Why should we be good?
This post is partly in response to a comment I read asking why agnostic atheists should aim to love, be compassionate and what you might call general goodness. One of the things I miss about being a Christian is the motivation I had to be good (for now, let’s assume that goodness includes love, mercy, compassion, kindness, generosity, etc.). However, now that I’m an agnostic atheist, I find myself questioning why I should be good even though I still do my best to be so.
So, why do I bother? Why don’t I selfishly ignore the needs of others in an ongoing quest to promote my own personal happiness? I think for me, it’s because in helping others I do promote my own happiness. When I give money to charity, I no longer do it because I believe Jesus said I should, I do it because I’ve realised that it makes me feel good. In a simplistic way, when I hear stories of starving children, I feel sad, therefore to make myself feel happy again, I give money to the charity in the hope that I have contributed to giving those children a better life. This makes me happy.
If you think about it, all our actions are to selfishly add to our own happiness, otherwise we wouldn’t do it. So the reason I continue to be good is that it makes me feel happy. When I act compassionately, I find people respond in the same way and ultimately my own life improves, and I find that the energy I initially invested to be good has been worth it. I realise that this is a slightly harsh and unromantic way of explaining the reason for human goodness, but I believe it to be true.
So, why do we bother to be good to each other? Why does it make us feel good? I think it’s all down to good old evolution and survival of the fittest. We are all biologically programmed to want to continue the human race for as long as possible and to increase it as much as possible. Therefore, we do not want other people to be ill as this decreases their chances of survival and their death would mean a decrease in numbers of the human race. Therefore, we do our best to make them well again whether this requires actually being there and looking after them or giving money to charity. In other words, the biological method of making us do things that are good for us is making us happy therefore being good promotes our happiness.