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What Makes a Good Person?

A Good Person

“I am more worried about being a good person than being the best football player in the world.” ― Lionel Messi

by John Dillon

What, or who is a good person? My parents had no doubt on this issue. To them, a good person was someone who was kind, thoughtful, honest, diligent and tolerant. That’s pretty much it. Spirituality and holiness had nothing to do with these qualities, nor did race, sex, gender or orientation. Lucky me, to have been brought up by these two atheists who tried to pass on their values to me.

I know that philosophically, all of these qualities are debatable. They are after all value judgements. As a know-it-all sixth-former, I certainly argued the toss with them about it. However, I found these same principles were those which I chose to pursue in bringing up my daughter. I have to admit, though, that she had me stumped once. When she was seven years old, while berating her for some minor infraction of good behaviour, I remember her retorting: ‘But daddy, to be naughty is to be alive!’ It stopped me in my tracks. This declaration of existentialism might have been coined by some great philosopher, I thought. And I had to admit that I understood exactly what she meant. Mind you, she did go on to excel in philosophy at university, and she hasn’t become a master criminal – yet!

So, yes, being virtuous is something that is widely valued in society but many individuals choose not to follow the straight-and-narrow and prefer to stray onto an alternative path. Artists, writers, poets, musicians, all to a greater or lesser degree tend to stray into such territory, many for the same reason that my daughter expressed as a young un: that sensation of kicking over the traces and of feeling truly alive. When I think of it, I quite admire many of these bohemians. I don’t want my rock stars and poets and painters to be conventionally ‘good’, if it means I benefit from their artistry as a result.

Now criminals, that’s a different matter, but they too might be driven partially by this sense of the thrill of the moment. Naturally, when this impulse becomes destructive for the person suffering its consequences, and even for those exercising it, there have to be constraints and sanctions. This, as we know, is an essential component of the ‘social contract’, largely expounded by Jean Jaques Russeau, and Thomas Hobbes. The majority of us like to lead our lives in the knowledge that beyond a certain limit, society will protect us from bad people. There is an absolute certainty that god won’t intervene.

So there you have it. My conditioning and upbringing make it difficult for me to repudiate my parents’ precepts. I was a good boy, but you know, sometimes I have to admit that a conventionally bad person can actually turn out to be very good indeed.

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