Does Anyone Really Want to be Good? Do You?

There is no such thing as a bad driver. Ask people if they think they are good drivers, and they will all say yes. Why? Because we judge our driving ability by our strengths and values. If we think fast driving makes a good driver, and we drive fast, then we consider ourselves good drivers regardless of our discourtesy to other drivers or our lack of attention to possible hazards. If we think obeying every letter and number of traffic laws makes a good driver, and we obey the laws, then we consider ourselves good drivers even if our driving poses a risk to other drivers.

Of course, if you ask drivers if other drivers are good drivers, then there is no such thing as a good driver.

Goodness is the same way. We all consider ourselves to be good, but that’s because we judge goodness by what we do and what we value. If we think honesty makes a good person, and we scrupulously tell the truth no matter who we hurt, then we think we’re good. If we think adherence to religious doctrine or sexual mores makes a good person, and we adhere to those customs, then no matter what unkindnesses we commit, we consider ourselves good. If we think not murdering our horrible neighbors makes us good, and we refrain from inflicting bodily harm even though we believe the world would be a better place without them, then we consider ourselves good no matter what other havoc we might wreak.

Goodness, like good driving, isn’t as subjective as we think it is. Goodness is about character — integrity, honesty, kindness, generosity, moral courage, and all the other virtues we wrinkle our noses at because they are old fashioned.

I hadn’t considered “goodness” until I needed a topic for a writing discussion and came across this quote from playwright Maxwell Anderson: “The story of a play must be a conflict, and specifically, a conflict between the forces of good and evil within a single person.” A few hours later I found an article in the newspaper, a transcript of a Rosh Hashanah sermon by Dennis Prager in which he enumerates 13 obstacles to becoming a better person. (Supposedly, the purpose of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is moral introspection: What kind of person am I, and how can I become a better person? This struck a chord with me, because these questions are the focus of my life right now.) The combination of these two writings gave me my discussion topic: The Not Quite Good vs. the Not So Evil.

Prager made a good point: most of us don’t want to be good. We want to be other things, such as happy, smart, attractive, healthy, successful. In today’s workplace especially, those old fashioned virtues such as kindness, generosity, integrity are pretty much an antithesis to any kind of success.

Although I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about what I want to do with the rest of my life and what I want to become, I never once considered “goodness” as a goal. To be honest, I’m not sure it’s even practical. It’s too nebulous. Perhaps I’ll settle for something more concrete, such as not killing my neighbors even when their music blasts my eardrums.

What about you? Do you want to be good?

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