Why Be Good?

Last night we went out to dinner with some friends. This group of people happened to be a very religious lot. Toward the end of the meal one of the attendees turned to me and asked a very interesting question.

Before I reveal the question to you, allow me to briefly set the scene. We were in a Sushi  restaurant. The meal was good. When the check came, I noticed that an item was missing from our bill. While we waited for the waitress to return, I asked the crowd if should I tell her that something was missing? All, being the morally upstanding people that are, said that yes, of course, I should tell her. So I did. I told the waitress that she missed an item. She told me that she intentionally left the raw salmon off of the bill because there was a problem and giving it to us for free was the restaurant’s policy. Very well.

After this little exchange, the person sitting next to me tapped me on the shoulder.

He said “Adam, you did the right thing and that is wonderful. But there is something that I don’t understand. I would have certainly said something to the waitress, just like you did. But that is because I believe in the Bible. God says that we shouldn’t lie and so I don’t. God says that we shouldn’t steal and therefor I don’t. I was was brought up believing in the scriptures. These morals are in instilled in me. Why does somebody like you, a non-believer in the Bible or any other religion, act with integrity? Do you have some system of belief that guides you? It is something that I’ve never been able to understand. How can people act right without believing in God and his word the Bible?”

As he asked me these questions, I could feel the whole table staring at me, awaiting my response. I gave a brief answer, not wanting to get into a full fledged philosophical exchange at that particular moment.

I said “First, my parents raised me to be a very honest and caring person. Why they decided to bring me up that way is something that you’ll have to ask them.  My dad always made me work to earn my keep. Stealing and being dishonest was just not something that we did. Second, my conscience seems to be well developed because lying and stealing makes me feel guilty. That probably has something to do with my parents as well, but I also think it is just the nature of humans. We come with built in consciences and when we do something bad we feel bad. Also, I want to be somebody who is respectable. I want my wife to have a husband that she can respect and be proud of. I want my friends to know that I am worthy of their trust. Finally, I have a lot of evidence that being honest and just leads to good results. My life has gone very well and I think a big part of it has to do with the way I live my life. That is all I can think of just now. But if you let me think it over, I can give you an even better answer the next time I see you.”

The pretty much covers it.

I did, however, omit one very important thing. It is an extremely personal point and I didn’t want to reveal it willy nilly in a loud restaurant. It is something that I’d much rather express one on one in an environment conducive to conversation.

The point is this. After a lot of reading and contemplation, I’ve come to a conclusion about the direction that I think humanity is moving in. I also have very strong and concrete ideas about how people should behave if the world, and the people who occupy it, are to reach their potential.

Eventually, maybe in 500 or 1000 years, I believe that peace and liberty will reign on earth. There will be very little violence. There will be extreme material prosperity. Science and technological innovation will advance with tremendous speed. People will live long and healthy lives, free from poverty. Compared to present conditions, the earth will seem like a Utopia.

Arriving at that state will be a long and arduous journey. We are a long way from that, obviously. However, when you look back at the conditions on earth just 200 years ago, you find that the advances from then to now have been nothing short of stunning.

The obstacles that must be overcome are violence and oppression. The antidotes for these diseases are peace, liberty, and justice.

When I act right. When I avoid dishonesty. When I am scrupulous about paying my bills and not ripping people off. It is also my way of bringing humanity closer to what I hope will be its final destination. I am contributing to the materialization of what I see in my minds eye. A peaceful world governed by justice.

Every time I act with integrity and honor, I am promoting my beliefs to the world. Little by little, you earn the respect of your peers. They come to trust your opinions. They know that your judgement is sound and trustworthy. When you finally do tell them what you think, why you act the way you act, you are much more likely to get a sympathetic hearing.

Soon I will have a conversation with my friend. I’ll tell him about peace, free markets, property rights, and everything else that my vision of the world entails. He’ll remember that I tried to pay for sushi when I didn’t have to. Hopefully I’ll express myself clearly and be able to influence him a little bit.

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