Dacher Keltner Reflects on Goodness

The Berkeley professor defines goodness after years of studying how it manifests in humans.
  • Transcript


Question: What is goodness from a philosopher’s standpoint?

Keltner:    I define goodness as Confucius defines goodness and I talk about this in the book which is his concept of zen, and the idea of zen and I think it nicely translates to the idea of goodness is that you treat others with respect and kindness in a fashion that brings out their better nature.

Question: How do we evaluate goodness?

Keltner:    One of the oldest questions in human thought, is how do we think about how we’re good, and how do we think about the character of other people and people have answered it in different ways in terms of spiritual conviction or did they act in virtuous ways and being a scientist and prone to measurement, I came up with this idea of what I call the zen ratio which is a way to think about how good other people are or how you are, the neighborhood is or a community and very simply it is, in the numerator of the ratio, you put the ways or events in which you’ve brought up the good in somebody and then in the denominator you put the times in which you’ve brought out their worst nature and the bigger the score, the better the person.

Question: How do religion and science affect goodness?

Keltner:    The reconciliation is that the, what they both share, sort of a spiritual perspective upon how to be a good person and how to live a meaningful life, and then the Darwinian perspective upon it.  What they share is ideally a very close observation of who human beings are and who we are and what are nature is.  And so, I think, that’s the reconciliation and what really encourages me is that there is tremendous commonality in these 2 ways of knowing.  When Karen Armstrong, the great religious scholar was asked what unites the world’s religions and the ways of knowing from Buddhism to Judaeo-Christian thought, she said compassion, and when Charles Darwin started to ponder what are our strongest instincts, Charles Darwin said sympathy is our strongest instinct.  So, I think there’s tremendous convergence.