Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Basically Good People: The Great Modern Heresy

There's an odd backwards moral reasoning to which our modern age seems particularly susceptible. Surely you've heard it:
Y does X. Y is a basically good person. Therefore, X must be okay.
You hear it from all sides of the cultural divide.

"Joe and Fred are married. They're good people. How can you say that that kind of relationship is wrong?"

"Cindy does that. She's a good person. So how can that be racist?"

Think back a bit, and you'll see that a huge number of the casually-made moral arguments one hears these days boil down to this.

There are a couple big problems.

For starters, what exactly is a "good person"? Often this seems to be a category with as little meaning as "someone I like" or "someone who's not obviously engaged in genocide or kitten torture at this moment". And yet, the way the argument is deployed, once someone is determined to be a "basically good person", every action that person takes in now "basically good". It is as if each person is now a good or evil deity, and all the actions of the good deities are necessarily good because good deities can not do evil.

But of course, each person performs many actions. Surely not all the actions of "bad people" are bad and of "good people" are good, if only because "good people" and "bad people" at times do the same things.

A bit of this ties in with the issue of moral fashions. Sins which are currently in fashion, things "basically good people" do, seem like they can't possibly be that bad. At the moment, you're much more likely to know someone who's had an abortion that someone who's killed someone in a duel. Does that mean that dueling is worse than abortion? Well, not necessarily. At another time, one might have been much more likely to know a duelist or a slave owner than someone who'd had abortion. Those sins seemed normal and excusable. "Basically good people" did them. But the sins themselves have not changed as social standards have. Standards of "basically good", of social acceptability, have changed, but moral laws have not. (And for those with an affection for the past: Just because dueling and slave owning were done in distant and more picturesque times does not mean that they weren't just as painful and evil as more modern sins.)

I think underlying much of the urge to identify "basically good people" and excuse their actions from being any serious kind of sin is that by "basically good people" we tend to mean "people like me". By ruling that the actions of "basically good people" can't be all that wrong, we implicitly say that our own actions can't be all that wrong. We restrict sin, you know, bad sin, to being something done by "people not like me". Like Nazis, everyone's favorite example of sin. We all know that's "evil". And if that's evil, and I'm not a Nazi, then surely whatever I do can't be evil, right?

What we need to realize is that people themselves are not good or evil. Actions are. You and I do evil things at times. People like us do evil things. Evil is not something foreign that only people in some other category from us do. It is something that all of us are tempted to and which we all must fight. Unless people realize that evil exists, and that people like them do it, they cannot successfully fight it.


Jenny said...

This goes hand in hand with the great catechetical point of our age: Be nice because it's nice to be nice.

I don't know if it is human nature or just a modern affliction, but we do not like to acknowledge that the people around us (or ourselves) are capable of doing bad things.

I have noticed with amusement that people commenting on his blog tell my husband that he is such a great father. Now, to be clear, I think he is a great father. But these people have no idea if he is or not because they only know him through his writings on a garden blog.

The funny thing is that he doesn't really write about the children very often. They occasionally make cameos and that's about it. But because his readers think they know him, they automatically assume he must be a great father. I mean, obviously they wouldn't have positive feelings towards someone who was capable of being a bad father, therefore he must be a good father.

I'm getting a little long-winded, but I hope you understand the phenomenon I'm trying to explain.

Joseph Moore said...

Funny - lately, I've been toying with formulating just this idea into syllogisms, to express just how crazy the reasoning is:

If unborn children are people, killing them would be murder;
My pro-abortion friends and I aren't murderers;
Therefore, unborn children are not people.

Not completely tidy, but it captures the issue.

Enbrethiliel said...


This reminds me of the cliched hatred of Adolph Hitler which I frequently run into on There's no doubt that he caused widespread misery and devastation, but people who have the sketchiest understanding of history seem content to turn him into a scapegoat for the world. Mentioning the Nazis in a post will guarantee a version of the "two minute hate" ritual in the combox. (Maybe that's precisely what the editors want.) It's not enough that we all agree that he was wrong; he must also be branded as evil while we howl. Our very own Emmanuel Goldstein.

In more general terms, the problem with thinking of evil as something external to us is that it makes it difficult for us to see our own actions as evil when they objectively are. And it makes innocuous or neutral actions seem evil when they aren't. People don't react very well, for instance, when I say that one reason I'm studying German is so that I can read Albert Speer's books in their original versions someday.

Roma locuta est said...

I used to teach high school, and when I caught students in the act of cheating, they would inevitably respond, "I am sorry. I know I cheated, but you have to believe me. I am not a cheater." We then had to have a lesson in vocabulary.

The issue, as so aptly pointed out by Darwin, is that people falsely separate who they are from how they act. The fail to realize that (1) our actions form who we are, and (2) out actions reflect who we are. This, it seems to me, is the main thesis behind Wojtyla's "The Acting Person." Once we separate who we are from our actions, anything become justifiable.

Wel done, Darwin.