Monday, July 25, 2011

What is a Good Person?

“I have learned to control my desire to do evil; it is now my desire to good that gets me in trouble.” Jewish saying

As I have struggled recently with trying to understand my own sometimes bad and inexplicable behavior, I have become less interested with the question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” and much more fascinated with asking, “Why do good people do bad things?” To say that only bad people do bad things is to have a simplistic view of a complicated world that rarely operates in black and white, but rather in shades of gray. It is usually what we term “good” people who do bad things. But why?

The answer may be quite simple. (It may also be anathema to religious and socially conservative people.) We tend to see the things going on inside of a person (personality, motives, desires, morals, upbringing, etc.) as more important in regulating behavior than the forces outside of the person (context, situation, societal, and peer pressures). Because we have an elevated view of the individual and the power of choice and free will, we tend to downplay the power of context and situation, while seeing ourselves in control, and other people in altruistic terms. We think that people have an inner core that dictates and determines their actions. We call this their “true self.” The “real” Charles for example. So we classify ourselves and others in terms of kinds of people – “good” people, “bad” people, “strong” people, “weak” people, “moral” people, etc.

But all these labels may be erroneous. Maybe there aren't different “kinds” of people. Could it be that there are simply “normal” people in quite different situations? Without getting into the Milgram Nazi guard experiments (Google if you must), configure the situational context a certain way and you can make some people look weak or evil, and others look strong or moral. This doesn’t mean that situations alone determine our behavior, 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. Trust me.

This principle applies to all moral issues - addiction, sexuality, theft, spending, violence, revenge, and on and on. Situations have way more power than we think. Consequently, “good” people wander into situations that cause them to falter.

My advice? Treat your own virtue with suspicion. Your strength can easily become your weakness. Guard it jealously! Don't believe your character alone is sufficient to carry you through. The world is littered with the ruined lives of those who said, “I don't know how I could have done that (fill in the blank). I’m not that kind of person!”