Abandon Text!

W. H. Auden once said: "Poems are not finished; they are abandoned." I have been abandoning writing projects for many years, since only the pressure of deadline and high expectations ever got me to finish, or even start, anything of merit. This blog is an attempt to create a more consistent, self-directed writing habit. Hopefully a direction and voice will emerge.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

The True, or the Good?

A old discussion on the SKS lists has been revived recently, concerning the question: Is it better to want the Truth, or to want the Good? Is it more noble to want to find the ultimate spiritual reality, or to want to serve the good of humankind?

This is a very classic SKS sort of discussion, because the community is usually full of people in both camps. I remember the very first article I ever read in the Wall Street Journal, sitting in the Cup A Joe coffee shop on Hillsborough Steet: it was about social workers, and it was entitled: "The Genteel Poor." One of the highly educated, poorly-paid workers was quoted: "Knowing what I knew about the people out in the street, I just couldn't sleep at night if I wasn't doing something about it." He was bugged, as we say, and I knew just as many philosophers who would say something to the effect of, "If I didn't know who God was, or even who I was, then what was the point of life at all?"

Of course, both sides know that it isn't an either-or question. Augie has always argued that a desire for the truth always trumps our desire for anything else; we wouldn't opt to take happiness if we knew it was based on lies and falsehood. And its hard to know if you're doing any good at all unless you really know what's really going on: in that sense, serving the Good is always dependent on discovering the True. But not everyone feels the primacy of the Truth the way Augie does; for many, the truth is not much good unless it serves the Good. You have to love the Truth for it's own sake to really see things any other way.

I generally agree with Augie, but there's one part of it that keeps bugging me. Most people, especially those of religious faith, have some kind of personal philosophy that contains both metaphysics (what the world is like, who God is, etc.) and morality (what's the right thing to do). What's most interesting is that the intuitions people have about metaphysics usually aren't nearly as strong as the ones they have about morality. If you press someone about the existence or nature of God, most people will profess some level of ignorance: "I'm not sure if there's a God, though I'm pretty sure there's something." Or, in theological language: "God is a mystery." But if you ask someone whether boiling babies in oil is bad, 99.999% of people will categorically declare that it is morally evil. In neither case can most people articulate why they believe as they believe -- it is an intuition that comes out of the depths of their being. So why is it that we have so little intuition about the True, and plenty of it about the Good? We recognize the right thing to do long before we know the Truth (at least consciously).

So what does that say about us? And the Truth? and the Good? Richard Rose, when asked about the same question, once said, "Be good and good and good and good and good . . . until you find the truth, and transcend goodness." God willing, the truth will come to us . . . in the meantime, we best serve the most obvious and immediate truth, which is simply to love one another.


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