What Does It Mean To Be A Good Person?18 min read

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A good person is someone willing to do what it takes to better their lives and that of those around them and not merely a person who tries to follow some arbitrary rule of right and wrong. This is because what we consider good or bad may change with time and place.

Additionally, a good person doesn’t merely seek to do what is acceptable (at the moment) but constantly strives to do what is better (in every place they find themselves). Again, they do not merely rely on rules or laws to navigate their decisions; they simply do what is most beneficial.

Let me explain…

The Dilemma: How do we know if a person is good or bad?

Think of light and darkness. Do you really see light and dark? Whilst it is easy to think, “well, my eyes can sense light coming from a bright object and that is why I see”, the reality is that your eyes only function in contrast. You can’t see in total darkness nor in too much light. There needs to be something brighter (or dimmer) in contrast for vision to exist.

It is the reason phenomena like Sunspots, a situation where a spot on the sun is seen as black, exists. Even though the entire surface of the sum is luminous some spots can be dimmer than others, which in contrast are seen as black.

Another popular experiment that demonstrates how the human mind functions by contracts is the hot and cold water experiment. When you dip your left and right hands into hot and cold water respectively and simultaneously; And, after a while, simultaneously pull both hands out and dip them into lukewarm water simultaneously again, you will find that the lukewarm water will feel cold to the left hand, but warm to the right hand.

Furthermore, you will feel poor if you compare yourself to a billionaire, and rich when compared to starving children in some impoverished country. You will feel ugly compared to supermodels on social media, but pretty when compared to someone with facial deformations around your neighborhood. 

In order words, bright or dark, hot or cold, ugly and pretty, just like good or bad only exists and are understood in contrasts:

This, I argue, is the problem with judging people as good and bad rather than better or worse. 

When you say someone is bad, what do we really mean?

Do you mean that they

  • didn’t stand so granny can sit?
  • didn’t give you a lift?
  • didn’t greet you?
  • bit you?

Or, they

  • stole?
  • killed someone?
  • raped an underage girl?
  • plunged the world into nuclear war?

When you contrast someone who refused to give you a lift with someone who rapped an underaged girl (not that it is okay to rape an adult, be it male or female), it becomes almost crystal clear that calling the first bad is ridiculous.

For thousands of years, things such as 

  • War
  • Rape, or
  • Watching gladiators murder themselves 

were seen as common, and in some cases entertaining.

Even Yahweh (i.e. The God of the Jews and Christians) often instructed His loyal servants to go slaughter entire villages (including women, children, and livestock) and got very, very pissed when people refused to completely carry out the task.

I’m not throwing shades at Christianity. I was raised Christian and have respect for the knowledge and wisdom it imbibed into me. But, I have also grown to know that knowledge, as well as morality, grows too. 

Just like a brighter light makes a dimmer one seem dark, our morality in the 21st century makes people who had slaves appear immoral.

The Bible even made an interesting admission when it said “Noah was a righteous man, blameless among the people of his time” (Gen 6:9). We can infer that Noah probably wasn’t such a good person during the generation of the author (not to mention ours).

This is why, when ancient books like the Bible make mention of fierce kings like David killing (possibly) thousands of people and acquiring thousands of slaves as good, it makes sense to me. And I still think the guy was kinda cool (for his time). He was a shining example of good in his time, and wasn’t termed “the man after God’s heart” for no reason.

If you thought good or bad is as fixed as the colors white and black think again.

But, does it mean one day we – living in modern times and eating burgers and ice creams – will be seen as barbaric too?

The answer is yes (given time).

Right now, humanity depends on raising billions of birds and livestock for the sole purpose of food. 

  • We cage them
  • Pump them with hormone
  • Inseminate them
  • Milk them
  • Take their eggs
  • Rip their young ones away from them immediately they give birth (only to lock up the young ones to repeat the process), and finally
  • Kill them for meat, and for other products – such as brushes, bags, medicine, etcetera.

In the distant future when we might have found ways to perhaps photosynthesize all those eating beef and dairy might be seen as monstrous.

I’m not vegan by the way but I am not in support of animal cruelty either. I was only trying to make a point.

Goodness in the wild:

In nature, the lion doesn’t care if it’s eating the only child of a deer. It just does it because it needs food to survive. 

Sentiments are rare in nature. 

All living things are hellbent on two things: self-preservation and propagation of their species. They strive for this with no moral compass whatsoever.

Micro organisms eat each other. Insects devour insects. Animals consume animals. The food chain runs forward and backward in a complex, indifferent, yet self-sustaining circle.

Suckers, tentacles, poisons, venom’s, horns, claws, and fangs are few of the weapons living things deploy to stay alive. There are no hard feelings either.

But, with humans; we decided to be less indifferent. We decided to come up with the concepts of good and bad. Because we can think. Because we are more than our basal instincts. Because we do not want to annihilate ourselves.

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Invention of good: What does it mean to be a good person (philosophy)?

Most people know that before money was invented, people had to trade by bartering. What most people don’t know is that we also invented Goodness. I’m not talking about emotions or feelings, but the act.

We had to think critically about what good was and what it wasn’t just as we thought critically about what money is and what it isn’t. 

Like money, goodness is less about the concept and more about the friction it removes and the improvement it brings to human society.

And like money went from gold coins to Bitcoins, what we (humanity) considered goodness has evolved and is still evolving to become much more.

Many people have tried to boil down goodness into what is called natural laws – laws that are self-evident and rigid in nature. But this is absurd for a number of reasons. Some of which include that

  • Humans have different and often conflicting interests and values
  • The interests of some humans are harmful
  • And several more

MacIntyre, a Scottish-American philosopher, explained with the example of abortion; He pointed out that even though the mother had the natural right to exercise control over her body, it conflicted with a pre-born child’s right to life. 

To have good in our societies it became necessary to enforce boundaries, tolerance, and in some cases compromise; rather than let people do what feels good or natural to them.

This is why a peaceful society often has laws that limit the freedom of citizens to some degree. This limitation is necessary.

“All government… is founded on compromise and barter. We balance inconveniences; we give and take; we remit some rights, that we may enjoy others; and we choose rather be happy citizens, than subtle disputants.”

— Edmund Burke

Hence, philosophically, a good person is someone who at least lives by the established rules and protects the values of the place and time they find themselves.

In addition, philosophers like Aristotle believed enforcing laws was not the most effective way to keep society flourishing. So, he recommended that each individual should seek to achieve eudaimonia – that is, to pursue virtue, excellence, and the best within themselves. 

And Friedrich Nietzsche suggested that it is not enough to obey laws, but to rather strive to be an Ubermensch – that is, an individual who does not merely obey the laws, but creatively seeks to create a higher/better value system and purpose for themselves.

The Evolution of Goodness: Are humans inherently/born good or bad?

In the time of Moses (about the 14th–13th century BCE), killing wasn’t really bad. It was almost as normal as telling someone to “fuck off”.

When Moses brought the Laws, it labeled killing, and other harmful acts as bad (this was the necessary limitation for good to exist). 

However, this arrangement only applied to Jewish people, so it was still okay to kill heathens – to dash their children against the rock and feed their intestines to the swine. This was why Bible characters were monstrous. Even the most admired characters – say, King David or Prophet Elijah.

Other civilizations, societies, and religions with their moral standards were still exclusivists – they mostly regarded only their tribe or community members; all others could be raped, enslaved, tortured, killed, etcetera.

But as humanity grew out of the darkness – as we began to see all humans as one – we started inventing more laws to help us become “more good” – so more people will enjoy life.

We ended up creating the human rights laws:

It became “not okay” to rape women (though it is still okay in some countries), have slaves (though there is still modern slavery), and have gladiators kill themselves for entertainment (at least we have boxing and action movies to substitute), kill the unbelievers (though religious extremists still don’t care), kill the LGBTQ+ people (though LGBTQ+ are still punished/killed in some countries), etcetera.

All the goodness you see today was invented and enforced: It didn’t happen naturally. 

We are not good naturally. If we were, children wouldn’t need to be taught to stop hoarding, fighting, or pointlessly destroying things.

Needless to say, we (grown ups) now feel the desire to do more good things because that concept had to be drummed inside of us at home (with “don’t make your brother cry”), school (with “don’t cheat”), Church (with ”thou shall not…”), and TV (with depictions of Heros and Villians), etcetera. 

We have been made to believe, and think that way. In a sense, we have been programmed or brainwashed into being good.

However, to remain good we must constantly upgrade what our definition of good is, then strive to live by and above it.

But, if goodness is invented, what happens when two different societies invent two different ideas of good and bad?

Which “good” is better? Or Can one culture be better than another?

Once upon a time, a Persian emperor called Darius asked his Greek captives if they would accept payment to eat their dead father’s body. They, upset by the offer, said they would never, ever do so because the funeral rites demanded they burn the dead. Darius then sent for certain of his Indian captives called the “Callatians”, who he knew did eat their father’s body after death. Would they accept any money to burn their father’s bodies? They were shocked and offended. It was an utter sacrilege, and they refused any money.

As an African I have heard a lot of people say a lot of things about western culture.

On one hand we have large swaths of people who unquestionably believe in western cultures and religions. On the other hand, some are traditionalists who believe the ways of their ancestors are much better.

And on closer inspection you will find that some African traditions did bring a lot of good with them. For example hospitality, chastity before marriage, honesty, respect for the aged, covenant-keeping, hard work, and good character were some values Africans hold. To them anything that goes contrary to these is bad and shunned.

But they also had some cultures that would make westerners cringe such as Polygamy (marrying more than one wife) or Levirate marriage (in which the brother of a deceased man is obliged to marry his brother’s widow). 

Of course, this wasn’t evil. There are upsides to polygamy (which include reducing the burden of child-rearing as well as increasing the workforce of the family) as well as Levirate marriage (which provides comfort and protection to the woman, and helps her children to maintain the father’s identity as well as inheritance). 

But as the world advances some of the African cultures are becoming obsolete not necessarily because they didn’t come with the best of intentions or are bad but because they are simply not necessary or too dim for the modern time. For example, you no longer need five wives to help you farm your acres of land and your property can be well secured by the government for generations without fear of your family members laying claim to it.

If you still haven’t caught on, the point of this content is that goodness is invented and relative and we should strive to upgrade what we see as good else we become the ‘dimmer lights’.

When you objectively look at the benefits each culture brings it is not so hard to see that some at our current dispensation bring more good to the table than others. 

Most people stick to dogma and ideologies that do not serve the current time not because they are evil or weak but because they did not understand the aim of the cultures.

If the culture is to wash your hands in the river before eating you do not still have to go to the river in the 21st century because you have tap water with scented soap. 

Apart from a few sick and twisted humans most people just want good to reign. 

However, without recognizing that “good” is a construct that needs to be upgraded, people can easily get stuck in the ‘dimmer lights’ and become threats to those aiming for higher good.. 

To help you grasp this concept completely I will share a list of good people of their time and how they helped make the light of goodness a little bit brighter in their times (rather than just sticking with what existed).

Most Good Men In History, And Their Accomplishments

Note: There is no specific order to this list…

  1. Moses: I tried my best to not include anyone who has been killed in the list; but during the time Moses lived, killing was almost inescapable. You were either killing or dead. Moses was good for freeing thousands from slavery and establishing laws that greatly reduced the level of cruelty between people. He also introduced the idea of resting once a week.
  2. Siddhartha Gautama (Aka Buddha): He lived an apparently blameless life and emphasized the ethical doctrine of harming no one. His teachings also influenced billions of people, (even to date) to live peacefully with others.
  3. Jesus: He preached and embodied universal love – i.e. Love for everyone despite age, gender, race, tribe, class, or whatever. The Bible records that despite being blameless, He still offered to die for the transgressions of every human – dead, living, or to be born. His lifestyle and ultimate sacrifice put him far above anyone on this list (in terms of walking the talk), so it’s no surprise that Christianity is still the most popular religion on earth, and is still influencing billions to be good.
  4. John Locke: He urged the importance of certain freedoms we view as fundamental today. For example, the idea of having the right to vote and be voted for (i.e. Democracy) wouldn’t have existed without his contributions. And even though Democracy is not perfect, it greatly reduced tyranny, wars, and the sufferings that come with them. 

Can a bad person change to good? (Lessons from the life and good impact of Tolstoy)

Tolstoy was one of the greatest Novelists of the 19th century as well as a valiant army officer who fought and survived a bloody war.

He had more money than he knew what to do with. And by all accounts, he was seen as a Noble, successful, and even good man.

However, he knew something was terribly wrong with his ways. In his Novel, A Confession, he wrote:

“I killed men in war and challenged men to duels in order to kill them. I lost at cards, consumed the labor of the peasants, sentenced them to punishments, lived loosely, and deceived people. Lying, robbery, adultery of all kinds, drunkenness, violence, murder — there was no crime I did not commit, and in spite of that people praised my conduct and my contemporaries considered and consider me to be a comparatively moral man. So I lived for ten years.”.

– Tolstoy

After studying the life/teachings of Jesus, the philosophical works of Schopenhauer, and several Buddhist texts, he gradually began to question and abandon his old ways, aristocratic beliefs, religious dogma, as well as political views. 

Soon he became a Christian Anarchist and would go on to do a lot of humanitarian work, give up a huge portion of his wealth, live simply, and urge others to question their beliefs.

“In order to keep up their view of life… these people instinctively keep to the circle of those people who share their views of life and their own place in it.”

– Tolstoy

His ideas on nonviolent resistance (of the wrong) also had a huge effect on great figures like Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. who in turn went on to do great good in their times.

Even the worst person can learn to be good. And, they can be so good they will expose the evil of other who only pretend to be good.

Just like with Moses, and Jesus, many people sought to imprison and kill Tolstoy for pointing out their wrongs. Thankfully, Tolstoy wasn’t harmed.

“Some people will never like you because your spirit irritates their demons.”

– Denzel Washington

Conclusion: So, How do you become a good person?

It is very common to see people claim to be good as though goodness was inherent in us. But if we are honest with ourselves, being good is more of a chore than a natural inclination just as this piece has explained in detail.

“What is your vocation? To be a good person.”

– Marcus Aurelius

I think it is also important to distinguish at this point, weakness, and goodness. 

Most people who lack power often claim to be good, and point fingers at the powerful as bad. However, it is often the case that when they get power they do much worse.

Like Jordan pertersons says

“A harmless man is not a good man. A good man is a very dangerous man who has that under voluntary control”

– Jordan Peterson

Furthermore, since goodness is about seeking what is best for others, or at least, not harming them, even the inaction of the strong is seen as a great bad (because it does not benefit).

And, there is an argument to be made that whenever we don’t do something good, we have already done something bad.

In other words, if you want to be a good person, then you must be willing to constantly remind yourself to do what is beneficial to you and others; and to constantly demand more from yourself rather than doing the minimum (or worse, nothing).

In conclusion, to be good, keep upgrading your values and helpfulness – “grow up, level up, step up”.

I enjoy writing long-form SEO content for self-help and personal development blogs. I can also do simple graphics design and copywriting. I’m an author, coach, logician, introvert, and storyteller. I love simplicity.

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