Mark Johnson, in a post yesterday "Beyond Good and Evil: Creativity and transversal competency" asked, "What would the educational processes around instilling 'goodness' look like?" What a wonderful question! Thank you, Mark!
OK, maybe there are aspects of goodness, or forms of goodness, that cannot be learned. Let's celebrate that and move on to what may be learned. If it can be learned, then there is value in at least attempting to analyse it, so that we can consider perhaps how it might be built up.
Goodness is about the choices we make. I did a quick search for "choose to do good" and came across this humble account of a particular good choice along with the exhortation to choose to do good. But choice is a matter both of real freedom and of perception. Mark's point about our environment resonates here. Our environment must allow us choice. But also we must see the choices offered by the environment, and seeing the possibility of choosing differently is surely one of the first keys to unlocking goodness. As Mark points out eloquently, an environment in which we can 'play' is one in which we have evident choice. What is a game if not an activity that we can choose to engage in, or not? If we can't escape, it's no longer a game...
In a situation where choice is present, there seem to me a few essential ingredients to goodness, badness, or indeed living up to any personal value.
- We need to be able to carry out the choices we make. This can depend on to all sorts of things that many people call "competencies". And not having those competencies can affect what we perceive as possible – we may not feel we have an effective choice if we are not confident that we can carry out alternative actions.
- We need knowledge of the likely consequences of our actions, for ourselves, for others, and for the rest of the world we are taking into consideration. This can be taught. It can also be taught horribly wrongly. And one kind of consideration that weighs very heavily on us is what Richard Wilkinson calls "social-evaluative threat" – threats to our self-esteem or social status.
- With all the knowledge and ability we might have, we still are left with the weighing up of the different outcomes, as we understand them at the moment of choice. There is a widely-understood attribute of a person about to make a decision, often known as "presence of mind" or something similar. It is to do with how deep we allow the process of consideration of consequences to go. If we decide without consideration (perhaps because there was not time for it) we may miss appreciating consequences that may come back to haunt us later.
Probably everyone would agree with the points above, and surely they can be affected positively by learning, education or training. But they do not guarantee goodness. What is also necessary is, I think, the most essential 'ingredient' of all, simply because it cannot be so easily acquired. What is this?
It is, surely, how we value the consequences we perceive. Do we ultimately care about the environment; about people in distant lands; about society around us; or even about the people we know? Knowledge about the impact of our choice on them can go a long way, but in the end, the amount we care – the amount we love – is not fixed. And can we 'afford' to care? Here, there is room for enlightened self-interest, but this is not enough, particularly when considering long-term consequences.
As an aside, this is where Heaven and Hell come in. So-called religious teachers may tell us about eternal consequences for us, but curiously, that turns the calcuation back onto a self-centred basis. I don't believe that is what we want.
Where love comes in, quite irrespective of heaven and hell, is in valuing the consequences for the Other as much as the consequences for oneself. If that can be taught, I think the only way is by example.