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What does it mean to be a good person?

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.

I believe being a good person consists of two parts: both must be present. Without either, the point is moot.

  1. To be a good person means that you are compassionate: you help others, but you also reflect on your actions and avoid hurting others as much as in your power. Compassion gives you the ability to know when you are hurting others.
  2. You also have a small ego.

No number of good things you do to help other people excuses doing something to hurt someone out of your own self interest. This does not mean that you always put others above yourself. Always putting others first is unhealthy, and if someone constantly does that, they might be a codependent. One can love oneself first, and still be a compassionate human being. There are two roots of bad behavior: lack of compassion combined with higher amounts of selfishness, and having too large of an ego. When taken to the extreme, these are associated with personality disorders such as Narcissistic Personality Disorder or even sociopathy, which hurts everyone around the person in question.

I’ve noticed that sometimes, people with no compassion still help others. Oftentimes people help others for selfish reasons. On the most innocuous level, they might help someone because they want to be liked or loved. 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 is tied to 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 or deserving of love and attention. These people oftentimes brag about how selfless they are, or they think it. 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. They have less ego. 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. A prime example of this is portrayed in “Bad Blood,” about Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos. Holmes set out to help others and revolutionize medical testing in order to become great. Her intentions revolved around her massive ego. Her complete lack of compassion led her to knowingly release dangerously faulty medical tests that harmed patients. In the end, she only cared about her own greatness.

Being kind to someone does not excuse hurting them later. A compassionate person would think of others’ feelings and avoid hurting other people. 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 without feeling bad about it, lied to her about it, and manipulated her to keep her around after he cheated, he is not an ‘okay’ person because the two average out. He is not, as he might believe, a selfless person who has occasional lapses in judgement due to emotion. He is simply not compassionate. Most people know not to hurt others like this and have a conscience that prevents them from acting this way. Realistically, this person is selfish and lacking in compassion, and possibly might have Narcissistic Personality Disorder.

A racist who participates in violence against minorities probably has a lack of compassion. A rapist who commits a chain of assaults probably lacks compassion for his/her victims. Hitler had no compassion for the people he murdered.

A good person has a small ego. That, however, doesn’t mean they are doormats. It just means they think of themselves less, and if they have compassion, will try to not hurt those around them for their own gain. 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. Someone with a large ego and low compassion 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, or they do not care. The worst case of these are sociopaths. People with no compassion might feel shame after hurting others when caught, but they continue to not prioritize not hurting others in the first place because they do not feel genuine remorse and empathy. Meanwhile sociopaths don’t even feel shame if they are caught, but might decide to cut ties because they have been outed. People with Narcissist Personality Disorder usually make excuses to continue the cognitive dissonance in their minds to rationalize why they are a good person. Because they don’t have the compassion to see from others’ perspectives, 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. They play the victim, when in reality, they cannot understand the harm done to others; the only pain they feel is their own.

A truly good person is compassionate and ego-less. These people are rare, but I saw this in William Taft. He astoundingly did not care about his own pride and fame and only became President because the party pressured him to run as he was a fan favorite (he was known for being extremely competent), and because the presidency pleased his ambitious wife. On the other side, sociopaths and psychopaths lack compassion, and because of extreme psychological damage, people with Narcissistic Personality Disorder also lack compassion and hurt those around them. Of course, most people fall somewhere in the middle of this spectrum. Some people may not go out of their way to give 15 minutes of their time to people they profess to love because they are selfish, lack enough empathy to overcome their selfishness, and ultimately can’t be bothered to inconvenience themselves. These people don’t have a disorder, they’re just assholes. Some people may help others a lot out of compassion and avoid hurting others chiefly because they dislike conflict, but have too much pride and are unable to let go of slights and ultimately just hurt themselves. 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 are compassionate, 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 just paying attention to the people around them.

 

 

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