Everybody has a sense of what “good” is; at least, everybody talks as if they do. Someone being denied something good (or right, or fair, or whatever) will certainly complain of the other person’s behavior – and expect somebody to sympathize with the denial of good in this instance. But the idea of the Good – what it is, essentially, and who gets to define it – is notoriously hard to pin down.
Defining the Good is one of the major interests of philosophy (along with the True and the Beautiful). Aristotle discussed it under the heading of Ethics, from ethos, the characteristic customs of a people. The way people in a society behave – or at least, the way the people in a society think they ought to behave – defines what is “good.” Philosophers differ in the base from which a society derives goodness. Is it the tradition of the ancestors? Is it what is socially useful/aids survival? Is it defined by laws? Is it whatever benefits the most people? It might be one of these things, or all of these things. Nobody knows, but everybody is a philosopher; that is, everybody has a mind, and philosophy is the operating system of the mind, so everybody can argue about the origins of goodness.
Interestingly, religion didn’t start out showing much interest in the Good; that is, in Ethics. Oh, sure, the Egyptians thought that each person would have his heart weighed against a feather in the afterlife, and how nobly one behaved in this life would determine one’s ultimate fate, but by and large, they left the definition of goodness to ma’at -- the fitness of things, a concept similar to the Roman idea of the mos maiorum. And so we come back to tradition and the whole philosophical wrangle.
What religion was interested in wasn’t the Good, but the Holy. And at its base, “holy” originally meant “taboo.” When Moses walks up to the burning bush, the Voice of God out of the bush tells him to take off his shoes because he is standing on “holy ground.” G.K. Chesterton says that the first moral maxim taught by religion was not, “I must not hit my brother,” but “I must not hit my brother in the holy place.” Approaching the gods required special procedures: ritual cleansing, fasting, proper formulae. Sacrifice was a form of dedication. Dedicated objects, including persons, became “holy” – that is, the property of the god – and could no longer be used for ordinary purposes. What people did on their own time was their concern; what they did in connection with the gods was the gods’ concern, and what the gods demanded might not normally be considered “good.”
Ah, but the God of the Bible was the first deity understood to be “good.” The God of the Bible is an ethical God, who demands ethical behavior from his followers. He also demands – and confers – holiness upon his followers; that is, once they are dedicated to him, the idea that they have any time off to pursue their own, independent purposes however they like is at an end. As Jesus said, “When you have done all that I have commanded you, say, ‘We are unprofitable servants, we have only done what you commanded.’” The God of the Bible is an ethical lawgiver who subsumes goodness into holiness. Unlike other gods, he gives – or restates – ethical standards, but belonging wholly to him cannot be reduced to merely coloring within the lines, ethically speaking. We cannot be holy if we are not good; however, holiness is about more than being good.
This is hard to understand. People who see in God the source of all goodness naturally want to apply religious sanction to ethical ideas. But while the God of the Bible is an ethical God, that doesn’t mean that all the arguments over what is “good” are settled, even where everybody in a given society is considered a follower of God. And in a pluralistic society, it is natural that people see good and bad differently, and you can’t expect someone who follows a different religion – or no religion – to accept your assertion that because the Bible says X that settles the matter.
So Christians have to follow a two-track method in considering what the Good might be. For ourselves, the Bible is authoritative. But the Bible doesn’t address everything, so even among ourselves we have to allow arguments from nature, from tradition, from social utility, etc. Just because we are a kingdom of priests doesn’t mean we can ignore philosophy. And when we find ourselves thrown in with all the other philosophers – that is, all the rest of reasoning humanity in our society – then we have to argue for our point of view from other bases than just “thus saith the Lord.”