Rebirth of Reason


What is a Good Person?
by Joseph Rowlands

The most common view of morality is that it is a way of testing or proving that you are a good person. But what exactly does that mean? What quality or qualities define a good person?


Take the altruistic morality as an example. An act of helping others is proof that you care about other people. It shows what you value. This is the meaning of a good person. A good person, under altruism, is someone who cares about others. The greater they care, the more they are willing to act against their own interests for the sake of others. If you make a significant sacrifice to your own life, it proves how much you care about helping others.


So when people talk about being a good person, they don't generally refer to someone who merely acts according to a moral standard. Helping other people doesn't necessarily reflect well on you. It boils down to your motivations or intentions. If you are helping others to gain personal fame, or to get money in return, or some other self-oriented reason, the good deed proves nothing and you get no moral credit from it. But if you help others because you care about them, it shows you are good.


In this view, morality is a test of moral character. The actions themselves are only important in what they prove or reflect. And the consequences themselves aren't that important either. Whether you really ended up helping others or not is beside the point. The primary function is to allow your character to manifest in action. By sacrificing for others, it shows what you value.


This is an interesting twist for the relationship between emotions and morality. In the Objectivist viewpoint, emotions are not primary. They are effects. They are caused by your moral evaluations. You respond emotionally based on value-judgments. If you view something as a value to your life, you will tend to emotionally respond with desire, love, joy, relief, etc. If you view something as harmful to your life, you may respond with hatred, anger, fear, or grief.


In this view, a moral system is the basis of evaluation with the goal of being able to make decisions. Without a moral standard, there'd be no way of deciding one option is better than the other.


In the other perspective, emotions come first. They aren't byproducts of your ideas, but are reflections of who you are and the kind of person you are. And morality comes second as a way of specifically testing or embodying those inner characteristics. Morality turns out to be a subset of your choices. It only deals with the ones where it is possible to clarify outwardly what is going on inside. The rest of your decisions in life are morally irrelevant. They can be classified as amoral.


Even in this view, morality as a code of values comes first. Morality defines what is good. It says which emotional responses make you good, and which would make you bad. But this presents a new kind of problem. It treats your emotional responses, or your values, as the important part. Your actions are a kind of afterthought that are only morally significant to the extent they highlight your emotions. This view presents values as valuable in a way that is disconnected from action. Your values and emotions are viewed as good even if they are never put into action. They aren't good because of their effects. They are just asserted as good.


So it starts with values that are simply asserted as good, but not because they lead to action. You are good simply for having sympathy for others, or compassion, or brotherly love. These are good in themselves, and not good because of what they lead to.


Moral action is not something that makes you better or worse. If you do something good, it doesn't make you a better person. If you do something bad, it doesn't make you a worse person. The actions only highlight your values or emotions. They make your character visible. A good action doesn't improve who you are, but it might make who you are more visible to yourself, others, or God.


There is also a distinction between emotions and values. Emotions are what are being judged. Loosely described, what you emotionally desire would be thought of as what you value. But in this sense of value, it has little or no connection to what you actually pursue or think you should pursue. To say that an altruist values other people is taken to mean that he feels compassion or sympathy for them. It means he cares. It doesn't mean he'll do anything about, or even think he should do something about it. Of course, to highlight your character, you need to take action. So to that degree, they are expected to act on these emotions. But this is really different. You could compare that approach to one where your emotions we're important, but your intentions were. It doesn't matter if you feel sympathy but don't feel that you need to do anything about it.


Contrast this whole approach with an Objectivist view. What is a good person? The question is too vague. Good for who or for what? Perhaps it means good for society. That would be a person that contributes to the harmony of interests, who helps prevent conflicts of interests from arising, and who maintains justice. It is someone who lives by the trader principles, who respects rights, who communicates honestly, and who is reliable.


Or maybe a "good person" is someone who can be proud of themselves. That would include his various accomplishments. It would include living up to his goals. It would include living in a way that he thinks is proper in the pursuit of his values.


So the idea that a person is good because of what he feels is bizarre. It doesn't matter what he does? It doesn't matter what he thinks? His feelings, the one thing that he cannot directly control, is the decisive factor in determining whether he is "a good person"?

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