2012-08-08

On Being A Good Person

Here's a question I'd like you to consider: What determines whether or not someone is a good person?

Consider the possible determining factors:
  • Does the person know right from wrong?
  • Does the person adhere to a code of ethics?
  • Does the person do nice things?
  • Is the person friendly?
  • Does the person put others' interests ahead of his/her own?
  • Does the person respect social institutions?
  • Does the person give others the benefit of the doubt?
  • ...and so on.
An interesting aspect of this list (and, presumably, any such list of factors) is that no one factor or combination of factors seems to determine whether someone is a good person. This is an idea worth exploring.

Ethics Aren't Sufficient
Having a code of ethics - and indeed adhering to one's ethical code - does not appear to be sufficient to make someone a good person.

One can easily point to "big-ticket" examples here, in which people hate each other for religious or political reasons. But we need not necessarily go there. There seems to be more to it than that. We all know people who rigorously adhere to a particular value system, despite the fact that they don't particularly seem to be good people. Perhaps for some of us, our ethical code even makes us a more rigidly acidic person than we otherwise would be.

Of course, the obsessively logical among us could counter that there is a flaw in such a person's ethical code: they have neglected tact, or gentleness, or forgiveness, or kindness in some way. This flaw, or logical friends would say, explains why the ethical person is not a particularly good person.

But I don't necessarily buy that. For one thing, the "missing piece" might be genuinely unwelcome in the person's ethical system, for legitimate and logical reasons. For another thing, simply having an ethical system does not automatically make a person perfect. Joe Ethics might truly endeavor to adhere to his philosophy, and might truly fail in his attempts.

No, I think it takes more than ethics to be a good person.

On The Other Hand, Just Doing Nice Things Is Also Not Enough
In contrast, I know many people who reject rigid ethical systems and instead approach being a good person from a more lax perspective. They might not be able to come up with concrete, logical rules about right and wrong, but they claim to know it when they see it.

One problem with this view is that such people often do things that are completely contradictory. They may feel that sparing the rod is good for the child, only to spoil their children so much that the children themselves grow up maladjusted to modern life. They might be so concerned with not hurting a friend's feelings that they may neglect to provide much-needed honest feedback when required.

Another problem with this view is that it almost always spares the holder of that view a lot of responsibility that they should rightly bear. Just as someone who proclaims they will "work out really hard" without defining what "hard" means will often underestimate their true potential, so too will lackadaisical "good people" often do only the minimum. Perhaps they feel that smiling and being friendly is good enough.

So, What Is Enough?
It appears there is some discretion involved here. A good person is someone who has a good sense of ethics, but who doesn't let concrete positions interfere with discretionary, personal interaction. A good person is one who does nice things, but does them in a consistent enough manner to avoid causing undue injury to others when they require something more firm than a kind word.

There's more. A good person is friendly to everyone, but not so friendly as to treat well someone who has grieveously injured a close friend; i.e., a good person doesn't let friendliness interefere with their sense of loyalty. A good person is altruistic, but not to the point that he/she compromises the interests of those close to him/her, including himself/herself. A good person gives credit to others, but not undue credit.

When you boil it all down, being a good person appears to mean being of value to those with whom one has close relationships. That is, being a good person means being considered good by those whose relationships the good person values.

I spend a lot of time on this blog discussing ethics, creeds, and such. I wanted to inject a little sanity into the discussion, as well. It's not all about adhering to rules, it's about applying discretion when merited. It's about enriching those lives we feel deserve to be enriched. It's about cultivating strong, positive relationships. It's about making a tough judgment call.