On Being a Good Person

Am I someone who “does the right thing?”

I may think I’m a person who does the right thing if I don’t cheat on my taxes, am never mean to my friends and try to help them, and try to spend some time donating or volunteering for a good cause.

To be morally good (or good at anything really) this is a very low standard. Example:

Say you come across a panhandler on the street. Do you:

  1. Give them money and walk on, your conscience relieved?
  2. Ignore them, knowing that giving them money would not be solving the problem and might even encourage any problems they have (substance abuse, etc.)?

The intellectual moralists are going to say, well of course, option 2; the gut moralists (for lack of a better term) are going to go for option 1. Since we know that option 1 is incorrect (assuming it’s ineffective), we might say, OK, we’re done, door 2 was the better door.

But have you really done the right thing to see someone in need and ignore them? Another example:

You’re a teacher in a failing school. While you did pretty well in teacher’s college, and have come up with good lesson plans, your students are rowdy, unresponsive, and aren’t learning. Do you:

  1. Keep on teaching, hoping that maybe one or two people pick up the material?
  2. Give up, realizing that your effort will not help the students?

It’s pretty obvious that option 1 is, frankly, a waste of resources (in this case, your resources); you can continue on in the noble delusion that you’re a soldier in a lost cause, but once again, you’re satisfying your gut morality while failing to do anything to answer your brain and common sense.

It’s pretty obvious that option 2 is useless.

Hopefully the armchair quarterbacks in you are reading this and shouting at me, “Option 3, Option 3!” because it’s clear that if people distill their values down to a set of binary choices, and give up on the responsibility to seek out better answers, then they are being morally irresponsible.

I do it, though.

I spend a lot of my time thinking about how option 2 is inadequate, but frankly: I often ignore that feeling. I–maybe we all–need to set the bar higher for myself. I need to engage myself to find the best answers I can, using my resources.

So that’s part one: Being binary does not equal doing the right thing.

  • When two people disagree on politics (liberals vs. conservatives), is it possible that they are engaging in binarism?
  • Vaguely related and funny: Because They All Suck

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