For the longest time, I had no doubt that I was a good person, a conviction that contributed a great deal to my personal identity and self assurance. Of late though, I’ve come to doubt my own goodness, and in the process, been facing a bit of an identity crisis. This led me to lay down a personal framework for leading a good life.
Why be good?
Why does being good matter so much in the first place? For most people, being good is almost a mental axiom, planted by repeated conditioning by family, society and academic organizations. If these axioms aren’t reinforced with rational explanations soon enough though, they may fall apart at the base during trying times, when our moral inclinations conflict with personal gains. To this end, I think it’s important to clearly understand why we should attempt to be good people:
1. Religion: All religions recommend that its followers lead a moral life and care for the well-being of others. This alone should be sufficient cause as long as a person’s belief in his or her religion is unshakeable. If religious edicts don’t do the job, ideas such as karma and adrsta phala, or perhaps the fear of purgatory and the desire for salvation, might do the trick.
2. Eudaimonia: According to Aristotle, eudaimonia, a life of true happiness and well-being, can best be achieved by being virtuous towards others. In other words, we maximize our own happiness by being good to others. Note that eudaimonia is characterized as true happiness, which is asserted as being superior to hedonistic pleasure seeking. In short, goodness is the only path to happiness.
3. Ethical Frameworks: Utilitarianism is the school of thought that individuals should aim to maximize happiness in this world; if you subscribe to this school, it follows that you should be good to others to maximize global happiness. Deontology, specifically Kant’s categorical imperative, postulates that you should always treat humanity as an end and not as a means. In simpler words, you should respect human dignity and rights; it follows from this that being good to others is the right thing to do.
The next logical question to ask here is why one must be ethical in the first place. There’re many ways to approach this issue, but the argument that puts me at ease is that ethical frameworks are an evolutionary imperative – humankind evolves when humans learn to treat each other through the prism of mutually beneficial sets of logical rules. Thus, in the interest of evolution, we ought to be ethical, and ethics in turn command that we be good.
Evaluating your own goodness
Few, if any, would categorize themselves as bad people, but this surely doesn’t make us all good people by default. How then can we decide if we’ve been rational beings and heeded our calls to goodness? I’ve come to evaluate myself through the lens of six questions, laid out along two distinct spheres of life:
1. Family, Friends and Colleagues: The people with whom we come in contact during the course of our lives. For most of us, our impact on this world is measured by our impact on this small group of people. Here’s my checklist for my interaction with this group:
a. Have I consciously hurt anyone either through my action or inaction?
b. Have I been empathetic enough to recognize when I have unwilling hurt someone through my action or inaction?
c. To those who seek my affection, where appropriate, have I sufficiently obliged?
These points may seem obvious at first read, but I find that they’re an effective reference point for my daily interactions. You may find that a misplaced remark has caused someone grief, or a delay in a long-awaited phone-call has left someone longing. The keyword here is empathy, the ability to look at things from the other person’s perspective.
2. Society/The World: What of the world outside of regular human interactions? In this era of globalization, our actions resonate beyond just a block radius, or a city boundary. The extend to the entire world, including all that’s living, non-living and yet to be born. My checklist for this group:
a. Have I knowingly hurt anyone or anything either through my action or inaction?
b. Do I have sufficient knowledge of the impact of my actions or inactions on society, either upstream or downstream?
c. Have I been proactive in leaving the world a better place than I found it, and rectifying wrong even when I’ve not been the cause?
These may seem obvious too, but chances are you haven’t been mindful of them. For instance:
– When you purchased your last iPhone, did you know that your purchase implicitly involved weighing the impact of your purchase on migrant labourers in China against a potential job-creating boost to the economy? If not, you may have violated the knowledge requirement of #2b.
– In choosing to pick-up a new plastic bag at the supermarket instead of bringing your own, you might’ve contributed to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and violated #2a.
– By choosing to binge on the Internet rather than helping out at that homeless shelter next door, you’re probably not doing justice to #2c.
Note the two keywords highlighted in this section – empathy and knowledge. In this suggested framework, becoming more empathetic and actively learning more about the world is a moral imperative. In other words, merely being kind and loving in response to day to day actions is not enough. You’ve got to do more; you’ve got to make an active effort to understand those around you (empathy) and learn more about the wider impact of your actions (knowledge).
So, is your author a good person?
I think I’ve done decent job on the family and friends front, but not so on the society front. Yes I’ve turned vegan out of concern for animal welfare, minimized my wastage of plastic and electricity, and contributed towards job creation through my startup, but I haven’t yet done enough. Considering the tools that the Internet and my education have given me, I know far too less about the goods I consume. For all my desire to do something about poverty and hunger, I still walk past hungry homeless people every night on my way back from work feeling helpless. Even though I’m a well-paid engineer in Silicon Valley, I contribute far too little to causes I believe in.
Having said this, do I think lesser of myself? What of my identity crisis? Now that I’ve laid down my thoughts clearly, I find that I’m less concerned about fears of self-inadequacy, and more concerned that by failing to be a better person, I’m acting irrationally, jeopardizing my eudaimonic well-being and violating my evolutionary imperative. That’s a scary thought if ever there was one.