Nov 08 2013

Two Different Ways to Be a Good Person

Thinking out loud here…

I was talking with a friend the other day, who was telling me about someone in their life who was doing some stuff that was profoundly screwed-up. My friend said (paraphrasing here), “The interesting thing is, I know they think of themselves as a good person.” Which, of course, almost everyone does — even terrible people think they’re good people. Almost nobody thinks they’re a bad person. Almost nobody is a cartoon villain, rubbing their hands together and cackling over their beautiful wickedness like the Wicked Witch of the West.

And I said — it having occurred to me just then — that it seemed like there were two very different ways of thinking of yourself as a good person. There’s the standard way that rationalization works: you think of yourself as a good person, so when you do something bad, your brain immediately rushes in to start rationalizing and coming up with explanations, often convoluted, for why what you did was actually acceptable and even positively virtuous. It’s not even so much that you think of yourself as being good: it’s more that you start with the assumption that you’re good, and go from there. You think of being good as something you are, a solid and essential part of your nature.

And then there’s the way of thinking of yourself as a good person that involves constantly questioning and doubting. It involves the understanding that you aren’t, in fact, always good. It involves constantly asking yourself, “Am I doing the right thing here?” “Did I do the right thing back then?” “Could I have done something differently that would have been better?” It involves the understanding that being good is hard. It involves the understanding that being good sometimes involves making the least bad of multiple bad choices. It involves understanding that being good means being closer to the good end of a good-bad spectrum… and trying to shift yourself closer to that end. It involves constantly examining the question of what it means to be good: in general, and in any given situation. You think of being good, less as something you are, and more as something you do… and thus as something more fragile.

(Of course, it’s not a simple matter of “there are two kinds of people in the world, some people do one thing and some do the other.” I think most of us do both of these at least sometimes.)

I think the second way involves actually being good, while the first way mostly just involves thinking of yourself as good. But the second way does have its downsides. Self-questioning and self-doubt can easily be taken to a degree that’s paralyzing: you can get so worried about doing the right thing, it can keep you from doing anything at all. It can lead you to letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. And it can lead to low confidence, low self-esteem, not recognizing the degree to which you are good and have done good and continue to do good. It can lead you to obsess on all the ways you’ve been weak or lazy or selfish or simply failed. As messed-up as it is, the psychological process of rationalization is essential: we’d be paralyzed without it. (I often come back to that saying from Hillel: If I am not for myself, than who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I?)

Not sure where I’m going with this. Just thinking out loud. Thoughts?


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  1. 1
    SC (Salty Current), OM

    Good post.

    I wrote something similar about objectivity a while back.

  2. 2

    This definitely relates to the hyperskepticism many skeptics/atheists engage in.

    They think they’re being “good” skeptics by questioning everything. (“Feminism is just another philosophy that needs to be examined for bias!” “Social justice is just another distraction from real skepticism/atheism!” “Women can be mean, too, so how can I be a sexist?” … and so on.)

    Social justice is based on the premise of being a good person, not on being a “good” soldier within any specific movement. There’s nothing conflicting with that basic premise and science, atheism, and/or skepticism.

  3. 3

    Perhaps the flaw with the second approach is that it involves agonising over details, as you said. Actually, it reminded me of nothing so much as the Christian focus on sin and self-examination of your life with a view to discovering your own. That path leads to self-flagellation (literally in some cases) and an unpleasant focus on issues like moral purity, postures of humiliation and mutual criticism when it moves into social circles. Ugh!

    I suspect there is a third approach or set of approaches. We can absolve ourselves of the issue of whether we are good or bad people because we’re neither. We can consider the pros and cons of different kinds of actions up front rather than in retrospect, which means giving ourselves a moral education. My personal view is that most of all we need to work at social frameworks and cultures that structure the behaviors we’ve self-consciously chosen as best. None of us should be exposed too often to the possibilities offered by power or greed or to harsh choices between our own well-being and that of others. We do have some personal responsibility, but we place a great deal of emphasis on that already and I believe that as humans, we are simply not up to it.

  4. 4

    I’ve thought about a similar distinction, which boils down to two different readings of “Good people do good deeds”.

    Some people seem to start with considering themselves as good people. Because they are good people, their actions have to be good, too .

    Others want to be good, so they try to act good.

  5. 5

    the dunning-kruger effect comes to mind ;)

  6. 6

    I like to look for gender differences, not for judgemental purposes, I hope, but to better understand where the other gender is coming from.

    It would be interesting to get some self report data. As a life long male my hunch is males tend toward type one and females toward type two. I wonder what others think.

  7. 7
    C Tran

    Thanks for writing this. As someone who’s struggled with depression based on disagreements about what’s right and wrong among my friends and family, this really rings true with me and offers some perspective.

  8. 8

    Excellent post :)

  9. 9

    I forget who I read/listened to that suggested this, it may have been Michael Josephson of “Character Counts” or David K. Reynolds of “Constructive Living,” or perhaps Steven Covey of “7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” but I remember one or another of such people saying that, if you don’t like the character that you have now, the good thing is that you can always start now toward changing it. If you haven’t been reliable and trustworthy in the past, you can always take steps now to repair your integrity, moving forward.

  10. 10

    The point of my #9 is to help with that feeling of immobilization and depression when over-analyzing yourself into paralysis.

  11. 11
    John Horstman

    Then, of course, the vast array of different ideological frameworks for what constitutes “good” behavior further complicates the issue. Even if one is striving to be(have) always closer to the good end of the spectrum, exactly whose good-bad spectrum are we using? Ayn Rand held up rational action to further one’s personal, direct self-interest at all costs as the ultimate good, while I hold that to be abhorrent, harmful sociopathy. Moral judgement systems are means of social coercion to attempt to get other people to behave how we want them to behave. They’re useful systems to be sure, and they’re always a vector for political action, for mediating power relationships. Both your definitions seem to involve a certain degree of essentialization (of one’s personal moral value judgements), though, so I’m not sure either describes reality particularly well. That possibility of paralysis is probably due in large part to the fact that when one starts interrogating morality, the entire concept (as a sort of objective or essential scale) collapses, and thus one is left trying to do good when “good” no longer has a stable meaning. It’s the wrong question – what we need to be asking with respect to our actions is: Whom will we benefit? Whom will we harm? Based on those answers, if everyone acted in this way, is that a world in which we would want to live?

  12. 12

    Don’t have much to add except that it reminds me of one of my favorite bits from the Tao Te Ching (chapter 38):

    The person of superior integrity
    does not insist upon their integrity;
    For this reason, they have integrity.
    The person of inferior integrity
    never loses sight of their integrity;
    For this reason, they lack integrity.

    (Took it upon myself to substitute neutral pronouns.)

  13. 13

    Self-questioning and self-doubt can easily be taken to a degree that’s paralyzing: you can get so worried about doing the right thing, it can keep you from doing anything at all. It can lead you to letting the perfect be the enemy of the good.

    I have this problem in spades. I don’t think of myself as a good person at all – I think of myself as a seriously awful person who has the potential to do good things sometimes, if I self-check well enough, but who is so likely to mess those things up that it’s often not worth trying at all. As a result, I often think I’m actually a less good and less useful person than I would be if I didn’t analyze my actions so much.

  14. 14
    Fail Blue Dot

    I agree that the second way can be paralysing. One thing I saw on Twitter just yesterday was someone who is very much an activist for feminism, racial and class equality describing themselves as “racist classist scum”. I know it was a shorthand and they explained it as a way of signalling to themselves that they continue to behave in very imperfect ways (as we all do) and that they have work to do.

    But still, it highlights a stream that I’ve seen on blogs that talk about social justice — there can sometimes be an almost confessional desire to self-criticise and rarely cut yourself a break. While someone who only engages in the first type of behavior (“I’m a good person”) is experiencing tremendous cognitive bias and probably doing harm, I think for a lot of us it can actually be valuable to at least consciously spend some % of our time in that state just to recharge our batteries.

    There may also be some exploration to be had about the [religiously originating] anti-hedonism in our society and its influence on this type of thinking.

  15. 15

    This makes me think of how the “restorative lens” of the Restorative Practices movement looks at this question. The concern is not for whether the person is “good” by following rules, nor for whether they are “good” at all.

    The question is whether you have harmed or helped. We look at an action we have taken, and if we have done harm, the aim is to take responsibility for our action, listen to the voice of the person harmed, and repair the harm to the best of our ability.

    I find it helps me to move away from the constant comparing and judging of good or bad people to instead look at people’s actions and words, and whether those actions and words are harmful or helpful.

  16. 16

    I think, too, the first group confuses being good with not being bad, not disobeying or breaking any laws. Morality is about following the rules.

    The second group, as you say, holds a more mature morality, one which holds that being good requires making reasoned judgements and acting to prevent harm. It’s more pro-active morality.

  17. 17

    Certainly true. I think I unfortunately fall into the self-paralyzing variation of the second type. I frequently dwell on the worst and most humiliating moments of my life.

    I think there are more axes, though; for example, Lawrence Kohlberg’s stages of morality.

  18. 18
    Azkyroth Drinked the Grammar Too :)

    But the second way does have its downsides. Self-questioning and self-doubt can easily be taken to a degree that’s paralyzing: you can get so worried about doing the right thing, it can keep you from doing anything at all. It can lead you to letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. And it can lead to low confidence, low self-esteem, not recognizing the degree to which you are good and have done good and continue to do good. It can lead you to obsess on all the ways you’ve been weak or lazy or selfish or simply failed.

    … it can easily be exploited by people who aren’t good but are fairly familiar with your history and personality to manipulate and abuse you…

  19. 19
    Vicki, duly vaccinated tool of the feminist conspiracy

    I wonder where my “a good person/Vicki would do X, so I am going to do X” falls on that axis. It’s not “I picked up this bit of litter, therefore I am a good person” but “I think/believe that a good person would pick up that litter, so I am going to do it, even if it’s a nuisance.”

    Obviously, that approach doesn’t help a person formulate her ethics, but I don’t think I’m that unusual in looking at things that way. (I chose a relatively uncontroversial example because the value of X in “a good person would X, therefore I am going to do X” isn’t the point here.)

  20. 20

    I would love to put this in next year’s Yom Kippur observance for our Secular Jewish community. I’m really good about citing authors. Please let me know if not ok.

  21. 21

    The first way is even more insidious when people apply it to others. “He’s my friend, I know he’s a good person, so he didn’t do the bad thing/had a good reason for doing the bad thing so it’s not actually bad.” This comes up all the time with scandals about sexual harassment and assault within communities of practice. Like atheism and skepticism. People defend those they respect and care for because they think they’re being supportive. Really being supportive is applying the second way to others: acknowledging that a bad thing was done and asking how you can help repair the damage and make sure it doesn’t happen again.

    For example, I know someone who was arrested for domestic violence (a single incident, not an ongoing pattern of abuse). He told me that afterwards he had friends who told him he was in the right, that “the bitch had it coming.” He stopped talking to those people. When you recognize you’ve done harm and are trying to change, people who enable the harm are not exactly helping.

    About the second way leading to excessive analysis and self-doubt: my approach is to be forgiving with myself. To try to admit when I didn’t do the good thing, but be okay with that if I’m learning. Metaphorically beating onesself up over misdeeds is really first-way thinking, because you’re saying that if you did a bad thing you’re a bad person (flipside of good people only do good things).

  22. 22

    (Of course, it’s not a simple matter of “there are two kinds of people in the world, some people do one thing and some do the other.” I think most of us do both of these at least sometimes.)

    I think this is certainly true. I’m reminded of the Weinberg quote that “…for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.” Having observed religious people, I’ve noticed many of them doing two things simultaneously:

    1. Examining themselves frequently to make sure their behaviour matches the ambiguous standards of whichever flavour of whatever religion they prefer. and

    2. Believing that because their One True Religion is good and because they act as if it’s true, what they do must automatically be good.

    To be fair, lots of religious people also question the rules of their religion and hold them up to their own standards of morality. We tend to call this cherry picking and with good reason, but it’s presumably the people who do this who don’t become the good people who do evil things.

    Or at least, people who think of themselves as good doing evil things.

  23. 23

    Reminds me of one of my favourite movies – The Last Supper (doesn’t actually have anything to do with religion).

    A bunch of postgrads end up being obligated to invite an odious redneck for dinner. An argument ensues, and escalates, and they, in what could be classed as self-defence, kill him. And decide not to report it. They then rationalise what they’ve done. After all, they’re “good” people, and the person they killed really wasn’t nice at all, so they must have done a good thing by ridding the world of him, right?

    But then, having let their actions define their sense of morality, they then decide to let their new sense of morality define their actions…

    It’s a very dark comedy, with a great cast and a top-notch script, that does an amazing job of showing how your “type 1″ good person can do really bad things in the name of good.

  1. 24
    Suggestion Saturday: November 16, 2013 | On The Other Hand

    […] Two Different Ways to Be a Good Person. I don’t think life is quite this simple, but do see value in teasing out the difference between thinking you’re a good person and seeing yourself someone who occasionally/regularly/often does good things. […]

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