Friday, April 23, 2010



At some point in our lives, we all wonder whether we are "good people." We live with others. We know how "good people" act. We have an intuitive sense about what makes a person "good." We even hear things about what makes a person "good:" They are friendly, kind, forbearing, compassionate, ethical, honest, caring, loving, trustworthy, gracious, forgiving and generous. "Good people" do not hurt you. They do what they say; and they apologize if they do not. They consider you at the same time they consider themselves. Aristotle and many other philosophers have written tomes about what it takes to be "good." It is an age-old question.

Of course, not everyone can agree on what is "good." You can't know you are a good person until you know what is good in the first place. What is good in one person's eyes may be bad in another. It is easy to lay down absolute standards for goodness. Yet like all ethical dilemmas, only we can say whether we subjectively feel that we have done right. Nonetheless, we can generally all agree that being "good" involves living without intent to injure other people. In that sense, being a "good person" essentially depends on positive motivation. And that positive motivation shines through in good actions toward others. Good people think selflessly; they refuse to hurt others to advance their interests. Bad people do the opposite; they are willing to hurt others to help themselves.

Being a good person is an individual lifestyle. It does not depend on how much money you make or what you do for a living. While it is possible to identify "objective" factors that hint whether a person is "good," true goodness comes from the heart, not from action alone. Enron fraud artists probably donated some money to charity the same year they robbed millions; that donation did not make them good people. No, being good is internal; and good shines through in external action. It is hard to verify. But everyone knows it when they see it.

It is refreshing to know a truly good person because they are rare. In our world, it is hard to be selfless and honorable. There are so many impulsions to discard goodness toward others in order to advance yourself. By the same token, it is hard to be patient. No one wants to wait or understand others' problems. Nor do they want to waste their time on others without reward. After all, people need to fend for themselves. They only have a limited time to get the job done. If they waste their time being nice to others, they might injure their own fortunes. And no one likes to do that. Put simply, we expect most people not to be good; our society frustrates goodness. That is why it is a welcome relief to meet a good person.

There is no formula to being a good person. Yet people throw the term around far more than they should. In many cases, they say someone is "good" solely because they act in a way that enriches them. That misunderstands what it means to be good. A truly good person acts with malice toward no one. The fact that a person acts the way another person wants them to does not make him good. To the contrary, expecting a person to act in a way that is beneficial to you undermines their value as an individual. It "instrumentalizes" them; it makes them pawns in a game you want to win. Just because someone pays you according to a contract does not make them "good." Merely fulfilling an external legal obligation is no shortcut to goodness. A good person holds to his word because it is his word, not because the law threatens him to do so.

Yet many people think that observing external obligations makes you "good." It is easy to make this mistake. After all, complying with the law seems like a "good" thing to do. But the law is indifferent to intention. And intention is the only thing that determines whether a person is good. In that sense, it is possible to seem good by fulfilling every imaginable legal standard. Yet it is also possible to have only bad intentions while complying with the law. You can be a total scoundrel yet do nothing illegal. If a person did not know you, they might say: "Well, he is law-abiding. So he must be a good person." To that extent, fulfilling external obligations can disguise ethical flaws.

I encountered an example to illustrate this easily confused distinction in the New York Post a few days ago. I read an article about some poor web designer who got run over in a Brooklyn street. See N.Y. Post, Horror hit-run in B'klyn, April 19, 2010 at p. 9. The article quoted his landlord. She spoke about his character: "He works. He comes home. He's a very good person (emphasis added)."

What did the landlord know about this guy? How did she know he was a "very good person?" She based her assessment on the fact that he works and comes home. What does that have to do with ethical goodness or pure intention? Nothing. If anything, it reveals that the landlord thinks the web designer was a "good person" solely because he went to his job, came home every night and ostensibly paid the rent. He might have been an utter scoundrel who doublecrossed his friends and broke women's hearts. Yet as far as the landlord was concerned, he was a "good person" because he adhered to his contractual obligations to pay rent. He also was a "good person" because he quietly went to his job and caused no disturbances.

I suppose this is what it takes to be a "good person" in a landlord's eyes. Landlord apply a "formula" for goodness: Have good credit; make an income; cause no trouble; pay your rent; keep your mouth shut; pay next month's rent; pay a late fee after the first. Your intentions do not matter. And "being a good person" means acting exactly the way the landlord wants. In this case, the landlord happened to like the way her tenant behaved because he did what enriched her. She morally approved him because his behavior coincided with her interests. His own ethical qualities did not influence her appraisal. It was "all about her." And that determined whether he was "good."

This gravely misunderstands what it means to be a "good person." A person is not "good" simply because he acts in a way that enriches another. Nor is he "good" simply because he adheres to contractual obligations under law. Rather, goodness is more subtle than that. There is no checklist. Action is not enough. It takes real reflection to see whether someone is good. Getting a rent check in the mail every month does not suffice to prove goodness.

Criminals and scallywags can mail rent checks, too. That does not make them good people.

But who has time to sit down and really think about character in our society? It seems we only care about character when we want to damage a foe with some embarrassing "flaw." And once again, we do that to merely to advance ourselves at their expense. By hurting them, we help ourselves. And hurting others is rarely good.

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