I suspect that, for all the philosophizing and thinking in circles, we actually know what it means to be good. Even if all axioms must fall to some long-tail case or another, if all rules are broken by one of the trillions of possibilities in existence. That we actually do know, we just have a hard time saying what it is that we know.
The Perils of Perfection
The first hurdle, of course, is finding something to write about. Casting a mental net wide over the lake of experience, and seeing what writhing wretched things are pulled in.
Then, even before I begin writing, the second thing I must do is get over worries about reception. How will this look? Will it look OK? What if it's awful?
"Rome wasn't built in a day," expresses the need for patience to achieve great things. But what about the little things? Not-great things, the meaningless essays here, the first indelible mark on a blank page? Are we to measure those in hours?
How many hours am I allowed to use crafting, before I must admit I have no skill?
The damned thing about perfectionism is that it is a form of impatience. To expect the first draft, the first painting, the first try to be perfect and wholly without revision. Madness, perhaps, but also a very human fear of failure. None of us want to look incompetent (which is really just a form of social sanction) in front of our peers.1
With any fear, we may see the divide between what we know and what we feel. We may know that our chances of winning the lottery are effecively zero, but with the jackpot at two-point-four billion, we feel that it's too good a chance to pass up. Just think of the easy life of a billionaire. This triumvirate divide that we straddle, between the body, mind, and self, is a precarious one. Learning to consciously change how one thinks is an integral part of religious indoctrination, behavioral therapy, and academic growth.
Not all forms of control are equally sinister. For the person who suffers from PTSD, they have to learn how to avoid letting their mind and body return to the fight-or-flight trauma. They may know that they are safe, but the body feels under threat. Anyone who has suffered an anxiety or panic attack will know that it hardly matters what you know when your body is screaming DANGER!! DANGER!!
And yet irrational fears and responses can be overcome through rational means.
One of the simplest methods to ease out of a perfection mindset is to think in terms of Process, rather than Product. Instead of worrying about the published novel, sitting in stores being unbought (or worse, laughed at by the critics in papers and armchairs alike), we should focus on the doing.
The disciple asked: "Master, what is enlightenment?"
The master responded: "Have you eaten dinner?"
"Yes," replied the disciple.
"And did you do the dishes?" asked the master.
"Aha. Well, do the dishes."
In the above Zen koan, enlightenment is achieved (the koan obliquely suggests) through the act of living: doing the dishes, laundry, the cooking: all the necessities of living.2 There is no "goal" of Nirvana or other total stopping point.
Rigid Thought, Broken Bodies
Inflexibility in thought or action often leads to disaster. That is not to condemn consistency, but to take issue with dogmatic absolutism, the wanton and careless application of the same regulation in every situation. Ours is a complex world, a diverse place with unimaginable variety of experience and event. A rigid system for interpreting cuts more out of the potential for human experience than it explains. Claims to a universal, capital-T truth can lead to the most provincial and narrow-minded perspectives and actions. We may see this quite clearly from feminist and post-colonial scholars of the philosophy of science. European colonial powers were "universal," and were thus able to justify, speak of and for, and wholly subjugate the world.
All good characteristics one could possess to be "good" fell under two guiding principles: Courteous and Curious. They are nearly Confucian--that is to say, Kantian--in their overlap. The two support one another: curiosity leads one to the pursuit of knowledge, that is, study; while courteousness keeps one from forgetting the co-operative nature of the world, and pursuing study for purely personal benefit (or for ill-intent, i.e. weapons manufacture).
The two, then, are not only descriptions, they are imperative. To be good, one must seek to continuously learn about [the lives and thoughts of] others: the world around oneself. It takes for granted no fixed ontological or behavioral situation: to be good means to be flexible, to be knowledgeable about what is good for the present situation and working towards that. The importance is in working towards it:
"Intellectual freedom necessitates intellectual labor."
—H.G. Creel, «Confucius»3
In much the same way, we owe it to others we recognize not merely as human, but as people, to seek a more just world. It is not courteous to continue to support exploitation of one's fellow human beings! Ignorance is not an excuse: "If you are deaf to cries of injustice, read about them."
In doing so, we may do so in a similar vein to the "Cosmopolitanism" described by the Harvard philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah in his book of the same title.4
A Politics of Hope & Wonder
Where does this leave us? In a very good position, really. If we accept the notion--now thousands of years old--that the world is co-operatively developed, and that each of us existing has a stake and responsibility in it, we are placed to begin the task of making a world that works for everyone.
"If nature is unjust, change nature." —Laboria Cuboniks, «Xenofeminist Manifesto»5
To start with the idea that nothing is fixed is ultimately a freeing move: we needn't accept any current injustice or malaise as permanent: all things flow with the mono no aware that makes life so worthwhile. But it does mean that we are, at a very deep level, responsible for the world. It is our creation, through all of our billions and billions of tiny interactions. Each act creates who we are, and the world we and others are creating. A Constant State of Becoming.
We know what it takes to be good: a willingness to work with the world, with others, and figure it out.
Koans are notoriously difficult to parse without some introduction. For a quick rundown: https://www.learnreligions.com/introduction-to-koans-449928 ↩
Creel, Herrlee Glessner. "Confucius: The Man and the Myth." Harper Collins. 1949. ↩
Appiah, Kwame Anthony. "Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers." Norton. 2006. ↩