What Makes a Person Good?

Sep 20, 2017

A few acquaintances said of them, after it all happened: they were good people. And there was nothing else to say, since they were.
There was nothing else to say. They lacked the weight of a grave error, which so often just happens to be what opens a door. At some point they’d taken something seriously. They were obedient.

— Clarice Lispector “The Obedient Ones.”

What makes a person “good?” Is it obedience? Is it pleasing others? In “The Obedient Ones,” Lispector describes an “obedient” couple, “good people,” and where their obedient life leads them.  (I don’t want to spoil it. Listen below. It’s the second story, but they are all worth listening to.)

Donald Trump likes to use “good” to describe people. “They’re good people” is a common refrain. When he uses it, it means someone who did something he liked. He often wants us to ignore people’s behavior and focus on “their hearts,” as if wearing a sheet to a parade or colluding with our enemies isn’t a good indicator of “heart.”

When people that please him are caught doing wrong, he wants us to ignore their behavior and focus on “their hearts,” as if wearing a sheet to a parade or colluding with our enemies isn’t a good indicator of “heart.”

Some religions seem to have a similar take on goodness. A change of heart at any point, even at the moment of death, can redeem a lifetime of evil, or at least a lifetime of disharmony with that religion. The Good Thief in the Gospel of Luke is a good example of this, and the basis for the doctrine on deathbed conversions.

He’s evil, but a patriot and defender of his people. Most of the time.

The nature of goodness is something one has to think about when creating characters. Characters can be antagonists or protagonists, but in the better books and movies that alone does not make them good or bad people. Among the many failings of the many recent Fantastic Four movies was failing to capture the fact that Doctor Doom stopped being a cardboard cutout of a “Bwahahaha, and then I will take over the world!” villain more than forty years ago. He’s not what we would call a “good person, own ” but there’s an explanation for his behavior.

Purely good characters are boring. In the new Wonder Woman movie Diana is about as close to an “all good” hero we’ve seen in a long time, but she stole the sword and the lasso, tried to sneak off of Themyscira, and then had a Mount Everest-sized moment of doubt in the end. Without these moments, it’s close to a made-for-tv movie in the early 70s.

Civil War Feels

Steve Rogers (Captain America) is a close second. In both “Winter Soldier” and “Civil War” he is a very principled man, but he is willing to go to extreme lengths to defend those principles, including fighting his government and even his friends.

Good is where behavior and belief meet. A character has a moral center, a set of beliefs, that guides their behavior. Realistically portrayed antagonists and protagonists both have this center and a set of beliefs.

Evil starts where those beliefs devalue other people’s lives and well-being.


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