Humans always act for a purpose. Voluntary acts are by definition purposeful. Involuntary acts, which we don’t choose – such as breathing – are not something to which we can ascribe to a goal or purpose. We pursue goals to achieve results we believe are good, or we may pursue a goal to possess or enjoy something. We enjoy things that are good, not things that are bad.
One way to look at love is when humans strive to enjoy and possess the good. This is how human beings are made, but not just human beings. Animals, plants and, in fact, all matter is made this way. Everything acts for a purpose in a way that is proper to that thing. For example, animals live, move and reproduce by instinct. Plants grow, nourish themselves and also reproduce. Animals and plants have a kind of love proper to them. They attain to these things because they are fulfilling their purpose — they’re doing what they were made to do. However, they don’t perform any voluntary acts. They don’t get to choose their purpose — it’s simply written into their DNA.
Human beings also have DNA, which determines certain things about them (brown hair, black hair; brown eyes, blue eyes; male, female; etc.). DNA, however, cannot tell us everything about why we do what we do. This becomes, then, an important distinction. What makes me different from an acorn is certainly my DNA, but also my freely chosen purpose. Irrational nature (plants and animals) just naturally fulfills its purpose without making any choice to do so. Rational nature (humans) has a purpose, too, but it must be chosen.
Morality has at its root one basic question: What is my ultimate goal? Another way of putting it is: What do I love? Or you could ask: What will definitively satisfy me?
At first, we may think there are lots of things that could provide satisfaction. But like plants and animals, our purpose is achieved by living in accord with what we were made for. What one thing, if I love it, will make me complete? What am I made to love? That is what really satisfies me — that’s what will really define me.
But is my ultimate good the same as yours? In other words, is there an objective good worth pursuing for everybody? The simple answer is, “Yes, absolutely.”
Consult your own experience and name the happiest people you know. Without fail, the people who are good are also the happiest people. This doesn’t mean that you don’t face difficult situations, that you don’t occasionally have fits of anger or experience deep sadness. It does mean that your fundamental outlook is one of virtue. In a given situation, you know what to do and how to do it in a way that upholds your dignity and the dignity of those around you. Your interior disposition is one of looking for and naturally, peacefully pursuing whatever is good to do in a given situation. So, if you are at work, you work diligently, without giving into distraction or procrastination. If you are married, you love your wife and children without hesitation and without selfishness. Your outlook is one of desiring the true good for each person, yourself first, and then those around you. And, if we don’t know what the true good is for ourselves, we will have a hard time doing good for anyone else. You know what is right and will actually be happier doing what you know is right. You do that through your choices.
All this does not mean that rules aren’t important; they are, but they are not the most important part of the moral life. It is much more important to pursue and love what is truly good so that you can be happy. To do this, the help of grace and the interior promptings of the Holy Spirit are needed, which can be followed with the help of wisdom, knowledge, understanding, counsel, fortitude, piety and fear of the Lord. These gifts of the Holy Spirit push me (interiorly) to freely believe, hope in and love the good. If we can follow the promptings of the Holy Spirit within us to grow in faith, hope and love of God, we will be truly happy.
So, the moral life comes down to fulfilling what will really satisfy your deepest longing for happiness. Let’s return to our original question: “Why do people do good?” The answer is that doing good makes us happy and fulfilled. If you open up to God and begin to act for the good with his help, you will be authentically human, truly happy and truly good.
Sister Anna Marie McGuan is with the Religious Sisters of Mercy in Alma, Michigan.