I’ve Seen All Good People

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.

13 comments for “I’ve Seen All Good People

  1. April 20, 2009 at 12:16 pm

    My first thought is, “wickedness never was happiness”. Perhaps we read causality the wrong direction in that phrase. In other words, the data here shows that happy people are more likely to be virtuous, as opposed to our common reading that virtuous people are more likely to be happy. Since I believe that the central force of the gospel is to lead people to happiness, then I can also say that the gospel leads people to virtue by that same path.

  2. Jonathan Green
    April 20, 2009 at 12:23 pm

    Isn’t that a rather Roundabout way to say it?

  3. April 20, 2009 at 3:00 pm

    Dave, I’m not sure I follow. The idea that mood affects behavior is neither unexpected nor at odds with the idea that character is the primary source of behavior.

    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

    It seems to me, from what you’ve said, that this is a rather far fetched conclusion. What that specific data set shows is that in some cases, mood alterations influence some choices to do good or bad. That’s a long ways away from actually being a cause.

  4. Robert C.
    April 20, 2009 at 3:19 pm

    Very interesting post, and the book looks very interesting.

    Not having read the book, the following statement seems a bit unjustified:

    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.

    I’m inclined to think that there are a fair number of good people out there, but it’s very difficult to find ways to empirically identify such people, and that things like going to seminary are not good at measuring this kind of inherent goodness. Or am I missing something?

  5. Robert C.
    April 20, 2009 at 3:20 pm

    (Sorry, I hadn’t seen Eric Russell’s question which is basically the same as mine….)

  6. April 20, 2009 at 3:21 pm

    Eric, my reading is that the experimental data cited by Appiah shows that small and seemingly irrelevant contemporaneous events have a strong impact on doing or not doing morally good acts. To me, this was unexpected. Others, of course, might interpret the data differently.

    If you pose a general open question of the form, “Who is more likely to render a good deed or kindness like giving change or helping a clumsy student pick up spilled papers,” I think most of us are likely to respond in terms of who the person is or what type of person that person is, not whether they found a dime in a payphone earlier or noticed spring flowers in bloom a few seconds earlier.

    Last thought. The cited experiments use triggers that are intentionally trivial. Obviously, there are hundreds of small and large items that might affect one’s disposition to do well — having a persistent headache, worry over money, or grieving a recent loss might color our thinking and actions darkly for days or weeks. This all suggests we should cut others who seem uncharitable or unthinking a bit of slack most of the time.

  7. April 20, 2009 at 3:55 pm

    Well, I definitely agree that we all ought to be doing more of cutting others slack, with or without justification to do so. But there is great danger, I think, in the possibility of cutting ourselves too much slack (and then subsequently demanding that others cut us slack) because we have convinced ourselves that we are subject to the fluxuations of our moods and emotions.

  8. Greg
    April 20, 2009 at 5:52 pm

    Careful, Jonathan, you’re getting close to the edge.

  9. Aloysiusmiller
    April 20, 2009 at 6:10 pm

    I call BS on this study. It couldn’t possibly control all the inputs. This is fake science.

  10. April 20, 2009 at 6:17 pm

    Thanks for the link to the book.

  11. Robert C.
    April 20, 2009 at 6:57 pm

    In less shrill terms, I’m inclined to agree with comment #9 that the studies do not show what Dave is claiming in #6. That is, although I too find it surprising that small incidents like finding loose change are statistically significant predictors of charitable acts, this does not imply that “who” a person is is not a more significant predictor, only that predicting who a person is is hard to predict based on empirically observable criteria….

  12. Matthew Chapman
    April 21, 2009 at 8:17 am

    Proverbs 16:2 “All the ways of a man are clean in his own eyes”

    From personal experience, have to agree with Solomon on that one

  13. Markie
    April 22, 2009 at 8:54 am

    #9 – The beauty of random assignment to condition (i.e. making sure that which people get the dime and which people don’t is left completely to chance) is that you don’t have to control all of the inputs. If your sample size is large enough, everything else should (and I emphasize that it is should, not necessarily will) even out. You should get the same number of ‘good’ people in each condition, the same number of rich and poor people, the same number of old and young, etc. These scientists have never claimed that these things (mood, hurriedness, etc.) are the only things that affect a person’s choices, but study after study after study shows that situational factors have a very, very large impact on subsequent behavior. And, yes, it is real science.

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