What's a "Good" Person?

by Elison Alcovendaz

Sitting at BJ’s the other day and, as I’m wont to do, am listening to another group’s conversation near our table. There are two older people, probably husband and wife, hair just beginning to go grey, sitting across what I guess to be their twenty-something son and his girlfriend. They’re in the midst of an animated discussion about a cousin the son used to be really close to. The mom’s going on about how the cousin cheated on his fiancee, who he was going to marry in two months, with the married Matron of Honor. The cousin was the godfather to the MOH’s daughter. Disappointment and anger drips from the mom’s mouth while the son chews on his fries, nodding and nodding to his mom’s tirade while the fiancee’s eyes widen to the point of caricature, until finally the son interrupts his mom and finally says:

“We all make mistakes, Mom. He’s still a good person.”


A)   Yes, he’s a good person.

B) No, he’s a bad person.

Back to the quiz later.

I’ve heard and participated in many of the aforementioned conversations. The nuances of the situation are discussed, the people who were hurt, what we might’ve done, and then some good-hearted person or maybe someone who feels guilty for gossiping will pipe up with some form of the “good person” comment. The point is the same: we all make mistakes, we all make bad and selfish choices that hurt other people, and we’re still all (or most of us are, anyway) good people. But what how do we know what is “good” and how do we choose to be “good”?

This question, one of a moral identity, has been an issue explored by social theorists and philosophers for some time. How and why do people choose one moral decision over the other? Kant might have argued that it comes down to duty while modern sociologists might argue that it comes down to ego control, that we all have impulses and some of us are just “better” at controlling them than others. Others suggest that it comes down to our “self-imposed” idea of an authentic identity – are we being true to ourselves? More recently, there has been a focus on the self and whether moral personality (similar to our idea of personality, but focused on baseline moral codes) and moral centrality (whether we believe the world and society as moral) plays a role in our choices. And yet others argue it’s evolutionary – we want what’s best for others over what’s best for our individual selves because it ensures a better chance of survival for the group.

The point is there’s a billion theories out there, and none seem to fully address the question of where we get the beliefs that guide our moral identities. Perhaps that’s because it’s an easy answer: our definition of “good” is based on our ideologies. If you’re a Catholic, being good means not using God’s name in vain and not coveting your neighbor’s wife (or husband – that’s in the Commandments too, right?). If you’re a Democrat, you likely believe in government responsibility to care for all of its citizens and you’re likely opposed to capital punishment. If you’re American, you probably believe in some version of “equality” whereas people from other countries might say “equality” is a manmade ideal that can never be achieved. This is overly simplistic, but you get the idea. We’re not born with a sense of “good” and “bad,” but we certainly learn it based on ideologies imposed on us by parents, schools, religions, governments, media, etc.

If we all ascribe to different ideologies (and different combinations of ideologies)  why is it, then, that we all tend to overuse the term “good”? Maybe it’s disguised as “they can’t help it” or “they have good intentions” or “people deserve a second, third, fourth, millionth chance” and yet, despite repeated selfish choices that hurt other people, we still want to believe in their goodness. Why is this? Does our humanity make us delusional? Is it that we think in black in white, in good and bad, and don’t allow for the grey? Is it because we’re too scared to call a spade a spade and instead we want to call it a beautiful rose? Is it because we are naturally forgiving? Or is it because we want to think that about ourselves, that no matter how selfish we are, no matter how often we repeat the same harmful choices over and over again, we can still be good.

I admit, I’m one of these people. I want to believe in the goodness of everyone, and I think it’s because I want to believe it of myself. The other day, I asked Patty if she thought we were good people and she said, “I think we’re average.” I was offended at first, but by the next day, I knew she was right. I’ve never served dinner to the homeless on Thanksgiving, but I do give my full attention when people are talking to me. I’ve lied and lied and lied and I certainly haven’t kept holy many a Sabbath, but I generally think about other people when making decisions. I’ve made fun of people and told racist jokes and have never joined a march or parade or any kind of show of unity for any kind of cause, but I’ll send money to charity. I don’t make time for a lot of needy strangers, but I do make time for my family and friends. I’ve hurt people. I’ve been selfish. But I forgive people, too. I’m not good and I’m not bad, and most likely, you aren’t either. When it comes to goodness, most of us are probably just average.

So, back to the quiz. Did you answer “A”? Really? Okay, so what if in addition to cheating on his fiancee with her best friend, he got drunk and ran over a bunch of people? Oh, you answered “B”? Okay, so what if the cousin works at the local homeless shelter, cooking and serving meals every morning? Or, what if he runs a rehabilitation clinic for abused animals? Or, what if he also adopted a bunch of poor children and gave them a loving home?

The real answer is “C”: I need more information. This is reason #1 why the overuse of the word “good” to describe people irks me much. Rarely do we have enough information to call someone “good” (or “bad” for that matter). In addition, there isn’t much in the world that’s innocent anymore, especially the words we say. Calling people who aren’t good “good” isn’t good or even nice, really; it’s cowardly and dangerous. It perpetuates inconsiderate, selfish behavior. And keeping these people in your life is even worse. No one is divorced from goodness, sure, and sometimes people need some help, but you know what? Sometimes people don’t stop f’ing up. Sometimes people don’t stop being selfish. Sometimes people just aren’t good. Tell them or let them go. Maybe, sometimes, “good” starts out by not being “nice.”