What is a “good” person?

August 11, 2015


I’ve had reason to think about “character” lately. What distinguishes good character? What must a good leader or simply a “good person” possess to be counted as such? In fact, what is the purpose for choosing to possess those qualities and could some motivations for doing so discount those very qualities?

Should everyone “be a good person”? That may sound odd,  but seriously–could we live in a world where everyone was “good” ? Lacking the feasibility of that actually happening over night, are there dangers in living as a “good person” when those around you might not be so inclined? With political season upon us should we expect our leaders or those we vote for to be “good people” and will that lead to a better country, society and world?

Consider this piece a preamble to further dissections later–I will not attempt to  answer to all of these questions yet but I plan to come back to them in future tie-in posts. I’m simply going to start here by listing qualities I consider essential traits an ethical, moral “good” person possesses.

A first point needs to be made–no religion or political ideology corners the market on good or bad character.

* A good person is aware of their impact on others and strives to make that impact positive.

Simply put, a person of character is aware their words and actions affect those around them and so does what they can to speak and act in a way most beneficial to the rest of the world.*  A good person chooses their words wisely. This does not mean they only say “nice” things–nice things don’t always get the job done, they don’t always convey the truth nor do they always lead to the right actions. No, a good person chooses to speak in a way that expresses what needs to be said in the place it needs to be said and addressed to the people it needs to be. Conversely, a good person knows when to be silent–when not to express things that while possibly true will do more harm than good when expressed  to a particular person or in a particular place. A good person chooses to act in a way that does not harm others and when possible improves the lives of others. This means personal choices are important when they impact the lives of those around you. A good person thinks of the impact their decision will make on the rest of the world beyond just their own situation and this includes how a person votes.
A good person admits when they are wrong and moves forward.
This includes acting or speaking in a way that does harm to others but it also includes when a person is factually wrong–if a person teaches, shares or proclaims something that isn’t true upon learning it isn’t true they correct themselves. We live in a time when people “double down” on their hyperbole and nonfactual statements. This is not what a good person does, especially if the issue at hand affects the health and well-being of others or the world at large. This is also important when statements are character attacks on others–it’s one thing to “speak truth to power” which is important and the action of a person of good character. But if someone speaks ill of someone else, even if that person is in power and the basis of the claim against that person is untrue that is not a mark of good character.

*A good person speaks truth to the best of their ability.
Related to the above point, a good person does not intentionally spread false information–period. A good person does not insist on believing things they know are untrue. A good person does their best to understand the facts of any given issue or situation, places those facts in context as best as possible, and acts upon that truth they ascertain.

*A good person opposes violence.
Not in a moralistically simplistic way that conflates art with reality. You may hate all the “violent video games” you want but if you choose the “military option” every time as a first recourse you do not abhor violence. Art and Entertainment may help channel and exorcise in catharsis the violent traits embedded in humanity but actual violence–using arms against your neighbor, supporting war automatically when there’s still time for peace–is the root of all ills. There are hundreds of issues you can tie to this principle but as a general rule I suggest that at its most basic this means when there is a viable choice between war and peace a good person chooses peace–even more, a good person actively works for peace and against war. This also means that a good person does what they can to reduce the amount of violence in the world. This means alleviating the symptoms which cause violence and doing all that one can in daily life to make peace the easier choice for everyone reserving war and violence as the last resort always recognizing it as evil (even if at times a necessary evil).

* A good person is aware of their own biases
A good person recognizes when they are not truly objective and does their best to not let that affect their decision when it would be unwarranted. Many people based on selective experience or memory develop a predisposition for or against entire groups of people (races, religions, genders, social classes, rural vs. urban, etc.). Not just that, many people have a predisposition to prefer certain styles, characteristics and backgrounds. Regardless, a good person tries their best to become aware of the biases they have–to work against them or at least negate them when making decisions that might be affected by them.

*A good person is authentic.
A good person is who they are–they may love what they love, be proud of things they have a right to be proud of and perfectly inhabit their own identity–but they do not expect everyone else to share every one of their details to also be worthwhile. A good person does not shift those core principles, details and characteristics to merge into each and every group they encounter. As stated above, they may know when it is best to keep silent but they do not adopt a persona, view or characteristic contrary to their own identity just to fit into a different group much less as a means of furthering their career or position

These certainly aren’t the only good character traits but they’re some of the most solid universal ones I can verbalize at the moment. I welcome your additions (or dissent) in the comments below. I should add that I have my doubts that there are very many completely “good” or “bad” people, just people who exhibit good character traits more or less often than others. There are exceptions to this rule, but most often character is fluid and it takes time before someone consistently exhibits all of these traits.


  • * This sounds straightforward enough but it is not and thus dozens of ethics systems and books arguing for or against those systems have proliferated out of guiding principals similar to this. That’s because doing something that is good for one person might be bad for someone else. Furthermore, doing something you think is good for a person may in fact not be so should we judge the action on the intent or the result? We’ll leave most of those debates off the table at the moment

2 Responses to “What is a “good” person?”

  1. […] but who oppose policies and actions that would benefit their fellow humans. In relation to my recent article about character and what makes a “good” person I’ve been thinking about quotes like that and polls like those that show the large number of […]

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