Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Are You a "Good" Person?

I am less fascinated with the question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” than with the question, “Why do good people do bad things?” This is much more relevant and interesting. To say that bad people do bad things is to have a VERY simplistic, childlike view of the world. It is usually good people who do bad things. I have become obsessed with figuring out why. This is why I watch disturbing movies like “Hostel.” This is why I have profiled Hitler’s henchmen. I have really probed the question, “Why do good (or normal) people do bad things?” Here’s what I think. (I wrote about some of this last year.)

We tend to see the things going on inside of a person (personality, motives, desires) as more important in regulating behavior than the forces outside of the person (context, situation, social pressures). We downplay the power of context and situation, while seeing ourselves and other people in altruistic terms. We think that people have an inner core that dictates and determines their actions (their “true self”). So we classify people in terms of “kinds” of people - good people, bad people, strong people, weak people. But all these labels are erroneous. There aren't different “kinds” of people. There are simply people in different situations. Configure the situation a certain way and we can make some people look weak and others strong. This doesn’t mean that situations alone determine our behavior (though I do believe in situational ethics), but we tend to dramatically underestimate the power of context and situation. How many times have you heard someone say, “I would never do that.” This is precisely what sets us up for wrongdoing. We tend to overestimate the strength of our character. We see ourselves as a “kind” of person – a good father, a good husband. To see ourselves in this way is a mistake – a very costly one.

This principle applies to all moral issues - addiction, sexuality, spending, violence, and on and on. Situations have way more power than we think. Consequently, “good” people wander into situations that cause them to falter. Treat your own virtue with suspicion. Your strength can easily become your weakness. Don't believe your character alone is sufficient to carry you through. Trust me on this! The world is full of the ruined lives of those who said, “I don't know why or how I could have done that (fill in the blank). I’m not like that!”