Thinking About Goodness

What does it mean to be good?

While no definition of good and bad is going to please everyone, most people will agree on the basics. For instance, if you repeatedly kick me in the shin, it’s going to hurt, and I’m going to conclude that shin-kicking is bad. On the other hand, if you’re hungry, and I bring you food that satisfies your hunger, you will probably conclude that my gesture was good. Coming to agreement over what is right and wrong is the primary activity of law, politics, religion, and social interaction. I would dare to say that no one can live their life in society without constant reference to questions of ethics.

After centuries of debate, how close are we to defining a code of conduct that most people could accept? Probably no closer than the first civilization. Some will always want laws to be strict and detailed, while others want no law, believing they can make the best decisions intuitively. For some people, principles are absolutes; for others, they are relative. What one person deems good, another considers a great evil. Let me, therefore, keep the discussion simple by examining just three values that I find essential: telling the truth, respecting others, and being faithful in relationships. Could this be a definition of goodness?


Let’s not be too idealistic. Everyone says things that are incorrect. Truth is not perfection; it’s the willingness to accurately describe reality to others. We know very well when we face the temptation to purposely misrepresent the facts because it will be to our advantage. We might say, “I finished my chores,” when we know that we skipped the one we didn’t like. Something else is more exciting than doing chores. Who hasn’t told a white lie at some time or failed to give all the facts?

Even though no one is perfect, we can be committed to honesty. I grew up in a home where I never heard my parents lie, so I don’t lie. Many years ago, in college, I sold books during the summer. At the end of the summer, my sales manager handed me my check and asked me, “You are coming back next year, aren’t you?” That was a sales gimmick, and I fell for it. The next summer, I was certain that God wanted me to attend a different program, but my sales manager reminded me that I had given him my promise. He was right, and for weeks I struggled with the decision. After much prayer, I was convinced that doing God’s will would not make me dishonest. I hated being in that dilemma. That lesson taught me that I never want to be in that situation again, so I am very careful with my words, and especially my promises.

It’s in vogue today to put spin on everything. “I was just kidding” is supposed to erase anything we say that wasn’t true. Police shows are all about trying to determine who’s lying, because there wouldn’t be a show if people told the whole truth the first time. I won’t get started on business and politics. So how many lies does it take to make us a liar? I’ll explain it this way. If an honest person remembers that they told a lie, the thought will trouble them until they go back, tell the truth, and make it right.


“Love makes the world go round”, but “there’s a thin line between love and hate.” Those who love us the most can do us the most harm. A business woman I once knew dated an engineer who treated her wonderfully as long as he was pursuing her. The day they were married, she questioned something he did and he beat her up badly enough to put her in the hospital and him in prison. It took her a year to recuperate. All his gifts did not make him a kind man, because his violence overshadowed it. Kindness should be defined as never doing harm to others. Being kind to get what we want is not kindness.

Patience and restraint are good markers for kindness. How far does someone need to push you to get your goat? Vigilante revenge has become one of the most popular movie themes, justifying violence with violence. Murders escalate between ethnic and religious groups. Bullying, gang violence, and domestic violence are widespread. Each person who does harm can point to someone else who did them harm. We react more than we act from principles. The saying goes that hurting people hurt people.

I’ve been in two fights in my life. In both cases, a young man arbitrarily picked me out, walked across the street, and slugged me in the face. In both cases, I didn’t say a work, and he walked away. As I think back on those moments in high school, I’m glad I didn’t feel that I needed to prove something to someone. I’m glad that I didn’t have a chip on my shoulder or a racial bias. It helped me understand myself. That’s what our story is about. Pat and I have lived long enough to have been abused and offended many times by many people. We don’t pretend to be special, but we do choose to be kind to everyone all the time.


Honesty and kindness are broad enough that I could have stopped there, except that I have felt that sexual morality affects so many situations that it should be added to the list. Many people would disagree, reasoning that consensual sex doesn’t hurt anyone. I recall saying to a neighbor in France, “There’s too much violence and sex on TV.” She replied, “You’re right. There’s too much violence on TV.” It took me a moment to fully appreciate what she was saying, but she was reflecting the popular feeling that what gives me pleasure is good. She might say that as long as she was honest and kind, that she could live any way she wanted.

Intimacy goes much further than kindness because it allows someone into our personal space in a way that makes them very special to us. We become vulnerable by sharing our weaknesses and failings, as well as our joys and goals. When someone who it that special hurts us or rejects us, it’s the deepest hurt that we can experience, more than a lie or a slap from someone else. Whatever a person’s sexual orientation, he or she has the same need and the same vulnerability as anyone else. However we frame it, being unfaithful to a relationship or cheapening it by multiple partners does great damage. It’s not good.

Pat and I have been hurt by divorce. We know what it feels like to have the unity between two people ripped apart. More than ever, we are committed to traditional marriage. There are many ways that people attempt to have an intimate relationship with someone else, but none of them comes close to the commitment of marriage. We highly recommend it because it’s good.

Why be good?

Why would anyone want to be good? Why not lie and take advantage of people to get ahead? After all, you only live once. Years ago, I was explaining to a young Frenchman that in the United States, companies are service-oriented and the customer is king. He responded, “They just do that to get more money.” For a moment, I was just in shock, because I realized that he had never known anyone who was good just for the sake of being good. Imagine a land where people are only good to get what they want. Imagine a world where no one wants to be good. Why should they be?

Even though it’s still in vogue for people to want to appear good to other people, it’s losing popularity. I once asked a young person what he believed, and he said that he believed that we should live like the animals. That’s the right answer for someone who has no moral compass. Why be good if there’s no reason to be good? Let’s see if we can find a reason to be good….