Are you a Good Person?

When I was writing about the morally superior humblebrag, I started to think about a related phenomenon that often goes hand in hand with it: the Good Person claim.

It’s still a largely American thing, often heard on television, issued by someone pleading for people not to hate them because something happened that they didn’t intend. As they stand beside the wreckage they have caused, they plaintively wail, “but I’m a Good Person.”

I find this a peculiar claim. Being a good person is not an immutable status, nor is it a status we are in any position to evaluate ourselves on.Of course we think we’re good: even when we’re doing things that are manifestly not good, we justify them in our minds as the most appropriate thing to do given the circumstances (“I shot him because he hurt my brother” – meaning, “any reasonable person would see this is a perfectly rational respose to this situation”. The fact that our thinking can be so distorted is why we have laws and a justice system.)

We live our lives doing what we think is best. That’s a given. We choose what we believe are the best options with the best outcomes. Where it all comes apart is in the question of “best for whom”. Usually, it’s best for us. That’s not to say we totally ignore the potential consequences for others, but on balance we tend to give greater weight to what will be beneficial to us or our family or loved ones or career, and will lead to the outcomes we want. Exceptions to this behaviour are so rare that we have a name for them: saints. At the other end of the spectrum, those who truly believe the outcome that is best for them is also best for everyone else are called narcissists.

So by our own assessment, of course we are good people.

Our intentions are good, but that doesn’t mean our actions invariably have good consequences. We judge ourselves by our intentions, and others by their actions. Hence, in our minds we remain good people even when our actions would prove otherwise.

For years, religion has been reminding us that we are good people (“created in the image and likeness of God”) who do bad things. Not much has changed since that thought was first voiced. In that sense, claiming to be a Good Person is merely stating the obvious: that we are born good. It overlooks the fact that we subsequently learn to do bad, to hate, to hurt.

What being a Good Person doesn’t mean is that we are incapable of doing bad, ugly, appalling, hurtful, hateful and downright despicable things. We are more than capable, and we do them over and over in a thousand different ways. What makes us better people is apologising, sincerely, and making every effort not to repeat the error.

I’d have far more time for those people claiming to be Good People in the face of evidence to the contrary (judged by their actions) if they would spend their airtime showing concern and compassion for those they have inadvertently hurt, and seeking to put things right. Not because they want to restore their reputation and be seen once more as a Good Person, but because it’s the right thing to do.

In other words: make it right, don’t make yourself right.