It's a bit of conventional moral advice best known by most people as a lyric from "Santa Clause Is Coming to Town." Doing something "for goodness' sake" originated, the linguists tell us, as a euphemism, a circumspect alternative to doing something "for God's sake." The earliest example of the phrase I can find is in Shakespeare. It is spoken by Cardinal Wolsey in Act III, Scene 1 of Henry VIIII. The Cardinal (not one of the good guys of the play, or of history) is urging Queen Catherine of Aragon not to make trouble for the King in his pursuit of a dissolution of their marriage. Catherine remains unpersuaded, and the Cardinal lobs an oblique threat in her direction: "For goodness' sake, consider what you do." Elizabethan Englishmen were not shy about swearing what we moderns (or at least we modern Christians) would consider blasphemous oaths. So perhaps Wolsey's "for goodness' sake" -- which would have sounded in the ears of Shakespeare's audience much the way "gosh darn" would sound in our own -- was intended to make the Cardinal seem a bit prissy, or perhaps even hypocritical. Everybody in the audience would have known that Wolsey was thinking "for God's sake," no matter what he actually said.
Well, enough of linguistic history. The American Humanist Association has launched its 2009 "holiday ad campaign," which will involve the placement of public transit ads in four cities offering commuters the following bit of philosophical insight:
Be good for goodness' sake.
Umm...okay. I am apparently a humanist, much to my own surprise. I freely acknowledge an acquaintance with at least six people whom I know to be good and whom I also know to be disbelievers in the existence of God.
As a Catholic, I too maintain that one can be good without believing in God. That's not the same thing as saying -- and I wonder how long it would take me to explain this distinction to a member of the American Humanist Association -- that one could be good if God did not exist.
Every sane person goes about his business every day as if he assumes that (1) there is an objective order of good and evil; (2) life has some meaning in a realm of absolute value ; and (3) the perceptions and conclusions of the human mind bear an ontological relationship to an objective reality outside itself.
As a Catholic (again), I believe that those three premises are grounded necessarily in a belief in the existence of the Christian God. If you want to have some fun with a humanist interested in following up on the conversation suggested by his "2009 holiday ad campaign," ask him to name something he thinks is good. Then ask him to explain why the thing he has mentioned is good. Then ask him to explain why that makes it good. Then ask him...oh, you get the idea. If you're persistent -- and polite -- maybe he'll begin to wonder whether ethics is a subject small enough to fit in a transit ad. Maybe he'll even begin to wonder whether doing something "for goodness' sake" isn't a lot like doing it for God's sake.