A Philosopher's Blog

Why Do Good People Do Bad?

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on December 6, 2017

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Recent events have raised the old question of why (seemingly) good people do bad things. For example, Matt Lauer and Garrison Keillor were both widely respected, but have now fallen before accusations of sexual misdeeds. As another example, legendary Democrat John Conyers’s was regarded as a heroic figure by some, but is now “retiring” in the face of accusations.

One easy and obvious way to explain why people who seem good do bad things is that they merely appeared to be good. Like Plato’s unjust man from the story of the Ring of Gyges, these people presented a virtuous front to the world. But, unlike the perfectly unjust man, their misdeeds were finally exposed to the world. On this view, these are not cases of good people doing bad, they are cases of bad people who masqueraded as good people and finally lost their masks. While this cynical and jaded approach does have considerable appeal, there are alternatives that are worth considering. It must be noted that the situations of individuals obviously vary a great deal and it is not being claimed that one explanation fits everyone.

An alternative explanation of why seemingly good people do bad things is the fact that people tend to be complicated rather than simple when it comes to ethics. Or, as is often said in popular culture, everyone is a mix of good and evil. As such, it is no wonder that even those who are good people (that is, more good than evil) sometimes do bad things. There is also the obvious fact that people are imperfect creatures who fail to always act in accord with their best principles.

One way to understand this is to use a method that the philosopher David Hume was rather fond of: he would routinely ask his reader to consider their own experiences and see if they matched his views. In the case of why good people do bad, I will ask the reader to think of the very worst thing they ever did and to think of why they did it. Presumably each of us, including you, think of themselves as good people. But, we all do bad things—and honestly considering why we do these things will help us understand the motivations and reasons of others.

A third option explains why seemingly good people do bad in terms of why people might think a bad person is good (other than deception). One possibility is that people often confuse a person being good at their profession, being charming, being beautiful or possessing other such positive qualities (virtues) with being a good person. For example, Kevin Spacey is a skilled actor and this no doubt led some people to think he was thus a good person. As another example, Garrison Keillor is a master story teller and created a show that is beloved by many—and some no doubt regarded him as a good person because of these talents.

Both Plato and Kant were aware of this sort of problem—the danger of a person with only some of the virtues, or in Kant’s terms, lacking a good will. Plato warned of the clever rogue: “Did you never observe the narrow intelligence flashing from the keen eye of a clever rogue‑how eager he is, how clearly his paltry soul sees the way to his end; he is the reverse of blind, but his keen eye‑sight is forced into the service of evil, and he is mischievous in proportion to his cleverness?” Kant, in his Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals, raises a similar point:

Moderation in the affections and passions, self-control, and calm deliberation are not only good in many respects, but even seem to constitute part of the intrinsic worth of the person; but they, are far from deserving to be called good without qualification, although they have been so unconditionally praised by the ancients. For without the principles of a good will, they may become extremely bad; and the coolness of a villain not only makes him far more dangerous, but also directly makes him more abominable in our eyes than he would have been without it.

This should be taken as a warning about judging people—while the positive virtues of a person can easily lead people to judge them a good person, judging the whole person based on a few qualities can easily lead to errors. This is not to say that it should be assumed that people are always bad, but it is to say that it should not be inferred that a person is good based on a limited set of positive traits or accomplishments.

Another possibility is that a person will think another person is good because they agree with their professed values, religion, ideology, etc. The person’s reasoning is probably something like this:

 

Premise 1: I believe in value V.

Premise 2: Person A professes belief in value V.

Premise 3: I (think I) am a good person (because I believe V).

Conclusion: Person A is a good person.

 

For example, Democrats would be more inclined to think that Bill Clinton, John Conyers and Al Franken are good people—because they are fellow Democrats. Likewise, Republicans would be more inclined to think that Trump and Roy Moore are good people. This sort of reasoning is also fueled by various cognitive biases, such as the tendency of people to regard members of their own group as better than those outside the group.

While this reasoning is not entirely terrible, those using it need to carefully consider whether Person A really holds to value V, whether believing in V really is a mark of goodness, and whether they really are a good person. Not surprisingly, people do tend to uncritically accept the professed goodness of those who profess to share their values and this cuts across the entire political spectrum, across all religions and so on. People even hold to their assessment in the face of evidence that contradicts person’s A professed belief in value V.

This discussion does not, of course, exhaust possible explanations as to why (seemingly) good people do bad things. But it does present some possible accounts that are worth considering when trying to answer this question in specific cases.

 

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  1. ajmacdonaldjr said, on December 6, 2017 at 8:18 am

    During the seventies we were told it was normal and healthy to give-in to our sexual passions, and that it was unhealthy for us to restrain our passions. The truth is we become slaves to whatever passions we give-in to.

  2. dh said, on December 6, 2017 at 9:08 am

    I think the flaw is in the question – the “easy and obvious answer” is that people are neither all good nor all bad. One of the challenges of leading a moral life is being faced with decisions that pit opposing thoughts or feelings against each other. It’s what makes good TV or movies – when the main character exposes flaws that we can relate to, and chooses various levels of compromise in order to reconcile those flaws. One of my favorite shows of all time was “Breaking Bad”, wherein more often than not, I found myself siding with the main character despite his despicable, criminal behavior. I realize that this is fiction, but the kind of narrative that it displays points to some universal truths that we can all relate to – we understand flaws, we understand passion, we understand difficult choices and we have all been in the position where we make decisions that compromise our moral view of ourselves, we act in ways that we have to justify to ourselves and hide from others. We cheat on our taxes, we fudge numbers, we don’t bring addition errors to the attention of cashiers if the error is in our favor – we work “under the table” while collecting unemployment, we cheat on our wives and justify it in some way or another. We constantly hold others to higher standards than we hold ourselves.

    Maybe this is because of that psychological phenomenon of seeing in others what we fear in ourselves – and to the extent to which we might despise those feelings or behaviors in ourselves, we externalize that hatred and go after others. We’ve talked about the weakness of the “everyone does it” defense, but I think there’s more to that than we see on the surface.

    Anyway, with regard to the question about why seemingly good people do bad things, I think a better question is, “Why do we, as a society, forgive some yet not others?” A lot of the discussion about this has revolved around other, more pragmatic concerns – such as politics.

    “Democrats would be more inclined to think that Bill Clinton, John Conyers and Al Franken are good people—because they are fellow Democrats. Likewise, Republicans would be more inclined to think that Trump and Roy Moore are good people.”

    I don’t think either side is so naive as to actually think these are “good people”. Rather, I think that the Democrats are willing to overlook and even cover for offenses committed by their “team” while trying to exaggerate those committed by the other side, without really making a judgement call on “good” or “bad”. I don’t believe that anyone in Washington actually believes that Bill Clinton is anything better than a rake and a scum – most realize that his behavior is downright criminal – but it’s in their best interest to keep the pressure on Moore – even though in all likelihood most of the accusers are breathing a sigh of relief, thinking “there but for the grace of God go I” (Maybe not with underage women, but with pages, interns, colleagues, college “chums” or paramours).

    Anyway, to the point – I think these people are both good and bad. I’m sure that Clinton and Moore and others have, at least in their own way, the “good of the country” at heart, and are working within the system as much as possible to enact legislation they believe will help their constituents and the rest of the citizenry – but that does not mean that they have never acted in ways that would compromise conventional morality or ethics.

    And, conversely, bad people do good things. Even the most virulent Clinton-hater has to admit that his ultimate compromise with the Republican Congress that led to Welfare Reform was a good move for this country. A critical look at Richard Nixon, the most reviled, unethical, and criminal president in modern history, reveals some tremendous political gains – foreign policy, the SALT talks with Brezhnev, trade with China, the establishment of the EPA, the Paris Peace treaty, the end of Soviet dominance in the Middle East …

    AJ MacDonald brings up a very good point – that the social mores under which we live are fickle. “Acceptable behavior” changes not only from decade to decade, but from state to state, country to country. All we need to do is look at the history of social change in this country to see that – from abortion to extra-marital sex, to the definition of marriage to drug use to see that we “evolve” on these issues – and not always to the better. As I’ve said in earlier posts, Moore’s youthful predilections were almost entirely acceptable under Alabama law and common practice – the age of consent was 16 at the time. I would guess that even if his behavior had been limited to the 16-year-olds at the time, we would still be after him with an equivalent fervor – because that kind of relationship is abhorrent to us under current conventional morality. At the same time, I have many students from Asia who look with great curiosity at this issue – because in China, the age of consent for a woman is 14. And let’s not forget the forgiveness we granted John Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Ted Kennedy, and others in the 1960’s and 1970’s, for actions equivalent – if not far worse than – those we are seeing today. In a large sense, Bill Clinton followed in Kennedy’s footsteps in ways that extend far beyond politics.

    Anyone who grew up in the 1950’s or 1960’s and watched any television sitcoms had a bizarre view of marital relationships – the way women were treated would be considered egregious abuse by today’s standards – but then again, so would the actions of James Bond. The rise of the “Playboy” empire has contributed to the way a lot of men think and behave today. I don’t condone any of it, necessarily, I am merely observing.

    But I will ask why some criminals are offered leniency and even considered to be “victims” of their own upbringing, while we don’t allow the same latitude for businessmen, actors, and politicians.

    In the end, I don’t think it comes down to “good” or “bad”. People are human, we are all “both” in our own ways, and we understand this. I think it comes down to wealth, power, and advantage. Those who have the wealth and power are acting in whatever way they need to to preserve it – by firing offenders, by offering statements of apology, or by “sticking by their man” – with ethics and morality being at the very bottom of their list of choices. Those without the power – the consumers of mass media – are being strung along and manipulated to believe that these are the most important issues of the day.

  3. TJB said, on December 7, 2017 at 11:33 am

    Mike, could you have resisted Eve when she offered you the apple?

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on December 8, 2017 at 2:33 pm

      I do like apples and I am easily tempted by knowledge. But, if I knew the consequences I would probably resist.

  4. TJB said, on December 7, 2017 at 8:40 pm

    Highly relevant article from VDH:

    Franklin Delano Roosevelt was an effective wartime leader. He woke up in time to the threats in Europe and Japan. He began a mobilization that was already in progress by the time we were hit with the attacks on Pearl Harbor.

    FDR also routinely lied, deceived, and covered up before the public, his political enemies of course, and his friends as well. He was a philanderer of sorts without apologies.

    Had FDR or his doctors been truthful about his real medical condition in 1944, he either would not have been nominated or likely would not have been reelected to a fourth term.

    During the 1932 election FDR seemed the antithesis of Herbert Hoover. Certainly, Hoover was a far better man, who perhaps was not as effective a commander in chief.

    In today’s media climate, Harry Truman would never have been nominated, given that his long career was jumpstarted by the corrupt Kansas City Tom Prendergast machine (Truman: “He [Prendergast] was always my friend and I have always been his.”).

    Yet thank Truman for the architecture of post-war containment. He saved Berlin and South Korea. Truman oversaw the birth of NATO and the Marshall Plan. He made tough wartime decisions, such as using the bomb and later keeping the Soviets out of Turkey and Greece.

    It is likely that Truman’s 1948 opponent—the more honest, mob-busting former prosecutor and governor Thomas Dewey—was a more judicious professional. But it is far from clear that Dewey possessed the common sense, affinity for the American people, or decisiveness of a Truman in crises.

    Dwight D. Eisenhower was a successful president in the manner that he had been an effective Supreme Allied Commander. His administrative skills were unequaled. Ike was fair-minded. He was deferential without being weak, practical by intent rather than from being uniformed, and a consensus builder who got things done without the narcissism and egoism of most of his military and political rivals.

    But under today’s workplace protocols, Ike would likely never have been nominated, given his poorly hidden relationship with his divorced chauffeur Kay Sommersby, while he held the title of Supreme Commander of Allied Expeditionary Forces in Europe.

    Our current media and political climate would have judged the careful Eisenhower reckless in his down time with Sommersby—while battle raged just miles away from his headquarters. Or the media would have contrasted his infidelity with his wife Mamie’s loyal support back home or with Kay’s fiancé soon to be killed in combat.

    Was Eisenhower, then, a bad man, but a good president, or a good man and a good president who was mortal rather than divine? Was his apparent one-time dalliance (of uncertain dimensions) forgivable, (but witness the quite different fate of Gen. David Petraeus, whose own transgression may have been similar to Eisenhower’s, if certainly more discreet than Ike’s)—in a way that four or five Sommersby infidelities would not have been?

    https://amgreatness.com/2017/12/04/is-a-presidents-character-his-presidencys-destiny/

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on December 8, 2017 at 2:30 pm

      Excellent points; while those are extreme cases, they do nicely illustrate that people are morally complicated.

      • dh said, on December 12, 2017 at 3:17 pm

        How are these “extreme cases”? They illustrate how politicians in the national spotlight have had extramarital affairs or have behaved in ways we would today think immoral. I would say that these cases are probably more the “norm” than “extreme. More charges have been filed against more people today, including the re-assertion of the charges against Trump. I still believe that the popularity of this particular issue is tied to the upcoming campaign/election – we will definitely see it get bigger before it goes away.

        In the end, no one will know much about whether Tax Reform is beneficial or not, or whether or not Immigration Reform has worked or is working, or anything about DACA, ACA, housing starts, the health of the auto industry, inflation, ISIS, the Taliban … but we will know every sordid detail from the #MeToo people.

        I wonder who might have been elected president in 1936?

  5. CoffeeTime said, on December 8, 2017 at 3:38 am

    You can trust him with your life.
    But not your money or your wife

    My experience is that people tend to be of “good” behaviour in some areas of their life, and either not solidly good or consistently “bad” in others.

    That is, “good people” is an oversimplification, and as usually happens when we oversimplify, we are surprised when our observations do not match our expectations. The error is in the oversimplification itself; mostly, we aren’t good to be good; we are good in areas where we have believe strongly that being good is important, or where we are not tempted to be bad. The Fraud Triangle is a much studied pattern of behavioural cues that can make “good” – probably usually weak – people be “bad” given opportunity, temptation, and a rationalisation.

    Certain stereotypes are easily recognisable because they are so common:
    The committed public servant or pastoral leader whose sex habits are reprehensible. (I remember one comment about Clinton I read during the Lewinsky case: “Hell, we knew he was a hound dawg when we voted for him.”)
    The honest, hard-working good friend who is a drunken abuser at home.
    The generous community organiser and hostess who is a shrew to her family.

    Abandon the oversimplification and the apparent contradiction disappears.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on December 8, 2017 at 2:34 pm

      Right, that is why I include the claim that people are not morally pure but are rather complicated.


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