When we think of what makes a good person, we usually recall someone who is kind, selfless, and empathetic. But why is it that we often feel that some people who have those characteristics do not actually seem like good people? Is it the deed’s outcome and results that confers moral goodness, or is it the intentions of the person? I believe it is the latter, and moral theories indicate why.
I started giving some serious thought to this topic when watching the television show “The Good Place.” The plot takes place in a “heaven-like place” to which good people go after they die, and the personality of the main characters raises the question, “Does doing good deeds make you a good person?” Combining different philosophical chains, the answer to which you’ll probably arrive is not necessarily.
As the show cleverly demonstrates throughout the series, there are two main reasons why doing good things for others will not automatically make you a good person:
- You can’t perform a good action in expectation of a moral desert: (pronounced “dessert“, moral desert refers to what one deserves). This I believe is very important for religious people to be aware of. Simply, you shouldn’t be kind and helpful to others because you want an afterlife full of pleasure; that would completely miss the point of being good. In philosophical terms, it would entail no moral desert.
For example, consider one who helps a homeless person with donations or forgives someone who hurt them not because they feel is right but for the sole reason that if they do so, after they die they will earn (as Depeche Mode put it) some great reward. This shows one is just waiting for something in return (a payoff for good behavior) or are scared of the judgment of a divine entity.
- Good deeds must be performed not because you want fame and praise, but because you care for others besides yourself. One of the characters of “The Good Place”, Tahani, during her lifetime, raised great amounts of money for charity and had a significant impact on her society; however, it’s later discovered that most of the things she did were not based on a selfless attitude, but fueled by the need to be better than her sister and on the desire to be famous. How can one be good if one’s intentions are so selfish?
Therefore, what seems to be most important in the making of a good person are intentions. This is why it’s so difficult to go from being a “bad person” to a “good one” – your values must be transformed, and so must your inherent goals. By inherent goals I am referring to one’s almost unconscious intentions; what drives someone to take certain actions.
And for this, one of the best examples I can recall is another comedy, “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.” Kimmy, the main character, when she was still a child, was kidnapped and trapped in an underground bunker for fifteen years. When she was finally rescued, she had maintained her child-like personality and, because of that innocence (and due to what happened to her), she faces life with great optimism, gratitude, and sense of novelty.
Thus, according to the theory of moral goodness I am describing, every time she meets someone new, she treats that person just like most children would: without any judgment, and ready to help. In fact, making the other person feel good ultimately, fortuitously, makes her feel good. It is an intrinsic motivation for doing good in the world. Of course, that extreme innocence leads to some issues which provide much of the comedy for the show, but it also represents Kimmy’s personality as inherently good.
In conclusion, a moral person is endowed with good intentions and good will, and thus doesn’t expect anything in return for their actions. They behave morally because they feel it is right, and because a good person behaves in that manner. Most importantly, such a person has almost “the innocence of a child,” and thus helps others and is kind because not being good makes him or her “feel bad.” I should add, a child who is being raised right. Alexander Pope noted that “As the twig is bent, the tree’s inclined.”
Here are a few quotations about morality, virtue, and goodness:
The good person is the one that has empathy but choose not to look away, and to act on his feelings. A good person will stand up for what’s right at the sometimes at the expenses of one’s own well-being. A good person is afraid like everybody else, but chooses to face their fears anyway. And will find pleasure and solace in the battle for ‘goodness’. Helping someone else. Being a good person is an incredibly difficult but brave position to be in. We need a whole lot more of those in the world. ~ Matthieu Gosselin
No morality can be founded on authority, even if the authority were divine.
When ethics are present by virtue of the character, conduct, and intentions of our family, our community, and our world, ethical behavior becomes our natural response to life.
The first virtue of all really great people is that they are sincere. They eradicate hypocrisy from their hearts. They bravely unveil their weaknesses, their doubts, their defects.
You cannot explain away a wantonly immoral act because you think it is connected to some higher purpose.
Do what you ought, and come what will.
There is goodness either in good actions being done naturally (i.e. spontaneously), or in their being done contrary to inclination. There are three kinds of goodness of character: agents may be naturally inclined to do actions that are in fact good, they may have correct moral beliefs, and they may be naturally inclined to do actions that they believe to be good. ~ Richard Swinburne
You shouldn’t have had any expectations of reward. Being a good person is your reward for being a good person. ~ Ayodeji Awosika
Doing the right thing, for the right reasons, is the right way to live a successful life. Doing the wrong thing, for the wrong reasons, is the wrong way to go about the business of life.
In Socrates’ view, the healthiness of a State depends on the degree to which the national life is based on the integrity of its leaders. To help bring about a healthy State, Socrates took every opportunity that came his way to run incompetent people out of office, to urge people concerned with truth and goodness to seek office, to make politicians accept responsibility for their actions, and to offer them assistance in carrying out their duties. For Socrates, politics is identical with social reform.
There is a close and inescapable connection between wisdom and goodness. Only people with relatively clear consciences are capable of distinguishing good and evil with clarity; and only people who are capable of distinguishing between good and evil with clarity are capable of making sound decisions or, for that matter, constructing sound theories on subjects pertaining to politics, psychology, sociology, and other aspects of human moral life.
The best practical advice I can give to the present generation is to practice the virtue which the Christians call love.
Because of one’s perceived ethical duty, she forgoes pursuing certain prudential interests. But why? The reasons are varied and represent the foundations of the major moral theories. I have always highlighted ethical intuitionism, virtue ethics, utilitarianism, and deontology as the principal moral theories. There are, of course, others.
Virtue or morality is a value. It may be the prime value.
As we encounter new situations, we move back and forth between our judgments and our principles, revising each in light of the other. This turning of mind, from the world of action to the realm of reasons and back again, is what moral reflection consists in.
If you’re only nice to people when you’re on display or when the person is of some sort of social value to you, you’re not a nice person. As a general rule, you should be as nice to the maid as you are to the president of a company. ~ Ayodeji Awosika
Before there was neuroscience, before there were moral philosophers like Kant and Hume, before there was even a New Testament and an old Yahwistic tradition, the importance of goodness — of doing right instead of wrong — had already assumed central importance in the most influential thought systems in history. Confucianism asserts the primacy of gen, or goodness, in governing thought and action; “Not to act when justice commands is cowardice,” Confucius said. “Set your heart on doing good,” the Buddha urged.”
Moral goodness is the quality of facilitating genuine happiness, fulfillment, and the deepest flourishing in human life.
This blog was primarily written by Filipe Reduto, with an assist by Jason Merchey. Filipe is a Portuguese political science undergraduate in Lisbon, and an actor in a small theater company. Interested in the problems that face most developed societies, he believes that a optimism and moral goodness in people would accelerate development and improve the quality of life of many.