If goodness does not pay, why be good?

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Human society operates in such a way that rewards behaviour favourable to its ends and penalizes actions detrimental to its cause. Under the State, in civil society, and even in the family, we are taught that behaving in a manner which is good reaps good things in return. Respectively, bad actions yield bad returns. Respect, good grades, stocks, votes, allowances: these are given and withheld from others depending on whether or not they are worthy of it. We are made to believe that the good things in life, as well as the bad things, are earned and deserved.

Perhaps this is the natural state of things, and with regards to how we view God and religion, we may even think that this manner of affairs is divinely ordained. Thus, we find the predicament of Job problematic: if disaster and suffering comes even to those who are righteous and obedient, why should we still do good things? If the sun rises and sets over all men, righteous and evil, and it is even possible for evil men to thrive while good men suffer, why not be evil? In fact, why not go beyond good and evil? Why not do whatever it is that yields good or favourable outcomes, and do away with the labels which distinguish righteous actions from vile ones?

Of course, these questions may be answered by saying that good actions, contrary to what the question suggests, are indeed rewarded, only not in the manner by which us humans expect. Christians, for example, believe in a real heaven and a real hell. The fact that one gets away in doing evil things in order to pursue their own benefit may be true in the physical, “sinful” world, but this is not the case in the afterlife. The rewards for good behaviour are in fact reaped in the afterlife, as well as the punishment for bad actions.

This answer has a large amount of divine truth in it, perhaps, but even as a Christian I find it hard to accept this as the final answer. Even in Scripture we find that doing good acts, even in the name of God: baptizing, exorcising demons, et cetera, do not get people into heaven. The Apostle Paul even says further that it is not good works which justify us, but faith in the Lord. This is proven further in the example of Hestas who was hung on the cross with Jesus, to whom Christ promised Paradise although he was a thief.

So not only it is possible for evil people to thrive materially, they may also gain entrance to heaven! The question remains then: why be good? Why not live an immoral and pleasing life and just repent and be baptized in your deathbed?

I do not reject of course, the doctrine of heaven and hell. I am only inquiring on our beliefs about heaven and hell. Perhaps how we approach these truths are tainted still by the conviction that a comfortable life comes from righteousness and obedience. I personally do not believe it to be so. For in the faith I have seen and read of people who have suffered much in obedience and have had their lives, friends and family taken from them in their faith. I think, that in answering the question, like I think what God had suggested in the Book of Job, we must inquire beyond our personal knowledge and experience. For often do they blind us of significant truths.

First, what is righteousness? In Job we are taught that righteousness is doing God’s will. Job is righteous not because he is rich or popular, but because he did what God commanded. This is what made the suffering and loss unbearable for him. Righteousness did not make him invulnerable to pain and suffering. Yet I think it should be considered that even if this were so, his vulnerability did not make him less righteous. Even when God had come to scold him for his nagging, God praised Job for “speaking truly of Him.” Perhaps good works and righteousness, even if it does not save us from suffering and pain, bring us closer to knowing God and His wisdom. And this is given proof by Christ: “He who has seen me has seen the Father,” He said. There is a strict correlation between doing God’s will and knowing God.

But why do we need to know God? St. Augustine said that God has made us for Himself and unless we rest in Him, we will be restless. The knowledge of God is totally alien to us because we are separated from Him. In Christianity, we call this sin. And this need to find rest, to find peace, is not something which cannot be ignored, just as hunger cannot be ignored. Man, says Christ, does not live on bread alone. Man is also sustained by the words which come from God. God’s Wisdom, His Word, is our Food. And doing His will brings us closer to that Food. Knowledge of goodness brings us closer to Him, and enables us to properly appreciate Him. Even if you were handed a cake, if you do not know what it is, you wouldn’t eat it. But how would you know that it is to be eaten if you’ve never tasted it? Doing good gives us that taste of the divine. It reveals to us what we are capable of, if we surrender our will to be more like His. In a sense we are prepared for the feast which awaits us in heaven, by acquiring a taste for them here on Earth.

Of course this does not solve why we must still suffer while doing good things. If doing good things is good for us, why does it not feel good? I think this will be resolved in answering another question, namely: what are we here on earth for? Are we here to feel good, or to be one with God? If the former, then perhaps goodness should be thrown out of the window: for it means nothing to alter our present affairs. Pleasure, like pain, comes without our consent, though we may pursue actions that might possibly increase their chances of coming to us. But if the latter, then we must do good, regardless of whether it makes us richer or poorer, regardless if it will cost us our lives. Because in doing good we are brought closer to oneness with God. We cannot do whatever it is that we want simply because all we ever really need and want is Christ, but we can’t get to Him. It is the world’s lies which lead us to confuse the itch we feel for Him for lesser things which are easier to acquire as they do not require any effort of goodness and humility from our part.

In conclusion, I am brought back to the simple yet profound answer I have iterated earlier: good actions, contrary to what the question suggests, are indeed rewarded, only not in the manner by which we humans expect. Unlike the rewards given to us by the State, society and our earthly parents, God’s reward for us in doing good is not a payment for a job well done. His reward for us is Himself: His will and face revealed, for it is the only thing that will truly satisfy us. Doing good does not exempt us from pain, but it makes pain meaningful. For even if we do not do good we receive it, but at least in doing good it makes us better.

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Crime and Punishment: Cruelty, Justice, and Simple Arithmetic

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If an act needs to be justified, does it mean it is inherently wrong?

If an act needs to be justified, does it mean it is inherently wrong?

“Kill her and take the money so, so that afterwards with its help you can devote yourself to the service of all mankind and the common cause: what do you think, wouldn’t thousands of good deeds make up for one tiny little crime? One death for hundreds of lives – it’s simple arithmetic! And what does the life of this stupid, consumptive, and wicked old crone mean in the general balance?”

– Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment

It was as if the world wanted Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov to do it. It was as if the universe wanted the young man to hack old Alyona, the spiteful pawnbroker, dead with his axe. Just when he had almost decided to let go of his plan to murder the old woman and scurry away with her money, he overhears two men at the pub contemplating whether killing off the crone would be just.

Of course, like most discussions and debates concerning justice, this one arises from an acts moral ambiguity. We do not argue over acts which are self-evidently and undeniably good, like dying for one’s neighbor or country or paying one’s taxes. We argue over the justice of acts which seem to be evil at first glance, like not dying for one’s neighbor or country or not paying one’s taxes. This is because almost all of us know and accept that sometimes a lesser good may be sacrificed for a greater good. Questions of justice are questions which ask whether the goodness of an act relative to a greater cause necessitates and justifies sacrificing a particular lesser good. In this case, the question is: Can one kill an indecent human being if it is done as a favor to mankind?

The lesser good to be forgone according to the speech given by the student is the life of an old, rich, and nasty, pawnbroker, while the greater good would be the redistribution of her wealth to several poor, dying families. If one is believes in utilitarianism, the problem seems to be indeed, simple arithmetic, for the goodness of an act ultimately depends on the amount of pleasure it creates. The happiness of one may indeed be sacrificed for the happiness of many others, if one is to follow this line of thinking. An underlying problem, of course, being disregarded or taken for granted I think by most utilitarian thinkers is whether human life is in fact as dispensable as other goods. But utilitarianism is not on trial here. What this article aims to shed light upon is how the problem may be resolved in the novel itself.

Prior to hearing the conversation, Rodya Raskolnikov was contemplating on whether to kill the Alyona the pawnbroker. Being a reflective, insightful University dropout, Rodya puts much thought into first, whether it is plausible and executable, and then whether it is just. What almost drives him significantly to have at it was that it was in fact executable, as he overheard that the pawnbroker’s sister, her only companion, shall be away for a while. But then he was shaken when he received a letter for his mother regarding her sister, who was to be married off to a rich though unlikeable man for his and his mother’s sake. Holding on to his love for his sister and his own ego, he could not let this be so, and yet he could find traces of his own reasoning and motivations in the letter regarding the murder of the pawnbroker: a woman’s life and worth being given up to satisfy the needs of others.

This was reinforced by the dream which followed. In it, Rodya pictured himself as a little boy witnessing the beating of an old mare to death by its owners. He could not stand this. While it may be said that the horse was old and useless, and its beating was causing entertainment for its owner and his friends, the sight was simply too ugly and cruel to behold. One could easily say that the horse was Alyona the pawnbroker and he was the mare’s master. But I think the dreams profundities do not simply end there.

The conversation between the officer and the student ended with the officer asking the student if he could in fact kill the woman. The student, saying that the point was not whether or not he would do it, but if it was just if someone did, said no. Of course. Everyone likes the idea of a war, a revolution, of just desserts. Yet nobody wants to get their hands dirty. No one wants to clean the dishes.

We talk about the justice in murder and killing that we oftentimes forget how ugly it is. In talking about the death penalty, for example, we do not consider how cruel a feeling it would be to be the one strapping down a criminal in the electric chair, or the crucifix-shaped bed where he or she would await the lethal injection. We do not even consider if the one to be punished is someone whom we loved. Or if it were us in the receiving end of such punitive justice. Objectively, we claim, it is just to kill murderers and predators. But what we do not see is that we are blind to the cruelty of “an eye for an eye.”

Of course, some have the cold adamant sense of justice that would tell them that such cruelty to be experienced by the criminal, whoever’s son, daughter, father or mother it might be, is well deserved. But even they, if only they would honestly consider the amount of mercy and grace they receive for the little acts of evil they get away with, would question whether mercy and grace should be extended to the individual as well. Such is the wisdom Jesus exhibited when he asked which one of the sinful woman’s accusers were qualified to cast the first stone.

This is the first thing the dream tells us. It is that violence however we may justify it is violent. Torture is always ugly. Killing is always cruel. We may turn to philosophies and ideologies to say which acts of violence are justified, but their justice does not exempt them from their evil. It does not wash the blood away.

Secondly, though it may have come before the dilemma, the dream answers the question posed by the conversation of the student and the officer. A thousand good deeds will not justify a tiny little crime. A thousand happy people does not make the torturing of a mare any less brutal. Good acts and bad acts, no matter how complimentary they may seem, are isolated from one another, just as the act of beating the horse dead and entertaining the people watching it are isolated. The inherent badness of lying is not negated by any end it was done for. “Justification” is a matter of whether or not such badness may be forgiven. And one does not forgive right things, only wrong ones.

Ultimately, the dream teaches us that we are hypocrites. While the mare may simply signify Alyona, it may also signify Rodya’s sister who was being betrothed to a man she does not love for their family’s sake. While Rodya was blind to the evil of killing the pawnbroker, a similar evil was visible to him in the case of his sister. And that evil, the evil of a victim tortured for the satisfaction of others, was incarnated in the dream of the tortured mare. Most of the time we see things as morally ambiguous or gray because we try, like hypocrites, to detach emotions and humanity in our judgment. We are hypocrites because we do not do this in cases which involve those whom we love. We turn to utilitarianism, relativism and subjectivism when it wins the argument. But when lives are at stake we appeal to conscience, authority and objective morality, the very things we deny in our moments of intellectual masturbation.

Our actions and their morality matter. This is why we philosophize about ethics and morality. But when we care about ethics and morality and philosophizing about them more than we care about what we actually do, we become something less of a human. When we value what constitutes a just murder more than what constitutes a good life, which is I think all we ever talk about these days, we become something less of a society.

God’s Broken Windows: His Standards and Ours

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"If God lived on earth, people would break his windows."

“If God lived on earth, people would break his windows.”

If only our pain were proportional to the bad that we do, we think most of the time, life would not be as bad. Yet it seems that life is not that way. It seems that whatever good we do, we suffer unjustly. “If God lived on earth,” says a Yiddish proverb, “he would have broken windows.” And why not? Do we not protest every little injustice we experience from those in positions of power? If God were on earth, we would burn effigies in front of his door like people from the olden days burnt sacrifices.

Last Friday, however, I learned a very important lesson in suffering through our discussion about the Book of Job in our World Literature class.

For so long have I viewed suffering as either punishment or a test. But I found that this was an error and perhaps, veiled by self-righteousness. It was only then did I observe that when the people I hate and disdain are suffering, too easily can I say that it is probably deserved by some form of sinful act they have done. But when it is the people I love, I am so contented in explaining it to be a mere test of faith. What is wrong with this attitude is the double standard by which I judge whether it is punishment or testing. This leads me to judge which people to comfort and which ones to stay away from.

“Consider now: Who, being innocent, has ever perished?
    Where were the upright ever destroyed?
As I have observed, those who plow evil
    and those who sow trouble reap it.
At the breath of God they perish;
    at the blast of his anger they are no more.

– Eliphaz the Temanite, Job 4:7-9

This is the same thinking employed by Job’s friends and thus leads to condemn Job for having committed a great transgression, although it has been prior established that no one is as righteous as him. But I have also learned that Job is not exempted from having such a standard. It is through this idea of suffering being punitive that Job accuses God of being unjust.

“Yet how often is the lamp of the wicked snuffed out?
    How often does calamity come upon them,
    the fate God allots in his anger?
How often are they like straw before the wind,
    like chaff swept away by a gale?
It is said, ‘God stores up the punishment of the wicked for their children.’
    Let him repay the wicked, so that they themselves will experience it!
Let their own eyes see their destruction;
    let them drink the cup of the wrath of the Almighty.
For what do they care about the families they leave behind
    when their allotted months come to an end?”

– Job, Job 21:17-21

The problem in the Book of Job is the system by which we limit God’s justice and goodness by putting our standard of goodness above Him and judging Him based on that like we judge other people. And when somehow we are afflicted by pain we claim to be undeserving of, we accuse God of not being good or just or loving. Worse, we even doubt His existence. These are all because He failed to pass our standard of goodness.

“If only I knew where to find him;
    if only I could go to his dwelling!
I would state my case before him
    and fill my mouth with arguments.
I would find out what he would answer me,
    and consider what he would say to me.
Would he vigorously oppose me?
    No, he would not press charges against me.
There the upright can establish their innocence before him,
    and there I would be delivered forever from my judge.

 

“But if I go to the east, he is not there;
    if I go to the west, I do not find him.
When he is at work in the north, I do not see him;
    when he turns to the south, I catch no glimpse of him.”

– Job, Job 23:1-9


What we fail to understand is that God cannot be judged by our standards of good and justice and love. Because He is Goodness and Justice and Love. What He does is purely good and just and loving, though it may be ugly and undesirable, and shockingly, even though when other people do it, it is to be considered evil. When you think about it, evil acts done by people are only evil because they are playing God. But surely God can play God.

In all this seemingly arbitrary characteristics of pain, we should not fear that God might be exercising His power upon us like objects of experimentation or toys. Because He loves us. He told us so. We can be sure that whatever pain we are given, undeserved it may be, is necessary. We may not know His nature and decision-making process, but we know His plan. He made it clear.

It is a hard idea to accept, especially for the hurt and suffering and oppressed: that all this somehow makes sense in the grandest scale of things. But like Job, we are permitted to mourn and weep and beat our chests at God and ask Him questions. He is real and He will answer. But I am inclined to think that we don’t. For we are so quick to lecture God about how justice should really be like.

What we should be doing is not judge God by our standards of goodness, but judge ourselves on whether we are perfectly submitting to His standards. Because whether we like it or not, whether we believe it or not, God knows what He is doing. There will be times when this idea would be so hard to accept as sufficient, but it’s okay. We can always come to Him and ask Him about things, for we will find Him when we seek Him. Didn’t He promise that?

When in pain, talk to God. Be angry at Him, show Him how much you are hurting. But talk to Him. If you do, out of the storm He will come and will reveal Himself to you. You will know Him and you will know you. And then, there will be peace.

“I know that you can do all things;
    no purpose of yours can be thwarted.
You asked, ‘Who is this that obscures my plans without knowledge?’
    Surely I spoke of things I did not understand,
    things too wonderful for me to know.”

– Job 42:2-3