“This I Believe” Essay
I was barely twenty when my first child was born. Like other parents, I had to figure out how to raise my children to be good human beings. Fortunately, I was also earning a degree in Philosophy. I developed an ethical principle that I still believe strongly today: It is reasonable to be good, and it is good to be reasonable.
This principle derives from Aristotle’s definition of humans as rational beings. To be good, we must live up to our nature as rational beings. This works out very well in practice because the grand societal ideals—things such as freedom, cooperation, tolerance, consideration—are entirely reasonable.
As a parent, I always tried to accompany rules and restrictions with an explanation. I remember telling my children that it wouldn’t be right to keep a frog in a box as a pet. “It needs to be free. That’s its nature. It will be unhappy and die in the box.”
With disputes over everything from crayons to Leggos, it was: “If you kids work together, you’ll have a lot more fun, and you’ll get a lot more done.”
There were always kids who were different and easy to exclude. But, it usually worked to point out: “I’ll bet you could get along just fine with him if you try. I’ll bet there are a lot of things both you guys like.”
Being good is reasonable, especially when it’s presented that way. I recall so well admonishing my kids with “Think about how that makes your sister feel. Do you think you’d like to feel that way?”
It should be easy for adults to figure out that reasonable behaviors, such as compassion, fairness, and honesty, produce the most moral society. What retards people worldwide from working and prospering together, however, are institutions such as religion, nationalism, and racism, which expropriate goodness in the name of faith.
When we equate the good with faith, we suggest that there is no good reason to be good. This surrenders business, politics, and everyday behavior to those who say it is smart to be cutthroat, venal, and dishonest.
What would happen if we applied Aristotle’s idea to ethics and morality? What would happen if the highest moral virtue was to be rational, that is, to live up to human nature. It would set up a whole different set of expectations than now, when irrational behavior is explained away as “human nature.” Our children would grow up to a world that found war to be completely unreasonable, and therefore evil. If reason were the standard of goodness, disputes over righteousness would take place in journals and in debates, not with bombs and on battlefields.
Even if it were recognized that every normal human being is by nature designed to be reasonable, there doubtless would still be disagreement over what is reasonable. Reality, however, would soon establish general guidelines. Individuals would also get better at solving interpersonal disputes through practice at being reasonable. Common sense would be actually common.
I believe this scenario is reasonable. Because we are rational beings by nature, reason is inexorable. The pace of realizing our human nature as rational beings is accelerating, I believe, on the scale of history, we are very near to realizing that it is reasonable to be good and it is good to be reasonable.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.