Will Santa be coming to visit you this year? Have you been good?
Seems to me that everything in our culture hinges on carrots and sticks. Even the non-religious families use Santa as an all-seeing eye to bribe the little ones into behaving themselves. For the rest it's the omniscience of God.
Are we capable of being good without threats and promises?
Meng-Tzu, a Chinese philosopher from 2500 years ago, decided that people were all born good. Not only that, he believed that given the opportunity, they stayed that way. Presumably he didn't consider the mischief of children as bad, he never said, so we don't know, but he did say:
"The great man is the one who does not lose his child's heart."
Lose it, that's interesting. He didn't think, as some do, that we start out bad; sins of the fathers and all that. Nor did he think that we were born as blank slates.
He wasn't alone in this. There have been many wise ones throughout history who considered humans to be innately good, and scientists more recently have explained human altruism as a survival advantage. It's a natural instinct. That is to say if we behave ourselves and are nice to one another, as social animals, we tend to do better. In other words we have actually evolved to be good. It works for us.
So, why do we do bad things?
I don't think I need to give you any examples of bad human behaviour, but if you really want a couple from this week, look at the school massacre in Pakistan and the US senate report on CIA torture. When they choose to be, humans can be very, very bad indeed. I chose these two examples because in both cases there was an excuse given.
If you know me at all, you know that I have no truck with excuses. Anything you say or do to try to justify bad behaviour won't work. Oh sure, you can explain why you did it, but an explanation is not an excuse. It doesn't make it OK. Ever.
There was a time when all evil deeds were blamed on evil influences, i.e. devils and demons. Humans using supernatural figures as excuses. That stopped working for most rational people a long time ago.
Instead everyone was held totally responsible for his dark deeds. Even if he DID have an excuse, like the poor boy who stole to avoid starvation. No matter, hang him anyway.
Then, we found a middle way. The advent of psychology as a way of looking at human behaviour suggested that sometimes humans are not in full control of themselves. They do things under pressure, be it small or great. They "flip". They have psychotic breaks.
The arrival of insanity as a not guilty plea in court gave us another layer of argument. Just who is or isn't truly insane?
I decided long ago that it should be fairly obvious that under normal circumstances anyone who kills is crazy by definition. It's an aberration. A disorder. It goes against our natural instincts. It's not something sane people do, generally speaking. The exceptions would be soldiers, of course, who are obeying orders, in this instance it's the commanding officers and politicians demanding it whose sanity is suspect. And there are crazy situations, like riots and revolutions where people lose their grip en masse. It has been said this can happen to anyone. It may well be true.
So we have mitigating circumstances. The man who is so enraged by finding his wife in bed with their neighbour that he shoots both of them. Is that an excuse? No, NONE of this is. Bad is bad. You can explain it but it doesn't make it good.
And then there's accidental killing. Some people have some rather creative versions of accidental. "I was just holding up the liquor store, and my gun went off, I didn't mean to hurt anyone".
(I'm never quite sure who's worse there, the guy who pulled the trigger or the lawyer who gives him these excuses to use.)
All things considered, people can actually be very bad indeed, either by choice or by insanity.
Assuming the average person doesn't go around killing, or even stealing, what is good and bad anyway?
In my humble opinion, the Pagan concept of harm is as good as any. It isn't crystal clear (first you have to define harm) but having done that, it is a system of morality that works very well. The short version is that if your behaviour negatively impacts the well-being of anyone (including yourself) it is harmful. Where there is no victim, there is no harm. This is where Pagan morality is often looked down on by those with conservative ideas about sex, for example. In a system where morality is based on harm, any consensual sex is seen as harmless.
Which brings me to naughty. Meaning bad. It's a word that was always used when I was younger to refer to simple michief, as in children. Today it seems to have developed a somewhat different connotation of bawdy, and that's curious isn't it. That bawdy is automatically seen as bad. It's more of that puritan nonsense.
And nice? That seems to refer mostly to manners. I am a great advocate of good manners, but I think some people have lost track of what manners are for. They are supposed to make things more pleasant and comfortable for everyone. If they don't, they're not worthy of being called good manners.
The usual issue is how one should behave in a social setting when a person is saying something unethical. Which is more correct etiquette: to be polite, and above all to avoid a scene, by ignoring their words, or to stand up for what is right? Tricky?
Imagine you were at a dinner party or some such thing, where somebody was being blatantly racist or sexist, or otherwise bigoted. You notice embarrased looks on other guests, some looking away to distance themselves, some pretending not to hear, some with sour faces. Who has the courage to be "bad mannered" and call them out on it? Or even ask them to shut up or leave?
Being good isn't always easy. Sometimes you have to break rules to do it. Sometimes you have to break the law. Nobody said it was easy, important things never are.
If Santa, or God, or Sauron is watching everything you do, be sure you're not doing what some twisted person says you should do, but what you know deep inside to be right or wrong. Because, yes, you do. You KNOW. In fact, don't worry about what the watchers think. Do it for yourself.