Why We Need Good

A meditation on Virginia Tech’s tragic Monday

As the beat poet, Charles Bukowski once said, “People are not good to each other, perhaps if they were, our deaths would not be so sad.” Cho Seung-Hui, the gunman who on Monday shot and killed 32 of his Virginia Tech classmates before killing himself, was not good to others. Perhaps others were not good to him to begin with. Somehow, none of that seems to matter.

Good is a concept that is at the same time is breathlessly simple and infinitely complex. Despite being a word that every toddler knows, we still have so many questions about good. Is good absolute? Can an evil action be good under certain circumstances? Can good exist without evil? Are different actions good for different people? What about the greater good? If we are to be good to our neighbors, who are our neighbors? The complexities pile on until good is no longer a four-letter word—it’s a treatise.

So, we take good, and we academize and theorize it. Theology maintains that good is a characteristic that brings us closer to the divine. Anthropology argues that good is a cultural construction. Philosophy views it as an innate force of the universe. Perhaps economics has a better suggestion with its idea that being good to others is nothing more than a selfish ploy to trick them into giving us more utility. Or maybe it’s biology, and good is just an evolved mechanism to help us preserve our genes into eternity.

Yet none of these definitions fit. Attempting to explain Monday’s rampage as a failure of one of these abstract ideas leaves the impression of missing the essential element. As the days and weeks pass, numerous hypotheses will emerge trying to explain why a 23-year old, after shooting two people in a dormitory, would, two hours later, chain the doors of a hall, walk to the second floor, and systematically murder thirty people in four classrooms. Some accounts will conclude the rampage to be a failure of Virginia Tech’s policies to provide a correct response when a gunman is on campus. Others may describe the shootings as the result of the inability of one alienated individual to find acceptance or as the failure of a community to recognize an individual who is at the breaking point. But despite the hypotheses, what truly failed on Monday was the ability of one man to see the good in others and, more importantly, in himself.

What is good? The definition is unimportant. How we choose to describe in words that innate sense that resides in the core of our soul is irrelevant. What matters isn’t what means, but what it does. Good saves us from the hells we create here on earth. Good doesn’t need people to define it, but people need good to define themselves.

Anyone who scoffs at the idea of the world needing good and considers it to be a naïve conviction of idealists should take a closer look at our world. Twenty-three days ago, a car bombing in Tal Afar, Iraq killed 152 people. Last October, a man took eleven girls hostage in an Amish school in Pennsylvania and executed five before taking his own life. The examples are countless. People are not good to each other. Five thousand years of violence have shown the consequences when people fail to be good to each other.

Perhaps the tragedy of mankind isn’t our wars, genocides, carpet-bombings, and shooting rampages, but our incapacity to understand evil without replicating it. Despite the efforts of millions of souls, no evil is ever the last evil. We forget too quickly and the temptation grows in our minds again to remember the taste of that forbidden fruit.

People need good. This need is not the necessity to increase our average utility or to please a higher being. It is the need for us to understand that as humans, our fates are intertwined. Our world will always be a place where evil lurks and chills the heart of men, but it is our common home. When people lose good, they lose their humanity, and we all lose hope. The shooting at Virginia Tech—in all its horror—should remind us why being good to each other is more than a trivial matter. Our fates may be forever cursed to cross the path of grief, anger, hopelessness, and ruin, but our mutual coping can render these evils liveable. When we stop being good to each other, we destroy ourselves, and our time here on earth becomes tragic.

In the end, few of our actions truly have consequence. The fortunes that some of us will acquire ultimately will be squandered by others. Any position of status that we claim during life will be filled by others. Our great novel will only be cliff-noted or skimmed during reading period. Our famous names will be remembered only by eccentric aunts rebuilding family trees or equally eccentric history professors. Someday after our civilization is only ruins and records written in a dead language, parents will take their bored children to see the rubble of our great buildings. At that point all that will matter are two questions. Who were we? As a people, were we good to each other?

Steven T. Cupps ’09 is a biological anthropology concentrator in Lowell House. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.