The question of how to become a good person has as many answers as there are people in the world. There aren’t a lot of people who wouldn’t want to be a good person. But it is also the case (at least in my experience) that most people don’t regard themselves as a good person. They don’t believe they are a bad person, but they have the feeling that they can still improve morally. This sense of individual moral progress is an important aspect, yet it isn’t something that is really analyzed in modern ethics all that much.
Utilitarian ethics will see moral progress as increasing well-being in the world. Deontologist ethics will see it as adhering to the rules that are set on you by duty. Religious inspired ethic will see moral progress as following the word of their God. But these all put the progress outside of the individual. It is al for a ‘greater’ goal. Increasing well-being, honoring your duty, or following your God might all be good ways to live your life, but they all put the goal outside of yourself. You do it not for your own sake but for the sake of something out of your own self. Nietzsche would call this slave morality.
But what about ethical theories that start with the individual self? Virtue ethics is the movement within ethics which puts the individual at the center of ethical consideration. Aristotle was the first to systematically set out the many virtues a good person should have. But before him, Plato already made an analysis of how the just man should be in his book the Republic. Plato and Aristotle didn’t start from well-being, God, or duty. These things had their place in ethics, but they were important because of the individual and not because they are intrinsically important. They are important because they contribute to becoming a good person. Plato and Aristotle started from the question “what makes a good person?”
According to Aristotle, the good person is someone who cultivates his or her virtues. The most important concept here is intention. The virtue ethicist will look at the intention of the person who is committing the action. Did he or she have the intention of doing good or evil? Imagine that someone is walking down the street and bumped into someone pushing him to the side. Because of that push he saved the person from a falling piano that would have smashed him otherwise. The person who bumped into the person didn’t have the intention of saving the person, but the bump did have a positive consequence. Even though it had a positive consequence, we cannot say that the person who bumped into the person is a good human being. At least, it doesn’t necessarily follow.
Intuitively, we feel as if the intention of someone performing the action matters. When someone gives you a flower, then it is not the flower itself that fills you with joy but the fact that the person had the intention of giving you something you love. So, a good person is someone who has (at least) good intentions. This is also how Aristotle saw it. We become virtuous by habit. We’re generous not because we paid for someone’s drink once, but because we are the kind of person who likes to pay for someone’s drink. Note that you can still be generous and not pay for someone else’s drink. Maybe you’re not able because you don’t have the financial capital to do this. But if the intention is there and you would do it if you were able then that makes you a generous person. The same goes with the good person.
But when can you say that you’re a good person? The thing is you can’t. Aristotle claims that we can only evaluate if someone was a good person when that person has died. Then we can take everything he has done in his life and objectively say that that person was good. Other people can think you are a good person during your life, but for yourself it can only be said when you’re dead, or at least dying.
Why try then? Because becoming a good person gives you happiness. This is not well-being or pleasure. Those are way too fleeting. No, real fundamental happiness with your life. I would say you could call it meaning. Becoming a good person will bring meaning in your life. By being good you will contribute with meaningful actions and intentions which will then give the meaning everyone desires in life. Take a musician for example. Becoming a good musician can give a lot of meaning and happiness to that person. They worked for it with habits and intentions and when they get a trophy or learn a difficult new riff, that imbues them with meaning. The examples are endless. From becoming a good father, to becoming a good basketball player, to becoming a good philosopher. All these things give us happiness through meaning.
However, this isn’t easy. Plato believed that not everyone was able to become a good person. Plato believed that some people had different souls which made sure they were. Different kind of human. Although he did believe that within your own kind of human you could become a good person that was in line of the type of person you were. Aristotle believed that we all had a same type of soul but that the faculties within that soul was used differently by different kinds of people. He believed that some people were just born to be slaves and that women couldn’t think rationally. But let us dismiss these things and bring everyone into the definition of a rational human being and then we can still use the theory of Aristotle and Plato with everyone.
If you’re able to use the rational part of your mind, then the virtue ethics of Aristotle and Plato is applicable for you. The only problem they saw was that not a lot of people do it. It is very hard to continuously cultivate your virtues because you need to constantly introspectively look at yourself. This confronts you with the worst of yourself. It shows where you went wrong and what you could do better. And we all know we could always be doing better. So, many people try to achieve happiness through pleasure, like the hedonists or through asceticism like Buddhists. But it is the courageous adventure of trying to achieve the Happiness of Aristotle where the real meaning lies.
So, what makes a good person? The real answer is that we don’t really know. We can only try to achieve it. We’re never fully there, but it is in trying to get there that we might become better. And that is better than nothing. People will see you as a good person when you are cultivating the virtues. And all you need to do is try. Not give up but continue to try to become better. Because in the end that is all we can do. Try.