The beginning of being a good person is the knowledge that you may not be, or that you have acted as a bad one would. After that it gets complicated.
The most obvious complication, perhaps, is that there is no agreement on what constitutes a good person. In fact there’s no agreement on whether we should even agree who a good person is. In some extreme forms of theoretical individualism, the only judge of whether you are good is you yourself: cheating on your taxes, being Donald Trump, writing comments on news sites – whatever’s right for you. In practice, however, no one ever really believes this. Even the sociopath cares for the opinion of others. It’s just that the tribute he wants from them is awe and devotion rather than love and respect.
But before we even get to the question of what would make a good person, there is a basic difficulty with our inquiry: if we ask ourselves, the answer we get will probably be tainted with lies. Even when we know we have done wrong, our minds set at work to scrub the knowledge out. A rather elegant study recently published in PNAS showed that we have difficulties even forming memories of the times we have behaved unethically, and if they ever are formed, they disintegrate faster than other ones. And this is a truth that was known long before lab science, by anyone who studies human nature, from St Augustine to Jane Austen.
This isn’t an insurmountable obstacle, but any project of self-knowledge has to take into account what a hard and largely unrewarding prospect it is. The alternatives, however, are worse. And it is always possible that at the end of our explorations we discover that we were not, after all, wholly intolerable and disgusting but just possibly good enough.
What would it mean to be good enough? Good enough at what?
Very roughly speaking there are three big ideas about how we could measure goodness: it could be a matter of following the right rules; it could be a matter of cultivating the right virtues; it might be something that was judged by success: did I leave the world a better place? All of these have been held to be self-evident in some cultures, and ludicrous in others. In practice, any judgment will have elements of all three, but one of them will be treated as predominant.
Our own culture now mostly takes consequentialism for granted. In that scheme, being a good person means that you had a good effect on the world. So you can answer the question by totting up all the good you did, balancing it against the bad things you have such a hard time remembering, and seeing how the register comes out. This is problematic for two reasons. The first is the element of luck. People with power seem more morally significant, and capable of being better, under these rules because they can change the world more. Conversely, the wholly powerless – babies, very old people, or severely disabled people – would seem morally insignificant because they can’t do anything. There’s also the problem of how you measure the good done in the world. Socrates thought that it was part of virtue to harm your enemies and other bad people. Jesus disagreed. Which scale do you want to measure yourself against?
Virtue ethics gets round the first objection (and in this light, Christianity is a kind of virtue ethics, since the command is to love God and neighbour before you follow any particular rules). What matters is not whether you won or lost, but how you played the game. The price you pay for this is tragedy. You have to acknowledge that really good people will lose and suffer horribly, or even devote their goodness to wicked causes. This seems to me a gain in realism rather than cheerfulness. In the Old Testament, Job was a good man and look what happened to him. Satan got to take away his health, his family and everything he owned.
Job, however, is not held up as a virtuous man, who cultivated courage, or temperance, or justice, so much as one who followed the rules. He did what God commanded, and what society expected. Leaving, if you like, God out of it, that’s how most people most of the time have always lived, and had to do. You do what’s expected and expect the reward of good behaviour. Then you die, and never realise that in a couple of hundred years, society will have moved on, and some of the things you took for granted are regarded as monstrous crimes.
The only certain thing about this question is that if you’ve never thought to ask it, the answer has to be no.
News Source TheGuardianNews