Can You Be A Good Person And Do Bad Things?

Escape Graffiti - Lisbon, PortugalFor a while now, Scott Adam’s The Dilbert Blog has been in my list of blogs tagged “favorite” in Google Reader. (Which means I view these blogs in expanded view, because I know I will want to read each post.) While I can’t claim to share his point of view on a number of issues, I find his assertions both entertaining and often well argued. But enough buttering up Scott Adams.

In the past couple of days he put up a post on “Cognitive Dissonance” (definition here), which followed a post on whether or not it copright violation is stealing. It was a classic bait and switch; he was trolling for people who would inevitably go to great lengths to argue that copyrights aren’t the same as property, and therefore violating a copyright isn’t stealing. Or that the benefits gained by exposure of stolen property makes the theft not only OK, but desirable. And in the following post, he handily spanked said rationalizers by poking holes in their logic, which served nicely to illustrate the dissonance between who they think are (good, honest people) and their inconsistent behavior (MP3 Kleptomaniacs).

So what’s my point? Is this just a Scott Adams love-fest? Nope. While I really enjoyed both of the posts, there is a flaw to his assumption. And that is the assumption that everybody works from the same morality play book. There are clearly similarities between moral codes between people in a society, but it’s clear that some people genuinely believe that violation of copyright is not a crime. Heck, there are hippies (not necessarily dirty, but probably needing a quick shower) out there that don’t believe in property ownership in any sense (which might be why your MP3 player went missing after that party a couple of weeks ago). Because cognitive dissonance is defined as a condition of conflict or anxiety due to inconsistency with your actions and beliefs, the odds are that Mr. Adams is incorrect about a percentage of these people when he calls them out. For some of these people, theft is not inconsistent with their beliefs, and causes them no anxiety. (Take professional pick pockets, for example.) Their actions my be inconsistent with your notions of morality, but according to the definition of the term, that doesn’t count. Their idea of being “good” means a hard day in the train station, lifting wallets and later buying a round for the boys at the pub.

But if we assume matching moralities, the question becomes can you be a good person and do bad things. If a persons goodness is based on their behavior, the answer seems to be no. Unless you embrace the evil that is averages. If on average, your good deeds outweigh your bad, it would be reasonable to say you’re a good person.

But have you ever tried to quantify it? In our daily lives, I’d say a lot of the things we do are neutral. Drinking a cup of coffee. Listening to the news. Watching some TV. Sending email. Arguably these are neither good nor bad actions. Then think, how often do you leave the office a bit early? Or send a nasty email? Or spread a harmful rumor around the water cooler? Or cut someone off in traffic? Do you do enough good things on a daily basis to balance these things so you meet or beat the magical standard of “average” and qualify as a good person? Thanks to the wonders of statistics, your bad behavior may actually outweigh your good behavior and you could still be considered good if enough people have similar ratios.

I think in reality a person’s “goodness” is determined by a highly subject, incredibly complicated system of weighted activities, wherein lack of extremely bad deeds (murder, rape, etc.) is counted as a large good deed credit, which can, and is, often used to offset lesser bad deeds (stealing office supplies, lying your way out of a speeding ticket, etc.). As proof of this, I point to a number of minor crimes that happen in the Atlanta area. One such incident involved a young man, who caught stealing a car and joyriding. I don’t know what eventually happened to the young man, but I do remember his mother (or maybe his sister) saying to reporters that he was basically a good kid. He just got mixed up in the wrong crowd. In my ethical goodness calculating system, stealing a car puts you solidly in the bad category. However, I don’t think I can confidently point to the young man’s cognitive dissonance. His value system is likely to be similar to his mothers.

Well, I’ve strayed a bit further than I planned, but after some thought, I’m not sure why you’d use a phrase like “cognitive dissonance” when the word hypocrisy seems to cover the bases adequately. Unless the goal is to address the issue using unfamiliar terms that don’t carry with them the negative connotation. But I’ll leave that tangent up to you to follow if you choose. 🙂

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  1. April 26, 2007 at 8:25 pm

    […] (For more information on the stress it causes me to hold conflicting view points, check out my post Can You Be A Good Person And Do Bad Things?) As I said before, the situation is improving. And as a tourist, there’s a good chance you […]

  2. Terabanitoss said,

    May 7, 2007 at 4:34 pm

    You are The Best!!!

  3. Brian said,

    May 13, 2007 at 12:02 pm

    Thanks Terabanitoss,

    Evidentally the spam comment filter disagrees with you! I just found your kind comment in the spam bin! Glad you enjoyed the post. 🙂


  4. Bill said,

    February 24, 2009 at 8:56 am

    Almost every person I know considers me good. But I know I am not. God knows me better than even I do. He may think I am very bad, even evil, but he loves me. Boy do I need Jesus.

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