I can’t think about “goodness” without recalling the 1932 Mae West film, “Night after Night.” Mae West plays the role of gangster’s moll Maudie Tippett. As Maudie enters a nightclub draped in diamonds, the hat-check girl exclaims, “Goodness, what lovely diamonds!”
Mae answers, famously, “Goodness had nothing to do with it.”
The “goodness” flowing from the scriptwriter’s pen is cultural shorthand for God. The phrase “for goodness sake” is, more correctly, “for goodness’s sake,” or perhaps, “for Goodness’s sake.” In other words, “for God’s sake.” Linguistically and theologically, God and goodness are linked. “God” and “good” are one.
Because people think of God as good, and “good” as a sort of counterweight to “evil,” it is easy to think of God and goodness on one side, with Satan and evil on the other, as if in some cosmic tug-of-war where the forces are evenly balanced and human beings are challenged to throw their lot in with one side or the other. The Lucifer Effect, with its allusion to Satan, tends to reinforce this image.
There are many reasons why I think this is an incorrect picture of the universe, but I’ll deal with only one of them now and save the rest for future posts: good and evil are not evenly balanced.
Let’s set “God” aside for a moment and start with “good.” It is possible to think theologically about “good” whether or not we start with God. (Consider the Dalai Lama.) And it’s helpful.
The Dalai Lama says that the “roots of all goodness lie in the soil of appreciation for goodness.” That’s a way of saying that we respond to goodness; we recognize goodness when we see it; we appreciate goodness. The more we notice and appreciate goodness, the more we are inclined to be good ourselves.
This is the flip side of the Lucifer Effect; call it the Gabriel Effect. When Phil Zimbardo urges folks to develop their inner Hero, it’s based on the idea that people respond to goodness and that a Hero can step forward at a key moment and influence people toward the good.
Even that brief analysis may seem to support the cosmic tug-of-war theory: Lucifer and Gabriel; influence for evil, influence for good. But I don’t think good and evil are equally balanced. Yes, Goodness happens when we respond to Good. But that’s what evolutionary biologists have been telling us for years.
Evolutionary biologists are interested in the genetic or biological basis for “altruism.” Altruistic behavior appears not just in humans but in a wide variety of creatures, though it’s most noticeable in more complex beings that have some level of sentience.
To an evolutionary biologist, “altruism” means helpfulness that has some cost to the helper, and may even decrease the helper’s chances for survival in the world of tooth and claw. So, loosely translated, a Hero is an altruist.
Whether it’s a tribe of monkeys, a colony of prairie dogs, or a village of humans, altruistic behavior is a survival trait. Even if it puts a particular individual at risk, it's a survival trait in the evolutionary sense. As a result of hundreds of thousands of years of evolution, goodness may well predominate in our genetic make-up.
Over the vast periods of time that preceded our being here today, natural selection favored humans who genuinely do care about helping others. For example, there is an evolutionary advantage associated with parents taking good care of their children. “Parents who really do care about their children’s welfare” do better at taking care of them (and their genetic material survives better), than “parents who only pretend to care, or who do not care.”*
It's nurture and nature: parents who care raise children who care. Evolution favors goodness. It’s in our genes. The universe is not an evenly balanced cosmic tug-of-war, because Good has a distinct advantage.
But in the complex psyche of the human being, goodness is more than biology. In a village filled with altruists, a person who acts selfishly can gain an advantage—as both biologists and economists say, can be a “free rider” on the goodness of others.** And the Lucifer Effect tells us that a selfish or demented person, in combination with situational cues, can influence others toward evil.
With our ability to think and reflect, our ability to envision a better world, we can make conscious choices to serve the Good. Or not. But we must think, and we must choose, if we aspire to be “good” when the immediate situation encourages us toward evil.
This is the Dalai Lama’s point, and it’s the message of the Lucifer Effect. Selfishness can convey a short-term advantage. Evil can be seductive. So it’s important to train our minds to be ready to choose the good, or to resist evil, when the moment comes.
Part of Buddhist meditation is to consider and appreciate the good qualities of others. Remembering the occasions when we have witnessed goodness, especially the times when someone has been good to us, inspires us to go and do likewise.
It also trains the mind, and that’s Hero training. Think about goodness, meditate on it, dwell within it, and we become more able to choose goodness, more able to resist the Lucifer Effect.
And that’s good.
*My lick-and-a-promise description of evolutionary biology is more fully explained here: Sanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/altruism-biological.
**”Free rider”: In a system of public transport where people purchase tickets or passes but only rarely is there an enforcement official present (for example, the system in Geneva, Switzerland), most riders do buy tickets; but there are always a few “free riders” who don’t, thus taking advantage of the conscientiousness of the majority of riders, whose fares keep the transportation system in operation.
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"Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things." Philippians 4:8
It was a pleasure to finally meet and talk on the Island of Oahu. The 'Stanford Prison Experiment'was well done and documented. We both understand how people can cross the line or have deludions of ganduer depending on what type of title (power) they are in. . . thank you.
By Steven D. Flores | Posted on March 17, 2010, 11:57 pm
Of course Goodness has an upper hand! It comes from God.
I think it should be clear because the article may be misleading to some...that christianity does not say that good and evil are evenly balanced. We all know who wins. Is there still a tug of war...of course!
I challenge the idea that the "Lucifer Effect, with its allusion to Satan, tends to reinforce this image." (that good and evil are equal and we are forced to throw our lot to one or the other). Referring to lucifer and satan usually refers to christianity or judaism and as Ive said before...christianity does not teach that they are equal...in fact we knew from the very beginning who had the upper hand.
I am curious how you explain the decline in altruistic traits and the increase in narcisissm among people if altruism or selflessness is an evolutionary trait that may well predominate our genetic makeup through evolution because its a strong survival trait. Reality seems to be going the other way...in other words, we've evolved the wrong way according to that theory. Im left wondering why exactly you are using this to make your point. There are clearly less parents who care about their children than 50 years ago. Everyone is out to make another buck so they can have more "stuff"...no sacrifice for the good of their children. Obviously there are single parents out there just trying to keep food on the table...but thats a small percentage in respect to how many homes have two working parents. They only "think" they need to have that nice house or those coach shoes etc. Animals have not become more selfless throughout evolution and they are not considered to have a complex psyche which means they are not theoretically subject to the "lucifer effect". On the flip side, they haven't gotten worse. So what gives there? Even if they were, according to your logic, they would slowly be weeding out the selfish ones and the altruistic ones would be prevailing. Your saying that goodness has a stronger foothold and should be increasing exponentially through evolution but yet, in reality, the "lucifer effect" instances have been increasing steadily over many years as well...in fact, more than the altruistic traits. But there's not a tug of war? between good and evil?
The problem, in my opinion, is that you are looking at this through the idea that evil or lucifer (satan) is not real and therefore can not outwit you. There is no evil force working against you...its just plain ignorance that causes the "lucifer effect". That is the difference between a chistian theologist and you. You think you're smarter than the "lucifer effect". On the outside of things, you are correct...knowledge is a key to not succumbing to that. But its only a theory and its definatly not fool proof. Humbleness is another fine trait to have when it comes to resisting the "lucifer effect". You are assuming that the people in that study were ignorant on how to resist being evil. I have been in a situation where the "lucifer effect" was in full swing. Its easy to point a finger and blame ignorance. In the real world, in a real situation, Its definatly more than just a "free rider" exerting his evil influence on others. You have to ask where that initial "evil" came from...where is its source? There is an evil out there that doesnt lie in selfishness....there is absolutely an evil out there that lies in something we can not comprehend. Ive seen people do evil things not out of selfishness. There seems to be no rhyme or reason. Selfishness may just merely be a path for this kind of evil...the kind with no known motivation. The spiritual kind. How do you explain that or have you simply not experienced it?
This article has just attempted to scientifically explain the presence of good and evil without acknowledging that its spiritual. According to you, good and evil are simply characteristics of living beings that is changing throughout evolution...becoming better and better. There is no outside force or spiritual being fighting for our soul and our mind. Its simply our own personal lack of control that causes the lucifer effect. Its like we are succumbing to something. Its like acknowledging one piece of truth but ignoring the other. I can't help it but thats how I feel you explain things in the last two articles Ive read. You take bits and pieces from everywhere without making a whole and you ignore reality and what the world is showing you, right to your face. Your trying to make the world fit to your own level of comfort and what is socially acceptable at that time. Its very hard for me to follow that. Just pick and choose what you want...if that was the way the world really was, there would be no right or wrong. Who's idea was it anyway...who set the rules for whats right and wrong? How do we innately know when something is wrong or something is right? Born of people experiencing selfishness and therefore changing their mind about the actions they were taking? How did wild animals come up with that in their simple survival tuned minds? Who gets to set the standards? If you ignore that there is a being that set those standards you are opening them to be relative to our experiences. What about that other kind of evil? or are we just ignoring that for now?
By Sommer Alvarez | Posted on May 29, 2010, 1:22 am
I'm not certain, but it sounds like you are trying to quantify Good and Evil by declaring they are not "balanced", assigning a higher proportion to one than the other. Is that correct?
If this is so, I'm not convinced the paradigm can hold water without accounting for a few additional considerations. Random thoughts occur in this context.
First is the assumption that people universally associate Good with God and Evil with Lucifer. Except in the religiously convicted persons vocabulary, I have not found this to be true. As a matter of fact, there are a number of people that I would characterize as "refugees from religion" who would hold God as an evil, mythological construct of weak minded, insecure individuals. To many, these terms are without particular significance one way or the other except as Holiday symbols, particularly in secularized society
I've also found that word etiology seldom plays into the everyday persons understanding or usage of same, so it really does not matter if it is linguistically or theologically linked. God and good are not universally linked in everyone's mind, nor is Evil and Lucifer. The definition of Good, or Evil, is really a subjective and arbitrary one without a common reference point. Religion makes attempts at definition, but not everyone adheres to a religious orientation in life. The football team calling themselves "Red Devils" is not so much designating their evilness, but perhaps more their willingness to forfeit "polite" society's expectations to achieve an end, to project an image that represents power and force without restraint. As such, it is not perceived as evil, but more as another strategy in the bag of tricks we call "achievement, win at all costs".
As an example of the subjectivity of definitions, a segment of our population holds torture as evil. Another segment does not. We have (or had) laws against it precisely because of it's presence in life, not it's absence. Yet we seem to have reached a point in our culture where we no longer have a universal language with which to view this.. Exploitation of fears, itself evil, has justified evil practices. (Yes, I hold torture to be evil).
Even using the Zimbardo definition of evil, the argument can be (and was) made there are times when it is necessary, even desirable, to be the instrument of pain to another, that these are necessary pains inflicted for a greater good. Criminal intent, as part of the definition, is a moving target based on societal standards of the time and the powers in force. Torture, and it's continued endorsement by the last administration, largely went unchallenged, and particularly unchallenged in many religious circles, when it finally surfaced as part of the popular cultural debate. Where stem cell research, abortion, and gay issues would, at a minimum, elicit comment, and more generally provoke protest, there was a resounding silence, particularly on the part of religious institutions, on the issue of torture. That silence conveyed an acceptability. The refusal to condemn it had all the appearance of endorsing it. Without a common reference point, individuals retreated into a fox hole and quite simply waited it out and for the issue to disappear, and largely, it has.
Regarding altruism, there are competing theories regarding the "nature" of humans, as well as the benefits of caring parents (who invest heavily in a few offspring) vs. uncaring parents (who generate larger numbers of "uncared" for offspring, but with a statistically higher probability that at least a few will survive to reproduce). If the name of the game is to get your genes into successive generations, it may be the uncaring parent produces more opportunity in this regard. Regarding altruism in other species, it is not uncommon for the male of some species to kill the offspring of other males. This serves perpetuation of the species in that HIS genes obtain undivided attention from the female and sole access to diminishing or scarce resources. The point is that altruism may be evident in some populations, and not at all in others and I am skeptical of the broad claim that it is "inherent in our nature". Self preservation seems to hold the stage above other preservation in the day to day activities we all encounter. Unless we are adrenaline junkies who thrive on the excitement of living on the edge, we tend to gravitate towards safety, security, and comfort. Our own, that is. And it may well be that the day to day aggregate of actions serves to groom us, to inure us to what was previously unthinkable.
Independent of definition, there seem to be three outcomes to all situations, (1) good, (2) evil and (3) benign. Which is more likely to present itself is contingent upon numerous variables, the primary being one of definition. One man's traitor is another freedom's fighter... One man's good is another man's evil. We have no universal language through which we can engage in discourse. We strive for one, but we have yet to find one. The minute we attempt definition, we impose limitations and force an outcome, in much the same way that observation changes the outcome in the particle wave duality phenomena observed in physics.
What seem to be lacking is the ability to step outside one's own understanding, and stepping into another's way of understanding. The ability is not just lacking, but even the desire to understand the other is lacking. It is more expedient to discount and dismiss as "evil" those things we either do not understand, object to, or oppose us. This is perhaps why we are admonished to "love thine enemy as thyself" and to "cast out the plank in our own eye" first.
In an ideal world, we would be able to build bridges between our disparate world views and understanding, bridges that enable me to enter your world, you to enter mine, without the necessity of relinquishing our own or the desire to obliterate the others. This is a world of neighborhood, community, where differences are not threatening, but embraced. It is a mindset that can be acculturated, and that is what I think the Lucifer project attempts.... to raise bridge builders and not wall erectors. It is an enormous undertaking. We live in a world that seems only to coalesce under threat or duress. Without it, we become as gluttons drunk and fattened in our own largesse until, like the obese patient, a symptom sets off a cascade of events alerting us to the danger. In that view, evil, however defined, is the mechanism through which good attains it's arena, or good's voice is heard above the din of competing seductions and dead end paths. Hopefully, that is, it is heard.
Just food for thought...... thanks for sharing your perspective to stimulate us all to think more about the subject.