Why Have Character?
Posted by Anthony Mannucci
Does it ever make sense to do the right thing, even if no-one knows that you did?
Materialistically speaking, that makes no sense. After all, don’t we do the “right thing” to raise the opinion that others have of us? If we make a sacrifice but no-one knows we did, isn’t that wasted effort?
Materialistically speaking, it is wasted. Imagine a world with no God, governed only by an impersonal natural law, that consists solely of material (physical) objects. It is irrational to expend effort that might benefit someone else and not yourself. In this impersonal world, one should expend one’s energy on helping oneself.
Yet, we are all aware of altruistic impulses. Altruism is often explained as a trait that developed through evolution. Altruism provides a survival benefit for the species as a whole, even though it might harm any individual member of the species. So, altruism exists because it is an instinct that evolved.
Thoughtlessly following our instincts is hardly how we view our lives. I would venture to say that nearly all of us of believe we do things for a purpose, or that what we do is rational. We have a good reason for what we do. However, altruistic behavior does not seem to have a good reason behind it.
Perhaps you have some sort of non-materialistic belief that there is something called “good” and you want to see more good in the world. I call belief in the “good” a non-materialistic belief, because it is a belief that is neither confirmed by an experiment nor rooted in the material world. For reasons I suggested already, this belief in the “good” is more than an instinct. We don’t behave in complex behaviors simply due to instinct. We find reasons for our behavior.
I encourage you to consider what you believe. Perhaps you will not call this belief a “faith”, but it is rather close to that. We certainly have beliefs that we cannot justify on strictly rational grounds.
Sometimes, my need to be irrational makes me want to hang my head. Why can’t I live a rational life? Isn’t a rational life superior to an irrational one? Eventually, I surrender to the irrational and accept it. That is my fate, and the fate of everyone I know.