Neil Tambe

I'm a Detroiter who happens to enjoy writing, national parks, orange juice, the performing arts, and fanciful socks. More than anything though, I aspire to be a good husband, father, and citizen.

What is good vs. How to become a good person

The most important ethical question I grapple with is not what is good, but rather how to become a good person, especially amidst cultural pressure. In our times, distinguishing those questions is essential.

A lot of the moral philosophy I’ve read in the past focuses on the what. What is right conduct? What is good? How does a good person behave? All this is important, but it is theoretical. The most practical I’ve seen this line of inquiry get is contemplating how to create or manage an ethical society.

I don’t often read ideas about how to turn this question inward and focus on the how for an individual person. How do I, a frail, imperfect, falliable, and mortal being become more good than I am now? The first question of what is descriptive, the second question of how is reflective. And more over, I think if one contemplates how to actually become a better, more ethical person, they must also consider what right conduct is and what a good person does. The question of how encapsulates the question of what.

This perhaps pedantic point matters a lot, I think, because of the times we live in now. Individuals hold much more power than they did even a hundred years ago because each of us now have access to much more knowledge and many more tools to inflict harm on others if we so chose (e.g., weapons, a social media megaphone, transportation, networks of people). It’s not just the ultra-rich or members of high society that can strongly impact others’ lives. As a result, we must all  become good people, because if we do not we are much more capable of causing serious harm.

The times we live in also make actually following through on our notions of right conduct harder. Why? Because we have so much more exposure to social pressures from other humans (e.g., via social media, global travel, news media, the internet) than any other time in history. We have to parse through many more messages that try to persuade us to act and think in a certain way than any of our ancestors did. Listening to our own hearts on what is right and what is wrong and actually walking that walk, is a heck of a lot harder when there’s a cacophony of thousands of other voices in your ear at all times.

In this post, I’m merely pointing out the question of how and trying to give a few reasons of why that question is important. But even though I’m tapping out on answering that question in this post, I do have some ideas.

I’ve been working on this question of how for over a year now. The first part (in very rough form) of my answer to the question of how one becomes a good person is here. If you care about the question of how to become a good person, I’m eager to hear your own reflections or have you share a guest post on this blog.