I’ve been blessed to teach a class at Regent University in the Honors College called, “The Good Person.” I’ve enjoyed the experience very much and look forward to teaching it again this fall. It’s a wonderful topic to explore and particularly because we do so from a multitude of academic disciplines. We look at the good person philosophically, from a literary perspective, and of course from the perspective of Christian theology. My primary discipline is psychology so we explore what it means to be a good person from that perspective as well. Interesting things emerge when discussing the good person from these many disciplines, particularly since we read material from Aristotle, Dante, Augustine, Socrates, and Albert Camus. It’s a diverse group of authors!
By reading Aristotle we come to understand a good person is someone who fosters virtue through practice, discipline, and habit. The main question we are left with after reading Aristotle is, how can we know what the virtues are that a good person practices? Aristotle’s answer is to find the mean behavior or practice that lies between two extremes. For example, courage is the mean virtue between rashness and cowardice. A courageous person is one who acts prudently when faced with danger but does not shy away from it. Through the exercise of reason, Aristotle teaches us we can know what the good is and once know, we will be compelled to practice that virtue. I find Aristotle’s argument wonderfully articulate however I disagree that knowing the good is enough to compel a person to practice what’s good. People don’t do what’s good because it’s rational to do so, at least not very often.
If psychology has taught me anything it’s that people are more often motivated by intuition and emotion than reason. A very well-known social psychologist Johnathan Haidt demonstrated this while developing his moral foundations theory. His work demonstrated we often make decisions, particularly decisions about what is good and moral based on foundational instincts rather than rational discourse (He calls it the tail wagging the dog). We are more motivated to indicate whether something is moral or good by whether or not something is “fair”, “sacred”, “or harmful”, and even elicit our disgust response. Because of his work and other experimental psychologists like him I would say reason is not the primary tool we use to decide what is good or moral, other processes tend to take precedence over it.
Albert Camus’ work “The Stranger” is an interesting read in class because of its presentation of his absurdist philosophy. Camus tells the story of a person who appears completely detached and uninterested in life as it is lived as well as the people around him. His main character maintains a distance from the world around him as if he is a mere observer of life as it unfolds. This disposition makes this character appear very cold and unaffected by life. This becomes such a defining element of his disposition that after killing a man on the beach and is put on trial, the key evidence used against him to show how guilty he must be is his temperament and apparent disregard for the whole situation. Camus is known for his absurdist philosophy and uses stories to demonstrate it in the lives of his characters. In many ways “The Stranger” teaches us that a good person is someone connected to the “other.” He or she is a person who transcends himself or herself and connects to other people. Can we say this is what defines a good person? Is merely engaging in life actively and participating in it consciously what makes a person good? I can’t say that it completely defines what makes a person “good” but it may be an important element. Yet there must be more to help us identify what is good.
The other readings create excellent discussions in class as well. Dante’s “Divine Comedy” helps us reflect on evil and good as understood by the medieval world, and the Trial of Socrates reminds us that often the good person must suffer for the good. But my favorite reading in the class is “The Confessions” by Augustine of Hippo. I enjoy it for so many reasons. Yes, I prescribe to the same religious faith as Augustine, but more so, Augustine reminds us of the need to not just discover the universal good but to surrender to it.
First, Augustine reminds us that the good exists primarily in the transcendent. He and I would refer to this transcendent good as God and when we read Augustine we are reminded we do not achieve an understanding of the good through logical and rational reflection on its own. Augustine did that well and it got him as far as neo-platonism, but he still believed he fell short of knowing the good. Yes, reason is helpful, but ultimately we know what is good, true, and beautiful because it is revealed to us as something completely outside of ourselves. As a Christian, I believe that revelation is most profoundly found in the person of Jesus Christ. To know him is to truly know the good. Reason can give us a shadow of the experience of the good but only in the person of Christ, God incarnate, is the good fully revealed. Secondly, Augustine reminds us of the intimate closeness evil has in relation to the good. In fact, he tells us there is no such thing as evil because evil is only the absence of what is good. Evil has no existence of its own. From Augustine, we learn that a good person is one who seeks the transcendent and is affected by it. Yes, Augustine is a Christian and believes it is only by entering into a relationship with Christ that one can truly know and act as a good person. However, he does challenge all of us in a way that perhaps the other authors do not. He challenges us to be fully human which in itself is good and only when we choose to be something other than human does a person appear evil (knowing that evil is the absence of what is good).
If you follow Aristotle’s approach you find yourself depending on your own ability to use reason and identify what is truly good. He rightly points to an external objective good that reason can grasp but his use of reason alone can be tricky given what we know from the science of psychology. Camus leads us to believe that trying to know what is good is absurd and perhaps it is best to just live in that absurdity and not judge good or evil at all. I think this is a dangerous perspective and quite honestly, no one can really live that way consistently. It is Augustine that makes the search for what is good personally engaging and objectively existent.
You may disagree with the conclusions these authors make about the good and what it means to be a good person. Many of my students do and that’s perfectly fine. What I love about the class is it challenges us to seek the good and then to try and live life as a good person. It’s the search and struggle to know what is good and make it a part of your life that matters more than who you agree with in regard to the search. I fear we’ve lost that pursuit of perfection and goodness. Whether it’s through religion or philosophy, people no longer think the search for the good and the desire to be a good person is a worthy pursuit. We tell ourselves, “I don’t hurt anyone” and that seems to make the masses feel good about themselves. We may not be as bad as Camus’ character in The Stranger who is indifferent to what is good in life, but we certainly are not spending time to discover what is good and how we should live as good human beings. We’re indifferent, but in a way that leads us to believe that not hurting people is the pinnacle of what it means to be a good person. In a world where religious leaders have failed us, where people no longer read the Holy Scriptures of their particular religion, and the hyper escalation of “How I feel is what is real” the search for what it means to be a good person is lost. That’s a sad state of affairs for our culture. I don’t know about you, but I will not give up on the quest for the good and I’m grateful so many of my students in Regent’s Honors program haven’t either. We need good people to build good families that will build good societies so that we can have a good world.