Smartness is the ability to do things well, to get the best results out of every situation, and derive the maximum benefit to oneself. Does smartness also include ethics, the need to be "good" and get all the above results? or do the ends justify the means? For example if one gave up something for someone else who did not necessarily deserve it but "needed" it is that a "smart" decision? Is it a "good" decision?

What is "good" and who defines it? Religions have traditionally provided a framework for the definition of good and bad. And in many cases, being good does not always fetch you the results in the immediate term unless everyone involved in the transaction is bound by the same definition of good and bad. This is where religions point you to a world "beyond", a world "after" for which this life is supposed to be a preparation and hence they urge you to be "good" and wait to reap the benefits in a place from where no one has returned to confirm its existence.

If a person does not believe in religion, where would they find the motivation to be good? This is where a strong legal system plays a role by defining what is "wrong" and providing punishments for the same. But even the most efficient judiciary can only deter you from doing "wrong" but cannot motivate you to be "good" and kind and go out of your way to help the less advantaged. Humans, by nature, need a reason for being "good" whether it is fear of punishment or Karmic consequences or reward of heaven.If there was no compulsion to exercise restraint, would we be restrained?

It is true that Man has caused as much destruction in the name of religion but is it the fault of religion? Could we ban all religions from the world and yet hope for a good world? At least till all of humanity is "educated" (not just literate) and reaches the level of evolution when it is possible to live in contentment and to live and let live, Can we dispense with concepts like God and heaven and hell? Is it possible to reach that level of contentment and yet have the motivation to progress? If we did not aspire to be "good" and do something positive to make life happier , what would differentiate us from other animals, who come and inhabit this earth, spend their days doing the barest things needed for survival and die? Or should we be different at all?

How do we become good and stay good "anyway"?

Above thoughts were inspired by this mail *from a friend on being "smart" and being "good" and the comment by The Rationalfool on my earlier post and my own negation of all superstitions other than GOd.

* And this is the mail referrred to:

A poem hangs on the wall at Mother Theresa's orphanage in India. For all who are called to lead, it is a great reminder of what we should do:

1. People are illogical, unreasonable and self-centered (including me). Love them anyway.

2. If you do good, people will accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives. Do good anyway.

3. If you are successful, you win false friends and true enemies. Succeed anyway.

4. The good you do today will be forgotten tomorrow. Do good anyway.

5. Honesty and frankness make you vulnerable. Be honest and frank anyway.

6. The biggest people with the biggest ideas can be shot down by the littlest people with the littlest ideas. Think big anyway.

7. People favor underdogs, but follow only top dogs. Fight for a few underdogs anyway.

8. What you spend years building may be destroyed overnight. Build anyway.

9. People really need help, but may attack you if you do help them. Help them anyway.

10. Give the world the best you have and you will get kicked in the teeth. Give the best you have anyway.
10 Responses
  1. Very thought provoking! And who says religion means good anyways? Tons of religious people (or should I say ritualistic people) - who dont do much good. More important to be good - do good. Your religion - is your personal business anyways!

  2. Anonymous Says:

    You again provoke me into commenting, lootenant.

    Per the latest research/study, it appears that ethics or good does not necessarily have a religious foundation. the foundation of ethics, it appears, is evolutionary. And Darwinian at that.

    Here are two good sources:
    The God Delusion

    Intelligent Thought

    The second book has an essay on ethics & evolution, though the book is on a slighly broader topic.

    I have not read the first one. Byt I think that established religions are regarded as insitutionalizing ethics & value-system, but that is just circumstantial & ethics & value-systems actually have roots in our evolutionary history.

  3. Paavai Says:

    Its all about Free Will. No religion, book or any source makes a person, it is the choice a person exercises in difficult situations that makes him/her ethical or good whatever you want to call it. Every one is good in relative terms.

  4. passerby55 Says:

    Hi usha,

    A Smart/Good post Usha, you put me thinking.

    You cannot become good, but you can become smart. ANd remaining good anyway is never a problem for the good.

    Remaining smart always is a problem because many can outsmart you . But can someone outgood the already good, I doubt.

  5. Mahadevan Says:

    "Good" is a value term. When we call something as 'good', we pass a value judgement. Such value judgements cannot be explained rationally.

    Immanuel Kant, the German Philosopher, came very near to defining ‘good’, when he used the concept ‘Categorical Imperative’. A practice can be considered as good, if the entire universe follows it. For example, helping others can be termed as good, because the entire universe following it, results only in pleasant experience. Mahatma Gandhi advocated practicing this philosophy. Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, the British Sociologists, preferred to call it ‘utilitarianism – ‘greatest happiness of the greatest number’.

    Religions, at the lower level, instead of using such metaphysical terms, for the common man to understand, list out the acts to be done and the ones to be refrained from. Ten Commandments talk about the prohibited actions. Promise of a better life here or here after is used as a carrot. Threat of an unpleasant experience, ‘hell’ is used as a deterrent. Without motivation, action/abstinence becomes meaningless. Some of the religious leaders, either to win more members or for personal/political gain distort religious tenets. Religion is not the opium of the people. It is religious leaders who convert it into opium. At the higher spiritual level, metaphysical terms are freely used.

    Interestingly, according to a survey conducted by Times of India recently and results announced yesterday, 91 percent of those surveyed believed in 'fate' and two third believed in God, personal or otherwise.

  6. Wild Reeds Says:

    Dear Usha,
    Wow. I'm facing an ethical dilemma of sorts, and your post helped. Thanks.

  7. Inder Says:

    religion is an extra large collection of fables. it is nothing more than moral stories for kids. kids can't understand realities easily. they require elaborate stories with all sorts of actions and masalas to understand simplest of things. religion is one such effort to make the raw minds to understand what is good and what is bad.

    nowadays a great number of people outgrow their religions. they don't need a religion to tell them what is good and what is not. they are intelligent enough to see beyond religion. they thereby refrain from the side-effects of religions namely reasonless rituals and superstitions.

  8. Usha Says:

    Something to say: I was only wondering if mere laws and social mores were enough to motivate people do do good, be good etc. And what about places where law enforcement machinery is defective and inefficient and the level of education is still very low and society is fragmented.I dream of a day when all of humanity reaches a level of evolution throws religions out of the window.

    S!:Thats really interesting! Need to read them to get some clarity on this. Does he say that ethics are necessary for survival and hence as we evolve we would end up making ethical choices out of sheer necessity?

    Paavai:My post was essentially born out of certain dilemmas i face between a smart choice which isn't bad or unlawful and a good decision which I feel I might not have done but for the kind of upbringing I had or the books I read.
    No i wasnt branding people as good and not good but going a little beyond what is enough under the circumstances.

    Passerby:You mean we are all inherently good and in the process of getting smart end up restricting ourselves to what is enough to be on the roght side of law and not go beyond?

    Mahadevan: I am reading Kant too but have run into a few disagreements with him which I am trying to sort out!
    I do not know if it is my upbringing or my choice, I cannot get rid of my belief in God.

    Wild Reeds: Wonderful. All the best. Hows the course coming?

    Inder: I wasnt referring to the rituals and practice of religion - I was referring to the philosophy underlying all religionson the need to be good, kind etc.

  9. Anonymous Says:

    Well, yes. If ethics dd have an root in our evolutionary history, then yes, they must have been helpful to our survival.

    An interesting example is that of the selfish gene. I'm trying hard to recollect the whole story, but when a parent sacrifices to save its progeny, the selfish gene in the parent is helping save it own kind.

    So yes, all the good we do helps us survive. I'm still pretty foggy on the topic, but its very arresting.


  10. passerby55 Says:

    YEs, usha i think so.