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Sunday, 17 June 2018

What makes somebody good?

My most recent Netflix binge was of a show called The Good Place, a comedy based around Moral Philosophy. It features a woman named Eleanor who wakes up in the afterlife and is told she is in 'the good place'; not a stereotypical Abrahamic vision of angels and gods, but a beautiful cheery neighbourhood filled with other good people. 

Through Chidi, who spent his time on earth as a professor of ethics, we are given many helpings of different interpretations and viewpoints of moral philosophy, through thought experiments and scenarios within the episodes. Coupled with the fact that this show is HILARIOUS, it brings a unique flavour to television and subverts the audience's expectations with twists and turns everywhere. 

But this post isn't about the show, its about the main crux of the show; what makes somebody good? In the show, the system of the afterlife that determines who ends up in the good place and who in the bad place is very rigid. It is based on calculating a person's score based on all of the 'good' and 'bad' things they do whilst they're alive. (There is also a 'medium place' but it has to be tailored to each individual, so only that person can be there). 
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One of the philosophers I heartily disagree with and who Chidi loves is Kant. Kant subscribes to a very rigid moral philosophy of absolutism, and that one must always act out of duty. This is impractical because we are always going to be faced in situations where we must tailor our moral framework to what's best for that situation. This is why I consider myself a moral relativist/nihilist. I think it's wrong to say that something is always 'wrong' or 'right' (I understand that statement contradicts itself - ah, philosophical paradoxes) because one can never determine what will be wrong or right every time.

Most people agree that killing is wrong, but if someone is trying to kill you and your child and will not stop until they do so, I believe killing the person to protect yourself and your child is the right thing to do. Most people agree that lying is usually wrong, but sometimes it is necessary or kinder to lie when presented with a situation whereby telling the truth will only make things worse for the other person.

And so my personal code of ethics isn't based on certain things being 'wrong' or 'right.' What I believe generally makes a good person is a sense of empathy, compassion and understanding for others, and the ability to compromise. This aligns me with T.M. Scanlon, who's book 'What we owe to each other' is discussed in The Good Place. Scanlan believes that we should act out of goodness in order to help others and be kind to others, and I mostly agree. (Of course I say 'mostly' because it always depends on the situation).

Most of the time I think its best to act in a way that makes you feel happy and comfortable, but doesn't harm someone else. So, if you don't like someone's bright red boots, you don't need to lie and say 'I love them' which makes you uncomfortable, but you don't need to be blunt and say 'I hate them, they're ugly.' There's a middle ground - 'those boots aren't really my thing, but I am glad you like them.' That way, you are addressing that you are happy the other person is happy, whilst still being true to yourself.

I believe that most people are fundamentally good, and few in this world are extremely bad people. I think its a stretch to call someone a 'bad person' just because they did a few immoral things. I think its wrong to be unfaithful to your partner, but I don't think it necessarily makes you a bad person. I think its wrong to steal, but if you're stealing food for your starving child then that's theft out of compassion and empathy. Stealing a small object sold in a mass corporate store probably won't affect anyone, but it could affect you negatively because you may end up leading to bigger things and making it a habit if you think you can 'get away with it' which will end up causing harm to you and those around you.

So I believe it is our actions and our intent behind those actions that make us good. I think it is illogical to say that something is good or bad based on a pre-supposed framework. That framework will still be based on someone's subjective viewpoint of right and wrong, thus it can't really be determined. The best way to determine if something is good or bad, I think, is to think about how it will affect you and those around you. For me, consequences are part of what determine morality - if an action produces a negative outcome for you and those around you then it can't be good, but if it produces a positive outcome then it's only logical to say it is good.

At the same time, intent should also be taken into consideration - yes, your actions may have produced a negative outcome, but if your intent was positive than it doesn't make you a bad person. Example: let's say I sleep with a married man, but I didn't know he was married until some time after we had sex. The outcome is obviously negative as his wife will be upset and their marriage will crumble as a result of me, but my intentions were not bad as I assumed I was sleeping with a single man, not a married man. So I didn't intend to behave badly, and had no knowing that the outcome would be bad, and so I am not a bad person - just got stuck in a crummy situation out of my control. Naturally, if I knew the man was married and slept with him anyway, that would be a bad thing to do because of the negative effect plus my negative intent (lacking empathy for his wife and messing up someone's marriage).

What is your personal code of ethics? Are you a consequentialist or a Kantian? Do you agree or disagree with any of this? Let me know below!

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