Stop saying the phrase “good person”

It’s misleading, and here’s why

[Originally posted on Substack — it’s much cooler. Subscribe here]

Philosophers who study ethics spend all day thinking about what makes a person good and what makes a person bad.

After a couple millennia, the jury is still out, but we’ve got a few preliminary results.

Murder = bad.

Curing diseases = good.

Of course, most of us know intuitively what constitutes good and bad ethical behavior, but where our everyday moral thinking differs from that of the philosopher comes down to the labels we ascribe to the people behind the actions.

Sometimes, people mistakenly extrapolate their judgments about actions and extend them to judgments about people. We hold the idea that people are good or bad, and this plays out in the way that we celebrate people like MLK and vilify people like Stalin. The binary manifests itself in the media we consume, like “good guys” who stop “bad guys” in action films.

Most ethicists believe that actions and their consequences are what deserve moral scrutiny. While some believe (and I agree) that intentions should matter at least a little bit, they are overshadowed by the actions we perform. In other words, you can have the best intentions in the world, but if you lie and cheat and steal all the time, then you’re intentions don’t mean squat.

Here’s the problem though: we all perform good actions and bad actions from time to time.

No one is perfect, and we all fail to live up to our moral ideals at some points in our lives. I’m sure you can reflect on your own moral resume and find instances of great righteousness and great callousness.

So what does that make us? Good people, or bad people?

The answer, of course, is that we’re all mixed people.

We’re capricious and inconsistent; sometimes self-sacrificing and sometimes petty, sometimes altruistic and sometimes cruel, sometimes gloriously virtuous and sometimes hideously vicious.

We contain multitudes, and that’s totally okay. We’re only slightly evolved apes living in an absurd world: of course we’re going to act inconsistently. No one is expected to be perfect all the time, and it is our responsibility to be forgiving and patient with those who continually fall short of their moral standards. (The philosopher Alain de Botton writes really well about this subject — if you want more of this style of thinking, read The Consolations of Philosophy.)

The trouble comes when we adopt wholesale definitions about ourselves and others without realizing that the labels we apply are inherently narrowing, and nowhere is this more pronounced than in saying that “so-and-so is a good person.” It takes maturity to recognize that in fact we are not good people, in fact there are no good people, and in fact the world refuses neat classifications like good and bad when it comes to things as complex as humans.

What’s worse: saying that someone is a good person isn’t only untrue, it may be actively harmful.

The belief that someone is a good person has been used to justify a whole host of horrors. The most salient example that comes to mind is of clergymen abusing young boys in the Catholic church and getting away with it because of their reputations as virtuous men.

The reverse is also true. A belief that someone is a “bad apple” can blind us from noticing true redemptive behavior. How many people are behind bars right now because they are deemed to be “irredeemable”?

The phrase “good person” dissembles the listener into thinking that someone’s character is fixed and praiseworthy, when in fact a person’s moral record is just the summation of their actions. Maybe a person is “on average” a good person because the good they’ve done outweighs the bad they’ve done, but that’s still misguiding, since it obfuscates the moral math that makes up the calculation.

Better would be to just admit to ourselves and to each other that we all have mixed moral resumes and that we sometimes act ethically and we sometimes don’t. Let’s be mature and honest, recognizing that others may resist the difficulty of nuance and opt instead for the comfort of simple definitions, however erroneous they may be.

But let’s not use “oh, he did this, but he’s such a good person at heart” or “she said this, but she means well” to shield people from moral blame. We can’t let others get away with foul actions just because they’re well-liked or believed to be good people at heart. If they were truly “good people” at heart, then they would have no trouble acting like it.

So let’s stop being delusional and immature about the nature of our behavior, and let’s gut the “good person” and “bad person” rhetoric from our collective vocabulary.

It’s time to recognize that we’re all morally complex beings.

And that shouldn’t stop us from always trying to be a little better each day.

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