within largely “developed” societies, there remains systemic lapses in human decency (to say nothing of our own individual failings in this regard). I don’t want to make light of the tremendous suffering, selfishness, and injustice that still bedevils most of my fellow denizens. Indeed, just because many humans have come a long way, generally speaking, doesn’t mean we should be complacent. There is still much work to be done as far as freeing millions from poverty, tyranny, exploitation, and other social ills that result from our moral negligence and perversity.
But my overall point, is that we as individuals can be– and often are – good for the very sake of it. We can attribute this goodness whatever reasons or motives we want – God, pragmatism, empathy, etc – but I’ve seen enough in my brief but rich time on this Earth to know that there is tremendous good within most people. Our moral and ethical faculties are undoubtedly being advanced with every generation; perhaps someday, altruism will become the norm of human conduct. In the meantime, we should strive to expand our circle of compassion so as to include more people, be they strangers or loved ones, and commit to normalizing the notion of goodness for its own sake – by setting the examples ourselves.