What makes a person good?

I was in the car today, driving to work, and I was thinking. Specifically, I was ruminating again about the differences between people of faith and people of science, and I came to the inevitable conclusion that, “Hey, at the end of the day, I guess it doesn’t matter what you believe so long as you’re a good person.” But then I had to stop and think about what I believed made a person “good.”

In the past I’ve made arguments that “bad” and “good” are entirely subjective things, so it only made sense that this also applies in some way to the question I was now posing to myself. Indeed, I’m sure you’d get different answers to “what makes someone a good person?” depending upon who you asked. And then I started thinking about all of the different ideas I’ve heard about what makes someone a good person, and whether or not there was any truth to them.

How many times have you heard being a good person equated with being a person of principle? “He really sticks to his principles,” seems like a compliment, doesn’t it? So is a principled person a good person? Well, what if you have shitty principles? I mean, really, Hitler had principles that he stuck to pretty steadfastly, but I wouldn’t call him a good person. So it’s not really enough to say that a good person “sticks to their guns.” They have to be the right guns. But who gets to decided which principles are the good ones? Personally, I don’t see any evidence supporting moral absolutes. And if moral absolutes do not exist, then it becomes a lot harder to establish any sort of moral superiority. As such, I don’t really find the idea of anyone or any group of people trying to establish moral superiority over anyone else really palatable. So the final verdict? Simply being principled and rigidly following those principles does not make one a good person.

You also often hear that actions speak louder than words, so what about people who do good works? Surely, someone who feeds the homeless or reads to orphans or does anything else to help their fellow man is a good person. As I thought about this, though, I couldn’t help but think about intent. Does intention mean anything when it comes to good works? Does it matter if someone does a good thing for a bad reason, or is all the matters the result of the good deed? Personally, for me, I think intent matters. For example, someone who donates to charity out of pity or guilt isn’t really doing a good deed as far as I’m concerned. Similarly, people who do good things because it’ll earn them extra points the afterlife aren’t really doing good things in my opinion. There are entire branches of philosophy devoted to the idea that even people who seem selfless aren’t, because doing good things makes them feel good; it’s like people get a charity high or something. The final verdict? Simply doing good things does not ensure that one is a good person. There’s much more nuance here.

The good man is the virtuous man. Virtue, after all, is literally defined as moral excellence. So this seems like a pretty promising idea, right? Well, what defines a virtue? It’s a trait that’s deemed morally positive and thus “good.” But again, who get’s to decide that? Here we run into the subjectivity problem again. Virtue is often tied to religion. Chastity is often considered a virtue in many religions. But why is chastity good? I can’t really think of a reason other than “God says it’s good” which isn’t really much a reason at all. Again, take the Christian virtue of diligence, which is the antithesis of sloth. Zealous behavior is often a dangerous thing, and quite frequently all-consuming. And what’s so bad about being lazy? In Christianity, sloth can refer to an apathy toward God and his commandments. Well, if I don’t believe in God and I don’t see evidence that he exists, why should this hold any sway over me? As for physical laziness, “idle hands are the devil’s playground.” The idea of diligence and sloth are both directly related to the idea of sinning, and “sin” is something that relies upon moral absolutes, which I don’t really see any evidence to support. The idea of motivation and industry vs laziness is a bizarre argument to make, especially in a moral context. As George Carlin once said, “Turns out that highly motivated people are more likely to cause trouble. Who knew? Show me a guy who’s stoned at home laying on the couch watching cartoons and I’ll show you a guy who isn’t causing any trouble.” The final verdict? Virtue is subjective in nature and therefore a poor measure of whether someone is good.

So at this point in my musing, I start to think about whether or not there is anything that we could define as universally good or, conversely, universally bad. Things done with good intention can have disastrous results, and sometimes people do good things for bad reasons. Bad things can be done for good reason–think about white lies. The whole concept of “bad” and “good” is starting to become muddled for me. Indeed, ethics and morality seem to be fluid, with what is acceptable and desirable varying according to circumstance. People would probably off the cuff say that killing is wrong, bad. But what about killing in self defense? Or to save others? Suddenly, killing isn’t a moral absolute anymore (ironically, “thou shalt not kill” would seem to make that an absolute for Christians, but most Christians have no problem with war, capital punishment, or killing in self defense. So is the bible really morally absolute? But that’s another post entirely).

So if that’s the case, is there anything that we can call definitively good? Some schools of thought say that the “right” thing to do is always the thing that brings the most benefit to the most people, or the thing that harms the least amount of people. Is there any flaw in that reasoning? Well, if you’re framing it as “harming the least amount of people” I suppose that means people are still being harmed in some way. Is that good? I don’t know. I don’t have an answer for that.

The first thing that popped into my head as potentially being universally good is honesty. I mentioned white lies above. This would initially seem to speak against the idea of honesty necessarily always being a good thing. After all, if your girlfriend asks, “Does my ass look fat in these jeans?” honesty might produce some harm to your relationship. On the other hand, your girlfriend might appreciate the honesty, however unlikely that seems. Perhaps the honesty causes friction at first, but eventually leads to change that produces a better outcome. Perhaps being honest about your girlfriend’s ass stings at first, but then causes her to work out and become healthier. Who knows? Honesty seems like a good answer, but then again it seems a little more nuanced.

And what about loyalty? Everyone values loyalty, right? Well, again, think about Hitler. People can be loyal to the wrong people or the wrong ideas. So where is the good in that? Loyalty sounds like it has all the trappings of being good, but ultimately fails because it can easily be misplaced or taken advantage of by people. Honesty, loyalty, virtue, principles–they’re all falling by the wayside as paragons of goodness the more I think about them. Isn’t there anything that we can all agree is good?

And then it hit me. It’s the thing I keep coming back to time and time again in my thoughts and personal philosophy. Empathy–the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. Is there any way that empathy can be construed as bad and harmful? I can’t think of one. I have a hard time imagining empathy ever leading to a bad outcome. Empathy isn’t necessarily an impetus to action; you can understand something without subscribing to or believing in it. I have difficulty finding any reason why the ability to see something through the point of view or lens of someone else would be a bad thing. So to me, the empathetic person is the good person. It seems like a simple answer, but empathy has the power to stop all the things in this world people consider bad: war, murder, stealing, rape, etc. All of those acts are committed for selfish reasons, and empathy is the way to get people out of that selfish mode, to get them to consider others.

What about you guys? What do you think makes a good person?


47 thoughts on “What makes a person good?

  1. I have struggled with this issue too. Moral relativism is necessary but easily abused. It should not be that hard to figure out what’s “fair”. Very nice article; I will be following you.

  2. You can’t say good and bad are relative then talk about people who do good things. If your starting point is that good and bad are subjective terms then the question of what makes a person good is almost impossible to address.
    The science of morality is something I’m very interested in. Braintrust by Patricia Churchland talks about empathy and morality. Moral Tribes by Joshua Greene discusses reasoning and morality and references the trolley problem a few times (HOORAY!). Just Babies by Paul Bloom talks about how well children can decide between right and wrong.

    1. I thought about the contradiction as I was writing this piece. Ultimately I opted not to make this overtly convoluted or complicated, and instead tried to challenge what I thought most people would commonly think of as “good” or “bad.”

      The fact the moral relativism makes determining what exactly constitutes being a “good” person is the source of frustration that drove me to write this. Again, I realize the paradox here in the language, but I’m attempting to use tropes of “good” and “bad” as rhetorical devices in this case.

  3. I think integrity is an applicable trait.

    Just off the cuff, things that are good in people: Being true to your word as in paying debts, keeping promises. Maintain a stable as possible environment for your children. Honesty is a virtue, but there is a social necessity for the occaisional white lie. Empathy as you mentioned, helping your neighbor or a complete stranger when that moment comes, or saving wildlife from odd things they get themselves into.

    Bad things in people: Narcissism to a fault. Self destructive behavior such as addiction, alcoholism. Inability to be swayed from an opinion, faced with overwhelming evidence contradicting said opinion. Racism, bigotry. Tendency to advocate what others would consider atrocities, as a result of racism, bigotry. Hypocrites. Totalitarian and authoritarian traits, almost can’t have one without the other. With the exception of addiction and alcoholism I think I just described most religious people…

    1. I’m extremely tempted to agree that narcissism is a bad trait. But some itty bitty part of the back of my mid can’t help but think that narcissits are still capable of doing good things, just for the wrong reasons. So if te result of a good deed is what matters, not intent, can we really say narcissism is “bad,” or is it merely annoying?

      1. I guess it depends on how much power they wield. Your average run of the mill diva, they are annoying. Your average run of the mill dictator on the other hand…

      1. noun: prude; plural noun: prudes
        a person who is or claims to be easily shocked by matters relating to sex or nudity.

        You may want to rephrase your statement…

      2. The definition I provided you IS the colloquialism, FYI. You appear to be trying to use the word in a literal sense. Which still makes it an odd choice.

      3. If you want to be left alone, I’d suggest you stop randomly posting unsolicited links to peoples’ blogs. In that regard, I agree, this is definitely weird. Half the time your replies don’t even make sense. It’s like you don’t even read what other people have written.

        I’m not even angry at this point. I just hope you get whatever help you need to be stable.

      4. You don’t have to be SO aggressive when someone is asking for a truce, you know…

        And since you enjoy arguing for redistribution, perhaps you can make the argument to this person:

        aurorawatcherak: “We’ll have to agree to disagree on that. Paris and Nicole are wasting their lives too and their lack of need to work for survival has left them bereft of will.

        I have studied socialism/communism enough to say that it has never worked, anywhere, for long enough to be considered a good idea. The longest experiment was the Soviet Union and the only reason they lasted as long as they did was because of totalitarian coercion of the working class. I recently reread Hayak’s “Road to Serfdom” in which he analyzed why planned economies and socialism do not work. Essentially it’s because the people who “get” have no incentive to get off their butts and do anything and the people who “give” have their incentive to be productive diminished or taken away. The “givers” recognize that they’re not getting anywhere and they slow their production or outright quit trying … or they start putting their production into the black market, so their hard-earned dollars don’t go to the “getters”. Pretty soon, the utopia collapses.

        I would note that corporations in the Soviet Union were essentially owned by the state. You didn’t need to worry about losing the basics of life if you stood up to them because the state would imprison you when you stood up and so starving was the least of your worries.”


      5. My response to that is simply that communism and socialism will never truly work so long as some people believe that they deserve more than other people.

  4. This is off-subject of the OP, but I didn’t take it in that direction and, since RLY1987 brought me into the conversation … can I suggest that you can be for material wealth not being the center of our lives and not be for redistribution of wealth and material goods. The two are not equivalent. One of richest men I’ve known lived next door to me in a middle-class neighborhood and drove a truck that was as old as I was. Since he had plenty of money to live on, he donated most of his income to charities of his choice, quietly. He also spoke eloquently against redistribution of wealth by government theft. When he died a couple of years ago, we learned he’d given most of his money to a foundation that is continuing his ideals, which is how we found out about his charity giving. You can google him — Bill Stroeker, Fairbanks Alaska.

    People will always think that they deserve more than other people. The sense of entitlement is part of human nature. Cain slew Abel because Abel got more of God’s approval, which was because Cain gave less than his best to God. He felt entitled even though his produce (or the attitude he gave it with) was of low quality. It’s human nature and not an attractive trait, but it comes from the earliest part of our history, suggesting we’re not overcoming it. There will always be people who believe they deserve something for nothing (or much less) and that their something should be more than the other guy’s just because they exist.

    On the other hand, communism and socialism will never work (long-term) because there will always be people who believe they should get the fruits of THEIR labor. If they put in more hours and produce better quality, they feel that they should get more compensation for that than the guy next to them that goes home earlier and produces crap … or doesn’t work at all.

    And what is wrong with that attitude? Why shouldn’t society (the market) reward the producers greater than the non-producers? It worked rather well in the United States in the 19th century. That concept (combined with the protection of individual liberty) encouraged men and women to take the world from a technological level not much changed for thousands of years to running water, electric lights and high-speed transportation. These things did not spring magically from the ground. They were produced by people who were working that hard primarily for a monetary reward. Investigate the inventions of the 19th century and you will find, almost exclusively, a man (or occasionally a woman) who created something we take for granted now and received just compensation for their contribution to society’s good.

    1. I guess I don’t see how the two ideas aren’t mutually exclusive. If material wealth isn’t something you care about, I don’t see why you’d have a problem with it being redistributed. If you don’t want other people to have access to your wealth, you obviously care about it to a certain degree, and it has some degree of importance or value to you.

      Not saying that wealth makes someone a bad person. Certainly, wealthy people can be very good people, at least in the traditional sense. I don’t think wealth automatically decreases morality or anything like that.

      To me, personally, if someone is for wealth that’s fine, and it wouldn’t at all surprise me then that they would accordingly oppose redistribution of wealth. But it doesn’t make much sense to me, personally, for someone to claim that wealth isn’t important, yet fight to retain that wealth.

      1. Yeah, I’m sure common thieves don’t think their mugging victims should hang onto their wallets either. After all, the mugger has need of that money and the victim clearly has less need.

        Whether we use the cudgel out on the street to coerce money off those who have earned it or the political process to do it through the taxation system, we are nothing more than common thieves when we try to “redistribute” someone else’s product of labor. It’s not ours to take. It’s theirs to give, if they choose to give it.

        I deliberately chose Bill Stroecker because he was a wealthy man who voluntarily distributed his own wealth based on his own criteria for worthiness. It was his money and he had the right to decide where it went. It’s not my choice. It’s not your choice. It’s his choice because what he owned was the product of his labor, not ours. For us to assume that we can decide where his wealth goes for him is nothing less than robbery.

      2. If people view redistribution of wealth as robbery, then that’s their point of view and I can’t change that. And that’s fine. Personally, I don’t believe that money buys happiness, and since you can’t take everything with you when you die I don’t see what the point of hording wealth is. It seems like some people–like your neighbor who you described–have already had this epiphany.

        It’s my belief that people are capable of doing things for reasons beyond pure economics. I don’t believe that financial motivation has to be the only reason why people are productive. This would require people thinking beyond themselves, however, and not everyone is ready to do that. If the only reason people are productive is to earn money to buy objects, I think that speaks to the immaturity of the human species. We have the potential to be more than automatons that perform a task for a material reward, like a dog follows a command for a treat.

      3. That is pure idealism, Ryan! It’s Star Trek fantasy land. Find any culture that is highly productive and you will find people working for material gratification — whether that be comfort, objects or prestige. Look at China. For many decades, they were stuck in a 3rd world economy because you got exactly what your neighbor got whether you worked hard or not. Then they rediscovered capitalism. It’s not a healthy capitalism because of its state entanglement, but people went from being forced to wear the same pajamas as a billion of their neighbors to being able to express their individualism. At the same time, the US government piled on regulations and conformity. The Chinese economy is fixing to pass the US economy in terms of vitality within the next five years. Were the Chinese of the past less automaton-like than Americans of the past? I don’t think you could argue that. You can also look to the American South under slavery and the American north of the same era. Alexis d’Toqueville noted the stark difference in economic vitality between the two. The slaves were working to benefit someone else. The northern laborers were working to benefit themselves. Guess who were more productive? That’s not immaturity. That’s human nature … which contrary to popular belief, doesn’t change.

      4. I guess I don’t see human beings as being limited and defined by their past. If it’s fantasy to think that people are capable or growth and change, then I’m guilty. If human nature means that we’re doomed to remain stagnant in our thinking and abilities, then our species is probably already long for this planet.

      5. You think it’s stagnant to act like a grown-up? Children expect to be taken care of … and that’s fine, because they’re children. But as they grow, they assume more and more responsibility for themselves until they become adults and move out on their own.

        What you are proposing is that they move out on their own and their parents continue paying their bills. How is that more mature than acting like a grown-up?

        Of course, it doesn’t really matter, because reality is going to bite you on the ass on this subject. Look at Greece. They promised everyone they could gave high government benefits and retire at full salary in their 50s, no problem. The country couldn’t sustain the promises so now they’re struggling and it won’t get better until they accept that it’s an unworkable system.

        It takes a large number of workers to support the system you’re talking about. Here in the US, the system originally (1950) had 16 workers supporting every non-worker. Today it has three workers supporting every non-worker. Because the Baby Boom is retiring, by the time I retire (about 15 years from now), there will be one worker supporting three non-workers.

        Do you see a problem?

        How in the world is one worker going to support three people who do not work while also supporting himself and his/her own family?

        BTW, that non-worker figure does not include children still living at home with their parents. It only counts adults who are not working.

        It is a childish fantasy to believe that we can overcome demographics like that. My plan is to give my house to my kids and offer to share my retirement income (from my own investments) with them so they can (maybe) overcome the crushing poverty this country is headed for because we failed to accept reality back in the 1980s when we might have done something about it. Forcing people to go to work, like grown-ups, would have been the grown-up solution to the problem, but unfortunately welfare reform has been destroyed and so … well, a small percentage of us planned ahead and raised our kids to be grown-ups.

      6. Well right off the bat, one problem I see is that your definition of what “acting like a grown up” entails is purely your own. I’m sure there are plenty of people who agree with you, but at the end of the day whatever you believe being a grown up means is solely your opinion.

        I also don’t recall ever saying that parents should be forever obligated to pay for the bills of their children. I have no idea where you came up with that idea. If that’s what you took away from all of this then you didn’t understand what I was saying.

        We’re essentially having two different conversations here. I’m talking about a system that doesn’t rely upon money at all, yet all of your counter-arguments are based on using a financial system.

      7. Ryan, when talking about opinions, it’s a good idea to acknowledge reality.

        Where in the world does there exist a system that does not rely on some form of accounting?

        We call it money in the West, but in third-world villages, there is still some form of accounting. When I was growing up in Alaska, there were still Eskimo anas (elders) who remembered before the white man came. They told of their own form of accounting. Some villages and some people were more prosperous than others because they were better at fishing or hunting whales (or seals for individuals, whaling being a group activity). Those villages or individuals traded with others who were better at berry picking or tanning hides, which benefited those folks, but not as much as the hunters and fishers were benefited.

        In other words, there was accounting and richer and poorer folks based on skills and village locations. There was also strife and war because when villages figured out that their neighbors had a better economy than they did because they had a good location, those neighbors wanted that location. Yes, those that had the better location had extra, but they were not willing to share without remuneration, which does not have to be money, but amounts to the same thing. They used fish and berries or carved fossil ivory. We use money. It’s the same thing in essence and it exists in every functioning economy.

        And, by the way, it is a whole lot more efficient to use money than to use fish and berries, both of which spoil, but also — if you’re wanting to buy a pair of mukluks from the skin-sewer and she’s not interested in fish or berries, you now have to find someone else who does have something she wants and wants what you have, so you can get that item and exchange it for the mukluks.

        Lack of money doesn’t make people any more loving or kind to one another or cut down on the competition … or for that matter, the war. Economic activity still goes on, just at a slower, more complicated pace and you are pretty much confined to those people you can interact with face to face because berries and fish don’t transport all that well.

        The convenience of money is one of the things that has allowed society to move beyond hunting-gathering economy. The Eskimos I know wouldn’t go back to the economy of their great-grandfathers by choice.

      8. By the way, the idea of universal support was the idea behind communism, which didn’t work in either the Soviet Union or China. In order for it to work, you need a central planning authority that orders all of society so that excesses get redistributed to areas of scarcity. The problem is that central planning authorities are distant from the people who process the resources and from the people who use the resources. When (historically it has not been If) they fail to anticipate needs and allocate appropriate resources, large segments of society starve to death, as happened with 20 million Ukrainians under Stalin. The bread basket of the USSR was producing bumper crops, which were being shipped all over the country, but Stalin’s bureaucrats misallocated how much grain the Ukrainians themselves needed, so there was mass starvation. Same thing happened in China under Mao.

        While the market economy is imperfect, the booms, slumps and occasional famines in a market system are insignificant compared to the systemic hardship under any control economy.

        Collectivism is one of those ideas that sounds so great on paper, but it has not worked in reality anywhere.

        You are, of course, welcome to try it yourself on the micro-scale. If it works, see if other communities are willing to try the same. At some point, the flaws of utopia will prove my “opinion”, but at least the whole world will not have starved from yet another utopian experiment.

      9. First, to clarify: If we were talking about reality, then opinion wouldn’t even enter the mix, because we would be talking about objective fact. The fact that you believe (keyword) that you’re idea is the correct one does not make it “reality” for everyone else.

        Again, you’re taking this argument in directions that have nothing to do with what I’m saying. For example, I never claimed that by eliminating money people would magically love each other more. Nor am I arguing that economics as a whole should disappear. As long as material goods exist, some kind of economy will exist.

        My entire argument is that there’s no rule about how we have to organize the economy. Nowhere is it written that economies MUST be organized in X way. Money isn’t some natural force that exists independent of human beings; we existed before money. Money is a purely human invention.

        I am NOT arguing that money doesn’t serve a purpose. My argument is that money is not the only medium for exchanging goods and services, nor is it the only incentive that motivates people to be productive. In fact, studies have shown that for skilled tasks and jobs, financial incentives resulted no improvement in performance.

        You can argue about the historical demerits of various economic systems until you’re blue in the face, but that doesn’t change the fact that human beings are capable of you know, improving things. Imagine if every single scientist and inventor in history just automatically gave up the first time a theory or invention failed. Where would we be if everyone followed that example?

        The gap in logic in your argument is the fallacy of “well it didn’t work then so therefore it will never ever work.” Again, there’s no rule about which economies we should use. Values change, beliefs change, and society as a whole changes as time goes on.

      10. You’re ignoring a pretty horrific history of those “values”. The USSR starved 20 million people to death to prove that collectivism was a great idea. China starved to death 40 million for the same purpose. If you combine all the 20th century socialist schemes that were supposed to usher in a workers’ paradise where everyone was equal and happy, it is estimated that more than 100 million people died as a direct result of the failure of communist socialism to work as theorized. That’s a pretty horrific experimental outcome in pursuit of an idealistic utopia.

        That’s not opinion. That’s a historical fact that you can research. I’m sure, like you, the people who started those movements had the best intentions possible, but it didn’t work out as planned because it is not a workable system so long as human beings are in the mix.

        Scientific experiments rarely involve human lives. When Edison failed to create a working lightbulb 999 times, nobody died. When he finally made it work on the 1000th attempt, it was a technological breakthrough and we should all celebrate that he didn’t give up.

        Not so with sociological experiments. How many millions more need to starve to death or be tyrannized by a central planning authority to make it happen? Do you suppose that in the delirium of starvation people will suddenly change?

        Have you ever spoken to anyone who lived under one of those experimental utopian turned totalitarian regimes? I have and I haven’t met a one who thinks it’s a good idea to continue experimenting with that theory.

      11. I haven’t spoken with someone who has lived under a totalitarian regime. I would say, though, that central planning or any non-capitalistic economy doesn’t have to be run by despots and whack jobs. As I mentioned way back at the beginning of this thread, obviously we haven’t all advanced to a place as a species where a system like I’m describing is possible. Maybe we never will. However I don’t think it’s foolish to strive for a system that doesn’t exploit people, which you still get in capitalism. It seems that the only difference between capitalism and central planning is whether you like your corruption and exploration up front or behind closed doors. I personally might not necessarily equate the ability to own things with freedom, but that’s a personal value that I don’t expect everyone else to have. Nor would I try to force that value upon others.

        As I mentioned before, despite our difference of opinion, I do value your input and insight. Thank you for sharing an alternate point of view with me and my readers.

      12. Ryan, I agree that there are humans that can transcend the basic despotic nature of anyone who gets into power, but I would challenge you to find a communist society (which is what you are describing) that has not been run by despots who have used violence to maintain the societal control necessary to subjugate people’s natural desire to better their personal circumstances.

        I don’t think you can find one. I do draw a distinction between communism (which requires everyone to get on board with central planning authority whether they like it or not) and communal living (which is a voluntary system, usually no larger than a town and often surrounded by a thriving economy from which the community can draw benefit or the individual community members can retreat to when the commune doesn’t fulfill their needs beyond the basics of food and shelter.

        I am familiar with some communes and they can be very successful, provided they meet the above requirements. If they don’t, they begin to resemble Jonestown and that’s never a good thing.

      13. Your description of capitalism sounds a great deal like the Soviet Union and other despotic communist societies.

        May I suggest that the current form of “capitalism” is not actually capitalism. It is an oligopoly made possible by state entanglement with the markets. If the government were not involved in the markets, the sort of corruption you are describing would not be possible.

        As for exploitation of people — are you familiar with the early 19th century United States? It was a very capitalistic period of time in this country, but lacked large corporations and government involvement in the markets, so exploitation was limited to single businesses taking advantage of gullible customers who were free to find other businesses to buy and sell with. When I talk about capitalism, that is the system I am discussing. Corporatism is an entirely different subject and I think you and I might find agreement on it, though not necessarily on the means to eliminate it.

        The difference between capitalism and socialism (central planning) is that in capitalism a person is free to follow their own individual desires whereas in socialism the dictates of the central plan requires that the individual relinquish his own desires to the societal “good”, whatever that is perceived to be. It’s not necessarily about owning stuff, but freedom of choice in most things in life rather dictates freedom of economy. If the central plan dictates that I be an engineer, but I would prefer to be a writer, that takes away my freedom of choice. My basic needs may be met, but my avocation is neglected and there is little I can do about it without violating the rules of society. That’s one reason communism didn’t work, because it only addressed the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and could not, because of the need to organize society broadly, address the upper portion. The individual has no value in a planned society because the society must always be the primary focus.

        In capitalism, I am free to choose to be a writer, but I may find I can’t pay my rent and have to get a job that will support my hobby until such time as I can publish a book that sells well enough enough to call myself a professional. I think can, if I choose, quit my day job.

        Socialism tends to promise that I can be a writer if I want, but in reality, the individual is just a cog in the machine and cogs that don’t fulfill their role end up in a gulag somewhere.

        Ultimately, I think being an individual is so important that I am willing to allow society to struggle along without planning so that individuals can remain free. I don’t consider it freedom to have food on my table when I am told what I must eat.

      14. It appears that we have differences of opinion that aren’t likely to change anytime soon. Thank you for sharing your ideas on this blog. I know you kind of got dragged into this conversation by someone else. Nevertheless, I always enjoy hearing an alternate point of view.

      15. Ryan, my opinion is not going to change because it is based on fact that is discoverable in recent history. All you have to do is look at the 20th century experiments with collectivism and see that there have been multiple attempts to make your utopia work and millions have starved to death while the more or less free market countries saw an incredible increase in their standard of living.

        Beyond the starvation of millions, however, there is the psychic toll these experiments took on the nations that undertook them. If you sit down and talk with someone who grew up in communist China or the USSR, you find a common theme. They started out with the best of intentions and the promise of a better life, but in time, the government grew more and more tyrannical in order to make the central planning required of these systems to work. Inevitably, despite the tyranny, the central planning failed and people starved, but when they weren’t starving, they lived in fear of being dragged off to gulags for not conforming 100% with whatever was expected of them.

        I know you think it could all be voluntary and all would be well, but dozens of experiments resulting in real human tragedy have shown that it never works out — at least not on a large scale. It has promise for small-scale. There’s a Christian commune in Alaska that seems to do pretty well, though they are really capitalist when dealing with the outside world, which I believe is the secret to their success — and frankly, they agree with that assessment.

  5. Addressing the OP, what makes someone a “good” person? Jesus said there is no human that is good, because none of us can live up to God’s standard of good.

    “Good” is definitely not a subjective state because it is defined by God and none of us is “good”. Which, Ryan, is why you note that Christians often violate the ideals of what they say is “good”. There is no way flawed human beings are ever going to live up to what is truly good, because God is the definition of good. We’re driven by our fallen nature to act in ways that He never approved. And, God, being Good, sees our attempts to be “good” for what they are … failure.

    Now, are there actions that are better than others and are there people who act in a better fashion more often than others? Yes.

    Will the world like what a God-centered person holds as an ideal and does as a product of that ideal? Probably not. Another thing Jesus told us was that Christians would be hated just as He was hated. A part of being “in the world, but not of it” is holding values that the world thinks are ridiculous or that the majority of society outright hates. When Christians are truly standing on God’s principles are when the world is going to mock (or hate) us the most.

    And, even then, we’re not “good”. Trying to obey God to the best of our abilities just means we’re a little less bad than everyone else, but that’s still not “good”.

  6. Great article. I’ve always opposed the idea that people are good, and I think Scripture makes that clear. Jesus says that no one is good- except God alone (Mark 10:18). The Bible makes the case that everyone is sinful from birth, that no one does good (Romans 3:10-12), and that all of our righteous acts are like filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6).

    I think you made a good case for all this in your article. And when you ask whether or not there’s anything that we could define as universally or definitively good, I would say that God is good. And that’s a crucial concept in Christianity.

    You also mentioned that “thou shalt not kill” is a Christian absolute, but that’s not was Scripture says. This verse is often taken out of context. The Fifth Commandment says “You shall not murder,” and that’s why most Christians are opposed to murder, but not the death penalty or war. So yes, the Bible really is a moral absolute.

    As for empathy, I think even this can be corruptible. I often hear people empathizing with those who are evil, as if we need to understand why someone committed a heinous murder and be sure to treat them humanely. Politicians are great at doing this, and even today they’re talking about the virtues of Boko Haram, empathizing with them because of the oppression against Muslims by the Nigerian government. The Obama administration even refused to designate them as terrorists for this reason. So rather than being a power to stop evil, empathy, in some cases, is used to justify bad behavior and evil.

    1. To play the devil’s advocate (no pun intended), if religion dictates that it’s impossible for us to be good, then what’s the point of morality? Or ethics? Or even consciousness? Indeed, why take any action that we deem traditionally “good”?

      1. The answer is that we need to find our righteousness in Christ. And that’s exactly why Jesus had to come as a human and die on the cross for our sins. It’s because we’re not capable of working our way to heaven and being good. Jesus was the ultimate sacrifice, and it was his death on the cross that redeemed us from our sin.

        Then, once our sins have been atoned for, we do “good” through faith in Christ to glorify and honor him. We don’t do it for our own pleasure, but because of what Jesus did for us. He gives us the joy to do good through faith.

      2. So would it be accurate to say then that, in the Christian school of thought, being faithful is good? Or that a faithful person is a good person?

      3. Being faithful could be good or bad. There are many qualities that are good to have, and faith is a good quality, but having faith doesn’t make a person good. Anyone can put their faith in the wrong place.

        In the Christian “school of thought,” no one is good. Our goodness is found in Christ Jesus because only he is good, and our righteousness comes by faith. By faith God sees the righteousness of Christ when he looks at us, because Jesus was a perfect sacrifice.

    2. With regard to the commandment about murder and killing. That’s obviously an important distinction, as you mentioned. I’m curious, though about the context. Context is completely dependent upon language, and the bible that we know today has been translated and re-translated from many different languages. Hundreds of years ago the difference between “kill” and “murder” may have meant something completely different to a translator than how we’re discussing it now. Different languages have different flavors or contexts to different words, and they aren’t always a straight across translation.

      It seems a bit…I don’t know what the right word is, but I would be extremely hesitant to assume that the English version of any text (not just the bible) has been translated with complete accuracy, with 100% of the context and nuance of the original language completely intact.

      1. Absolutely context is important. And if we review some Bible commentaries and a few different English translations, I think we can understand the context.

        The NIV, ESV, NASB and HCSB all have the Sixth Commandment as “You shall not murder” or “Do not murder.” Only the King James Version uses the word “kill” rather than “murder”, and I think that’s where we find some of the confusion.

        John Gill’s commentary explains that killing of men in lawful war, in defense, when one’s own life is in danger, or the execution by a civil magistrate, are not violations of the Sixth Commandment. What the commandment forbids is the taking of a life through private malice, revenge, envy, sinful anger or undue wrath.

        Matthew Henry’s Commentary explains that the commandment means that we shouldn’t kill anyone “unjustly.” It doesn’t forbid killing in lawful war, self defense, or a magistrate’s putting offenders to death.

        These commentaries are consistent with what we read throughout Scripture. There are instances in the Bible where God commanded the Israelites to go to war, and those instances were just and lawful because that was God’s manner of bringing judgment upon certain nations.

        So long as a person’s death is justified and lawful, it is not murder, and is not a violation of God’s command. This is because that person is guilty and is deserving of the strongest penalty- death. Or it’s because we’re trying to preserve the life of others (in the case of war).

        Jesus raised the bar on this commandment and said that whoever is angry with his brother without just cause will be subject to judgment (Matthew 5:21-22). And 1 John 3:11-15 tells us that anyone who hates his brother or sister is a murderer.

        Murder doesn’t apply to animals- only humans, because only humans are made in the image of God. Therefore the key reason why murder is wrong is because we’re made in God’s image, and murdering another human is an assault upon God.

        Because murder is wrong, and because God considers it murder when we have anger and hatred towards someone, most humans have violated the Sixth Commandment, whether they know it or not. That’s why God considers everyone to be a sinner, and that’s why he tells us that no one is good. Therefore the only way to attain salvation and eternal life is through faith in the only one who was perfect and without sin- Jesus Christ.

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