The Charlie Hebdo murders were wrong. Absolutely wrong, there is no questions of that.
Yet my mind hasn't been on that,, but the more abstract notion of goodness. More specifically, does goodness exist in the abstract? What is it? Like pornography 'we know it when we see it', but can it be defined at all? Theologians talk about the problem of evil, but surely then there is a problem with good?
Evil, as the character Ikonnikov in Grossman's Life and Fate writes, is not done in the name of evil, but in the name of good. So what is this 'good'?
There is good, as found in everyday kindness, affection, family. There is the common good where we do things to benefit everyone. We all want to think of the things we do as being good. What are our first experiences of 'good?' Our Mummies and Daddies tell us it is good to do certain things and so we do them. The child is told to share, the be gentle, to help around the house and she/he is rewarded by approbation. Do these instincts come spontaneously? Perhaps, but the child is amoral and must be guided. We all know how obnoxious a spoilt child is. Goodness is something to be trained.
But the child is told not to lie, and when she is given a present she does not like and says so she is told she has not been good because she has been rude. A boy sees his sister getting bullied and he goes and hits the bully. He has been bad, but in the name of good – protecting his sister.
There are too many compromises for good. In my youth I admired Tolstoy's ideals, how he tried to live a vision of pure Christianity. It is easy to try this in the abstract, but can we? The Gospel of St Matthew rather surprised me when I first read it, for in chapter 10 we find ““Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. 35For I have come to turn
37“Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. 38Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me.39Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.”
Strong words, completely contradicting what we are told about the importance of family, of compromise and so called Christian values. People who are good, inflexible in their values and beliefs, are exhausting. Impossible to love everyone as I suppose we would like to do, we do what can can to maintain social harmony. A person who gave all of his or her worldly wealth we do not value as a disinterestedly good person, but as a bit of a nutter. The societal norms are not being met.
What is goodness, except a means of imposing order on a formless, amoral and ultimately lonely and frightening universe? And what if those rules are as arbitrary as the chaos it is supposed to combat?
Perhaps it is no wonder we may get confused. This morning I was listening to a French guy who works at the UN talking about the importance of liberal democracy (that which we in the enlightened west consider to be 'Good' and where we have caused much bloodshed in its name in the Middle East, in charitable moods I think the wagers of war truly believed in this 'good') saying words to the effect of 'our lives may be endangered, but our democracy must never be', and somehow that makes me shiver, is any ideology worth a human life? What abstract good is worth dying or killing for? What is the difference between being killed for another country's democracy or being killed for offending the Prophet of Islam?
I don't like the word tolerance. It is a cold word, a clinical word, lacking the warmth of phrases like kindless, love, brotherhood. But these can be difficult to maintain, so perhaps the muted neutrality of tolerance is the best we can hope for, the only universal 'good' we can agree on.