December 10, 2012

Good person/bad person

I was scrolling through my YouTube subscriptions this weekend and watched a new video by MeekaKitty. In it, Tessa shares her thoughts on the phrases "good person" and "bad person." She says that people should not get stuck in such labels and questions what they even mean, settling on the definition that they refer to whether the sum of one's actions are for the better or for the worse. I agree with this, and I think a lot of other people would, as well. She acknowledges that if someone believes they are bad, they can give up on any effort to improve themselves, which becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy of choosing "bad actions." This is true, too. But then Tessa adds that she thinks that most people inherently are selfish and suck anyway, so give people credit when they try to do good things. She does emphasize that people should try not to do the easy thing (i.e. being selfish) and should release these labels and focus instead on doing good things in the world.

I had a few reactions to this. First, I'm not exactly sure what Tessa meant when she's describing doing good things and bad things. She compared Gandhi and Hitler, and while they are good examples of "good" and "bad," I'm not sure how that translates into the everyday person's life. I can guess and make an assumption, but if I actually stop to seriously think about it, these are very complicated concepts. How is someone good? By giving compliments, volunteering for a charity, or going to your kid's soccer game? If you are stuck in inaction, does that make you bad? The problem I have with these labels is that ultimately, they are too simplistic and don't fit reality. What if somebody does both good and bad things? How do we label them then? We can't narrow people down into "good" and "bad" categories. People are far too complex for that.

The psychologist Philip Zimbardo has a book called "The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil" that I think speaks to this matter quite well. (There's a great video clip summing up this subject below.) For the most part, people aren't inherently good or evil. We can go either way. "Good" people sometimes do bad things, and "bad" people sometimes do good things. It's too easy to say that "all people suck," and more importantly, it's also wrong.

Zimbardo defines evil as the power to hurt others. When we think of instances of evil like the abuse that happened at Abu Ghraib, he says, it is tempting to think of the people who perpetrate such abuses as "bad apples." But what if that's not the case? What if there are actually "bad barrels," or environments that allow such evils to exist? It's an uncomfortable idea because it means that under the right (or wrong) conditions, each and every one of us could potentially do bad things.

The dissonance of that idea is huge. I want to believe that I'm a good person, and so I can't do bad things. It makes people angry, depressed, stressed, etc. to think that even if they are at their core a "good person," they could do something horrible to someone. Of course, sometimes people are truly "bad," and they will do bad things under even the best conditions. But I think the flip side is so crucial to trying to understand the human condition. Good people can do bad things.

So I think it's unfair and inaccurate to say that most people suck. We all suck sometimes, and sometimes we don't suck. Those actions don't necessarily define us as human beings-- what they do is define who we are in a certain moment.

What are your thoughts on this? What does being a good person mean to you?

Want to read more about this?
     • Phil Zimbardo's book: "The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil"
     • An article about how moral behavior might be inherent in animals
     • Viktor Frankl's book about a related topic: "Man's Search For Meaning"