I’ve been considering the idea of the “greater good” lately. It is a term used quite liberally in election seasons, and we have a particularly lively one going on at the moment.
I’m not generally inclined to participate in political life, at least not in the way that most people construe that term. You might call me a skeptic. I think of myself as a realist. I understand that every social interaction is, at least in some way, political, but I chose to exercise my politics one interaction at a time. Perhaps that is why it struck me as interesting this week when the democratic presidential nominee chose to hang her campaign on an idea that I’ve carried around with me for some time. She said that her Methodist upbringing instilled in her the desire to: “do all the good you can, for all the people you can, in all the ways you can, as long as ever you can.”
The idea is not hers, of course. It comes from John Wesley, the 18th century founder of the Methodist movement. He never said it in those words exactly, but Methodists have adopted and attributed this stylized version of what he actually wrote in the ‘General Rules’ of Methodism. Those three rules, in short, are:
Do no harm.
Attend upon the ordinances of God
He extrapolated that second rule a bit, writing: “Do all the good that you can,” and “secondly, By doing good, by being in every kind merciful after their power, as they have opportunity” he expected those in his movement to go about “doing good of every possible sort and as far as is possible to all men.”
Not everyone speaks 18th century, so it’s probably good we’ve gussied up the quote a bit.
What has always been more to my interest, however, is that Wesley goes on to list all sorts of concrete acts that meet the definition of good, such as feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting those who are sick or in prison, and the like. The concrete good in front of me compels me far more than the abstract good floating off in the ether.
What’s more is that the implication of the third rule is that we have to be attentive to engaging in practices that form us into the kind of people we want ourselves to be or, as Wesley would say, the kind of people God wants us to be. You don’t have to believe in God to understand the mechanics of this.
You are the aggregate of your actions. Even the very small ones.
This Wesleyan moral directive has served as a compass for me long before Mrs. Clinton spoke this week, but her words gave me pause to consider afresh what I thought about good and evil and the way those things play out in real life. I weighed that simple yet positive message against the virulent stream of hate I’ve been hearing and I realized something. I realized that although politicians love to talk about the “greater good,” I’m no longer sure I believe there is such a thing. I’ve come to understand the greater good as one of those concepts so often employed to justify a litany of lesser evils, that it seems almost disingenuous. A mirage at best. But, if there is no greater good, what do we have left?
No worry, we have something better. We have plain old ordinary good.
What I mean by that is that we have individual choice and responsibility. In lieu of the “greater good” I submit that there are simply good and bad actions, no matter how large or small, and that individual actions can be judged as good and bad insofar as they are the types of actions that make us into generally good or bad people. Moral formation is habitual and the idea of an goodness at this level is something I can grasp; something that seems worthwhile. It seems small, but it reverberates.
Aristotle would back me up here to a point (I think). In the second book of “The Nichomachean Ethics’ he writes:
“Virtue, as we have seen, consists of two kinds, intellectual virtue and moral virtue. Intellectual virtue or excellence owes its origin and development chiefly to teaching, and for that reason requires experience and time. Moral virtue, on the other hand, is formed by habit…”
He goes on to explain that the virtues aren’t implanted in us by nature, but that “we are by nature equipped with the ability to receive them, and habit brings this ability to completion and fulfillment.”
It’s like learning to floss your teeth. You become good by choosing to do good things. This is classic virtue ethics* and if you want to read more contemporary riffs on the theme I suggest you look to the work of Alisdair MacIntyre or Samuel Wells. It is a deep well.
At the end of the day, I believe there is probably a common good and we sometimes have to offer a bit of ourselves to achieve that, but for my money I’ll go on trying to do all the good I can for all the people I can in all the ways I can as long as I can. That’s about all I can do, but at least it’s a start.
*(This line of Aristotelian ethics often leads to an ultimate conclusion that there is such a thing as the “greater good” and even the “greatest good,” but as I said, I’m skeptical there is such a thing.)