Being a Good Person vs. Doing Good Things

“What is to virtue as hedons are to hedonism?”


For most of my life, I’ve been trying to be a good person.

I think that in practice this often turns out to be different than doing good things.

When I try to be a good person, I compare myself to a prototypical image of a “good person”, and then feel gulity or shameful to the extent that I am not him. Actions arise out of a desire to avoid guilt/shame, rather than out of wanting to do what I’m doing.

This ends up with me putting lots of effort into cleaning things up and feeling bad about myself, and much less into actually moving the world forward.

I spend time on apologies, but not on having fun with my friends. Bandaging relationships, but not raising people up.

I don’t think you should construct moral systems that way. Righting wrongs is important, but you need to actually do anything ever, and you want to have your whole being behind it. Going for gains rather than avoiding losses is important.

A major weakness with trying to be a good person is where the idea of “good person” comes from. In most cases, it’s a mix of feeling icky or guilty about various things, and what people praise or admonish you for.

This lets lots of things leak in.

Terminally valuing praise and avoiding criticism makes you optimize for other people’s reactions, not good outcomes. To the extent that people are ignorant or selfish, this makes actually trying to do good things difficult.

It opens you up to letting anyone make you feel guilty. Then guilt leads to inhibition, and inhibition leads do inaction. Breaking through it is hard.

There are some situations where people will be annoyed no matter what you do.

If what you called good did actually lead to good things happening, then trying to be a good person could work. If you say, went through history and autobiographies to figure out what sorts of thought processes people who moved the world forward used, then called those good, things could work.

People almost never do that, and often some of the steps to making good things happen aren’t labeled as things that good people do.



About atucker

Provisional pronouncements and (hopefully) honest mistakes. I'd like to be differently wrong about things, and helpful to the world.
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3 Responses to Being a Good Person vs. Doing Good Things

  1. grognor says:

    This is a simple, elegant essay on an important distinction that many people simply cannot think about without instantly failing on some dimension or other.

    Here is a much older post about the same topic:

    I take the conclusions as quite obvious as in general there is a world of difference between seeming X and being X and “good” is one of the most common examples when people fill in for X. “Good” and “smart” are probably the two most common Xs.

  2. Jay Bobzin says:

    Huge issues arises when these two drives come in conflict.

    I’m reminded of the famous 60s protest picture that appeared on reddit today:

    Morality is doing what’s right regardless of what you’re told.
    Obedience is doing what you’re told regardless of what is right.

    …where trying to appear virtuous is simply doing what society tells you you should do.

  3. Daniel says:

    I like the distinction. I think removing the element of attribution to people from ethics actually makes it a lot easier to think clearly about ethical problems. I think our need to attribute stuff to people is a psychological need, but doesn’t help to enlighten our thinking about ethics — it only becomes relevant in a second (juristic) step.

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