3: Why Goodness?
April 7, 2017
Hopefully my story about the turning point of Spring 2012, and the word of your father is reason enough to choose goodness. But if I am a good father, I will have taught you to think for yourself and pursue skeptical inquiry of new ideas, even ones propagated by me.
So I will assume you are bright enough to be skeptical, and that I will have to persuade you to choose goodness.
So before going any further, let’s start there, with the question of “why goodness”?
The first argument I can think of is that of God and religion. The two traditions I am most familiar with, Hinduism and Christianity, are fairly clear about goodness and the right way to live. Even in my limited knowledge I know that although neither seems to explicitly lay out the choice of power vs. goodness as the central motivation for living. But Christians I know talk about living and and learning from Jesus' example and Hinduism talks about one's duty to follow the path of righteousness. Even the little bit of exposure I've had to Buddhism suggests at a minimum that power shouldn't be the central anchor of one's life or decision making because power comes and goes - and one shouldn’t attach themselves to things that are not permanent.
Which of course, here, in this letter to you, I have given you the smallest morsels of three religious traditions that I don't claim to be an expert in. But what is striking to me is that even in my limited knowledge of all three of these faiths (and others) I can't imagine one that would advocate for power over goodness in the way that we’ve laid out the concepts. All faiths that I've ever known are different in very important ways, but none advocate the notion of a power-centric life and rather seem more likely to advocate for choosing goodness, or a concept like it.
I also suggest here to you that despite their mystery, the thinking and philosophy underpinning different religious traditions are wise. All these traditions, when interpreted in their purest forms are incredible teachers of how to live, if you open your mind to them. Their teachings have lasted and have been refined over thousands of years. All the traditions that have withstood the test of time, bend toward goodness.
So before we move on to another small argument for choosing goodness let me summarize this first one. If many wise, thoughtful religious traditions (in their purest forms) suggest choosing goodness over power there's strong reason to think that both you and I should choose goodness too. The referral of sorts by the world’s religions for goodness is a strong one. And even if you don’t become a religiously-oriented person, their perspectives on goodness and power are still valid to consider. I personally find them to be persuasive, too.
Now even though the teachings of religious traditions are good enough a reason to choose goodness (or do almost anything) for some people, let me try to continue building arguments to make the case for goodness. I owe it to you not to depend on strawmen, after all.
At some point in your life, someone will throw the tortoise and the hare argument at you, especially when you're in a position of leading a team or organization. This is the argument of, "when you do the right thing, things work out better in the end", which suggests that goodness leads to better outcomes in the long term. In the case of teams and organizations, it's the simple idea of "doing the right thing is better for business anyway." This argument was one often made to me by my classmates and professors in graduate school.
Those individuals advocated for things like being honest, vulnerable, and emotionally aware. They suggested being good to employees and doing good for society - that sort of thing. And again, their rationale was that doing the right thing was good for business. And what is their logic? Because when you do right by your employees, they work harder and are more loyal. Because when you do right by customers and society it forces your team to produce higher value products and services than you would otherwise - putting you on a path to sustainable profits. Because when you do the right thing, the business is less likely to have a scandal or break the law - events that can be devastating to a business. Good, ethical, companies, they said, have greater goodwill with employees, customers, and society which pays off in the long run, they suggested.
And let me tell you first that I agree with them. In my experience, in the long the majority of successful people and teams are the type that do the right thing consistently - they are the type that choose goodness. And this example of business school rhetoric illustrates a larger point: because it's in your interest to choose goodness, you will be more successful and happier in the long run. As the adage goes, what goes around comes around and the bad stuff that people do catches up to them eventually, even if "eventually" takes a really long time.
But let me also say that I think the tortoise and hare argument is dangerous. Because it's easy for noble self-interest to become more about self-interest than about nobility. If you depend on this argument to convince you to choose goodness, eventually your decisions will be more colored by the prize goodness wins you and the goodness itself will just be a bonus incidental to your choice.
If your only motivation for choosing goodness is that it benefits you, how do you know that you're more interested in the goodness rather than the benefits? If you have to justify choosing goodness in this way, can you really trust yourself to choose it when it's not in your self-interest or even to your detriment?
Again, my experience has shown that good things happen to good people, in the long run which is a good reason to choose goodness. Win/win outcomes are obviously attractive. I just am weary of depending on the argument of self-interest to choose goodness because goodness is important irrespective of the benefits it might bring us.
That said, as I will tell you later, you will have to make tough choices in your life and those choice will take a lot of courage. Knowing that things generally work out when you choose goodness over power is an important way to ease your anxieties and insecurities when you have a daunting decision ahead of you.
Let me reiterate a point I made earlier. In my heart of hearts I don't believe that choosing goodness ought to need justification. To me, choosing goodness is so obvious that I could drop my pen now and and move onto more practical discussions instead of making the case for goodness. But I won't.
I owe you one last argument, not just because you deserve to have good reasons for things I suggest to you, but because I also need to make this argument to reaffirm to myself that the way we should live is to choose goodness over power. I need to be persuaded by these arguments as much as you do.
One of the things your Dada said to me all through my life and is a memory I cling to is he saying, "Neil, you are a very capable person." In my heart, even though I haven't met you I know you are a very capable person. I am confident in the decisions you will make about goodness, power, and any other matter. But we are both mere mortals and we need every support we can find to choose goodness throughout our lifetimes.
So here is the last, and most persuasive argument I can think of for goodness. We should goodness because our society and our freedom depend on it.
Imagine you are living by yourself in the wilderness or the state of nature as Hobbes might call it. And you renounce society, never to interact with another human ever again. To survive, you'll need food, water, and shelter from the weather and predators. Every tool, lean-to, or piece of clothing you need you have to create yourself. Every meal you eat you have to hunt, gather, grow, and cook yourself.
In this existence you are free from the influence of other people because you are alone. You do not have to fear being harmed at the hands of another person, but you also do not have the support of anyone else. The amount of power to control things you cannot control is limited to a small number of concerns, and the power you need is hard-earned, and totally dependent on yourself.
But say you don't want to be wholly determined on yourself to survive. Say you want to live in a community, both so that someone has your back and so that you do not feel terribly lonely all the time. Let's say you start of by being part of a small tribe of less than 10 people.
Humans aren't perfect beings, so there will inevitably be a conflict between members of your tribe. The first couple of conflicts are small, so they are mostly ignored. Your tribe is doing well and cooperating, so it grows - either through birth or more people joining the tribe. Life is good in your tribe.
But saw the tribe has grown to about 30 people. There are more people with diverse skills, which is good because the tribe has a greater ability to survive the treachery of nature. But the more diverse the tribe is, the more opinions there are. Conflict happens more often now, but it's mostly handled and tolerated. People still know each other and there are enough peace makers that can help resolve conflicts. Life is still good in the tribe.
But eventually and inevitably - because we're all mere mortals who are not perfect - someone in the tribe just isn't agreeable to the resolution of a conflict. A large argument ensues, let's assume for something like eating more than their fair share of food. So the tribe decides to do something new, that was never needed before. The tribe makes a rule for how food is distributed so that everyone gets their fair share and nobody goes hungry. In the tribe, with new rule in hand, all is good again.
But as time passes, the mortal imperfection of the tribe's members continues and trouble starts to brew. The tribe has grown again, and there are now people who break the food sharing rule on a regular basis. The tribe has decided to create another rule that punishes people who don't share food equitably.
But one of the offenders isn't pleased with his punishment so he fights. Who the strongest person in the tribe is now matters - because disputes now sometimes end in violence, even though there are some rules and punishments to prevent conflict.
This benevolent approach to handling disputes - members of the tribe utilizing a few rules and punishments, but mostly resolving disputes on their own - has worked since the tribe started. But as the community has grown, more and more disputes are now being resolved through violence. As a result people are afraid to go on about their lives. The tribe is tired of violence.
The growing size and diversity of skills in the tribe has been a good thing, because the tribe is now more resilient in surviving the state of nature. At the same time, the tribe has a growing concern about managing conflict. Tribe members do not want to be harassed, beat up, or murdered.
So the tribe comes up with another answer. It designates a few members of the tribe - individuals who are trusted and strong - as people who are allowed to use force to uphold the rules and carry out punishments. Some of those people are also selected to get the opinions of everyone in the tribe and revise the rules on everyone’s behalf.
The rudimentary system of government works and life in the tribe is good again - violent people calm down and the rules that are written aren't too onerous. More time passes.
The system of rule-enforcers and rule-revisers has been working well, but the tribe - still made up of mere mortals - is realizing how hard it is to revise rules and enforce them fairly. Rule-revisers aren't writing perfect rules so rule-enforcers have to be flexible. Sometimes they have to use discretion when enforcing the rules and sometimes the rules are pushed to the edge. The rule enforcers don't let people break the rules, but sometimes it's hard not to bend them. The system the tribe setup is still working, but it's definitely being tested. More time passes.
The tribe is getting comfortable with this regime of rule-revisers and rule-enforcers and because this tribe has become less violent, it's growing again by drawing new tribe members from other places. Some of these new individuals don't understand how crucial following the rules of the tribe is.
But let's say some of these new members from a different place are very good at farming, so the tribe is glad to have them stay and learn from them.
So now, there are a some tribe members that have plots of land that yield more crops than everyone else in the tribe. One of those tribe members wants to keep some of his bumper crop, even though the tribe's earliest rule is that of equitable food distribution. So that skilled farmer asks the rule-enforcer to bend the rules to let him keep some of his extra crops (he’s earned it with his superior skill, right?) and he even offers to share his surplus with the rule-enforcer if he agrees.
The rule-enforcer struggles with this decision, but he is enticed by having some extra food. After all, he has a family to support and there are still sometimes shortages in the tribe. He must decide: is it okay to let this skilled farmer keep his surplus and share a few of the spoils?
Before we go any further, let me recap as we've come to a very consequential point in this thought experiment.
On this journey we've come a long way. We started in the state of nature and moved to a small tribe. Then our community grew and adapted to small conflicts. Then, the community grew and adapted again, this time by making rules, however imperfect they were. As the community grew, it adapted again by creating a rudimentary form of "government" of rule-revisers and rule-enforcers, to prevent violence. This propelled the community to grow even more, and the new influx of people created a surplus of resources that was unevenly distributed.
And now we are at the point where the government has a choice: to maintain the rules or be tempted by a corrupt proposition. Ideally, we would have never gotten to this point because the tribe would have never needed a government to resolve disputes and promulgate rules. But our tribe is made up of mere mortals, so rules and enforcement were needed. So what do we do?
I see two basic solutions here - which brings us back to our crucial decision - power or goodness. The tribe could control the government and the tribe members to ensure they don't behave in a corrupt way. This could be done, generally speaking, by ensuring there is oversight of the government or entities that keep the government in check.
Or, the tribe could ensure the members of the government - and the members of the tribe overall - are good people. After all, if the people in the tribe treat each other with goodness and are less susceptible to corruption, fewer rules would be needed in the first place. The surest way to reduce the size and scope of government is to have fewer and ever smaller conflicts. That occurs when the way people treat each other is more good, more honest, and more fair.
There are in essence two solutions to the corruption problem: create more institutions to manage power or create a community that behaves with more goodness.
In our country, we have tried to utilize both strategies to deal with the corruption problem - power and goodness - at least to some degree. But in my eyes, adding controls and competition to deal with conflict and corruption have been front and center during my lifetime. People my age (at least folks that I hang around with) talk much about "changing the system" (which I call institutional reform). If we could only change the system (i.e., how rules are made and enforced), they say, the world would be a better place. Our laws and policies (and the power asymmetries they crate), they suggest, are the problem.
But in our country, changing the system is not a trivial matter. Over time, the "system" has become larger and more entrenched, because our country has become larger and more complex. Moreover, people in our country have low levels of trust in government and other power-wielding institutions. This makes it hard to change the system because fewer people participate in the process of changing the system, making it easier for corrupting influences to go unchecked.
Finally, when we change the system or make new rules, it doesn't always go as planned - sometimes the changes we make to the system turn out worse, we are mere mortals after all, and don’t always architect perfect policies. Putting all this together, changing the system is something we surely have to do - at least to some degree - but it's really hard and doesn't always work.
The other strategy is to deal with corruption at its root - shaping our community to be more motivated by goodness, rather than by power. If more people are motivated by goodness, perhaps we'll have less conflict and less of what conflict remains will require rules and force to resolve.
But this is also really hard. It takes time, dialogue, and compassion to shape the motivations of people. Changing a culture to be more oriented toward choosing goodness, as we discussed earlier, is difficult to do, especially if you or your family are suffering. It's hard to make the idea of choosing goodness contagious. Changing people's minds without using power or coercion takes vision, repetition, and patience. Moreover, no mortal man can be forced into choosing goodness, because for a culture of goodness to last it must be a choice that all freely make after looking deeply into their own soul.
So let me return to the original purpose of this thought experiment about the state of nature, tribes, and corruption: why the world needs us to choose goodness. We have two really difficult problems when we humans live in a community of others rather than in the state of nature. We have the problem of how to ensure that the community doesn't devolve into a state of violence (i.e., we have to create rules and institutions), and, we have the problem of ensuring that the corrupting influence of power doesn't cause the system of government to rot from within.
My whole adult life, until your mom and I found out we were having you, I've been reading, writing, and thinking about institutions and how to create and run them well. Take a look at our bookshelf at home, the majority of what you'll find that I've read are about institutions. For most of my life, I've been nutty about making institutions work better and changing the system to make sure they do.
But since I've been reflecting on fatherhood, and starting to write these letters to you, I've grown more and more confused about institutions and their role in society. I suppose I've come to see institutions more simply and more critically - essentially, they're an intentional concentration of power.
And as I’ve really challenged myself to think about institutions through the lens of power and goodness, I’ve come to realize that I don't like what our community looks like if we focus on building institutions that focus on power and ignore goodness. I don’t want our world to be one where to resolve conflict, prevent violence, and deter corruption we stack rule on top of rule, penalty on top of penalty, oversight board after oversight board, and check after balance all to deal with conflict and the corrupting influence of power. I don't like the idea of a community that is so controlling and I'm not even sure that it's a strategy that would ultimately lead to less conflict, violence, and corruption.
Which makes building a community and culture that is motivated to choose goodness so important. Goodness can deal with conflict, violence, and corruption by preventing it in the first place - it doesn't require changing institutions, is reduces the need for institutions in the first place.
To be sure, spreading the message of goodness is at least as difficult as reforming institutions. And we will always need institutions - the size of our society requires it.
But if it were possible to make our world more focused on goodness, I would much rather live in that world than a world that tears itself apart through laws, regulation, and and ever greater requirement to concentrate power in institutions so those laws and regulations can be enforced.
The schism here you must be feeling - between your individual choice of power and goodness and the community's aggregate choice between power and goodness - is not lost on me. It is hard to see the connection between your choice between power and goodness and that of the community as a whole. But there is a connection there. Your individual choice impacts others, just as others' choices impact you.
Our decisions and actions can be infectious. The actions you take don't necessarily compel others to behave a certain way, but they do have influence because our actions shape what's normal. So if you lie, others you interact with will think it is more normal to lie than they otherwise would have, had you not lied. And if you lie consistently, it will give others more implicit, social permission to lie than they otherwise would have.
But conversely, if you tell the truth, for example, and do it consistently, it will give others the implicit, social permission to tell the truth. Your actions, you see, have reverberations beyond your own life.
This is especially important to keep in mind because of the time we live in. Social technologies make it easier and faster to influence what’s normal. And I've noticed that the terrible parts of our humanity are the ideas that spread wider and faster. And so our perception of normal gets skewed.
If we - and by that I mean you and me specifically, in addition to “society” - don't choose goodness and choose it consistently, eventually, goodness will no longer be normal. And that to me is a scary, scary world. But remember, we have the ability to shape what is normal with our own choices. Why not be an advocate for goodness?
I'm not much of a gambler, as you'll come to learn on your own, but I'll make a bet with you. I bet that at some point in your life you will be in some position of power. Whether at work, at school, or volunteering - in some role, whether big or small. In some, if not all, of these positions you will have an opportunity to be corrupt, even if just in a small way. You'll have an opportunity to abuse the power you have to enrich yourself at the expense of others. And you'll have to make a decision to give into this temptation or not.
The key point here is not that you'll be in a position of power at some point in life, or that in that position you'll have a choice between power and goodness. That is all obvious, and something we've been considering together in these letters since the very beginning. They key point, rather, is that this choice between power and goodness, between corruption and integrity will have a real effect on other people's lives. In that moment, when the opportunity to abuse power is thrust in front of you, how you choose to act will have real consequences. The tension between power and goodness will be a constant part of your life, for your whole life.
Because we came out of the state of nature, and chose to live in communities this tension between power and goodness, between corruption and integrity will always be part of our life. It's a struggle we have inherited from our mothers and fathers before us and their mothers and fathers before them. And because we are mere mortals, and are not perfectly good, we had to form rules and institutions to help us navigate and manage that tension.
This is probably always what mothers and father think as they prepare for their children to be born, but the America you are being born into seems more and more like it is consumed by a lust of power and control, which leads an ever escalating cycle of conflict, rules, the struggle to control those rules, and conflict again.
The world I hope for me and your mother, and the world I hope for you and your siblings[^Your mother and I hope to bring a few more children into the world, God willing. These siblings are not here yet, but we pray that someday they will be. And if any of you kids - regardless of your spot in the birth order, this book is for you too, not just your oldest brother. As I write this, I am enveloped with love for you too. This is for all of you.] is just the opposite. Instead of struggling for power, I hope you aspire to find peace in goodness and that the world ends up requiring fewer rules and institutions as time goes on, instead of more. I hope you are persuaded that our freedom, from the ever growing reach of rules and institutions, is inextricably linked to goodness. But for that to happen, more and more people have to choose goodness over power. And that my child, starts with us and the choices we make every day of our lives.
If you’re interested in reading more of the Choosing Goodness project, I’d love to send you a quick e-letter when I share additions. Please leave me your contact information and I’ll be sure to keep you posted.
To see all the posts in this series, click here.