Difficulties of Being Good

I know the title of this article sounds like I’m about to go into some self-pitying biz about how “no good deed goes unpunished” and only the virtuous suffer and so on. I’ve been on that tip in the past, but it doesn’t seem right to me anymore. No, this article is about the disadvantages people have when it comes to being a good person, which is a way in which I might be rather fortunate.

First, what I mean by being good: Causing no harm to others, generally leaving people in an equal or better state than that in which you found them. Being a positive (or at least not negative) influence in society. This is not something everyone aspires to, but most would prefer to at least not be thought of as evil. Even that lower bar is a hard one for some of us to clear. What is it that makes it hard to be good?

A few mental illnesses can be a factor. Antisocial Personality Disorder and Narcissism can make it very hard to be good, especially for the undiagnosed and those lacking in self-awareness. But there are much more common difficulties found in the neurotypical. Four that I’ll talk about right now: bullying instinct, greed for wealth, greed for power, and social privilege. (There are probably better formal terms for the first three that I’m unaware of, but bear with me.)

Bullying instinct is expressed in a lot of different ways, but fundamentally it’s the drive to hurt the disadvantaged for pleasure. There are lots of ways to be disadvantaged. A new kid at school with no social capital or buffer of friends to protect them, a physically weak person against a strong one, a child or elderly or disabled person in the care of an able-bodied adult, a member of a traditionally oppressed class faced with the privileged, and so on. In cyber-bullying of the MRA/GG/etc. variety, the disadvantage is being a singular public personality against an anonymous horde in an as-yet lawless domain. The public faces of cyber-bullying (Gjoni, Yiannopoulos, that fake goth, Dawkins, etc.) would be relatively powerless if not for the hordes of flying monkeys that fill the sky whenever they say a name, and for the way society doesn’t believe respect or defend the types of people they usually target.

I’ve never understood why people want to hurt those who are vulnerable to them. I want to hurt people who cause harm to me or to others, but whether that’s good or bad (it ain’t great), it isn’t the same thing. I want to protect people who are being hurt. To hurt someone who can’t fight back? Why do that? What’s the appeal? But one doesn’t have to look far to see that it’s an extremely common instinct. So much so that you would be wrong to pathologize it, to say it’s a mental illness. If a personality trait affects 35% of your species, it isn’t a mental illness, it’s just part of the range of neurotypical behavior. (I pulled that number out of my rear, no idea what the numbers are actually like or if there’s even reasonable way for anyone to find out.)

This question has plagued me since I had the language to articulate it – Why bullies? My earliest memory is getting a bloody nose from a much larger child. It’s the genesis of this article. This everyday emotional sadism no doubt makes it very difficult to be a good person. Moving on though, greed for wealth and power.

Greed for wealth is another thing I’ve never understood. Desire for a spacious house, fun toys? A fast shiny car? Cool-looking clothes? I get all of that, I’ve felt it to some extent or another same as anyone. But the dollars themselves – why want those? And the status symbols – why want those? A fast shiny car could be forty years old, cared for and maintained. Why get a brand new Bentley every year? The only reason is status, and I do not fucking understand that. What feels good about that? Driving fast, looking at your nifty possessions with satisfaction, OK. Wanting possessions that do nothing for you except denote your willingness and ability to waste a fuckton of money? What is that?

And even if you are one of the rich that doesn’t splurge on those things, that does hold onto your paper, hustle it into offshore accounts, pay off politicians to never tax you. Why? What is that good for? It’s nothing. It’s utterly abstract. Even if you have that money in gold, the value of gold is subjective. It isn’t magic. If two men are in a golden prison with no food, food is more valuable to them. Papers, gold, bitcoins, who cares?

My dude suggested to me it’s a fear of class warfare – an understanding that the rightfully outraged will ultimately tear down your castles, leading to a feeling that you must build that castle into the sky just to feel safe. I don’t know, but desire for money and status symbols compels many people to do very bad things. Being good when you have those urges can’t come easily.

Greed for power over others. I’ve had a small measure of this before, and while taking advantage of the power you have for petty stuff I get (like choosing what movie your crew goes to), seeking additional power, holding desperately onto what power I have, this has never been appealing to me. Again, what does it mean? Why would you want to have control over others? Any praise that comes from those you control is automatically suspect as coerced. With power you can’t feel truly loved, only feared. Why would you want that? From high school clique control to shift managers in fast food up to high offices and dictators, the lust for power can make it more difficult to be good.

Lastly (on my list, if not in reality), we come to social privilege. While the other traits on the list are things I’m fortunately lacking, privilege is definitely not. I’ve been raised as a presumed boy, presumed man, in a society that favors boys and men so powerfully it’s god damn nightmarish. I’ve been white in a country that will fucking destroy you without a thought for being anything else (if you aren’t lucky). The worst thing about privilege for the privileged is that it makes us feel entitled over the oppressed and simultaneously blinds us to noticing that sense of entitlement. It’s a huge barrier to being good.

One can have every trait on this list and still be a good person, but to do so, you have to understand what you’re up against. You have to fight through it. If you manage to be good, even saintly with your favored people – family, friends, your race or social class – but are a menace to people outside of that group, then you’re a bad person. Take an honest look at yourself, get it together, try again.

Myself as an example: I don’t want to hurt people for fun, I don’t want money or status or power, I even have some genuinely positive intentions. But I’ve done bad things, mostly from being blind to my privilege over women. And even some years after I started to get educated about that privilege, I still fucked up, I did bad, because I’m so habituated to that privilege. Did I rape anyone? No, never been in a situation where that was even a question. But I definitely did some things that could be construed as sexual harassment of the verbal type, made a few women feel unsafe or alienated. And with regards to race, I’ve had some fuckups too.

I’ve been bad, I can certainly make mistakes in the future, but I don’t want to be bad, and I’ll do my best to keep that from happening. When I’m called out, I’ll cop to it, apologize, take the appropriate punishment. The kind of people who don’t want to acknowledge that privilege is real will read this and shake their heads, think of me as some self-flagellating fool who is putting myself through torture over invisible sins.

Guess what, dudes? Once you recognize your privilege (it’s as blindingly obvious and real as the sun if you are willing to look), recognize your harmful impulses, being good isn’t that hard. You might screw up, you might have to do some apologizing, might take some deserved licks. But 99.9% of the time? It’s pretty fucking easy, and it feels good to know I’m not hurting people, feels good to know that I can actually help people.

You can do it too. Pay your taxes. Don’t keep up with the Joneses. Don’t boss people around. Recognize your advantages and use them to offset the disadvantages others face. Tell your bros at the meeting to shut up for five minutes so the woman can talk. Realize you might not be seeing everyone as fully human, wake up, meet the humans all around you. You might be able to take the scare quotes off your “gay friend” and your “black friend,” might be able to occupy a friendzone with comfort and style.

It’s the right thing to do.


  1. says

    Thoughtful and thought provoking; thanks!

    Bullying, I think, is one of the subjects that so-called “moral foundations theory” helps to illuminate. (I just wrote an over-long comment on a related subject elsewhere on FTB, so I’ll [try to] keep things short here.)

    You write: “I want to hurt people who cause harm to me or to others.” Agreed; further, I’d imagine that the idea of somebody *getting away with* hurting others causes you discomfort — indeed, probably anger. And you probably get a little bit of satisfaction from the idea of such a person getting what they deserve. That’s pretty much how the “moral emotions” work. I’d also guess that you’d feel similarly about blatant unfairness. I make these guesses because these moral intuitions — about harm and unfairness — are pretty much universal (if, as you suggest, we exclude psychopaths from the scope of the conversation).

    On the other hand, three other dimensions of moral intuition are widespread but far from universal, namely: hierarchy, loyalty (in-group preference), and purity. And most of the behavior we’d call bullying is traceable to one or more of these.

    Imagine if somebody “getting out of line” (i.e. violating the prevailing hierarchy) felt *exactly the same* to you as somebody harming or cheating someone else — the same anger at the idea that they could get away with it, and the same satisfaction at the idea of them getting what they deserve. Even weirder, imagine if “otherness” per se felt like a transgression (as per in-group preference), and that somebody “getting away with” merely being “other” without suffering due punishment was an intolerable outrage.

    Honestly, it’s a little bit dizzying to realize the extent to which people with “conservative” psychology inhabit an entirely alien moral universe. But then, in the words of The Vision, “They [humans] are odd.”

  2. says

    I get the impression that bullies do it in order to feel powerful. I suspect that something or other has made them feel very powerless and they’re overcompensating in a very nasty way.

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