After finishing the Pulitzer-Prize-winning nonfiction, “The Bully Pulpit,” by Doris Kearns Goodwin, I was struck by my impression of two great men and American presidents, Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, who were the dearest of friends turned enemies as they battled each other for the presidency. Although Teddy Roosevelt is by far one of the most respected and well-known presidents of American history, and while Taft is mostly recognizable to most Americans for his noteworthy weight, I walked away impressed not by Teddy Roosevelt, but by Will Taft. I was awed by Taft specifically for being an extremely good person, and although entranced by Teddy’s zest for life and endless curiosity, I developed a disgust for what I perceived to be Teddy’s faults – his egotism and self-centeredness. But why did I think Will Taft was a good person, while I did not think the same of Roosevelt?
Roosevelt was undoubtedly one of the most accomplished presidents of American history. He made great strides in preserving national parks, 150 in total, from coal mining companies that would have scalped them of their resources and beauty, and effectively signed legislation to regulate corrupt trusts that were conducting illegal and harmful practices to protect the interests of the laborer. He undoubtedly did a lot of good for the American worker, and preserved America’s nature for posterity. He seemed like a friendly, genial guy, cared about the poor and honorably upheld ethical practices in government despite corporate pressure from the Republican machine, and possessed many traits that I admire.
However, he also took advantage of an uprising in Panama to wrest possession of the Panama Canal, a crucial resource for the people of the country that the U.S. was purporting to be helping. One of the foremost muckraker journalists of the age, Ida Tarbell, argued this to be immoral. Roosevelt also took unnecessarily harsh punitive measures on an African American troop to degrade them and strip them of their service privileges when they were accused of shooting and killing several white southerners in an area after they were shot at first. This was a horrible thing to do the most oppressed and powerless people in the country, and it endorsed the racism of the Southerners.
Taft, on the other hand, as Governor of the Philippines, helped the Philippines to establish independence, establish schools, and invited railroads to create better transport for the land. He eradicated corrupt Spanish friars that composed of much of the land-owning class in the Philippines, purchased their lands, and redistributed the land to poor Filipinos. Above all, he treated the Filipino people with dignity and respect, and was much loved. He had other wins as president, but above all, he treated everyone regardless of race or gender with the utmost concern and respect, even working to convince Teddy Roosevelt to repeal his unnecessarily harsh punishment of the black troops and going great lengths to reinstate their service privileges and to protect them. He advocated for women’s suffrage. He worshipped his wife and held her in only the highest respect for her strength, competence, and intelligence. He seemed like an ego-less man. When asked how he felt on the eve of winning the presidency, he responded that he was happy, because his wife and children were so happy and proud. This struck me, as it seemed like he did not think about himself at all.
Most telling of all, in the presidential race of 1912 for what would have been Roosevelt’s third term if he had won, and Taft’s second, Roosevelt turned on his prior best friend, Taft. He lied about Taft to the media and deliberately misrepresented facts, attacked Will Taft maliciously, and treated Taft and his family with utmost contempt. I was dumbfounded to read that Taft refused to attack back, and was at peace with losing the presidency. He didn’t want to hurt Roosevelt. He refused to hurt the man who treated him so terribly. And after the end of it all, after Roosevelt did acts to Taft that most would consider unforgivable, Taft found it in his heart to forgive it all.
It was from this understanding that I began to formulate my own thoughts.
To be a good person, helping others is not enough.
I believe being a good person consists of two parts: both must be present. Without either, the point is moot. To be a good person means that you help others, but you also reflect on your actions and avoid hurting others as much as in your power. No number of good things you do to help other people excuses doing something to hurt someone out of your own self interest.
I’ve noticed that oftentimes people help others for selfish reasons. On the most innocuous level, they might help someone because they want to be liked. On a more nefarious level below that, they enjoy being seen as selfless, or as having a big heart, or as championing a cause. The problem with this is that they do kind acts because it feeds their ego. Their so-called selflessness is an integral part of their ego, something that they wield with pride. Oftentimes it makes them feel superior. These people oftentimes brag about how selfless they are, or they think it, while truly selfless people never think that about themselves. People have evolved to be self-interested as it ensures survival, but it’s not that good people think of themselves as good people (ironically bad people do) – they simply think about themselves less. The difference is that selfish people unconsciously help others to feel good about themselves, not because they are genuinely not thinking of themselves. A devil’s advocate might argue that if the actions are kind, intentions don’t matter. I say that this is absolutely not true. Favors done for other people because they are tied to ego are not borne out of kindness at all, but selfishness. People with large egos may help others a lot because they take pride in their so-called selflessness and kindness, as all they think about is themselves. And that selfishness then causes them to do horrible things to the same people they help when it is in their self-interest to, and they do so for the same reason why they helped them. In the end, they are selfish, and their kind acts come from the same place as when they hurt others. In the end, they only care about themselves and how they feel.
On a level worse than that, some people help others to create a sense of obligation. They use doing nice things or favors for others as a hook, to tie that person to them. They enjoy having others need or depend on them. In the worst case scenarios, they use the kind favors they have done as an excuse to justify their bad behavior towards the same individuals. It’s a sense that doing favors for others makes them owe you. “Oh, I helped my wife get through school, taught her how to drive, and sort through her problems. I’ve done so much for her. It’s okay if I yell at her.” They believe that they can afford to dip into the accumulation of goodwill and hurt someone else, and that the person in question will not leave them, instead of prioritizing others’ feelings and thinking to not hurt others in the first place. In reality, this behavior is manipulative, if not downright abusive. Being kind to someone does not excuse hurting them later. A good person would think of others feelings first and avoid hurting other people as a priority.
Doing good things for a person, and then hurting them does not balance out. You do not take the average of the two. If someone saved his wife’s life, helped her pay off her debt, and helped her to get an education, that’s great. But if he also cheated on her to go after someone he wants, lied to her about it, and manipulated her to keep her around after he cheated, he is not an ‘okay’ person. He is not, as he might believe, a selfless person who has occasional lapses in judgement due to emotion. He is not just “going after what he wants,” which in his mind, is okay. Most people know not to hurt others like this and have a conscience that prevents them from acting this way. Realistically, he is probably a narcissist/selfish asshole.
A racist who participated in violence against minorities and who goes to church, volunteers, and is a kind mother has still hurt others. A rapist who is kind to many women throughout his life but disregards the humanity of his victims is still a rapist. It does not matter if Hitler does a billion hours of community service – it would never undo the atrocities he committed. There is no such thing as a selfless person who occasionally completely disregards the good of other people for their own self-interest; they are not selfless. There is a good saying to live by: “Do no harm.”
In order to tell if someone is a good person, I’ve noticed the best thing to do is look at how they hurt others. A good person will help others and also put others’ feelings above their own interests, especially when it means they can’t have something they want. They lack ego. It is easy to help others when you lose nothing, when it helps you form relationships, and doing so makes you feel good. The minute Teddy Roosevelt wanted to be president, he betrayed his best friend and hurt him in unimaginable ways, because he wanted to be president, and he did not care who was hurt in the process. A bad person with ego will frequently help others to make themselves feel good about themselves, and then continue to act out of self-interest, even if it hurts others. They hurt others because they do not think about how others feel when they pursue what they want, because they do not care. The worst case of these are sociopaths. Bad people might feel remorse after hurting others, but they continue to not prioritize not hurting others in the first place. They then make excuses to continue the cognitive dissonance in their minds to rationalize why they are a good person. Because their entire world is based around their own ego and pride, they sometimes tend to be extremely sensitive to criticism, and may have unreasonable emotional outbursts when confronted. Their outbursts are all about their own feelings rather than what they might have done, because all they can think about is their own feelings and wounded pride. In the worst case, these emotional outbursts are also intended to manipulate the other party by triggering their sympathy, making them feel guilty for causing the manipulator pain by bringing up legitimate concerns. They play the victim, when in reality, the only pain they feel is their own. Sociopaths are considered evil for good reason. Narcissists are also damaging in similar ways.
A truly good person puts others above his/her own self-interest and avoids doing anything to hurt them, as much as possible. These people are rare, but I saw this in William Taft. Note: this does not mean that good people should have no backbones or not protect themselves. A victim of rape should not be friends with his rapist just to preserve the rapists’s feelings. The victim of rape should set boundaries and cut the rapist out of their life, and seek action to make sure the rapist does not hurt others. Of course, most people fall somewhere in the middle of this spectrum. Some people may not go out of their way to help people they profess to love because they are selfish and can’t be bothered to inconvenience themselves. Some people may help others a lot out of empathy and avoid hurting others chiefly because they dislike conflict, but they have a lot of pride and care too much about their image. Still, many typically self-interested people can be motivated to help others because they possess a lot of empathy. A good way to tell if someone is a selfish person is to look at their ego. Proud people do not like to have their self-image tarnished – they want to be seen as popular, or morally superior, and react strongly when others threaten that. I noticed that some people seem to emit a wonderful light from their eyes and seem genuinely kind – it took me awhile to realize that these people frequently possess a small ego, and what seems like an otherworldly angelic-ness is simply that they are not thinking about themselves, how they appear to others, their social standing, their own problems, etc. They are paying attention to the people around them. If one has hurt someone in the past, the only thing one can do is truly accept responsibility for one’s actions, learn, think about oneself less, and avoid hurting people in the future.