Monthly Archives: May 2012

Good, Better, Best, Perfect, Right

There’s a saying attributed to Voltaire that goes something like “The Perfect is the Enemy of the Good.” I’ve heard it translated into “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good” or “Don’t let the good be the enemy of the best.” Etc. Basically any combination of good, better, best, and perfect can fit into the phrase “don’t let the ___ be the enemy of the ___.” If you are using the word perfect, the wisdom is that you don’t want to be striving so much for the perfect ideal that you always look down on yourself or are discouraged because your “good” or “best” isn’t “perfect.” I can agree with that wisdom. Another application I’ve heard is in terms of relationships, and this one is a bit messier. The idea is that you might have a “good” relationship with someone (think dating here), but there might be a “better” or a “best” out there somewhere. Christians try to spiritualize it by saying “don’t let your good oppose God’s best for you.” I’m not sure I buy this use of the phrase. It’s certainly a possibility that there is “someone better” out there somewhere, but think of how endless that train of thinking is. Really, this only works in movies where you know exactly who the other person is and that person is or is not better than the current person. Plugging God into the equation is no better, as it’s really just the exact same, only making it sound spiritual, because there’s still no end to that train of thinking, and no real way of knowing or being able to compare.

That said, I think there’s an interesting problem with this line of thinking in general. We here in America have lost our grounding, in general, for right and wrong. I’m not denying Romans 2:15, but to borrow a quote from Frank Peretti, we’ve rationalized/justified ourselves out of a conscience. As a whole, we’ve given up on Christianity and have put a vague spiritual, moralistic therapeutic deism, in its place. Right and wrong become relative terms and we take little steps, choice by choice, into a place where suddenly doing the right thing is pushed aside for what could be called “the greater good.” Yeah, stem cell research might have some sticky moral issues, but just think of all the good we could do with the knowledge that would come from that research! Yeah, abortion might be “wrong,” but just think of all the good you’re doing for the woman and the family in the long run! These sorts of statements aren’t unfamiliar to us.

What I have to wonder is, how can we determine what the “greater good” is, when we have given up our foundation of right and wrong? If moral judgments are relativistic at best, how can something be “good” or “better” than something else? If Richard Dawkins is right, and what we have is a “shifting moral zeitgeist”, then how do the sayings we started with carry any meaning? What we are saying, within this framework, is “don’t let what you feel to be generally agreeable be the enemy of what you think might be more favorable than your current situation.” Wonderfully helpful, no? Of course, it still doesn’t mean anything, since there’s no foundation for morally charged words other than our subjective experience. It’s no wonder the “try before you buy” philosophy holds sway in relationships in our culture. But then, people generally don’t say those things to themselves, but to other people. How could it be that someone from the outside is able to make a moral judgment, even phrased in pseudo-philosophical terms, on someone else’s situation? Because of the truth of Romans 2:15, and the existence of God and the truth of Scripture, we can’t get away from doing these things, but if we reject all of those objective foundations, we have no grounds to be making them.

When everything becomes subjective and internal, you start hearing arguments about “rights.” Our constitution claims that there are certain rights we all have that were given us by our Creator. But if we’re ditching the whole idea of God, then where do rights come from? How do we determine what they are? Is there a hierarchy of rights? How do we tell? I’ve said before that a discussion of “rights” is never a good substitute for a discussion of right and wrong. However, our society doesn’t even like the terms “right” and “wrong.” So they essentially have to default to some sort of discussion of “rights”, even though they don’t have a foundation to argue from. Emotions run high in such discussions, and the best way to get people on your side is to make connections back to historic rights movements, which in America is either the rights of Women, or of African Americans. This is why you will hear frequently that the rights of LGBTQIAU(and whatever other letters they’ve added to that by now) are parallel to one of those historic rights movements. If the emotional connection can be made, then no actual argumentation needs to be offered, because being against that movement will register in the minds of people as being against all the historical movements as well. However, even if you grant the connection (and for the record, I don’t), what does it prove? Absolutely nothing.

If you are going to discuss historic rights movements, you cannot simply give a surface level interpretation of a state of affairs being right after the movement and wrong prior. You need to discuss why it was right or wrong, for the connection to have any meaning outside of an appeal to emotion. However, since our society has that allergy toward discussions of right and wrong, that becomes a very difficult thing to do.

I’ll admit that even if you have not abandoned a foundation for which to discuss these things, they can still be complicated and difficult discussions to have, but that doesn’t mean that we should run away from them. Jesus never did. He claimed to be the truth. He asked the rich young man why he called Him good in Mark 10. Pilate asked Jesus “what is truth?” and then walked away before an answer was given in John 18. We are to think on whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, and worthy of praise. (Philippians 4:8) How are we, as Christians, going to know how to do that if we don’t stop to think about what those things are and how we determine that?

I think it can be good and fruitful to engage in discussion with people on these issues to see if they have a grounding for making moral statements/arguments, as it can help them to feel the tension of their worldview and open a door for the gospel.