#7: Why I'm Not a Good Person
"Moral goodness" is not a part of my personal identity. I don't think it should be part of yours, either.
This morning I’ve been reading some research papers by my friend Julian de Freitas. Julian is a professor at Harvard Business School, and one of the strands of his research is about people’s conceptions of an individual’s “true self”—their beliefs about who a person is really, at a deep-down, fundamental level. What Julian finds is that most people believe that they have a true self, and that this true self is morally good. Julian’s larger point is that you can use this premise to explain all sorts of aspects about how we evaluate our own behavior, as well as the behavior of others.
In one study, Julian and his colleagues looked at how people in different cultures think about this “true self” and the effect is has on behavior. The researchers gave their participants vignettes in which one of three kinds of behavior change occurred: a person started off doing something good, then eventually changed to doing something bad; a person started off bad, then ended up good; or a neutral change, where neither was particularly good nor bad. For example, one vignette is about how Bill began his managerial career by mistreating his employees. Eventually, he came to treat his employees well. The researchers then asked participants: How much is this change a manifestation of the individual’s true self?
They find that, across individuals from four countries with different cultural values, people tend to report that the “true self” causes change for the better. They’re much more likely to attribute the “good” changes—in contrast to the bad or neutral ones—as coming from this place of fundamental selfhood.
Between this and his other experiments, Julian argues that most of us humans come to the conclusion that for most of us—ourselves especially—we are, deep-down, a fundamental good person. This is a totally understandable conclusion for a person to come to. Julian argues that this is a possible culture universal, that we all want to be seen as a participant in the larger scheme of the morally good.
My problem with this conclusion is not that it isn’t reasonable, but that it’s totally wrong. There is no such thing as a true self. And even if there was, most of us have very little evidence that it would be good.
Not only that. The belief that one is a fundamentally good person stands in the way of something more important: becoming a better person.
As Julian writes in one of his papers, the foundation of the belief in a “true self” is psychological essentialism—that there is a simple, black and white explanation for why people are the way they are. I reject psychological essentialism in all forms. When we start to put each other in small, confined boxes, when we start to interpret human behavior without a sense of nuance—that’s when bad things happen. There are no good people or bad people. There are only specific actions in specific situations.
People are not fundamentally good or bad. Everyone does some good things. Everyone does some bad things. There is no ledger where one’s good acts gets tallied up, weighted by the magnitude of their goodness, and compared against the weight-adjusted vileness of all the bad acts.
The reason that this is the case is that whether or not a person does a “good” thing—whatever that even is—usually depends a lot less on the person in question than the situation they’re in. We all err on the side of doing the “right” thing. Until, well, you know, okay, just this once... a white lie won’t hurt anyone; they’ll never find out; I have no other choice; etc. The fact that each of us have these points of fallibility doesn’t make someone a good or bad person. It makes you a person.
Take me, for instance. When I look at myself, I don’t see a good person. I see a person who has done things to help other people, who is capable of compassion, and who wants to do his part in making the world a fractionally better place. I also see a person who has done things to hurt other people, who is not infrequently given to fits of malice or unjustified anger, and who is fortunate enough never to have been put in a position where external forces are pressuring him to cause pain to a large number of people en masse and has to discover whether he has what it takes to rise above it. It’s surprising to me that anyone looks in the mirror and sees anything different.
But more than that, there’s something insidious about the belief in a morally upstanding true self. The problem is that it incentives a person to justify their own action, rather than looking for ways they could’ve done better.
A classic example is the fundamental attribution error. This is the effect that we attribute unsavory behavior from others to their internal dispositions, whereas our own deviant behavior is due to the external factors of the situation. When I cut someone off in traffic, it’s because—well, sorry, that was my exit and I needed to get over. But when someone else cuts me off in traffic, it’s because they’re an asshole.
Why does this happen? Because when we evaluate our own actions, we have to square them with the belief that we are fundamentally good. And if you take this as a premise—that you are fundamentally a good person—then you are always going to try to interpret your own actions in a way that’s consistent with what a good person would do. In other words, your actions can’t provide evidence that you’re less than morally stellar. There will always be a way to look at some situational factor and say, “Hey! I didn’t want things to turn out this way, but I had no other choice!”
It’s easy enough to admit to this when the only thing that’s at stake is cutting people off in traffic. But this is also exactly what people say to justify their own hurtful behavior, with no upper little to how heinous the behavior is before they consider a different explanatory strategy. It’s exactly the same line of reasoning that killers use to justify their actions in genocide—which I wrote about at length in the case of Rwanda. If you start with the premise that you are a good person, you are never going to look at your own behavior and find evidence to contrary.
And because our actions are always consistent with what a fundamentally “good” person would do, we are never incentivized to change them. We are already a good person. What’s the point of being better?
Instead, we shouldn’t evaluate our own behavior with the assumption of goodness baked in. We should accept that there specific actions in specific situations, and ask how we can make better choices next time we find ourselves in a similar situation. This liberates us from the assumption of present moral uprightness. We have the freedom to take a sincere look at how we can change our actions to benefit others.
This isn’t foolproof. It’s not like either way of conceptualizing oneself leads automatically to all good or all bad actions. I’d still like to think it matters, though—that if one of them is more likely to lead to better outcomes in the long run, then it matters whether or not people believe it. I’d like to think that the only thing we can ever really expect ourselves to be is better tomorrow than we are today, and that any minor adjustment toward that end is part of the larger battle. But I don’t know. I could be wrong.
But regardless of that, this position—that there is no meaningful sense in which the “real” us, deep-down, is unequivocally good—also just seems consistent. I mean really. How do I justify spending my money on dumb shit I don’t need when I know there are people out there on the streets without food and shelter? How can I still eat meat when I know full well that doing so requires the slaughter of countless living beings, not to mention the fact that it is also my own single biggest contribution to environmental degradation? How can I sit here writing think-pieces about whether the concept of a good “true self” makes sense, when I could be doing something that would more directly alleviate hunger and poverty in the world? I don’t know about you. But those behaviors don’t sound like the behavior of someone who is fundamentally good. It sounds the behavior of someone who is willing to make concessions for the greater good when it doesn’t present too great an imposition to himself. It sounds entirely normal.
Anyway, that’s when it comes looking at oneself. But what about other people? When we’re looking through the lens of essentialized goodness and badness, we get into all sorts of evaluations of others that don’t make any sense.
I want to take music, and art more generally, as an example. People love to separate “bad” people from “good” art. We tend to be pretty happy to despise an artist or think of them as generally disreputable: Kanye West and John Mayer come to mind as popular musicians who are consistently rated by the public as assholes. And, of course, we don’t even have to start in on your Michael Jacksons of the world: people who create incredible art for public consumption, but do horrendous things in their personal lives. Most people look at these instances and say something along the lines of: I like the music, but I don’t support the person. That’s fine, but it misses a crucial point. How do you think this music came into existence? It’s absolutely a product of who the artist is as a person, the good and the bad. No, how we should really feel about situations like these is to be sensitive to the fact that a part of our own soul is fundamentally and inextricably connected to the soul of a monster. There’s an intrinsic sympathy there. They created something and it resonated with us—somewhere deep, deep down. That implies that in some important way we are like them.
I don’t think that observation is a cause for excommunicating artists who are bad people (though there might be other arguments for doing that). Rather, I think it’s a call for humility. You think you’re so great as a person? Then why do you have so much in common with someone who, by your own judgment, isn’t so great? It’s because each of us isn’t just one thing. We are not, even deep-down, simply good or bad.
To me, the fact that I love art that is made by shitty people is strong evidence that I have something significant in common with shitty people. That doesn’t lead me to believe that I myself am a shitty person. Rather it makes me think that a person isn’t just unidimensionally good or bad, but that our actions are drawn from a distribution, where some of us may err on the side of the good more so than others, but that in any particular instance—whether through circumstances or probability—we’re capable of enacting something extreme. And if we haven’t had to see that side of ourselves come out... well, we should be thankful that we’ve never been put in the situation where we’re given the choice between participating in a genocide and our own immediate death by machete.
So what would I do if I were one of the participants in Julian’s study, being asked about whether a certain change in behavior is due to one’s “true self.” I don’t know for sure. But I imagine I’d probably say something along the lines of: “Go to hell, Julian. There’s no such thing as a true self, and if there was it definitely wouldn’t be good. You can take this experiment and gently shove it up your ass.”
Does that make me a bad person? I don’t think so. I think the situation calls for it.
P.S., speaking of the complicated inner workings of people’s moral lives, this week’s episode of Cognitive Revolution features an interview with Kevin Birmingham, whose new book looks at the social and creative circumstances that led to the creation of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Would recommend for any fans of Russian literature or moral grey areas:
I also published my a Redux of my very first episode of Cognitive Revolution, featuring Art Markman. For paid subscribers only.