In the past few weeks especially, this discrepancy in understanding of how to be a good person has come into play. Nationwide protests following the murder of George Floyd have put renewed attention on the ongoing systemic racism in this country and led many white people to finally examine their privilege. Many of these people have had the sudden realization that they haven't been allies to the Black community, thus calling into question whether they are, in fact, good in this moment. But, again, goodness isn't a trophy; it's a lifelong pursuit. So if you are one of the people who has felt uncomfortable by the sense that there's spotlight on how you're enacting your virtues (or not), consider this your invitation to make goodness a habit.
Now that you know goodness is not a trait but something to work on and hone throughout every juncture of life, how to be a good person is the next order of business to understand. And according to Christian Miller, PhD, a philosophy professor at Wake Forest University who studies character-building, Aristotle—one of the world's first-known thinkers to consider goodness—can provide some guidance. Aristotle believed someone with good character to be a person who lived by a handful of virtues: honesty, compassion, courage, temperance, and justice. Only, by his definition, simply living by these principles in an external, performative way doesn’t cut it. Rather, Aristotle believed that every virtue could be broken down into three critical components: action, motivation, and cognition.
Aristotle believed that every virtue could be broken down into three critical components: action, motivation, and cognition.
"A compassionate person does compassionate things. They help others. That's the behavior [or action] side of it" says Dr. Miller. While what you do can be powerful in and of itself, we all have the ability to affect far more change by committing to an ongoing interrogation of why we do what we do and identifying which thought processes provide the bedrock for our beliefs. Action, in this sense, needs to be informed and intentional, as a component of the virtue of goodness.
The motivation piece of being a virtuous person proves especially relevant now, with Black activists rightfully asking white people to ensure that their actions in allyship are genuinely productive and reflective of work they are doing, and not just hollow virtue-signaling. As mentor, actress, and storyteller Ivirlei Brookes recently told Well+Good, jumping to write a caption about why Black Lives Matter without understanding why the message matters in the first place is not helpful. "If you haven’t truly processed what’s going on and haven’t truly committed to doing something about it, that’s not honest and everybody can feel that—and that’s gross," said Brookes.
Lastly, cognition, or the ability to process information makes up the third leg of goodness, and it involves going inward to consider an injustice before taking steps to create change. If, as Socrates said, "the unexamined life is not worth living," then the "unexamined" action may not be the one that's most impactful when an opportunity presents itself for you to be good and do good simultaneously. As civil rights lawyer, activist, and author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness Michelle Alexander recently wrote in a New York Times op-ed, "only by pausing long enough to study the cycles of oppression and resistance does it become clear that simply being a good person or not wishing Black people any harm is not sufficient."
Specific strategies for being and continuing to be a good person
There are many avenues to explore that will point you toward how virtuous you're being in this particular moment, but Dr. Miller recommends you start by assessing and understanding the "good" actions you've previously taken by asking yourself questions like, "What or who motivated me to do that?" and "How much thought did I put into it?" Be mindful about the motivations that informed your actions, and process that information with intention.
"The key is to maintain action throughout the course of life. It requires a constant discourse and ability to voluntarily exist in discomfort." — Sonyia Richardson, PhD, LCSW
Dr. Miller also recommends calling your friends and asking (with a very open mind) how they think you could be more consistent in your commitment to being a good person. Additionally, he cites the following three ideas for how to be a good person:
- Choose more role models: "If we're not virtuous ourselves yet, let's try to find people who are virtuous who got there and use them as a kind of goal or standard to aim for," says Dr. Miller. This can be a historical figure or someone in your close family who's moral code you'd like to emulate.
- Plant moral reminders everywhere: Every day, return to something—be it a poem, a piece of artwork, a song, or something else—that reminds you of your core values or of what you'd like to be your core values.
- Make self-awareness a priority: Dr. Miller defines this as both reading up on what makes humans tick using studies and literature, but also regularly checking on why you're doing what you're doing. How can you know you're not a bad person if you don't know yourself at all?
Finally, there's what might be the most important ingredient in goodness—and one that's particularly apt right now in the fight for racial equality: stamina. "The key is to maintain action throughout the course of life," says Sonyia Richardson, PhD, LCSW, a clinical assistant professor of social work at the University of North Carolina Charlotte. "It requires a constant discourse and ability to voluntarily exist in discomfort. Many Black people are concerned that [current white interest in activism] will not be sustained, as it requires a constant commitment to living with discomfort...Operating in goodness requires collective commitment."
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