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?