Thursday, September 1, 2016

Am I a Good Person?

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?

by Andrew Brown, The Guardian |  Read more:
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