Why Can’t We Be Good? sample essay
The 2008 text offered by Needleman, entitled Why Can’t We Be Good? , provides an academically hierarchical discussion on the nature of morality with a sharp focus on the fact that man is in many ways predestined to behave badly. This fact guides a text which takes us through the discourse on good and evil by building chapter by chapter upon its evolution in human history. Touching upon intellectual, religious and cultural themes in this investigation the author provides a primer on a very complex philosophical question which is at once illuminating and conducive to a desire to learn more.
An amazingly concise allegory ties up the whole of what is to be gained in the first chapter, which is focused on the introductory question as to the gap between that which we know to be good or evil and that which we actually do. The author uses a parable from Judaic mythology in which man agrees to the rabbi Hillel that he will accept the tenets of the faith if he can be instructed upon the whole teaching of the Torah while standing on one foot. In response, Hillel tells the man to stand on one foot and states “’What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah.
All the rest is commentary. Now, go and study. ’” (4) On so broad a subject, it is a remarkable response which also sums up the premise of the first chapter. That is, we each individually have the power to behave according to that which we know to be right or wrong, and that we entitle ourselves to be essentially good beings if we should so desire it. The second chapter initiates the association between goodness and sentient consideration. Such is to say that the core relationship between morality and critical assessment makes morality something more than just instinctual reflect.
The author argues that an inflection point would be hearkened by the ideas of Socrates, who in the early inception of critical Greek philosophy, would draw humanity to the idea that good and evil were conditions consciously arrived at only after one is given the ability to reason and endowed with the tools to recognize good in complex situations. According to the text, “What Socrates brought was a work of the mind that is a preparation for morality, a rehearsal for moral action.
What takes place between Socrates and those who occupied the place of his pupils is an intermediate movement between moral impotence and moral power. What he offers us is a way of finding the stepping-stone between a life driven by egoism and a life based on conscience” (26) To Socrates and to the thematic discussion of the text, this is to make the argument that education and the ability to assess things critically will contribute to a higher propensity toward moral awareness and the value of doing good.
Chapter Three of the text may perhaps be best summed up in the notion that “in the work of thinking together, we wish to and we actually can, in a certain sense, love our neighbor, the one who shares our question. We can even love our enemy, perhaps especially our enemy, the one who opposes our view, who argues with us, who disagrees. With this enemy we can ‘rehearse’ the need for differences between people, and, through this, understanding the need for genuine complimentarity in our mutual relations.
” (58) To this point, the text builds progressively upon the theme which it has established, noting now that in addition to the instinctual recognition of that which is good and the intellectual tools needed to navigate that question, there is the need for essentially collaboration. The differences and commonalities betwixt us, the chapter makes the case, must be resolved through a constant and pragmatic re-engagement of moral conditions. In the nature of war and peace, hate and love, rests the set of impulses within which people constantly grapple to find harmonious common ground.
This denotes an impetus for morality and the condition of being good, with which we now see there is a relationship to human happiness. Chapter Four begins to investigate that conceptual morass that is the human condition. With the ability to reason and question good and evil has also emerged the capacity to navigate complex questions about our own state of being. To this point, the text enters into a consideration of man attempting to understand his own purpose for being. Accordingly, there is a recognition of the ego and uncertainty with grapple with one another inside of us.
The author notes that “taken in the abstract, as a being possess of self-aware reason, and the relatively independent power to act from love and duty, a being ordained to be the steward of the earth, a free and conscious servant of the Source of all things—taken as such, our human existence, mankind, wherever in the universe such a being may exist, can be understood not only as part of the all-encompassing greatness of Creation but as its Crown Jewel. ” (83) Even with this assessment, the question of good and evil becomes that much more indecipherable.
If man is capable of such reason and divinity, it is difficult to understand, the chapter resolves, why he is moved to behave with such remarkable levels of evil at his disposal. Chapter Five contends with the revolution of intellectual reason through human history touching equally upon the mythology of the Greek lineage and the moralizing of the Judeo-Christian premises. Here, we find that with the capacity for more complex thought and the interrelation of morality to complex systems such as nation-states and religious faiths would be produced an overarching sense of moral splintering.
Questions of moral purpose would become evermore convoluted, as in the provided example relating “the notion of original sin” which seems “to teach that man is not able to be good, no matter what his intention, the inculcation of the feeling of guilt takes away what surely is the essential meaning and purpose of such a doctrine—namely, to support and assist the arising of remorse of conscience in the mind and heart, and the concomitant relaxation of the soul which opens man to the reconciling grace of the Holy Spirit.
” (96) It is to this extent that the author argues that moral intent becomes confused with a variety of other human impulses, often related to social and cultural power structures. In Chapter Six, an inherent response in human interaction seems to emerge from the teachings of the Buddha. Here, the author enters into a discussion on the less dogmatic form which complex morality would take in the formulation of eastern philosophy. Here, theocratically induced morality is foregone for a sense of the need for harmony between the impulses of the self and the relationship that this imposes with the universe.
Essentially, this chapter engages the idea of inquisitive passiveness and a commitment only to those impulses which bring harmony and which detain the potential of chaos. In Chapter Seven, the building complexity of the subject is made clear in Needleman’s discussion on the sentience of man. In humanity’s attempt to understand itself, the chapter primarily argues, he has continually invested in an attempt to understand that which is right. The ability to reason becomes a matter of primacy in deciphering rightness of action and in this, Needleman describes, philosophical history has attributed a Godliness in man.
Accordingly, the text explains that “by reversing the process by which he has cut himself off through forgetting what he is—that is, he reunites himself with God by the work of remembering who and what he is as a human being endowed with the divine power of conscious reason. A human being ceases to be a human when he forgets that and acts solely under the influence of egoistic desire and impulse. ” (113) This is an important concept in the course of our reading, referring to the centricity of other people and of society in the lives of reasoning individuals.
The follow-up to this chapter is one in which the author delineates the social impetuses forming the set of expectations which come often to be seen as good and evil within cultural contexts. In Chapter Eight, the text considers the sociological argument impacting moral disposition in a great many historical and current contexts. Governmental, religious and other moral figures have often found security in the construction of ethical moralism as a way to encourage behavior that is considered culturally acceptable.
As Needleman phrases it, “for now, we can only surmise that this fundamental aspect of human development was among the man central elements that were not meant to be committed to writing, but which, in some cases perhaps, formed an essential part of what is called the ‘oral tradition,’ by which is meant the sum total of psychological, social and formal conditions by which a spiritual community maintains the possibility of the direct transmission of spiritual and moral truth.
” (134) This notion of devising a moral truth that can serve to effect the whole of society’s conformity thereto suggests that there is some greater level of consideration than simply the matter of right and wrong governing individual behavior. Instead, here is the suggestion that there are yet external impulses which guide the reasoning of the moral or philosophically inclined individual. Ultimately, the Needleman text is concerned with helping us to identify these externalities as they come into contact with one’s internal moral compass.
The text and our broader discussion are both concerned with the ability to man to both recognize and act upon the difference between right and wrong. Naturally, the text only hints at how we best achieve a moral balance, but it does offer a history and logical sequencing on the subject of morality that can be seen as a useful introduction to a challenging and complex theoretical discussion.
Works Cited Needleman, J. (2008). Why Can’t We Be Good? Tarcher.
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