What does it mean to be a “good person?” What drive is it that makes us want to be “good people?”
Yesterday, I wanted to read a bit more about this notion of the “good person.”
When I typed “good person” into Google most of the top references were in some way related to Christianity.
This implies that people become Christians, at least in part, for some sort of reassurance that they are “good people.”
But what is a “good person?” How does being a “good person” compare to being “an honorable person?”
Both can be thought of as people who do right– but there are subtle differences between the two.
In older times people were more apt to speak about being a person of honor than a “good person.” Honor derives from what a person does, his actions in the world. Being “good” is more of a personal quality. It is who you are, not what you do. A person can behave honorably or dishonorably regardless of his personal qualities. In terms of how these expressions “feel,” being honorable is attached to righteousness while being “good” is attached to innocence or purity.
I imagine the angel representing the “honorable person” looking like this:
And the angel of the “good person” looking like this:
There are plusses and minuses in each of these conceptions of moral identity. One of the positives about “the good person” is that goodness is portable. That is to say that the good person’s sense of morality is internal and it is thought to be consistent regardless of changing external circumstances. If a nation is engaged in an immoral war, for example, the good person should follow his conscience rather than the will of the crowd even if it seems more honorable in the moment to be a war hero.
Honor is dependent on other people’s praise or scorn. To be honorable is to be aligned with what society considers moral. You can, as the heroes of the Iliad did, engage in all manner of brute violence and slaughter and still be praised for honor.
On the other hand, the “good person” model is passive. To achieve honor you have to do something. You can be a “good person” while sitting on your couch watching TV. It is nice if a good person does good things, but what matters in the good person model is not so much the actions as the quality of the person.
(It would be interesting to know if anyone has done a study to see whether forms of Christianity that are more focused on belief and faith use more “good person” language than those that are more focused on social justice issues.)
There is some evidence that seems to suggest aiming to be a “good person” might make people feel less able to make a difference in the world. Studies of children, for example, have shown that those who receive “person praise”– that is praise of their personal qualities as opposed to their action–develop a notion they have a stable, trait-like ability. “I am a good artist.” When they subsequently encounter feedback that challenges this notion of self they suffer a loss of morale and are more likely to give up on the task all together. “Oh, I guess I’m not a good artist after all. I guess I shouldn’t try.” On the other hand, children who are given process praise– that is praise for their specific actions– responded better to the criticism, and came up with ways to fix their mistakes. “I did a good job drawing the first time, but not as well the second, so let’s see how I can improve…”
It is probably no accident that the image of the angel was transformed from a male warrior to a cherubic female as our framework shifted from the “honorable person” to the “good person.” Men are more likely to receive process praise. Women are more likely to be praised for what are seen to be personal qualities. Thus we still have “men of honor” in the military and the image of the “good person” is represented by a passive female or a child.
It seems to follow, then, that praising people for being “good” would make people doubt their sense of self when confronted with their own misdeeds. Once a person has given up on being a saint and embraced the notion of being a sinner, there is not as much of a press to change one’s ways.
Whereas in a more instrumental model, the “process praise” of honor or dishonor, a person might do the right thing and then do the wrong without having to assume doing wrong one time means he is “bad” rather that he can learn to act more honorably.
As I wrote in an article last October:
The idea that we have one nature– good or bad– leads us to all kinds of crazy behavior in order to bolster and preserve our images of ourselves as the “good people” we want ourselves to be. The things we do to preserve our self-esteem are not always the healthiest for society…There is no great moral value in feeling good about yourself when you have done a wrong…
In a culture that attributes most behaviors to inner qualities and makes them one’s unchanging identity, the stakes are very high to think of yourself as a good person and to get to work explaining away your misdeeds…
So do those in a “good person” framework behave more ethically than those in an “honor” framework or vice versa? It’s hard to say. I suspect the truth is that neither model makes a person moral. That people, in general, want to do the right thing and not the wrong thing and that they have always slipped up from time to time and always will. They’ll get up, brush themselves off, and try again.