Sunday, May 01, 2005

Question - What is a good person?

A Visitor to Dialectic raised the question “What do philosophers consider a 'good' person is? Is it simply someone whose good deeds outweigh their bad deeds?” – it is pertinent question worthy of discussion whenever it is raised and so the Editors would like to present it for open discussion.

What is a good person?

26 comments:

Anonymous said...

Tricky. I mean it is a tricky question, not that a tricky person is a good person. Not that I could say for sure that they are not. I'll work on an answer, but it might take a while.

Surely some of the people here who have had an opinion on other matters can come up with something for this?

Samuel Douglas said...

I'm not sure how to answer this without getting into other issues. I'm inclined to say that a good person is a just person, or a person that acts in accordance with the principle of justice. Having said that some will want to suggest that it takes more than simple actions to make an individual a 'good' person.

MH said...

This is a question that is more complicated than it apparently appears. I agree with Mr Douglas that it cannot be answered without going into other areas, but I contest his equation of ‘good’ with ‘just’ – a good individual need not be just, nor a just individual good.

Intuitively, like the Poser of the question, one is inclined to reason that a ‘good’ individual (‘person’ is a problematic term often best avoided) is one whose number of ‘good’ deeds is greater than their number of ‘bad’ deeds when the sum total of their actions is tallied. In practical terms – a good individual is one who does good things. But this position seems naive; it would force us to say that an individual who committed heinous crimes against humanity (say a eugenic massacre) but who regularly assisted elderly women by carrying their shopping, donated large sums of money to charity, and regularly gave blood (and many other ‘good’ things) was a good individual, a concession that we may be uninclined to make (it amounts to a statement along the lines ‘Hitler was a good person who did bad things’ – most individuals would rather simply think of Hitler as a bad person). The way of avoiding such a concession is to ascribe values to actions – allocating each different action with its own value; in explanation, while occurrence of assisting an elderly lady, donating to charity, and giving blood might be valued at plus three, plus five, and plus four respectively, each crime against humanity might be valued at minus one million so that no matter how many good deeds the hypothetical individual has done it is highly unlikely the final tally would be in the positive.

The process of valuing acts is where things become problematic. Utilitarianism, for example, had had difficulties when it comes to valuing ends for comparison since simply numeric values do not appear to be apt, and no viable alternative system that will enable functioning utilitarian calculi has been proposed. It is the process of ascribing values that Nietzsche examines in ‘Beyond Good and Evil’ and ‘The Genealogy of Morals’, his argument – as I understand it – being that the difference between the Hellenic and the Christian ethical systems is how they ascribe value. Hence there is a considerable difference between what a Hellenic and a modern would consider to be a ‘good’ individual.

Personally, I am inclined to agree with the various Hellenic and Hellenistic ethicists who have argued that a ‘good’ individual is one who aspires to their own success within the confines of virtue. This avoids the problem of having to balance good and bad act, it also implies just conduct without making ‘just’ synonymous with ‘good’. Further, the designation of ‘good’ relies on something more than actions – intention is important in the consideration of whether an individual is good. This last point is important because an individual should not aspire to being ‘good’, rather to be a good individual they should aspire to living successfully, and to being classically virtuous while doing so.

Hence, a ‘good’ individual is more than simply someone who does ‘good’ things, and more than someone who lives in accord with the principles of justice.

Cooly McCool said...

With out another moral luck discussion as intention is very slippery, or arguing different ethical frameworks (I have to admit that like martin, I am drawn to virtue ethics, particularily as they appear in writers like Nietszche and Foucault), but I am going to attempt what is a very simple intuitive answer for me: A good person is one who within reasonable bounds can be said to be a character who has no desire to adversely effect others.

Obviously, actions don't always bring the desired results, and you could read all actions in some way as doing harm to somebody somewhere. By desire, I'm not strictly speaking the thought process 'I wish to cause harm,' but when a person is willing to adversly effect others for their own gain, whether concious or not of their actions - it is not the intent to cause harm as much as the willingness to do so.

The problematic part is the 'reasonable bounds'. This is very subjective, but it kind of needs to be. I hope to allow a loop hole for those people who due to luck, find their 'intent' compromised. Also, I would be inclined to say that the 'Labowski's' of the world are good people, despite an obvious laziness and not doing anything particularily beneficial to anyone. I also hope that this definition can establish most people as being able to be described as good, as despite my general despondency with society, I like to think most individuals really don't mean to fuck with other people's shit that much - it's just what happens when you have a society. On the other hand, I would be inclined to want to say john howard is not a good person, nor is the 'power-path' beurocrat that everyone has encountered at some point in their life.

Rosie said...

So where does apathy fit into this equation?? Cooly, I disagree with 'A good person is one who within reasonable bounds can be said to be a character who has no desire to adversely effect others'. You can be the most mundane and apathetic person and have absolutely no desire to have adverse effects on others, but that does not make you a good person. I dont think that merely not being bad (but not being good either) makes someone good. I have alot of issues with apathy. I'm tempted just to put it in the same basket as bad. On one hand it isn't fair I suppose, but on the other hand I think it completly is. The unfair hand says you have the right to live your life as you wish without unwantedly reaching into others lives. The other hand says we all have a responsibilty of some description, and true empathy should make us all alot more concerned about the world around us. By ignoring empathy you lay the path for apathy- or you simply don't care. in the 2nd case, how can that make someone a good person??? (the first case too really) Not doing either good deeds or bad ones simply because you don't give a flying f$&* about other people in the world. I guess this depends on if being good to other people is a precursor to being 'good'? I know apathy isn't the same as bad. It also isn't the same as good. I keep thinking on a line graph, where good is at one end, and evil the other, but i can't figure out where apathy should go. I don't think it should be in the middle. Can't put why in words jsut yet, but don't think it should. Also shouldn't neccesarily go any closer to bad...hmmm. We need some kind of crazy 3d graph maybe. Well, huzzuh for my first real comment, please, your thoughts on apathy... :)

Rosie said...

An unrelated idea...

How the hell does the idea of the end of history work??? It's come up a few times now and it seems to be a very random idea. How can history end??!?!

MH said...

Ms Wallin – I think that there is a need to be careful in how you approach ‘apathy’. I think that your good-bad line graph is not really the place to locate apathy, it should actually be placed on a different line graph. I think that, to use the Aristotelian model of ‘excess – mean – deficiency’, apathy would have to be a deficiency (though I have failed to come up with the mean and the excess). Now, this model correlates the virtuous with the mean (that is, a good individual is one who lives a virtuous, or moderate, life). So, an apathetic individual is deficient, but this does not make them bad. Rather, an individual can only be considered ‘bad’ when they actively pursue harmful ends – if their apathy costs another individual inordinately, then the apathetic may be considered bad.

Does this resolve your issue?

Rosie said...

You'll have to clarify your last sentence for me. I know that in the scheme of 'good' and 'bad' apathy does not neccesarily sit in the same place, but I put it together here are we were talking about what made a person good. I concluded this therefore would involved either good or bad actions (fair?) and as actions were involved, I figured it was fair to bring in apathy. I guess I'm just on a bit of an apathy rant with VSU and stuff anyways. there's something else here...but too tired. more on this later, I know I have a point hiding somewhere....

Cooly McCool said...

I see the apathetic as victims more so than agents of evil - granted it doesn't really help anyone - but in many cases it means that they don't feel the need to force themselves or their agendas on anyone outside of those concrete relations which individuals form. The thing is is that apathy is bad when it adversely affects others (or yourself) - such as allowing a blatant lying to be acceptible in the prime minister or the gutting of the pillar of the democratic institution - universities. But most people become subsumed by society, overwhelmed by it. It is a struggle, and for most going off to work, or forming friendships, or raising families is the best they can do within their context - and trust me, not hurting others is a hard, mostly full-time activity. The apathetic, the recluse and the dispondant might on surface appear to be the models of virtue by my description, but really, being withrawn from society or being apathitic can be damaging as rose pointed out. My argument is however, that if you can live most of your life without really hurting anyone outside of the obvious harms caused by being part of the top 10% of wealth in the world, etc. then you should be seen as a 'good' person, maybe not a great person, or a humane person, but a 'good' person.

Cooly McCool said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Rosie said...

Question...What is the opposite of evil??? I don't believe its good...Evil is a much more intense thing than good. Good can be quite hum drum, while evil is worse than bad. if you consider than evil acts are predomininately selfish acts, can we say that the opposite of evil acts are selfless acts??? I don't think we entirely can, because thats still too broad, but it was interesting. hmmmm...

MH said...

A reply to Ms Wallin

If we accept that an individuals may be considered either good or bad, then we must hold that these are ‘sum condition descriptions’ – that is ‘good’ and ‘bad’ describe the total of an individual’s actions.

My claim is that while an individual may be ‘good’ or ‘bad’, they may also be excessive, virtuous, or deficient. That is, an individual’s action in a situation may be either too much, too little, or just right. Hence, excessive, virtuous, and deficient may be considered ‘reaction descriptions’. The ‘reaction descriptions’ cannot be used as a sole basis for the classification of an individual as either good or bad. Simply, it does not make sense to claim that an individual is bad simply because they are deficient. An example should assist: an individual, A, lives a generally virtuous life. A has just the right reaction to each situation, except for tidiness – it may be weeks or months between the instances of A vacuuming and dusting their residence – which really has no impact on anyone other than A personally, and this impact is minimal. It does not seem correct to claim that A, who appears to generally be a good person, is bad because they cannot be bothered tidying their own home. It does seem correct, though, to consider that A is deficient.

Generally, it seems possible to consider the simply apathetic (that is, those whose sole deficiency is their apathy) akin to the untidy. (My hope with this analogy is that the untidy might actually be considered apathetic towards cleanliness). While they might live otherwise good lives, they are deficient in one particular area. Can should individuals be considered bad simply because they are deficient in one area? No.

To return to the question you asked of myself, the point of “an individual can only be considered ‘bad’ when they actively pursue harmful ends – if their apathy costs another individual inordinately, then the apathetic may be considered bad” was to try to put a price on when apathetic becomes bad. To explain. It can be assumed that the general course of A’s activities may have a cost on B’s life. A buying the last copy of a magazine from a newsagent means that B cannot buy it, should B want it, so be is slightly inconvenienced. There are probably hundreds of actions that every individual undertakes everyday that have such unknowable impacts, and these impacts may be considered the ordinary costs of actions. Apathy in general may have such results; A might decide not to collect the mail because A is apathetic towards the mail service, which results in an inconvenience for B. While, in general, apathetic actions might have minor costs, there are also occasions when apathy results in inordinate costs; A fails to adequately put out a camp fire, which then results in a bushfire that burns down B’s house. In such situations, it is A’s apathy that is active when A makes the decision not to act, so A is actively pursuing a harmful end, when then results in a inordinate cost on B, and hence A can be considered ‘bad’.

Has this clarified my position?


Post Script - Apologies for ignoring the posts of the last two days in preparing this reply. On reading them, I do not think that they have an impact on my position as I have developed it thus far.

Samuel Douglas said...

I have to agree with much that has been said contra apathy. I think that framing the question in terms of 'action' rather than 'choice' is what causes the attitude that basically states: 'If I don't act to contribute to a situation, then I have no moral connection to the situation.' This is a postition that really annoys me, mostly because I first came into contact with it via selfish new - age types who were so scared of soiling their own karma, that they would not help anyone except themselves.
Having said that, it is plasuible, and generally accepted that the despondent in particular, may be in their state due to factors outside of their control, hence my aversion to putting too much weight on personal responsibility.

Rosie said...

Response to Martin-

Just a short disclaimer- I am attempting to argue with Honours philosophy geniuses. We all know I’ll be got at every turn, but this is interesting good practice, so bear with me. 

“If we accept that an individual may be considered either good or bad, then we must hold that these are ‘sum condition descriptions’ – that is ‘good’ and ‘bad’ describe the total of an individual’s actions.” -----So how is this measured? Is it a matter of your average of good and bad things? 49% of the time I do ‘good’ things, and 51% of the time I do ‘bad’ things, so I am a ‘bad’ person? As you say, I don’t know if we really need or can accept people as entirely ‘good’ or ‘bad’. As for the excessive, virtuous, or deficient argument, I quite like it. What about detrimental?? In any situation, I could do too much (excessive, and possibly this is where detrimental is covered??), just the perfect response (virtuous), or not enough (deficient), or I could do something which purposely or accidentally makes the situation worse (detrimental). In terms of talking about what makes a person ‘good’ though I feel its more of an argument about intent (to some extent) than situational response. i.e- if ex, vir, def refer to the result of an action to situation, intent need not be involved. If I see a small fire jump off my bonfire in the backyard, I want to put it out so it doesn’t get bigger and burn down my house where (so I don’t get in trouble just for wanting to save ‘things’), my grandmother is asleep with 2 broken legs with a 3 month year old baby sleeping in a crib next to her.  My intention is good and virtuous. However, I’m a bit stupid, and I think that blowing on this fire is a good way to go. I make the fire bigger, and because this is my analogy, it conveniently gets huge and burns down my house. My response to this situation was not excessive or virtuous. It was possibly deficient, because I was stupid and ignorant enough not to know that fire likes oxygen, but even more so my actions were detrimental, because, even though it was unintentional, I assisted the fire to grow. Possibly detrimental doesn’t need to be included, as it was a follow on from my deficiency, but I also could have just sat there and done nothing. Maybe there’s an interesting apathy argument hiding in those words somewhere…

“While, in general, apathetic actions might have minor costs, there are also occasions when apathy results in inordinate costs; A fails to adequately put out a camp fire, which then results in a bushfire that burns down B’s house. In such situations, it is A’s apathy that is active when A makes the decision not to act, so A is actively pursuing a harmful end, when then results in a inordinate cost on B, and hence A can be considered ‘bad’.” --- This is you giving an eg of when apathy can be considered bad correct?? So ironically, the apathy needs to be active. (that’s not a point, I just liked it). I agree. As before this just seems to point to the idea that there is no definite ‘good’ person, there are just responses to various situations. Still, I know that’s not adequate too because we still judge the actions based on our concept of these ideas.
A Response to Sam-

Being somewhere who is rather pissed off with hippies myself at the moment, I understand where you are coming from. Let me just clarify- 'If I don't act to contribute to a situation (You mean positive change/action things), then I have no moral connection to the situation.' (I have no moral position or cares on the matter if I am not involved directly with action). Is that what you’re saying there? If so, and your selfish new age types really were selfish, then that wasn’t their position. It was their rhetoric, but not really what they truly believed if they were selfish. With that in mind, it’s worthwhile not to whitewash the whole issue in light of the people who really don’t function in line with that view in anycase.
If you get a chance, can you extend on 'action' rather than 'choice', and your last sentence about factors out of control and personal responsibility?

Cooly McCool said...

I think Rose, that after reading your last comment, that maybe you don't disagree with my description of a good person. It is almost impossible to calculate who has done more good than bad, and that apathy doesn't always have the moral value of being negative. To say someone is a good person then, might be to say that it is someone who's actions don't overtly cause harm to others - that is to say there is a level of empathy. I am well aware that empathy and apathy have 'pathy' in them, but that does not establish apathy as a negative form of empathy. Instead, if you use the aristotelian mean, you would say that there can be an excess of empathy (where it becomes detrimental to yourself), a deficiency (where you cause harm to others) and a virtuous amount. 'A'pathy then is more those actions which are are not on the empathy scale, much like 'a'moral. Using the discussion I would rephrase what constitutes a good person as one who is empathetic to others. This establishes the realm of apathy outside empathy, and the cases of harm being done due to lack of empathy not simply equating to inaction. Reading apathy in these terms does bring up the question, what is an apathetic action? It is then an action outside of the empathy spectrum, or an action that casts no particular empathetic valuation at all. This may at times be detrimental to others, therefore being a lack of empathy, but at others result beneficially (letting things alone when they should be). I conclude then that apathetic individuals are a)not good or bad (moral valuations kind of fail here) if we are talking a true apathy rather than a lack of empathy and b)very, very rare. A good person is one who has the virtue of empathy.

Rosie said...

So is any action required of this empathy?? If you are able to conceive that if you were a puppy you wouldn't like being poked with a stick and understand how that would feel (i.e using empathy) but then you still did it surely thats worse. I think that maybe 'good' is just too weak a word. Its a bit insipid and I'm thinking in big term amazaing or awful things here. As I said before- is good really the opposite of evil? Surely bad is. Is good different because good is by definition the best good, but then surely bad by definition should be the worst bad, yet we would all say evil is worse than bad.

Rosie said...

Let me just clarify...the reason for rail-roading this discussion onto apathy was based on the idea that it is action and not intent that determines a person. Same can apply to the now 'evil' person argument.

MH said...

I am going to ask for a certain amount of patience with regard to this discussion. I am contemplating a note for a forthcomming Club meeting - probably the 24th - where I hope to be able to try and clarify a few things of the things that have become invovled in this discussion.

One of the relevant issues, Ms Rosie, is the relationship between good, bad, and evil; I think that the basis for any answer of that question is to be found in Nietzsche's 'Beyond Good and Evil' and 'Gen. of Morals'. If granted a little leave, I will review a few things and hopefully return with a satisfactory reply.

michael said...

in terms of another view of apathy, given in elation of good and evil or bad (I will her use the terms as identical as they were seen at the time the following idea was put forward) there is the idea that all actins are positive. so apathy is only a lack of action - a quasi-concept. also evil is only a lack of good - also a quasi-concept. so this may explain the confusion - apathy and evil are both only quasi-concepts, and as such one cannot directly pit them against each other without reference to a third, and necissarily, truly-concept (not a technical term, but Kipling's term does here seem useful). this leads to another way of differentiating between good and bad people that is not in the above mentioned percentages fashion; a person is wholely good, but their actions may lack some amount of the similar qualities.

From the Nietzsche point there will be howls,as bad and evil are so differnt here. though do note that useing the same antithesis between two ideas, one the truly concept, and the corresponding lack the quasi-concept, there are tow completely seperate goods in Nietzsche; the antithesis to bad is a truly-concept, and the antithesis to evil is - in Nietzsche's account - a quasi-concept. I enjoy this tidy inversion. For the Nietzschians I reference another idea: that I am not what I am, and am what I am not. this causes some problems for the Nietzschian account, because of the disparity between how one sees oneself and how one actually is. the bad are defined as "not good" only after the good has been defined as "us". Hmm. then the evil are defined as them - fine - and the god are defined as "not them", so, through a negative, "us".
But if we are what we are not and are not what we are, due to our transcendant nature, Nietzsche's account of what is good and what is bad is all a falsification anyway, so doesn't really tel us who is good and who is bad, but only who we want to call good and who we want to call bad.

I would like at this point (completely unrelated to anything) claim that I am good, and the world is good, but that I do not know what good is.

this is probably too much of an aside to be interesting, so feel free to ignore if you so desire.

Cooly McCool said...

I have empathy for Iraqis. I have empathy for third world sweatshop workers. I have empathy for aids devastated african's. I also have empathy for drought stricken farmers. Unfortunately if I continue this list, I encounter too many things that are very detached from me and are quite simply the realm of the abstract. What's more every time I participate in the society that I find myself, I am indirectly causing massive social, ecological, etc. damage somewhere and somehow. How then, can I, considering my good fortune to be born as the beneficiary of an unjust world ever be able to be a morally good person? It is not my intent to cause harm but I do. What action can I take to correct the world's indefinite injustices?

But if you ask most people who know me, most would say that I am a good person in that I don't consciously go about to cause harm. Infact, to some, and this will be those for whom my relation is concrete rather than abstract, for whom this empathy manifests itself in a concrete fashion. It is from this empathy and the concrete relations it creates that I say a person's 'goodness' derives.

We do well to remember Marx, who for the abstract whole of exploited workers, let his children die for lack of medicines and the like. I regard Marx as a great man, but good, that's questionable. Engels on the other hand gave alot of financial support to his freind, Karl Marx, and this seems a fundamentally good action.

There is no action required of this empathy, but it will make itself known through its concrete forms. Combine a person whose a good friend, and is empathetic towards the abstract suffering of humanity and I would be offended if such a person is not considered 'good'.

Ming, I'm not sure all your quasi-concept stuff, but you are right in that you have to be careful as to what dichotomies you draw. Apathy, isn't necessarily inaction. That could simply be inert, or powerlessness or lethargy. It is that which is outside of the empathetic spectrum: I am basically apathetic towards something for which I feel neither empathy or callousness towards - I am withdrawn emotionally from it.

Pete said...

Maybe you kids would like to engage in a Nietzsche workshop next semester? Sounds like you could all do with a little help!!!

Rosie said...

Yes please. Bring on the Nietzsche workshop! What ideas of his exactly are relevant here??

Cooly- "There is no action required of this empathy, but it will make itself known through its concrete forms. " Sorry? is that the empathy making itself known through concrete forms? what is that other than actions. Some of you points are fine here, but there's still that little niggling thing about apathy thats in play here that I haven't figured out how to say yet. AS for being born into a well off country and causing lots of indirect harm, thats a bit of a rough argument. true to some extent, but thats no reason to resign our selves to how bad we are so not do anything. Fits in with this-
We are here- not the best place with some very yukky things in it.
We want to be here- a very lovely place with no or few messy things in it.
they are a long way a part, and in the middle is this- lksfhsjkhdfksjfksfs(i.e a lot of messy confusing stuff that seems to go on for ages)
Becuase of all the messy stuff in the middle, no one makes the step into in from where we are to where we want to be. But if we all take lots of little steps into 'the big messy', we move the 'where we are point' a little closer to where we want to be, and although its been hard, we've conquered a little bit of messy. For many people this step into the mess is very diffcult, and considered pointless because where we want to be is so far away, but its very simple to see that a little bit closer is simply a few more 'little bit closer's' away from where we want to be. So this argument frustrates me becuase its so obviously crap. Of course each little bit counts. Everything is only made up of the little bits!
Can we have a real discussion in person about this one day?!?

Pete said...

Nietzsche.
Ok I'm about to commit a gross atrocity but here goes....
Young Friedrich conducted a etymological investigation of the word "good" and found that for the ancients "good" was used to refer to things that the aristocracy(?)liked. As such the value of good was determined by the ruling class while the slaves had good defined for them. Hence a class based differentiation of values. Due to the varied twists and turns of historical development (like sands through the hourglass....) the majority of modern westerners (what N called the herd) inherited the slaves notion of "good". That is to say, that most of us assume that "good" is something that we can't determine ourselves, in fact refers to something that exists out there in the world and that we can only live our lives by trying to pursue/emulate whatever it is we identify as being "good"....
So attempts to define a good person that try to say something like "a good person is someone who behaves according to such and such rules" are according to N, a product of herd thinking. The truth of the matter is that notions such as "good", "evil", etc. are actually still products of the aristocracy. But who does N see as being the aristocrats of modernity? Here he refers to the Ubermensch....
Anyway like I said this is an atrocity. What sort of lousy, half-baked, nutshell account of Nietzsche is this? Any who are keen in taking part in the Nietzsche workshop should get in touch with me and we'll if we can work something out.

Anonymous said...

one man can say ...a man is born good..one man can say a man is born bad...what makes a person good is defied on how they rule their lives..its touchy but it ties to so many other topics...what religion?what culture? the list goes on

Cooly McCool said...

If you cultivate an empathetic character, then your actions will generally be in accordance with that character, but actions are often limited and outcomes unpredictable. The place where you have the ability to act most readily is towards those who you actually come into contact with, and this is where you find most examples of a person's character.

MH said...

Mr McCool - A brief question. When you write "The place where you have the ability to act most readily is towards those who you actually come into contact with" do you include the 'self' as one of those we come into contact with, or do you refer simply to others?

I inquire because I would contend that, ethically, the sphere where you have the greatest ability to act is the self. One is more able to govern ones own responses than to influence the responses of others. It is a kin of this idea that takes form in Stoic philosophy, as I understand it.