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Why asking ‘What is the good person?’ is the more meaningful question

When looking deeper into ethical theories there is one question that gets the most attention. It is the focus of most ethical theories ever since the 16th century. It asks: What is the right action?

            Though this is a very meaningful question to ask, I believe it falls short. Is it enough to know the right action? Can we even know the right action? I don’t think so. Though we can say that some actions would be better than others, for example you could say that helping poor people is a better action than stealing from poor people, but it is always in relation to something else. And this is a good guideline to live your life. But it isn’t enough.

            As the title suggests, I believe the more meaningful question is ‘What is the good person?’. This was a question which was raised in the times of ancient philosophy. It was the question which Socrates, Plato and Aristotle tried to answer all in their own way.

            Aristotle gives the first clear account of what it means to be a good person in his book the Nicomachean Ethics. There he explains that the moral person has virtues. These virtues are of a wide variety of different state of characters of people. The true virtues are those that find a mean, which means it finds the middle ground of something. Courage is the mean of cowardliness and recklessness. Aristotle gives many examples of the virtues in his book.

            Asking what the right action is implies that just by doing the right action that makes you a good person. Let us see if that is the case. Imagine someone who has been helping around in the neighborhood. He has been helping old people cross the street. He has taken voluntary work to help some refugees. You get the point. But it turns out he does all this because he is being imposed to do so by a judge. He doesn’t want to do any of it but if he doesn’t, he’ll go to jail. All of his intentions are fake, but his actions are right. Can we say that this is a good person? We could say he does good things, but it would be a bit troublesome to say he was a good person as well. There is something you need to be a good person: a good intent.

            Having a good intent alone is also not good enough. Someone could always have the intention to help someone but always fails to actually do this. His heart is in the right place, but he doesn’t act on it. Thus, to be a good person there must be some kind of interplay between you actions and your intent.

            Another point to be made in regard to the right action is what kinds of actions are right. If an action is right, depends on the situation you are in at the moment. Using a fire extinguisher when there is a fire to put out a fire would be a right action but using a fire extinguisher to prank you teacher (though funny) would be highly inappropriate.

            There are other points to be made, but for now we’ll leave it at these.

            Enter Aristotle and his virtue ethics. Instead of asking what the right action is, one asks what the good person is. The good person will inevitably do right actions. The only difference is that the good person will also have the right intent towards the actions he/she does. Instead of focusing on the right action, question yourself what a virtuous person would do. Make a list of the virtues you find important and act upon those virtues. Aristotle believed someone could only become virtuous by repetition and habituation. The virtues have to be internalized into the person.

            This also puts the pressure away from others and unto you. And this is far harder than doing the right action. When you are friendly towards someone, a utilitarian (someone who asks the question what the right action is and answers it with: increasing the overall happiness in the world) would be friendly because it would make the other person happy. The other person would be friendly towards someone else because that is what a friendly person would do and you value friendliness as a high virtue. By doing this repeatedly you will become a friendly person and it will be a personal habit.

            Now to achieve these virtues is different for everyone. To be liberal with your money will mean one thing when you have nearly nothing and another when you have millions. When you’re broke and give a person a euro, it will be a virtuous action. When you have a million and you give a dollar, it might not be as virtuous. Because of this even the poorest and the richest people on the planet can become a moral person. By just asking what the right action is, we could limit those who can be regarded as good. When someone hasn’t the ability to be liberal with their money, can we say that he/she isn’t a moral person? That would seem to be wrong to me.

            We can safely say that when you ask what a good person is, you will implicitly ask what the right action is only it will be of deeper value and meaning. The truly good person will mostly do the right action, but those who do the right action won’t necessarily be a good person. You might not know what the right action is but you do know what virtues you believe to important and what would constitute a good person and you have the ability to actually act on this. This is highly subjective obviously. You might put more emphasis on friendliness while I would put more emphasis on justice. But nonetheless they will be good. The main virtues are shared by most people, only the intensity or importance to a person might differ.

            With this I wanted to show that asking what the right action is, isn’t enough to be a moral person. You have to actually ask what a moral person is in order to become one. It is one of those things we all ask ourselves every day and it helps us to become better people. I believe everyone has the capacity to be a good person. You might not have the capacity to do the right action always but that doesn’t limit you from being a good person. It is the interplay between action and intent that is important. I believe that everyone has the potential to become a good person and we should all strive to be one. It all starts with asking a simple question. What is a good person?

By elenchusphilosophy

Philosophy student from Ghent, Belgium. I write about what I find interesting which is about nearly anything. Though my guiding question in life is how to be a good person.

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