Measuring Goodness

“I think we can’t go around…measuring our goodness by what we don’t do.By what we deny ourselves…what we resist and who we exclude.I think we’ve got to measure goodness…by what we embrace,what we create…and who we include.” — from the Easter Sermon, Chocolat

There are two great systems of ethics that most of us live by, often without realizing where they came from or their full outlines. While we may not know exactly why we make our decisions that does not prevent us from making them. But neither can we justify or even explain why we chose them in the first place. 

One system is built around duty, what we ought  to do. According to Immanuel Kant, one of the most influential philosophers of the modern age, we should act out of free will without regard for reward or punishment. What matters is why we do something, and the principle that establishes some action as ethical or not is whether we willed to do it or not. In Kant’s view, the only actions that could be counted as ethical would be the ones that we did because they were the right things to do, not because we wanted to do them or they gave us a warm feeling for having done them. We may, in time, come to enjoy doing what’s right, but that shouldn’t factor in as the reason to do the right thing. 

The other great system emphasizes the consequences of our actions. In the words of John Stuart Mill, the 19th century British philosopher who brought utilitarianism into general use, utility holds that “actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.” By a calculus of goodness, then, we are called to maximize pleasure and minimize pain for the greatest number of people. In short, we try to do the best for as many people as possible. 

These are general theories of ethical action, not a cookbook for whipping up a delightful dish of goodness for the situation at hand. Yet we unconsciously use these throughout our days to handle most of our ethical dilemmas. At times we do what we must, no matter what it might cost us; at other times we try to make the best of the situation for ourselves and those around us. Neither system answers all our questions. Most of us use both of them without feeling that we have to choose one over the other. 

Yet, we usually have a default position, an ethical perspective that we act from almost intuitively. We may, upon reflection, choose another way, but we can learn a lot about ourselves by how we instinctively react to matters that confront us. 

So in the spirit of summing up at the end of the year, here are some ways you can tell which ethical system you most naturally follow. 

You know you’re a Duty person if:
  • It makes you grumpy when people pass you when you’re driving the speed limit;
  • You finish your chores before you go out to play;
  • You toss and turn at night, replaying a faux pas you committed that day; 
  • You make sure your car is parked straight within the lines;
  • You’d rather embarrass yourself than cause someone else embarrassment by pointing out their mistakes;
  • It pains you to leave something undone;
  • You find yourself muttering, “What if everyone did that?” several times a day; 
  • You pick up trash that other people drop;
  • You can think of many reasons why someone did what they did;
  • You’re more fascinated with why someone did something than what they actually did; 
  • Holidays make you uncomfortable;
  • A good day is when you get through your list;
  • A bad day is when you don’t even make a list;
  • Your besetting sin is self-righteousness;
  • Your most annoying trait is being a tight-ass;
  • One of your good traits is that you’re reliable;
  • One of your best traits is introspection;
  • You are an investor.

On the other hand, you know you’re a Utility person if:
  • It matters to you if everyone around you is happy;
  • You keep working for consensus after everyone else has taken their toys and gone home;
  • You’re all about efficiency: effectiveness is for the slow;
  • You’re an idea person, not a detail person;
  • You get impatient with people who keep asking questions;
  • You’ll hire an expert if it will save time;
  • You like to be seen as generous;
  • You’re comfortable with groups of people; 
  • You’d rather have three okay desserts than one fantastic one;
  • You think in economic metaphors like ‘the bottom line’ and ‘cost-benefit ratios’;
  • Your besetting sin is cutting corners to get what you want;
  • Your most annoying trait is blaming others;
  • One of your good traits is that you can make decisions quickly;
  • One of your best traits is that you’re willing to try new things if it will bring better results;
  • You are an entrepreneur. 

For the duty-bound among us, here’s a gentle word for the new year: Don’t let doing things the right way stop you from enjoying the trip. 

And to those who are all about the bottom line: It does matter how you get there because you have to live with what you picked up on the way. 

It’s not too late to begin again.

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