I’ve been sporadically reading a book by Bill Medley titled Religion is for fools, and he mentioned the common fallacy people have that being good means not doing bad; so a person will consider themselves good if they don’t murder or rape or steal. This is to conclude that the positive is true by the absence of the negative. In other cases this may be correct but not in this one.

Medley’s answer is insightful: that we expect people not to do wrong – not committing murder is what we should do anyway; it isn’t worthy of praise. A person could live their entire life not doing anything bad but this wouldn’t make them good. If they obeyed all the laws, they would be neither bad nor good, they would just be doing what was expected of them. A good person would do more: they would serve their community, give to charity, help other people, and try to make a positive lasting impact on society.

By analogy, it’s like saying a car is good because it will get you from A to B without breaking down. So what? That’s what we expect of any car. A bad car may break down; but a good car will not only get you to your destination without breaking down but it will do so economically and in comfort.

But none of us has lived even a neutral life: always doing the least that is expected of us. We have done acts we shouldn’t have and not done acts we should have. Then again, many of us have gone beyond what is expected of us: donating to charity – or is that what is expected of us? – or forgiving someone who has wronged us. Then again, could this be what is expected of us? This is a question of theology rather than ethics.

Still, if none of has done even the bare minimum to be considered merely neutral or “not bad”, what then? What do we have to do to overcome this judgment; how can we be considered good? What measures can we take? Is any measure enough to offset the bad? To this issue Medley speaks again, by drawing an analogy with a glass of milk. If the milk has been contaminated with even a tiny drop of poison, even if that drop is infinitesimal compared to the amount of milk, then that milk is bad – who would drink it?

To be considered a person who is neutral (that is, has fulfilled the minimal expectations) let alone good, everything bad we have done has to be removed; but how can we remove both the act and the effect from our account, when they are in the past? Can we ever be considered good?