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what does it take to be a good person?
Being good should be our purpose
Our primary purpose should be to be best person possible – to be good. The purpose of life has been debated for as long as we have been human. There is no certain answer and many perspectives. Those debates can be held elsewhere. My premise for learning how to live is that the goal or purpose of living is to become a good person. It is the most reasonable and practical purpose I can think of.
Setting a goal to be a good person is easy. The next steps – how to be good – are far harder. How do we know what “good” is? How do know what actions to take to be good in a complex world where the consequences of our actions may be difficult to predict? Even if you know what you should do, can you do it successfully in practice?
In my experience you don’t just decide to be good and have it all fall into place. Trying to be good is far harder than I expected. I smile when I hear people say, “just do the right thing,” “love is all you need,” “don’t be evil,” or “be on the right side of history.” If only it were that simple. If only I knew what the right thing was, the right way to love, or how to avoid unintentionally making matters worse. A lifetime of learning is still inadequate to answer these questions with confidence.
There is much confusing and conflicting advice on how to be good
Getting clear, consistent, and, importantly, actionable advice on being a good person is not easy. There are many cross currents and much contradictory advice from philosophy, religion, and popular culture. Illustrating the confusion, most of us think we are being good people most of the time. Yet we often see the actions of others more negatively even as they think they are being good. Sorting all this out is our challenge.
At the heart of the conflict advice are the different perspectives on how to judge the goodness of our behavior. Two key perspectives are those of ends and means – our intended outcome or result and the means we use to get that result.
Intentions, Ends, and means
For some the outcome is all that matters. Nicolo Machiavelli made this argument in The Prince – the ends justify the means. If what you accomplish is good, then how you get there is more a practical issue rather than a moral one. A leader can be good even if they aspire to power and use brutal means if the result is a just society benefiting the people. It is a tough world and naïve to think that good intentions and virtue alone will produce good outcomes.
The simplistic utilitarian perspective follows this direction in many ways. The greatest good for the greatest number is the desired result. Achieving that may involve unfairness or injustice. But if overall happiness increases, that’s ok.
Others take exception with that. Intending to achieve good ends does not override the need to use means that meet common moral standards. Better to “do the right thing” even if it results in something bad occurring. We have the example of Cato who was so pure in his principles that no compromise with Julius Caesar was possible, thus enabling Caesar’s rise to power.
For other, intent is what makes us good. Our ability to foresee the consequences of our actions is feeble. If intended good action turns our poorly, we should really be held morally accountable for that. Good will is the test of a good person. Kant makes this point by saying that the only thing that is good without qualification good will – our decision to follow one course of action or another.
A simplifying framework for moving toward being good
I have read and thought about these issues, about how to determine moral action, for years. Each argument about what is most important to be good can be convincing. Taken together it is confusing. A little structure has been helpful to me in thinking though the complexity of making good choices.
Living a good life is hard. There is no simple path to being good. Simple sayings and fables are fine places to start. But quickly lose their usefulness when confronting real moral choices. There would be far less conflict in the world if the answers were simple. Afterall, most people want to do the right thing. Most people don’t consciously make what others might consider bad choices.
It may be helpful to think about our moral choices and actions consisting of three components. These are: 1) our intent – the expected result from our choice or action; 2) the actions we decide to use to achieve what we want; and 3) how well we can carry out those actions.
The greatest good occurs when we do well in all three categories. Doing well in all three categories requires considerable thought and wisdom. These are not new concepts and much has been written about them by people far more intelligent and wiser than me. But perhaps my perspective on each provides some practical insight making it a bit easier to think through are difficult choices. A very brief introduction to each category follows.
intent and aiming for the good
It all starts with intent. We must want to achieve something good when we act. To do that we must know what good is. For me, the simplest statement of good is action resulting in people “flourishing” individually and collectively. There are categories, perhaps hierarchies, of good. At one level are actions for our own basic survival such as getting food and shelter. At the other end are actions helping others to live spiritually satisfying and fulfilling lives. Good is not just doing no harm and obeying the law. Determining what is good is complex and nuanced when you get beyond the basics. We all know situations where we achieved what we thought was a good outcome only to realize that the reality was different. To be a good person requires effort to learn what good is.
Even when we understand what good is, self-knowledge and reflection are necessary to be certain of our intent. People are good at rationalizing actions. We can come up with good reasons why we were acting in some else’s best interests when we are just acting in our self-interest. When donating to a charity, is our intent to signal our virtue to our friends and neighbors or to help the charity’s recipients? Would we still give if our contribution were anonymous? The self-knowledge to know our intent takes time and work.
The first steps in being good is knowing what good is and being sure our intent is to achieve good.
Means -- How to go about achieving good
There are moral choices in achieving intended good ends. Assuming a deep knowledge of what good is and clear intent to achieve it, the chosen means can make all the difference. The often-repeated observation “the road to hell is paved with good intentions” highlights the risks of selecting the wrong means. Good intentions are just the beginning.
Learning how to act to achieve good ends is a lifelong quest. It involves virtues, character, practical wisdom, understanding human nature, planning, strategy, and much more. The world is complex. We are born with only the capacity for rational problem solving and the most basic moral sentiments to guide us. The practical knowledge of how to live to achieve good ends is perhaps the largest part of wisdom.
More and better good is achieve when we have intend to do good and we select the best means. But still more is needed.
Competence – How to achieve what we set out to accomplish
Doing the work of putting our plan to do good into action is the final step. Choosing the right means has no impact if we don’t have the ability to carry it out. We all know people (including ourselves) with the best of intentions and a good plan but who fail when they are unable to successfully implement their plan.
In my own example, 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? Yes, I had good intentions and a decent plan. But only a small amount of good was achieved because I couldn’t carry out my plan.
Competence – the ability to successfully complete what we plan to do – is the final component of achieving good.
Consider all three components when planning and acting
The purpose with these categories is to provide a structure to guide our efforts to be a good person. I try to consider or be aware of all three categories when I act. I want to be sure I intend to do good and aid for the highest good if 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 carry out my plan. All this takes thought and effort.