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2010 Spring Issue 3 (April 23, 2010)

What it means to me to be a good man: An Attempt at “Goodness”

April 23, 2010
By Peter Berg

If the following is to be defended against the various concerns of the reader, it will have to be by the reader himself rather than by me, unless of course he seek me out and choose to engage me in conversation about it, which I would be happy to do.

Goodness is not to be found in a man’s beliefs. Assuming such things exist, simply believing good things to be good and bad things to be bad does not make a man good. Nor is goodness to be found in a man’s action. Action can be the result of goodness but it can also be the result of many other things as well. Even if we envision a perfectly good man, all of whose actions are the direct result of his goodness, his goodness would still be separate from his good actions which themselves would proceed from it.

Likewise, badness does not consist in bad belief nor does it consist in bad action. 
Imagine a loom into which are fed many different lines of yarn. This loom has been crafted by a poor workman, such that rather than coming out in a neatly arranged pattern, these lines of yarn, on passing through the loom, come out disfigured, tangled, and knotted. An individual inexperienced with the workings of looms may see nothing wrong with this, for he may not understand that, rather than the knot, the loom, were it constructed properly, should be producing a beautiful fabric. He may come to the conclusion that looms produce knots, and that’s simply the way that looms work.

Another individual, slightly more knowledgeable about the workings of looms, may sense something wrong about the knot. He may think the source of the problem lies in the knot itself, or perhaps he believes it to come from the yarn being fed to the loom. Though the second man may be slightly closer to understanding the reality of the situation, neither is capable of seeing that the problem is the misconstruction of the loom itself. 

There is a component of man which produces in him a disposition in response to the circumstances in which he finds himself. We can think of this component of man as analogous to the loom. If it is working well, it will produce in him a good disposition (i.e. a patterned fabric) regardless of the circumstance in which he finds himself (i.e. regardless of the yarn which it is fed). This good disposition will then cause him to act good (i.e. well) and is thus the inner goodness of which his outer comportment is a manifestation. While goodness consists in the disposition itself, this disposition is a product of something deeper, this component of the man that we can equate to the loom.

This goodness itself can be known only by a capacity innate to man. In the same way that any man could identify the difference between sound constituting music (e.g. a symphony) and all other sound (e.g. static) so too can man tell the difference between a feeling of goodness and a feeling of badness. These feelings are qualitatively different from good feeling and bad feeling; a sadist may feel good when he inflicts pain on others but this is not a feeling of goodness. Knowledge of goodness and badness requires honesty above all else. This knowledge is necessary for the reconstruction of one’s loom though not sufficient; it is the equivalent of a blue print which in itself is worth little. 
Depending upon who we are, our station in life, and the circumstances we are in, what it is to act good (i.e. well) varies, yet what it is to be good is everywhere the same. I would maintain that the claim that goodness varies from person to person is based upon (what I see as) the false assumption that goodness consists in our deeds, rather than in our heart, soul, psyche, or whatever else it is that you would call the inner life of man. 
What does it mean to me to be a good man?  Naturally, one with a well-constructed “loom”. Yet in no way would I say this describes the vast majority of men that walk the earth. Therefore, for most of us, if not all of us, there is no being good but rather only becoming good. This becoming is the slow and arduous process of refining our looms. Like a wandering through some serpentine and unlit passageway it is not a task to be undertaken alone but rather only under the direction of others wiser and more experienced than ourselves. 

This becoming is, to me, relevant to us all as I believe it should describe our experience as students at a liberal arts college, with the classes we take ultimately serving the purpose of our own human development. Yet often I am puzzled over the relationship between such development and the type of development which is the goal of our education.

-Peter Berg is a third-year student


This essay is part of an ongoing series established by Chase Kimball. If you would like to have your own reflections published, please respond to the question “What does it mean to you to be a good man?” in an essay of 400-800 words and e-mail it to kimballc@carleton.edu.

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