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

Friday, February 15, 2019

The Great American Heresy is "I'm a Good Person"

There was a story that made the rounds recently about the parents of a young man who had committed suicide and their fury about the homily which a Catholic priest had preached at their son's funeral. I'm not here to discuss the issue in depth. I think both sides could have acted better. However, the reason I bring it up is due to this very apt quote in a surprisingly good Slate piece discussing the controversy: “He basically called our son a sinner.”

I think this is an example of a very common problem that our modern society has in talking about sin. We often talk about someone as being "a good person" or "a basically good person", and by contrast we at times accuse someone of being "a bad person" or in one colorful example I saw lately "a totally trash human being". From these categories of "good person" and "bad person", people then reason backwards to categorize actions. Was this thing done by various "good people" that you know? Then it can't be a bad action.

So for example, "You say that getting an abortion because of fetal deformities is wrong, but my friend Sally had to make that tragic choice, and she's one of the most loving and caring mothers I know." or "You say that gay marriage is wrong, but Eddie and Steve are one of the most loving couples I know and they do so much for their community."

There's another (and equally mistaken) form of this reasoning that travels the same rhetorical path in the opposite direction, starting with the belief that some action is wrong and from there concluding that anyone who commits that act is clearly a "bad person". Thus: "He pretends to be a good person, but I heard about how he left his first wife. Total trash human being."

Both of these, I think, miss an important moral reality: The same person is capable of doing both good and bad things, and often individual people are highly complex mixes of virtue and vice. Just because someone is loving and kind and fun to be around does not mean that person is not capable of doing something which is in fact very wrong. And just because someone has done some very wrong things does not mean that they can't also be loving and kind in other ways. To say that someone is a "good person" often means little more than "I like that person", and it is no kind of an argument that any one thing done by that person is right or wrong.

To say that something that someone has done is wrong is not to say that that person is bad or worthless or vicious. It is simply to say that that action was wrong, a sin of which the sinner should repent and for which he should amend. We should drop the categories of "good person" and "bad person" from our moral reasoning. All they do is lead us astray. We are all good in the sense that we all are made in God's image, and that God desires us to know, love, and serve Him and be happy with Him one day in heaven. And we are none of us good, in the sense that we all commit acts that are wrong and hurt both others and ourselves.


Foxfier said...

I can think of very few good people that I know who are also liked-- and I sometimes question their judgement.
Vs the nice people I know, who I frequently dislike and almost always question their judgement. (That's mostly because my socialization/involvement tends to be in picking up the pieces when something that was "nice" was not a good thing to do.)

Two of the good people are also nice. (That is usually when I end up questioning their judgement. No obvious winner on who is more often correct, there.)

Edward Palamar said...

We have entered the "age to come" foretold by Jesus in Mark 10:30.

Agnes said...

Well, as far as I remember, Chesterton begins his work "Orthodoxy" with stating that modern people don't accept the reality of sin/evil. It hasn't changed since his age, if anything, it has gotten worse (the moral relativism in all its consequences). It is a basic Christian teaching that all humans are sinners - in fact, soon we will be forcibly reminded of it on Ash Wednesday and during Lent. It is also a part of the funeral ceremony to think about the need for our sins to be forgiven to be admitted to heaven.
It is also a basic Christian teaching that the sin and the sinner are separate. I admit it is a concept one has to make an intellectual and willpower effort to internalize and to use all the time. I think it isn't just an "American heresy" that you write about.
I suspect it is taught more often that we should forgive the sins of a sinner; but the other half of the thought - that a "good person" is one who doesn't commit sins, therefore to label any of their actions as sins is depriving them of their cathegory as "good persons" - is more difficult to catch in one's own thinking.

I also like your thought that "good person" often means just someone we like (reminds me of C. S. Lewis' reasoning in Mere Christianity).

Julia said...

The either/or thinking of good and bad gets murkier when mental illness comes into play. We have a lot of mental illness in my immediate family, and I struggle at times with how to reconcile intentionality with sin. If your child is clinically depressed and *because of his illness* is incapable of distinguishing between right and wrong, if he is suffering to a degree that eclipses rational decision, where does suicide fit in?

I have two kids who have had long stretches of suicidality, and who have been hospitalized on more than one occasion. I would not protest if they were refused burial by the church; I would be infinitely sad, but I would understand.

At the same time, there is a gray zone: if someone cannot recognize that suicide is wrong, is it a sin?

Foxfier said...

if someone cannot recognize that suicide is wrong, is it a sin?

No, because sin requires choice.

If you don't know what it is, you aren't choosing.

I lost a cousin that way. I'm sorry.

It's like being drunk, but without the choice to become drunk.
This, I know from the inside-- although I was only "buzzed" and had enough stories built up to protect me from that kind of bad choice.

Would you blame someone who was drugged (against their will) for what they did, which was right as far as they knew?

Darwin said...


The Church would certainly not consider someone who was incapable of recognizing that suicide was wrong to be culpable for committing suicide. And I don't think that the practice of denying burial in cases of suicide is followed anymore.

FWIW, while I thought that the sermon mentioned in the first paragraph could have been phrased a little more considerately, its main point seemed to be that God's mercy and understanding extended to everyone, including the young man whose funeral the priest was saying. I think the objection to it was that it talked about God's mercy rather than assuming that the deceased was already in heaven.

Anonymous said...

What if you're a terrible person who has no intention of changing?

Mary P. Walker said...

I believe we can agree that suicide is objectively wrong, but what is unclear with any act of suicide is the culpability of the person who committed it. I have a mentally ill relative whose judgement, perception, etc. changes all the time. I'm sure she is morally responsible for her actions AT TIMES, but at other times is not. My late mentally ill brother-in-law died because his mental illness (deep, unrelenting depression) kept him from taking care of other physical illnesses he had. He died because he neglected his basic care and didn't want to live. I pray that God welcomed him with love and understanding.

Hal Horvath said...

"Why do you call me good?" Jesus answered. "No one is good--except God alone."

Encouraging post!

Mairead said...

Those last two paragraphs (especially 'To say that someone is a "good person" often means little more than "I like that person"...') are going straight into my quote notebook, as this is a point that I've struggled to articulate a number of times.

I had one very awkward conversation with an atheist friend who'd been called selfish by a family member, and wanted me to affirm that she was a "good person". We just went round and round in circles, because I started making suggestions as to how to be good, if she was unsure about her goodness, while she kept pressing for some confirmation of her basic goodness irrespective of her actions. Was not a meeting of minds! Maybe if there's next time, I can use what you've said here. Thanks for a great post!