Why Do Good People Do Bad?

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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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