Being a "good" Person
I believe most people have a basic desire to be good. It may not be their primary focus in life or a part of their daily thoughts. But few people pursue the opposite and most would say they try to be good. We are encouraged to be good even if there is disagreement about what good is.
Being a good person and thriving are related. There is an overlap in the meaning of the two concepts. It would be impossible to thrive without being a good person in my view of thriving.
It is a challenge, however, to go from a desire to be good to being good. There is much to consider and understand.
Defining Good Compared to Achieving It
Being a good person requires the ability to define good and the ability to achieve it. Defining good is essential and is itself a challenge. But being good goes far beyond knowing what good is. Producing good matters.
There are barriers and pitfalls to being a good person. One is over-emphasizing intent. Good intentions are important but there is a long road between intent and achievement. The quote from Marcus Aurelius “Waste no more time arguing what a good man should be. Be one.”[i] highlights the importance of action and outcome.
Another barrier is the vagueness of advice on how to be good. The common sayings and advice can be frustrating. People say “Do the right thing,” “Just love them,” or “Be on the right side of history.” I find that advice often useless. The “right thing” is not always obvious. The issue is generally not whether we should love someone, but rather how to express that love in action. There is also the question of degree — how much “good” is appropriate to a situation. And does anyone know what the right side of history is when you are in the moment?
The complexity of being good is obvious in the conflicts we see daily. I find most people believe they are good and are doing good things. Yet there are many conflicts with others on what is good and how to achieve it. It is a perennial problem and a part of the human condition. The best way forward is to have an open ongoing competition of ideas on what good is and how to be good. Hopefully, better ideas prevail over time.
Much has been said and written about what good is and how to achieve it. It is an ancient issue. Many ideas and systems have been applied and we can consider the results. Much can be learned from human history that can guide our actions today.
A simple framework may help us think about how to be a good person.
I see four conditions for being good. These are: 1) Intent – the desire to achieve good; 2) Outcome – knowing what good should look when it is achieved; 3) Means – the actions and resources necessary to achieve good results; 4) Competence – the ability to carry out the necessary actions.
We are more likely to be successful in being good when we do well in all four areas. Each component requires thought and wisdom. These are not new ideas. Much has been learned from far smarter and wiser than me. But perhaps my perspective on each provides some practical insight for thinking through difficult choices.
Being good starts with intent. We must want to achieve good when we act. The intent should be conscious. This is important because actions have different moral worth based on intent. It is illogical to consider someone a good person if they intend to cause harm but instead, by accident or incompetence, achieve the opposite. Further, it seems unfair to take credit for the good we achieve through accidental and unintentional actions.
Achieving good is more likely when motivated by good intent. Examining intent before acting can yield insights that change behavior. I like to reconsider what I am about to do after being honest with myself about my intentions. It is easy to kid ourselves about intentions. Actions appearing to be driven by good intent (I just want to help) may have motives that are not so pure. I have found, upon reflection, many examples where my intentions were not as good as I thought they were. I can rationalize actions caused by emotion and narrow self-interest as being driven by an intent to achieve a higher good.
Charitable giving provides an example of differing intents. Is our intent in donating to signal our virtue to our friends and neighbors and increase our status? Or is it to achieve a good outcome for the intended beneficiaries? Would our giving habits change if we gave anonymously? Lots of money is raised for good organizations by appealing to people’s desire for status and recognition. And intent is often mixed – we want good results and to be recognized for our good deeds. But we may give to different organizations if our intent is primarily to get good results for others. The obscure but highly effective nonprofit benefitting people we will never see may get more of our money than the local charity that is holding its annual highly visible gala event.
Most good intent is self-interested. There is nothing wrong with that. We eat well because we intend to maintain and improve our health. Many actions are in our narrow self-interest and have little effect on others. Conscious consideration of intent may be less important here.
Intent is most complex when our actions affect others. This is because we may need to fight or moderate our instinctual self-interest. It is easy to use others as a means to achieve our ends and in the process ignore what is good for others. We must ask whether we intend to benefit the other person as well as ourselves. The intent to benefit others is important in achieving good because it recognizes that we exist in a society where flourishing requires balancing self-interest and the interest of others.
Good intention is just a start. Too often we consider intent as all that counts. We give a pass to people who achieve a bad outcome but started with good intent. But as the ancient aphorism “The road to hell is paved with good intentions” captures, it is easy to intend to achieve good but to achieve the opposite.
To achieve good we must know clearly what a good outcome is. It is common to have vague and poorly defined outcomes. For example, it is easy to say we are acting to achieve “justice” without having a practical definition of what justice means. We want to act to make the world a “better place” or to “help the disadvantaged” without thinking through what that means. It is hard to devise action to achieve good when our desired outcome is vague. Nearly any action can be considered successful if the desired outcome is ill-defined. I am most successful when I take the time to define what a good outcome is before I start acting.
There are many schools of thought and systems for determining good outcomes. Some are useful and some are not. There is often disagreement among people. An example is a fundamental conflict between those who define good as equal opportunity versus those who define good as equal outcome. There is often no consensus or even a majority opinion on what good is.
Each person must acquire a practical definition of good that works for them. It can come from many sources – a church or a school of philosophy. Or it can be their own eclectic set of rules. My experience is that learning to define good is a life-long process that takes effort and the acquisition of wisdom.
For me, the broadest statement of a good outcome is people, individually and collectively, “flourishing.” Flourishing is a broad concept and moral framework explored in more depth in another essay. There are categories, perhaps hierarchies, of flourishing. Some are mundane and self-centered and others are more spiritual. All must be considered in depth. In practice, I try to ask whether what I am doing will help me and others flourish. If not, then I reconsider what I am doing.
After assuring good intent and defining what a good outcome is, we need to know how to achieve it. This includes knowing the steps necessary to achieve the outcome as well as having the resources to complete those steps. Often a complex process is necessary to produce an outcome.
It is important to understand the process for achieving good because this is where failure often occurs. There are numerous public policy examples where there there is good intent and agreement on what a good outcome is but disagreement on how to achieve it. Public policy failures are common, highlighting the importance of choosing the best means to achieve good. More good occurs when we have a better understanding of what means work and which ones don’t. This is true whether we are responsible for accomplishing all the steps or are just playing a small part.
Making better means decisions involves practical wisdom, understanding human nature, planning, strategy, and much more. The practical knowledge of how to achieve good ends is perhaps the largest part of wisdom. I know from my failures that getting the means right is difficult but can be improved with practice and experience.
Doing the work of putting our plan into action is the final step. Here is where competence is important. We can have good intent, a good intended outcome, and an effective plan and means, but fall down when we try to carry it out. This applies to situations where we must do all the work to achieve an outcome as well as where we are just a part of the solution. We need to do our part competently.
I once wanted to help disadvantaged students learn to read. I volunteered to tutor students. But I didn’t know the first thing about teaching children to read. Was I doing a good thing? Sort of. I had good intentions, a good outcome, and a decent plan. But little good was achieved because I wasn’t competent to carry out my plan.
The means for achieving good and the competence to carry it out are intertwined. Our competence is enhanced by our experience with trying to do good. Learning enhances both.
These categories provide a structure to guide efforts to be good people. I try to consider or be aware of all categories when I act. I want to be sure I intend to do good and aim for the highest good I can. I want to make sure I make wise choices about how to go about achieving good results. Finally, I want to be sure I am competent to successfully do my part in achieving good.
Much of this can be summed up in the concept of practical wisdom. I have come to believe that there is no shortcut to being good. Intent and general rules can get you going in the right direction. But practical wisdom is needed to get the results you want.
[i] Add reference for Marcus Aurelius quote on being a good man
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