Being a Good Person



ABSTRACT:  Various views of a “good person” are identified, together with defining characteristics and methods of becoming and being a “good person.”  The relationship between being a “good person” and morality and ethics is discussed.

KEY WORDS:  good, good person, morals, ethics

Three meanings of “good person” must be distinguished:  (1) the good person (“good boy,” “good girl”) who behaves in ways that are pleasing to parents and other authority figures; (2) the good person who is pleasing to God (sometimes partly through ignoring what would please parents and other earthly authority figures); and (3) the good person who can be identified as good because of his or her attitudes and actions toward others, including caring about others, acting morally, being trustworthy and responsible, treating others appropriately and ethically, and carrying out activities that contribute to the well being of others such as socializing children to be emotionally healthy and good people and supporting the societal structures that make life bearable (being a good citizen).  I will be using “good person” in this third sense.  “Being good” applies to momentary decisions or individual actions to be good, while “being a good person” implies a more ongoing effort and condition that shows some consistency over time.

Since a good person would presumably be doing “good,” it is necessary to identify what is “good.”  What people consider to be “good” stems from what they view as furthering their interests, and what is “bad” is that which is viewed as harming them or their interests.  Applying this to the above differentiation of what it means to be a good person, we see that in meanings one and two, the good person is seen as good because he is furthering the interests of parents or God.  In the third meaning of the term, the good person is seen as good because his actions are furthering the interests of other people.  (In both cases, he is also furthering his own interests, as we all do in every action that we take.)

Pleasing parents and pleasing God as approaches to being good, while simplifying behavioral choice processes, if sustained into adulthood, create a narrow person who is unlikely to grow into meaningful maturity, because what is considered right or appropriate can only be revealed to that person by parents or God, depriving the person of the necessity for appreciating the difficulty of choices in real life between various “goods” and the necessity of learning to make her own decisions about what is right and appropriate.  Most of us begin life trying to please our parents and somewhat later come to understand the importance of pleasing God.  The mature person internalizes and then refines these criteria for being good and from them creates his or her own set of principles and beliefs that allow appropriate continued pleasing of parents to some degree, living in accordance with universal religious truths (which may not be the same as conforming to the customs of established churches), and having a loving and positive impact on others.  (“Morals” are more oriented to what is “right” and “wrong,” while “ethics” speaks to how we should interact with our fellow human beings.)

This process of examining and refining moral and ethical rules and principles usually involves recognizing their imperfection and ambiguities, as well as seeing how rules are sometimes created by individuals partly to benefit themselves at the expense of others (passing tax laws that benefit legislators only; requiring things other than citizenship before letting people vote; declaring that contributing money to the church through buying “indulgences” will help the individual or his relatives escape from purgatory and ascend to heaven; etc.).  Two guidelines for the development of ethical principles are (1) reciprocity (treating others as you would like to be treated by them, since when you treat others well, they are more likely to treat you the same) and (2) the “Kantian imperative”–that in choosing your behavior or creating a standard for yourself, you must consider whether it would a better world or a worse one if everyone else made the same choice.

What (Who) Is a Good Person?

A good person treats others well, regardless of the circumstances and will do the right and appropriate thing to do even if it has immediate costs (even if he does not get everything he wants from the current situation).  It helps to make these costs more bearable that he believes that acting consistently over time in a moral/ethical manner will actually give him (and others) the greatest total rewards over the long haul.  He does the right and appropriate thing even if no one will know that he has done so and even if he could act inappropriately and unethically without anyone knowing, because he knows that his actions have consequences for everyone, even if they do not know that he is the cause.  He feels responsible for the consequences of his actions, even if others do not know of his actions.

As we all know, people sometimes do what is wrong rather than what is right.  Much of this inconsistency stems from the fact that while they acknowledge that someone else says it is right and good and may believe with part of themselves that it is right and good, other parts of themselves do not believe this at all (or the person has several inconsistent views on the matter, which vie for ascendancy), and these other parts or views press for action to get what the person wants right now regardless of whether the behavior will be “right” and “good.”  We call this self-centered behavior “selfish.”  This can also be viewed as the “split” between a somewhat more mature “ego” that tries to direct behavior and an “id” that wants what it wants regardless of the impact on others and has difficulty delaying gratification for any reason.  The “superego” or conscience, that causes unpleasant feelings when the principles it wishes the person to live by are violated, is not sufficient for most people to ensure “good” behavior.  The best solution for guaranteeing “good” behavior, therefore, is for the person to believe that acting in a “good” manner will result in the greatest rewards over the long term, even if immediate gratifications must sometimes be given up.  This removes the conflict between the part of the self that wants to “do good” and the part that doesn’t care about that but rather cares only about its own gratifications.  The “child” (id) part of the person must develop faith that the “adult” (ego) part of the person will maximize the benefits to the “child” part by following the strategy of “being good.”

A good person wants good for all people, not just for herself, her friends, and her family.  This desire is based on an empathic awareness of what it feels like to be injured by the immoral or unethical behavior of others, as well as a positive vision of what social relations could be like if everyone acted in a moral/ethical manner.  She makes the welfare of others as important as her own welfare.  She is forgiving, merciful, and compassionate because she understands how difficult it is both to arrive at moral/ethical decisions and to carry them out, sometimes in the face of one’s own selfish desires.

A good person carries out responsibilities without having to be coerced and even if there are costs for doing so.  She views responsibilities as part of her moral/ethical contract with others, and she honors that contract without others’ urging or knowledge.

An individual in the highest stage of moral/ethical development decides on moral/ethical behavior based on all the short-term and the long-term results and consequences of his  behavior for everyone, including those in future generations who could be harmed or benefited by his current behavior.  He uses rules, principles, cultural traditions, and the consultative advice of trusted others to arrive at decisions about what is the “most right” thing to do.

A good person uses both information and emotional data to make moral/ethical decisions.  He uses his knowledge to predict what the consequences of his actions will be for everyone who could be impacted, and he uses empathy to appreciate what those consequences will feel like for those affected.  He considers how he himself will feel about himself and his behavior afterward (although he has moved beyond basic, unthinking guilt and shame controls to respond more to disappointment with self when he does not live up to his ideals).  Both sources of inner guidance are necessary.  A person who acts on cognitive data only (knowing what is right from instructions or principles) can get off course at times because he lacks the guidance of empathy, which tells him what the experiential impact of a contemplated behavior will be.  This impact must be congruent with the principle at issue or there will be a resulting internal conflict.  On the other hand, a person who acts on empathy only (not using cognitive data to supplement this) makes errors by always trying to eliminate pain and engender pleasant feelings, when he could know through cognitive means when it is in the other person’s best interest to suffer or to experience the unpleasant consequences of his or her actions.

Some people act like good persons but are not sincerely and open-heartedly good persons, since their behavior is largely aimed at getting approval and rewards from those around them for being good or appearing to be a good person.  A sincerely good person feels good himself about his actions and his identification with the ideals of goodness and does not seek the admiration of others (“goodness is its own reward”).  (In some instances, of course, the good person gets the respect and approval of others for good and compassionate behaviors and for being a good person.)

No doubt some readers will object to this description of the good person because they want to think of themselves as good persons (and have generally thought of themselves as good persons), but they are not empathically oriented toward contributing to good outcomes for others, as is required by the description of the good person in this essay.  These people may be equating social acceptability with being a good person, as if everyone who is accepted as a member of the community or as a member of his or her social group must automatically be viewed as a good person.  Some of these people have lots of friends, with most of these relationships being relatively superficial and oriented toward mutual business gain.  They may sometimes contribute to gains for these friends but only if they themselves benefit as well.  Others may think that anyone who does not harm others on purpose must qualify as a good person.  Social bonhomie and holding back from harming others do not qualify as being a good person in the definition presented here, which calls for caring about the welfare of people in general and acting in ways that promote good outcomes for others.

Another group of people pass as good most of the time, even though are frequently engaging in “bad” behaviors (that harm others or the community).  They may think that they are in fact “good” as long as others assume that they are and don’t know of their “bad” behavior.

As primary tools in making moral/ethical decisions, a good person uses his predictive powers regarding the consequences of his actions, an empathic understanding of the consequences of his behavior (the Golden Rule), a view of ethical behavior as having reciprocal influence (that how one treats others determines at least in part how they treat him), and the Kantian imperative (that before acting, one must consider if one would be satisfied with the results if everyone acted like one does oneself).

To summarize, the characteristics of a good person are–
thinking that being a good person will result
in better outcomes in life for oneself in the long run,

treating others appropriately, decently, and fairly at all
times, even when there is some personal cost for doing so,

wanting good for all people,

appreciating the pain of others when they suffer or are
treated inappropriately and harmed,

carrying out responsibilities without being directed to,
even when there is some cost to doing so, and

appreciating the complexity and difficulty of
moral/ethical decisions.

The methods used to be a good person are–

predicting accurately all of the short-term and long-term
effects of one’s behavior on everyone,

empathically appreciating the experience that self and others
will have as a result of one’s behavior,

making the welfare of others as important as one’s own,

believing in the possibility and desirability of a society in which
people are trustworthy and responsible and in which
everyone acts morally and ethically in order to gain the
rewards of such shared behavior,

appreciating the reciprocity effect (that when we treat others
well, they are drawn to treat us similarly), and holding
oneself to the Kantian imperative (that before acting, one
must consider whether one would like the result if everyone
acted in the same way).

The Process of Moral/Ethical Development

It is useful to use a developmental perspective to examine why people would seek to be good.  In our first few years we all develop a strong desire to be treated “fairly,” and for the rest of our lives we respond with anger and distress if things are not “fair” (which largely means equitable and appropriate as we view these criteria).  We see this insistence on fairness when survivors of a murdered person seek certain punishments of the murderer, when they confront God about why the murder was allowed to happen, and when disadvantaged groups (slaves, women) seek equality over a course of many years until it is achieved.  The motives for children and adults to please parents or God are gaining rewards and good favor from parents and God, seeking to quell fear of parents and God by conforming, seeking to avoid punishments from parents and God, and seeking to avoid their own conditioned unpleasant emotions, such as fear, shame, and guilt, that they (we) feel when they (we) behave in disapproved ways.

In the latency and adolescent phases of life, acting in “good” ways and being a good person can be used to curry favor with peers and as tools to preserve one’s social position and rewards.  Through childhood and early adolescence, many children view rules quite literally, rather than as principles to use to arrive at appropriate behavior.

Our earliest moral/ethical training involves the conditioning of fear, shame, and/or guilt to certain disapproved behaviors, so that we learn to feel these unpleasant emotions in an anticipatory way even before carrying out a contemplated, disapproved behavior.  This can be a relatively effective method of control, and it may even be the only effective method of control at early ages, since children can be trained in this way to control their behavior at a time when empathy and knowledge of consequences cannot be used effectively for this purpose.  However, this emotional conditioning method tends to limit later development of abilities to analyze consequences and to appreciate finer nuances of right and wrong, since this conditioned pain causes people to want to escape from these feelings as soon as possible and not to risk or tolerate these feelings while they learn to reflect on and think through their moral/ethical decisions.

In adolescence, some come to understand appropriate behavior as stemming from a social contract with others, in which everyone is expected to agree to and to follow certain rules of behavior, because if everyone follows them, everyone will benefit and have a better life.  Examples of standard ethical rules are to tell the truth and to be responsible.  Important principles include reciprocity (the golden rule) and fairness.  (Social contracts include far more than ethics, of course, such as form of government, sexual mores, etc.)  The idea that being consistent in one’s behavior is part of honoring the social contract arises also–that one feels some obligation to follow the rules even when one could break them and not be caught, which takes morals and ethics into the realm of personal principles rather than simply external rules.  At this stage, people begin to grasp the complexity of moral/ethical decisions and to realize that literal use of rules is not always an adequate approach.  Translating rules into principles occurs for some, who will then struggle with arriving at what will be the most desirable, most appropriate behavior, given all of the circumstances, relationships, and competing duties, rather than seeking the automatically “right” behavior according to simple rules or dictates of others.

A further step in moral/ethical development occurs when the individual reconsiders and reformulates rules and principles for himself by evaluating their impact on self and others.  This growth requires some knowledge of the complexity of human motives, relationships, and decision-making and is usually based in empathy for others–recognizing and resonating with how others are affected when people do or do not follow moral and ethical rules and principles.  To some extent, one feels good when others feel good and bad when others feel bad.  There is recognition that rules are made by imperfect human beings and may themselves be flawed.  This is usually accompanied by a shift in motivation, from following rules and principles out of fear and hope for personal advantage to following rules and principles because of both the short-term and long-term positive and negative effects on self and others of following or not following them.  In the short term, someone is hurt (robbed, shot, insulted) when someone else doesn’t follow the rules.  In the long term, the more people ignore the rules, the more distrust there is between everyone, the more we dislike others, and the more difficult it becomes to cooperate with others to reach long-term goals that require the efforts of many.  The positive results of following moral/ethical rules and principles are that others trust us more and are more cooperative with us; we avoid the pain of a nagging conscience or superego; and if we identify with our moral/ethical beliefs, then we feel a sense of integrity for acting consistently with them–that who we are has been displayed accurately in our behavior.  The personal costs of following our rules and principles lie in sometimes denying ourselves some immediate selfish pleasure (with the compensating belief that we will benefit more over the long term through foregoing this pleasure).  (It is worth noting that the rewards of acting morally and ethically tend to be longer term, while the “rewards” of not following rules and principles tend to be immediate in terms of the selfish gain desired.)

To recap, most people still view a good person as one who follows the rules and does what others, especially authority figures, want him to.  A further step in moral/ethical development is to strive to embody one’s ideals, and yet a further step is to figure out what one really believes about how we should treat others and formulate accurate and useful principles that express those beliefs.  At all steps, moral/ethical growth involves a more complex understanding of the ways we treat others and how our treatment of others impacts our lives as well as those of others.

Going beyond simple dictates or rules (the Ten Commandments, what my father told me, what the priest says) to examine the complexities of moral/ethical choices is decried by some as “moral relativism” of “situational ethics” (making morality and ethics “relative” to the circumstances).  They assert that people who do this usually find in these complexities some excuse for not following fundamental moral and ethical principles (some excuse for doing what they want to do, instead of what is “right”).  There is an unrecognized “failed authority” issue in this complaint–that sometimes fathers or priests are wrong in what they tell us.  Also, advocates of the sanctity of the Ten Commandments fail to realize that they think it perfectly OK for their nation at war to violate the commandment not to kill, which is an example of situational ethics.

Instructive examples for helping people to understand moral relativism often come from other cultures.  For example, some Muslim communities apply their notion of morality to decide to cut off the hand of a thief as punishment or to stone an adulteress to death.  This behavior (cutting off of a hand, stoning an adulteress) is “Biblical,” and one might think that Christians in Western societies would think that this was a good idea, but because they have been enculturated differently, they find it “barbaric” and simply ignore that it is in fact “Biblical” (in the sense of being included in Old Testament illustrations).  Similarly, in some cultures it is conventional for men to have more than one wife, just as it was common among the Jews in some periods of time, and people in those cultures generally think that this works all right for them.  Most in developed countries would think that this was immoral in some way, even though it is mentioned in the Bible and even though their own reasons for thinking it wrong come from their own culture and not from their religion.

Appreciating moral/ethical complexities does not have to mean abandoning or violating fundamental principles, of course, but it is necessary for those who think about morals and ethics comprehensively and relative to the circumstances to ensure that in every case their final choices of behavior both honor the fundamental principles (do not kill, do not harm, accord equality to all, etc.) and frame the moral/ethical issues in ways that will best solve the current dilemma.

Growth in moral/ethical understanding and behavior is limited only by intellectual capacity, empathy capacity, and one’s willingness to deal with ambiguity and uncertainty, since once one leaves the certainty of revealed and simple rules for behavior, there are no real certainties, and as moral agents we must responsibly choose what we think is the “most right and appropriate” behavior.  Once again, an important element in this higher system is that everyone must abide by the agreed upon rules and principles regardless of whether one could “get away with” violating them.

The capstone in this process of moral/ethical development is that “being a good person” becomes an important part of one’s identity, so that it would not only violate one’s sense of right and wrong to knowingly go against one’s moral/ethical rules and principles, but it would also call into question who one is and whether one was “being true to oneself.”  This is another factor that persuades us to follow our rules and principles even when others are not doing so.

Knowledge and Skills Necessary for Moral/Ethical Development

The three necessary and sufficient skills for making good moral/ethical decisions are having empathy for self and others, seeing reality clearly, and managing our emotions with relative ease and grace.

At least a moderate degree of empathy ability is needed, because without it we cannot adequately understand and define the consequences of our behavior.  In deciding whether to push someone down, it is not enough to know only that he will hit the ground if I push him in the back.  I must also appreciate empathically the emotional pain he will feel from being attacked or betrayed by me.  If I understand myself, I can also anticipate the various feelings I will feel in response to pushing him down.  Empathy also helps us to be aware of the range of human motives and of the convoluted and often incorrect chains of reasoning that humans employ.  It is fortunate that human beings around the world have the same basic motives (stay alive, minimize pain, be in a positive feeling state, have sex, nurture children, and defend and assist our groups and loved ones), since this makes it possible for us to “make sense” of their behavior.

In order to make good moral and ethical decisions, it is important to know how people operate—their needs and wants, their emotions, their motives, and how they view and understand themselves, others, and the world.  This knowledge allows us to grasp the range of feelings and views that people have, which determine their moral and ethical stances regarding right and wrong.  It is important to pay attention to everything that people do, all over the world, in order to gain this comprehensive understanding of people.  It works against this awareness if we ignore information that disturbs us about those we love or about people from other cultures who are different from us.  We must appreciate the capacity of all human beings (ourselves included) to harm others in order to get what we want and our infinite capacity to find ways to claim that it was OK.

Seeing reality clearly is needed so that we are not fooled by the excuses and justifications that we and others use to avoid acknowledging immoral and unethical behavior.  Starting in early childhood, we use every reason we can think of to justify actions that we contemplate taking (no one will know; I can lie if caught; no one will be hurt; no one will be hurt badly; I don’t care if he won’t be my friend any more; he hit me first;  etc.) and every statement we can think of that will mitigate punishments when we are caught (I didn’t do it; you can’t prove I did it; he made me do it; if he can do it, so can I; I didn’t know I was doing it; I was sick; your punishment is out of proportion to the crime; you’re punishing me more than you punish my sister for the same behavior; it isn’t fair; etc.).  Most people grow up accepting as normal or true the evasions and rationalizations that were accepted in their families or by those around them, so in order to conform our behavior to higher norms we must see the evasions of our families and others for what they were and stop using them ourselves.

The same argument applies to the rationalizations, evasions, and distortions used by our communities, our cultures, and our nations.  Many of these have to do with ascribing characteristics to one type of person in an attempt to justify our actions toward them.  Blacks are dumber so they don’t need schools that are as good as those of Whites.  I purchased him, so it is proper that he do what I tell him to do as a slave.  Indians are savages, so it is OK for us to take their land for our farms.  If they agree to sell us oil at the very low price that we insist on, then that is OK, regardless of how much we can sell it for later.  Might makes right.  The law of supply and demand says that if gasoline and bread become scarce, then I can increase the price I demand for these things to any price I want.  We need to execute this person as an example to others like him.  Country B is more like us culturally, so we will always take its side against country C that is more different from us.  This country was founded on Christianity, so it’s OK for Christian prayer to be used for school events.  Our civilization is superior to theirs, so it’s OK for us to take over their country and run it for them.  Winning is everything.  It’s OK, even expected, that we will lie or deceive in court to cover up our misdeeds (and that our lawyers will help us to do this).  The ocean is so big that it’s OK for us to put our raw sewage in it.  If they agree to work for these low wages, then I have no responsibility as an employer for their poverty.  She’s been a bitch lately, so it’s OK for me to have an affair.  Etc.  Etc.  Etc.

If we are to grow morally and ethically, we must recognize distortions such as these, and commit ourselves to what is actually right in these and other situations.  This is not easy, of course, since we may wish to use distortions and rationalizations just like these ourselves.  Sometimes we will be criticized and perhaps shunned by others, even family and friends, for standing up for a higher level of moral and ethical behavior.  Unfortunately we will get little help from our churches, since they usually avoid exposing the rationalizations of their members and of society, so as not to rock the boat (the other country’s leader is clearly a bad guy, so it’s OK for the U. S. to take over their country and remove him from power; the poor will always be with us, so it’s OK for our middle class church members to pay them low wages; God is on our side, so whatever we decide to do must be right; since none of our members would engage in sex outside marriage, AIDS must be punishment of gays by God; etc.).

If we are to carry out moral and ethical decisions, we must be able to manage our own emotions well.  Since in a more complex consideration of what is right and appropriate, there are rarely clear answers, we must tolerate the anxiety of not being certain, as well as the pain of bad results after sometimes making errors in our moral/ethical decision-making.  We must accept that honestly and sincerely doing the best we can has to be good enough, and that perfection is neither possible nor required.  Further, even when we know what is right to do, we may be tempted to do what is “wrong,” for our own benefit, so it will be necessary to manage our disappointment (and perhaps anger) when we refrain from violating our standards and refrain from doing something “wrong” that would have benefited us (at least in the short run).  One can comfort oneself by thinking of the benefits of doing what is right, both immediate and long-term, and with one’s belief that one will truly be better off for doing what is right.  If we care for others, it is satisfying to avoid hurting others by refraining from doing something “wrong,” and life is so much simpler when we do not have to maintain a series of lies to avoid being “caught” or blamed.  (Note that doing what is “wrong” always hurts others and usually hurts ourselves as well, although we may rationalize that these effects will never happen or never come to light.  It is part of seeing reality clearly that we be able to see how our actions harm others and ourselves, instead of ignoring these results of our behavior.)

Often, doing the right thing requires not acting—pausing to evaluate our feelings, holding back on expressing our thoughts and feelings, and simply not going ahead with “wrong” behavior.  This means that we must develop a strong ability to inhibit behavior, even behavior that we really “feel like” doing.  In a similar vein, if we believe that being a good person will “pay off” in the long run, we must be willing to wait for those more distant positive results, which means having considerable ability to delay gratification.

We must also be able to manage our feelings of fear and rejection when others turn on us because we have taken a stand that is contrary to what they would prefer.  If we have reasonably good self-esteem, it should be possible to express our opinions and support ourselves through at least brief periods of rejection.  It is not necessary to force our moral/ethical opinions on others or to condemn them for coming to different conclusions than we do, so overt conflict is not inevitable.

Reasons For Seeking to Be a Good Person

The benefits of being a good person (as distinguished from appearing to be a good person) begin with how others perceive us.  If we are honest and responsible and have empathic concern for how we affect others, then others will feel trust and respect toward us, will be inclined to cooperate and help us, and will have a generally positive attitude toward us.  This is surely a more comfortable way of living with others than fighting with them all the time about who did what to whom and whether various behaviors were “justified.”  Being a good person contributes to the general sense of trust and comfort in society in general (just as going against what is right and harming others as a result adds to the general mistrust and fear we experience among our fellow men and women).

By being a good person, we will generally fulfill the expectations of others for us, including parents and other authority figures.  It is certainly a good feeling for almost everyone to be who we think we are “supposed to be.”  Occasionally, doing what is truly right goes against what others wish from us, but by and large, parents are proud of children who are honest and responsible and who do not take advantage of others.

Doing what is right minimizes the internal conflict we feel when conscience or superego tells us that we have violated important rules or principles.  Similarly, it minimizes any religious conflicts we feel about God knowing that we have done something that is “wrong.”

Keeping a clean conscience gives us a feeling of being “pure” and internally at peace, and it simplifies our lives from having to keep on telling lies and manipulating in order not to have our misdeeds found out.  (This would be true whether the expectations of one’s conscience were appropriate or not, but a conscience that had inappropriate expectations might be impossible to “keep clean”!)

Finally, if you are a good person, you can like and respect yourself and have good self-esteem (unless, of course, the rules you have for when you can feel good about yourself are inappropriate and overly demanding).  Being a good person should certainly be enough to enable one to feel some satisfaction and self-respect.

If you are truly a good person, then being a good person is part of your identity.  Assuming that the choice to be a good person has been your free choice, then you will value that aspect of yourself and will work hard to preserve it rather than allowing yourself to abrogate it by being a “bad” person.

Costs of Being a Good Person

While most people like the good persons around them, because they are trustworthy and safe and because their actions make everyone’s lives around them a little better, there are some costs to being a good person, both internal and external.  Internally, being a good person requires that we conform our behavior to what is good, even when we might still have personal desires that we wish to satisfy by means that are “wrong.”  We must keep our mouths shut when our fatigue prompts us to give an acid comment in response to someone’s unintended frustrating behavior, and we must turn in to the police the thousand dollars we found, even though keeping it would solve a current financial problem that we have.  In order to do these things with relative equanimity, it is necessary to believe that doing them (at least doing them consistently, over time) will lead us to better life outcomes than if we indulge our immediate needs and feelings.  You will note that the ability to delay gratification is a very important element in the mix of cognitive/emotional skills needed to be a good person.

Sometimes there is extra expense and difficulty to doing the right thing and being a good person.  After finding the thousand dollars, you have to make an extra trip to the police station, knowing that their suspicious minds will wonder if you stole it rather than found it.  When you vote your conscience, in the best interest of all citizens, your friends who wanted to benefit from a different vote at the expense of all citizens will likely be mad at you.

The good person may also be attacked (prissy, goody-two-shoes, mama’s boy, teacher’s pet, etc.) or shunned by others who view her “goodness” as (1) shaming to them (since parents often use comparisons to evoke conformity–“look at how your sister is so good; why can’t you be that way [so I could love you as much as your sister]?”) or (2) preventing them from doing the not so good things they would like to do because they dare not publicly go against her moral/ethical stance or principles.

Can The Number of Good Persons Be Increased?

If we agree that it is desirable to have more good persons around us, then we can choose to associate with more good persons ourselves, and we can consider actions that may influence more people to become good persons.  Perhaps the most influential action that we can take is to live consistently as good persons ourselves, since this will inspire others to be more like good persons themselves.  The concern for others, responsible relating, trustworthiness, and willingness to make the welfare of others as important as one’s own that good persons live out every day make others feel good and naturally move them toward acting in these ways themselves.

Many people do not commit themselves to being good persons because they confuse being a good person with “being good,” and they associate being good with giving in to unreasonable parental demands for “good” behavior as children.  They are still resisting these unreasonable demands as adults.  They believe that being good always means giving up your needs and rights to others, as when parents pressured them into letting the visiting child play with the toy, have the last piece of cake, or have their bed to sleep in.

To be a good person is a mature choice (whether made by an adult or a child) to treat others well (as one would like to be treated by them), to act responsibly, and to make good moral/ethical choices by considering honestly all of the consequences and effects of one’s behavior.  It may be inspired by the behavior of those we admire or identify with, but once chosen, it is a path of our own.  It is not chosen to get the approval of others but because of a deep belief that we all owe each other fair and decent treatment.  Perhaps those who are still resisting the urging of parents to “be good” can be shown this distinction and offered the chance to leave that conflict behind and choose who they wish to be for the rest of their lives (independent of who their parents wanted them to be).

It is assumed that people can change from “not being a good person” to “being a good person” (according to the definition presented here).  Most people do not think about or consider their moral/ethical stance, even when faced with a moral/ethical conflict.  Most of us acquire our attitudes and beliefs about how to treat others by imitating our parents and others around us.  If those internalized attitudes and beliefs do not produce a good person, then the individual will only become a good person by realizing that he wants something different for his life and recognizing that treating others better may be an important part of that different life.  Usually this awareness is stimulated by painful social experiences of rejection and shame, as others respond to our not-so-good behavior, but it may also happen occasionally through significant exposure to someone who is a good person and whom we are drawn to imitate.

One might think that religions could inspire people to be good persons, and some people do find inspiration in the highest principles of religion, but most churches do not educate parishioners about the contrast described above between being good and being a good person, thus leaving most parishioners thinking that being good is the goal and responding to God as if he/she were a parent expecting “good” behavior from them (rather than autonomous responsibility and ethical behavior).  Secondary schools also place more emphasis on being good than on being good persons and do little to encourage mature ethical decision-making by students.  The best philosophy and religion classes in college can help students understand both the importance and the complexities of moral/ethical choices, and if this inspiration could be offered in evening classes for all adults, it would help some to make the decision to seek the path of being a good person.  Politics in this country has become so much about personal power and status (and buying influence) and so little about doing what is good and right for the country as a whole that it offers almost no examples that would inspire us toward being good persons.

Our laws could be changed to encourage truthfulness.  It could become a misdemeanor, for example, for a salesperson to misrepresent a product or to fail to mention an important negative aspect of the product.  It could become a misdemeanor for a political candidate to slant the truth or give only part of the truth about a topic (when the omitted aspects are both important for voters and already well known and the candidate actually knows better).  (Everyone is entitled to his opinion, but no one is entitled to represent his opinion as a fact or as the truth, unless it is indisputably the truth.  Even the President should say “In my opinion,…,” when he is asserting something about which reasonable people differ.  The ethical principle here is that no one has the right to influence another person to do something that may be harmful to that other person, when the first person knows or reasonably should know that the harm is likely.)

Discussion/study groups regarding how to be a good person, including exploration of complex ethical questions, could inspire some to try to become good persons and help others to become even better persons.

The bottom line for human beings is that they will only put their energies into causes in which they believe or that they are excited about.  Being a good person is a serious, long-term commitment that will only be made if the person believes that goodness will result in the best life possible and that being a good person is an important contribution to make to one’s fellow human beings.

essays\goodperson    finished 10-06,9-15