We know there are good times and bad times, but are there good people and bad people? Common sense says yes, as does virtue ethics, a branch of philosophical ethics that attempts to identify virtues worth having and tell good people how to get them. Alas, the story is not quite so simple.
In “The Case Against Character,” Chapter Three in his book Experiments in Ethics, Kwame Anthony Appiah reviews data that support a counter-intuitive view about why people do kind or good acts of the sort most of us would agree are morally good. It’s not because some of us are “good people.”
- Researchers found that “you were far more likely to be helped by people if they had just had the good fortune of finding a dime in the phone’s coin-return slot.”
- Princeton seminary students (who just studied the parable of the Good Samaritan) were “much less likely to stop to help someone ‘slumped in a doorway, apparently in some sort of distress,’ if they’d been told that they were late for an appointment.”
- Recently, researchers have showed that “you were more likely to get change for a dollar outside a fragrant bakery shop than standing near a ‘neutral-smelling dry-goods store.'”
Nor are these small effects: the dime in the payphone, for example, “raised the proportion of those who helped pick up papers from 1 out of 25 to 6 out of 7.” These experiments don’t rule out the idea that there are a few people out there who do good acts because they are “good people,” but they at least suggest that most of us, most of the time, do good acts because we are in a good mood or because we are still basking in the short-term glow of good fortune, however minor. Is this rather unexpected view of things — which isn’t really just someone’s view or opinion, but is based on data which seem to tell us a rather unflattering story of how and why we really act — consistent with gospel ethics, or is it something strange and different? Does baking fragrant cookies or hiding quarters in payphones do more good than exhorting your fellow men and women to do good deeds?
At the very least, these data suggest that kind words and small acts of kindness do more good than we think. There’s a moral multiplier effect (coefficient undetermined but positive and significant). But I would go further and suggest that the scriptures do not, in fact, support the concept of “good people.” Here’s Ezekiel refuting the concept, or at least describing the unavoidable use of the term in our language as morally irrelevant:
The righteousness of the righteous man will not save him when he disobeys, and the wickedness of the wicked man will not cause him to fall when he turns from it. The righteous man, if he sins, will not be allowed to live because of his former righteousness. If I tell the righteous man that he will surely live, but then he trusts in his righteousness and does evil, none of the righteous things he has done will be remembered ….
(NIV Ezekiel 33:12-13.) The moral weight here falls on what we do, not on who we are. We’re all just people. An even deeper critique of the concept of “good people” emerges from Paul’s confession in Romans 7.
I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do, I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature.
This view undermines the simple idea that there are some people (“good people”) who do good things as a natural expression of their goodness. Paul thinks it is more complicated than that: inexplicably, sincere desires to do good often go astray, sometimes wildly so. Nothing good lives in me.
I don’t want to end on a note of confusion or pessimism. As noted above, this idea that our acts are rooted in mood and context rather than a fixed moral character does emphasize the idea that kind words and small acts of kindness do more good than we think. Maybe the atmosphere in our home or surroundings matters more than we think (where have I heard this before?). Maybe, as Moroni tells us (7:44-48), charity and good works flow from the grace of God rather than from our own inherent moral goodness.
Perhaps there are other passages that throw additional light on this long and winding road to the strait and narrow path.