We live in a society that does not encourage personal challenge. It does not encourage anyone to live an examined life. Instead, we’re encouraged –by the media, by the Christian dominated culture, by our corporate sponsors (yes I’m being sarcastic) to stay numb and dumb. We live in a culture that raises personal mediocrity to a high art. Worst of all, we live in a culture that, courtesy of the new age movement, fetishizes ‘feeling’ over personal obligations, and un-thought-out pleasure over any sense of personal responsibility. All of this (and more) contributes to the moral laxity that all too often creeps into our communities, so much so that not challenging ourselves to moral excellence has become the norm. I remember years ago, a Heathen man and kindred leader telling me most avidly that it was “ok” to be “mediocre.” He believed it too. I was appalled.
Before going any further, I think it is important that I define my use of certain terms like ‘moral” and ‘virtue.” The word “morality” comes from the Latin and implies something about one’s conduct or manner of behaving.(2) This has evolved into a branch of philosophy dealing with questions of good and evil, right and wrong. Ethics is related to morality in that it examines and categorizes various concepts of morality, the nature of right and wrong, the origins of moral theories, and the ways in which a moral decision might be reached. Ethics are, to my mind, the practical application of moral principles. ‘Virtue’ also comes from the Latin and refers to specific qualities of moral excellence as well as the ongoing process of their development.(3) In no way am I using either term to refer to sexual repression or social prudery, as I have occasionally heard them misused. In my use of both ‘morality’ and ‘virtue,’ I am specifically referring to the development of one’s character.
That being said, the questions inherent in the use of the term ‘the greater good’ are most definitely moral ones. Who gets to determine what that greater good is? About whose greater good are we talking? To whom do the benefits of this greater good go? My colleague Sarenth put it thusly:
“The Greater Good is usually not; it is, in fact, an appeal to the lowest common denominator in that it neither challenges individuals in terms of personal responsibility, nor does it hold larger society accountable for securing its own Good, as this Good is balanced on the back of a few who may never see the benefits of their sacrifice.”(4)
Whenever I hear someone allude to ‘the greater good” – and oddly enough, in interfaith settings at least, I often hear it said in prayers. In Pagan settings, it tends to come up in magic or energy work, particularly healing work and I can think of no worse places in which to abrogate personal responsibility—I grow very wary. It is a facile term, one that is far, far too easy to use and therein lies precisely its danger.
When I hear someone claim “the greater good” as the excuse for their decision (or more often their lack of one), I also know that I am very likely dealing with someone who, while inevitably well-meaning, has not yet shaken themselves free of the monotheistic paradigm, the paradigm that gave us colonialism, the doctrine of discovery, and endless bloodshed. Why? Well, talking about the greater good presupposes that there is a singularity, in other words one greater good. That is not too far from the belief that there is one and only one true way. It presupposes a tremendous arrogance on the part of the one making the decision as to what the greater good might be – often unconscious arrogance, but arrogance nonetheless. Who gets to determine this? Who or what is going to be sacrificed?
I’ve also found that quite often the real motivation is fear. One will do or not do a thing in order to maintain the status quo, to keep themselves from personal discomfort, or from having to make a clear-cut decision in a given situation. It does not matter what decision is morally correct, convenience takes precedence. In our spiritual lives this can come up in many surprising small ways. Perhaps you are a Pagan woman whose devotion to the Gods requires dressing a certain way, or doing a particular ritual one day a week. Perhaps your boyfriend objects to the time this takes away from him. What do you do? (my answer: bye bye boyfriend). Perhaps you are in school and you see someone being harassed because they are gay, or overweight, or unpopular, or a particular ethnicity. What do you do? Do you speak up or stay silent and by your silence collaborate with the bullying? Someone asks you if you’re Pagan. You are. What do you say? Do you have the courage and commitment to claim that space publicly for yourself?
I hadn’t ever really conceptualized this until quite recently. I’m going to go off on a tangent for a moment, but have no fear, it will lead me back to the point at hand, I promise. Lately, several times in fact over the past month, women have come to me in some way, shape, or form asking my advice over what to do if their boyfriends or spouses didn’t approve of their religion or certain practices in their religion. My point of view is simple: I am committed to my Gods and ancestors. This is the central facet of my life. Anyone coming into my life, or wishing to be part of it had best understand that. If someone makes it an issue, or in any way gets between me and my spiritual Work, or causes me to expend unnecessary emotional energy on the matter, they will be out of my life post haste. I have lived by this rule for over twenty years. After all, one is either committed to one’s Gods or one is not; and if one is, then there is no excuse for allowing one’s practices to be compromised. In every instance, the woman in question thanked me and complimented my strength but it was clear that she did not think she could ever find it in herself to do the same, even if she wanted to do so. In every instance I was deeply bothered by this well meaning and sincere compliment. It was only recently that I realized why.
It’s not a question of strength.
It has nothing to do with being strong. It’s a matter of commitment and choosing to hold to one’s personal (and spiritual) commitments every day. It’s personal choice nothing more. Moreover, to dismiss it as “strength,” in the way that these women did –with the emotional overtones that said very clearly that it was beyond their ability to conceive of such “strength” within themselves (because they did not conceive of themselves as strong, which is heartbreaking in and of itself) -- is to place the very idea of personal commitment and yes, personal strength outside of one’s personal potentiality. It is to deny that one could possibly be strong and/or committed to something too. It makes these qualities something that others do. That is very sad. In part though, I think this comes from the expectation that strength, courage, moral excellence, and any other virtue that one could possibly mention, are inborn graces, suddenly springing up in a person’s character whole and in full bloom when nothing could be further from the truth.
Instead, qualities like personal strength are born out of very small, every-day, seemingly very mundane choices. They are developed and honed through constant effort and mindfulness. They are exercised through attention to the small choices that each one of us has to make every day. They’re polished through failure and learning how to come back to center afterwards; and they exist always in an agonistic exchange with their opposite: one who has courage knows terror all the time, one who is strong, daily confronts weakness, the most compassionate person might struggle with depression or the urge to wall oneself off to the pain of the world. Strength doesn’t just happen; it’s the result of years of making those small and seemingly insignificant choices in ways that lead toward a greater sense of one’s capabilities and personal commitments. There is nothing grand about it. It’s choosing to get up and do that weekly ritual when you are tired and inconvenienced. It’s choosing to not buy from X brand, owned by fundamentalist Christians, it’s choosing to make that phone call to the friend fighting with cancer, even though you feel awkward and uncomfortable and don’t know what to say. It’s something that everyone can aspire to, which does not, I might add, translate into it being something that is easy to acquire.
I also think that this love affair with the idea of the greater good stems from a deep discomfort with conflict. One can speak of the greater good and of leaving things to the greater good or of doing this ‘for the greater good of all’ without feeling as though one has made any challenging decision. It removes the possibility that any conflict might arise as a direct consequence of taking a particular stand or making a particular choice. Lack of decision becomes the de facto decision. In the interfaith community particularly I see this cropping up a great deal. There’s an underlying discomfort with taking a clearly defined moral stance outside of something akin to ‘love and light for all.’ Conflict and disagreement, which can be powerfully fertile ground from which new ideas and shared endeavors might grow, is eschewed out of a fear that it might mean “being judgmental.” Taking a moral stance on any issue at all is viewed as being unfairly judgmental and as such is discouraged on a very deep, fundamental level; all of which leads to moral impotence.
I very strongly believe that our Gods and ancestors call us to make a stand…large or small, we are called upon to be people of substance. Sometimes this means making the uncomfortable or inconvenient or terrifying choices because they are the morally correct choices to make. This means being willing to take a moral stance and yes, to make a personal judgment. One can do that without expecting that everyone else will follow suit: one can believe a thing passionately, without demanding that every other person bow down and believe the same (this, by the way, is one of the essential differences between monotheism and polytheism). One can be judgmental without being cruel.
Is there ever a time when one must consider ‘the greater good’ beyond the abstract? I believe so. Warriors confront it, but they don’t call it ‘the greater good.’ They call it ‘awful necessity.’ In this vein Gandhi led his people in revolt against the governing power and transformed a nation. Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and many other brave men and women bucked the status quo and in some cases laid down their lives for the greater good of their people. Winston Churchill allowed British cities to be bombed shortly before D-Day taking no measures to move people to safety. Why? Because had he taken preventive measures, he would have revealed to the Germans that the allies had broken their codes and plans for D-day would have been for naught and the war might have dragged on far, far longer costing thousands more lives. He made the decision to stay mute, and continue plans for the offensive that helped end the war, in service to the greater good. One might question what all of these instances have in common. They have very little if anything to do with one’s personal comfort. They are in no way self-serving and that is the key. Of course, this presuppose that one knows oneself well enough to acknowledge one’s deepest motivations, and to know when one is in fact being self-serving. But that is part of our spiritual work too, part of what I believe we are each obligated to explore. It goes back to that maxim said to have been carved above the entrance to the temple of Delphi: know thyself. No one said this task was easy.
- The American government thought it was serving ‘the greater good’ when it tore Native American children away from their parents and enslaved them in Christianizing schools : “kill the Indian to save the man” was the saying of choice. Charlemagne surely thought he was serving the greater good when he slaughtered my Saxon ancestors for refusing to convert to Christianity. The “pro-life” man who shoots a doctor for providing care to women certain thinks he’s serving the greater good too.
- The Latin root is the word mos, moris.
- From the Latin virtus, virtutis
- Private conversation with Sarenth Odinsson, March 29, 2012.