Young children in all cultures are taught to be good. This universal upbringing helps to explain why the pursuit of good is a universal goal. However, given that in every conflict each side argues that it is good, what is the point in believing that goodness is a goal worth pursuing?
The weakness of goodness as an ethical concept is due to unawareness that it is composed of two distinct values: holiness and perfection. The pursuit of these values needs to be balanced.
Everyone agrees that health, intelligence and beauty are good. In this regard Nazi criminals and pious saints are on the same page.
When Joseph Goebbels claimed that Nazism would usher in a perfect world, he was not being cynical. He genuinely believed that a planet populated by ever greater numbers of young, healthy and beautiful blondes would be a better place.
We tend to think that nowadays most humans are light-years away from embracing Goebbels’ ideals. The fact that the most successful seller of male sperm is a company based in Denmark which openly boasts that its Scandinavian donors are reliably smart, strong and fair-skinned suggests otherwise.
The secularization of Western societies has eroded the value of holiness in our collective consciousness. Yet holiness is not necessarily a religious sentiment.
The secularization of Western societies has eroded the value of holiness in our collective consciousness. Yet holiness is not necessarily a religious sentiment. A mother who hugs her baby elicits this sentiment just as easily as the sight of Michelangelo’s Pietà. Love, empathy and compassion are holy experiences open to every human being.
This explains why religious faith is not a prerequisite to being holy. Likewise the seduction of perfection explains why religion sometimes promotes harmful behavior. Most faiths draw believers fascinated by the purified society and perfect afterlife promised by religion.
The jihadist who blows himself up is more concerned about attaining a perfect life in paradise than about building a world according to holy values. Likewise, zealots seeking to oust sin and immorality out of every nook and cranny of society are convinced their actions are pure. These examples illustrate how despite deep religious and ideological differences, dangerous individuals tend to be obsessed with purity and perfection.
The pursuit of perfection nevertheless does deserve respect. Without it art, architecture and literature would be less beautiful, science and technology would not progress and we would not be able to admire the achievements of so many athletes and entrepreneurs.
However, the one-sided pursuit of perfection is deeply inhumane. Just like the one-sided pursuit of holiness is short-sighted and ultimately harmful to holiness. That is why societies and ideas, in order to be genuinely good, need to treasure both holiness and perfection.