The Good, the True, and the Beautiful, and Why We Shouldn’t Misbehave


In discussions on universalism, the question is sooner or later raised by the non-universalist in the dialogue, “If all are ultimately saved, then why be moral?  Why not live it up and do whatever you want?  After all, you’ll be saved anyway–so why not get the best of both worlds?”  I’m often perplexed as to how to respond.  On the most fundamental level, this argument, as I’ve noted in the past, misses the point altogether.  Whether belief in universalism persuades people to become debauched libertines or not has no bearing on whether it’s actually true.  You might as well say that the tax code is a mess and has all kinds of bad results, and that therefore it must not exist!  Universalism may have negative moral implications, or it may not; but to say that it is invalid because of these purported implications is just as silly as saying the tax code doesn’t exist because I don’t like it.

Another approach would be to question the moral development of of the person who asks this question.  In Kohlberg’s well-known stages of moral development, the higher levels of morality are increasingly less concerned with a fear of punishment or a conniving attempt to get away with whatever one can get away with.  The concern as to the behavior of believers in universalism seems to betray a lower developmental stage on the part of the person making the anit-universalist argument, or an assumption on her part that humans in general are at a lower stage of moral development.  In fairness, though, such a counter-argument smacks of the genetic fallacy, as well.  After all, a person’s stage of moral development is no more relevant to the truth of non-universalism than the supposed behavior of universalists is relevant to the truth of universalism.  Thus, this is probably not the best way to go in responding to this question.

Sometimes, feeling flip, I want to answer the question, “Why be moral if all are saved?” by saying, “Why not?”  Nevertheless, there is a serious intent behind this question, and I will try to deal with it seriously.  I will try to give at least a partial reason why we should be moral even if we all eventually end up in heaven.

As with many discussions of philosophy and ethics, it is a good idea to start with Plato.  In his dialouge Protagoras, Plato has Socrates make the argument that virtue is essentially identical to knowledge, and thus evil or wrong behavior is equivalent to ignorance.  The basic rationale seems logical enough:  Everyone seeks what seems to be good to him.  No one desires something he thinks to be bad or harmful.  Thus, the person who does something wrong or evil is under the delusion that the thing he does or seeks is actually good.  He is ignorant as to the ways in which his actions may be harmful to himself or others in the long term, or he may lack full understanding of his actions.  If he knew better, he would naturally act accordingly.  Thus, in effect, Socrates (as portrayed by Plato) views morality as a matter of education.  If people are raised and trained to understand the way things are, to value the appropriate things, and to understand the consequences of their actions, they will naturally be moral.

This is a nice theory, but it has obvious problems.  Probably every single one of us, if he or she is being honest, has, at least once in his or her life–if not many times–done something in the full knowledge that it is, in fact, wrong.  Asked why we did that, all too often the most honest, albeit also the most frustrating, answer is, “I don’t know.”  The words of Paul in Romans 7:15-20, 24 resonate strongly:

I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. So then it is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells within me.  Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?

For many of us, this sounds all too familiar, alas.  Paul seems much more perceptive than Socrates.  How is all this relevant to the point at  hand, though?  Well, let’s think about it.  The person who asks why a universalist should behave herself is implicitly posing the following analysis:

  1. The principal reason people act morally is to avoid punishment.
  2. Thus, a person must believe that he will be punished if he behaves immorally in order to have a motivation to behave morally.
  3. This belief in punishment must be well-founded–in other words, one must believe that punishment will be meted out with certainty.

A corollary to 2 would be that if a person does not believe he’ll be punished for immoral behavior, he won’t behave morally, or at least will do so only when it’s to his advantage.  A corollary to 3 would be that there’s actual proof–actual evidence–that punishment will be so meted out.  After all, if a teacher tells a class that anyone who talks during the exam will be sent to the principal’s office, but never does that when kids actually do talk during the exam, they’ll have no reason at all to believe that punishment will actually be meted out.  Thus, their belief in punishment will not be well-founded, the whole system will fall apart, and they’ll do as they like.

Now Socrates would have denied number 1 above.  His argument was that people naturally want to act morally, to do what seems to them to be good.  Immoral behavior is just misunderstanding what really is “good”.  Rather than motivating people by punishment, his view was that people need to be properly educated.  Once they understand what the good really is, they will naturally seek it; because people will always seek the Good, the True, and the Beautiful.  To an extent, Socrates was right.  In a sense, no one seeks the Bad, the False, and the Ugly.  We all pursue what we think, on some level, is good.  To an extent, moral instruction is–or should be–not just saying “Don’t do this,” or “Do that,” but explaining why one ought not do this and do that.  Anyone other than a small child is going to ask why when we give them the rules.  To this extent, we must indeed be Socratic.

On the other hand, we must be Pauline, as well.  People who know good and well exactly why they ought not do X and ought to do Y will still do X and not do Y.  Please note:  This is true even for people who believe in the theory of punishment outlined above, be it human or Divine punishment.  People break the law in full knowledge of what will happen if they get caught.  People who really do believe they’ll go to hell if they act in a certain way proceed nevertheless to act in just that way.  As I said back here:

I will be completely fair and point out that there is a certain amount of evidence that belief in “supernatural punishment”–Hell–does result in lower crime rates.  It’s worth noting that crime does not disappear in such societies, however.  It’s also worth noting that societies with robust belief in Hell have also historically practiced things such as jihads, pogroms, torturing or massacring of heretics, and so on, that were held to be morally good.  It would be interesting to factor such things as this into the analysis of the effects of belief in Hell on societies.  It’s also important to note that these findings have been questioned.

Thus, the actual effects of belief in Divine punishment–Hell–and thus the model of punishment as the guarantor of morality–are, at best, ambiguous.  Thus, there is reason to call into question point 2 above.  In short, belief in punishment does not necessarily motivate one to behave morally and avoid immorality.

Of course, the kicker is point 3 above.  As is obvious with but a moment’s thought, there is in fact not a shred of proof for Divine punishment of malefactors, in the next life or even in this one, for that matter.  The Bible itself notes this–Ecclesiastes 8:14 says, “There is a vanity which takes place on earth, that there are righteous men to whom it happens according to the deeds of the wicked, and there are wicked men to whom it happens according to the deeds of the righteous. I said that this also is vanity.”  The entire book of Job ponders–to no conclusion comprehensible to humans–the suffering of the innocent.  If there is no evidence for consistent punishment for the wicked in this life, so much the less for the next.  Putting aside purported visions of Hell, such as the First Secret of Fátima, we have no word from the afterlife, either from the saved or the damned.  According to Jesus himself (Luke 16:31), even if such a damned soul came back to warn us, we wouldn’t listen.  Which sounds about right.  Presumably. to the extent that people’s behavior is influenced by belief in Hell, it seems that it would be a psychological generalization of earthly punishments by parents, teachers, and society in general, since punishment delivered by God–either in Hell after death, or even in the present life, cannot be demonstrated.  This would certainly be an interesting avenue for research.

Meanwhile, we seem to have called into question the whole analysis of morality given above.  Point 1 is unclear–people behave morally for a number of reasons, fear of punishment being only one of them.  Point 2 seems only partly true, since people who do fear punishment still act immorally.  Point 3 is the weakest of the three, since there can be no well-founded belief of punishment after death.  People may indeed firmly believe in Hell; but this is mainly from education and conditioning, not on the basis of actual evidence.  Thus, the anti-universalist’s claim that a belief in Hell is necessary to ensure moral behavior seems at the very best to be weak, given the problematic nature of the assumptions that such a viewpoint requires.  All this is not to say that some people, at least, don’t behave out of fear of Hell–doubtless many do.  What I’m asserting is that the general principle and the argument supporting it is clearly unsound.

At this point, it’s useful to hark back to a previous post I made in which I looked at ancient pre-Christian religions.  There are said to be “three C’s” of religion:  Creed (what you believe), Cult (how you worship), and Conduct (how you’re expected to behave).  As I pointed out, with most religions before the advent of Judaism and its daughter religions, Christianity and Islam, the three C’s were completely separate.  Ideas of reward and punishment in the afterlife were non-existent or at best very vague (Tartarus seems to have been only for the extraordinarily wicked and Elysium only for the unusually righteous; most still went to the vague, shadowy existence of Hades).  The gods expected the proper rituals to be performed, but were indifferent to human morality (the Greco-Roman gods were hardly role models themselves!).  Thus, for your average pre-Christian Greek or Roman, the gods did not command any particular morality, nor did they reward or punish people’s behavior during or after life.  What is interesting is that, lurid tales of the orgies of upper-class Imperial Romans aside (these being highly exaggerated, anyway), for the most part the pagan Greeks and Romans were actually pretty moral people.  You don’t build magnificent cultures and conquer most of the known world if your people aren’t capable of self-control!  It is typical of Christian history of a certain type to paint the pre-Christian milieu as a cesspit of immorality and the coming of Christianity as the solution to all that (this is odd in that some of the same histories blame the fall of Rome on its immorality; but by the time it fell, it was majority Christian!).  In actual fact, pagan philosophers and writers exhorted people to morality and asceticism pretty much to the same extent that later Church Fathers did; and appeals to old-time values pop up in Greek playwrights and Roman orators.  It is true that Christianity moved morality to a higher plane in many ways, teaching (at least in principle) equality of the sexes, the immorality of slavery (though this was implicit and took a long time to come fully to the fore), the obligation of active loving care for others (which even pagans such as Julian the Apostate noted), and such.  Still, the pagans were not by and large moral reprobates.  In modern times, the Japanese are mostly non-Christian, and the Swedes are post-Christian (nominally Christian, but few if any believers or practitioners); and both those societies have far lower rates of crime and social dysfunction than the far more religious United States, once more calling the anti-universalist thesis into doubt.

Thus, what conclusions can we draw from all this?  Here’s what I think:

  1. There is no conclusive evidence that belief in Hell makes people more moral, or that lack of such belief makes them less moral.
  2. The premises upon which the anti-universalist arguments rests seem invalid or at least shaky.
  3. Therefore, there is no reason to believe that believers in universalism, as a group, will act any more immorally than anyone else.

Now, will some universalists think, “Hey, I’m saved no matter what–might as well do as I want”?  Yes, no doubt.  Some people who are not universalists do whatever they want, too.  Of course, there are universalists who are quite moral, as well.  Any kind of ethical or belief system can be twisted and perverted–and eventually will be–but that doesn’t make an argument against it.  There are universalists and non-universalists who behave scandalously or uprightly, Christians and atheists who are scurrilous and who are saintly.  No belief system seems to be privileged in this regard.

I will point out that I’m not saying that punishment of the this-worldly variety is intrinsically ineffective, or that it’s never needed.  I think it’s legitimate to research in order to find out when punishment is effective how it is best applied, and whether we use it too much or too little.  I’m inclined to think our society uses punishment unintelligently; but I have no dogmatic beliefs about punishment as such.  Punishment–the “stick” in the old metaphor of getting a donkey to move with a carrot–reward–or punishment–a stick–is not going to go away soon.  Human nature being as it is, it’s probably necessary.  What I do assert is that God, being far greater than we are, is able to bring about a final reconciliation of all in the life to come without the need of eternal punishment (it is quite possible that the purification process for the wicked may be experienced as punishment, though).  I assert that there is no evidence that a belief in universalism makes people behave badly; and thus, I think the objection that it does is specious.

That said, I think the best reason for being moral is not the stick nor the carrot, but because morality points us to the Good, the True, and the Beautiful; and those three things need no justification beyond themselves.  That’s a level of selflessness few of us can reach, I admit.  Perhaps on a slightly lower but less abstract plane, we should want to do right because we want to be the kind of people who are virtuous, kind, and loving.  We want to be the husband or father or son our wife or child or parents deserve.  The inimitable Fats Waller puts in perfectly in the lyrics to the classic “Ain’t Misbehavin'”:

No one to talk with
All by myself
No one to walk with
I’m happy on the shelf
Ain’t misbehavin’
I’m savin’ my love for you

Mama, I know for certain
The one I love
Through with flirtin’
Just you that I’m thinkin’ of
Ain’t misbehavin’
Savin’ my love for you

Hmm, like Jack Horner
In the corner
Don’t go nowhere
What do I care?
All your kisses
Worth waitin’ for, believe me

I don’t stay out late
Don’t care to go
Home about eight
Me and my radio
Ain’t misbehavin’, savin’ my love for you

The narrator knows for certain the one he loves; thus, he has no desire to misbehave.  He doesn’t need threats–that his lover might leave him–or abstract concepts.  He acts of out of love:  “Ain’t misbehavin’, savin’ my love for you.”  Perhaps if the way of Socrates is too elevated for us, and the fear of damnation ineffective, we should try the way of Fats Waller!  If we could do that, maybe all of us, universalists and non-universalists, would misbehave less!


Posted on 25/07/2018, in philosophy, Plato and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

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