Being a Good Person

“Living a Good Life” is a formidable phrase.  “Being a Good Person” is a gentler way to put it, maybe- the operative words are more obvious to me, anyway. If it’s a lossy translation, I’d at least have to work out why.

The problem with [the phrase] “Being a Good Person” is that its familiarity breeds an unwarranted illusion of clarity, too. What is a person? Why should persons (or, er, “people”) be good? And how?

Kevin Simler at Melting Asphalt recently wrote a great piece on his view of “personhood” that I advocate.

When I think about human social interactions, I often think about specific relationships and the roles that they entail: husband and wife, citizen and representative, superhero and sidekick, BFFs. But today I want to talk about the most generic relationship — the one that exists between any two members of a society. What is the nature of that relationship? As an implicit social contract, what are its expectations and obligations?

I think it makes sense to call this generic social contract “personhood,” and those who abide by it “persons.”


The idea of a “person” that I’m going to use today is most similar to the idea of a “lady” or “gentleman” — without the gender connotations, obviously, but in the same sense of being a label or status earned through proper behavior (which then creates an obligation for others to treat us nicely in return).

There are several reasons that I like this conception of Personhood. Personhood here is transactive and iterative, like the definition of “species” is in my previous post, and reminiscent of the logic of art appreciation in an earlier thread of this blog. It is sufficiently detailed, actionable, and “measurable” (if not precisely). Personhood is metaphysically lean- no magical priors. Personhood is not an essence. Personhood is a social invention that serves a purpose. You can be more or less of a person. Some rituals and games require a mask, or some other exception to the stipulations of personhood. An individual’s personhood can be adjusted, or perceived differently from different parties. Non-human agents may apply for varying degrees of personhood.

If “Good” means adequate or preferable, a Good Person is one whose social interface is nearly always considered appropriate: a human that you’d have difficulty considering as the noisy sack of meat that (s)he is.  To paraphrase another great article by Simler: Through considerate and well-designed interfaces, “good software” tries to convince you that it is more than an application on some complex arrangement of silicon, so that you might trust to interact with it. Through considerate and well-designed behavior (i.e. etiquette), “good people” ought to convince you that they are more than the product of some complex arrangement of carbon, so that you might trust to interact with them.

This is a godless and unflattering view of the civilizing process, but I think that is a merit of this perspective. This view doesn’t disqualify questions of the rules of interaction, but I feel that this view does allow me a level of grounding. Living well is (at least?) living socially and pro-socially.

4 thoughts on “Being a Good Person

  1. Philppa Foote also talks about Good Person in the same sense that one may speak of a good plant; there’s some sense internal to the concept of a particular species in which an individual member is a good example of that species, that it is flourishing or not, etc. She first wrote about it in a paper “Does Moral Subjectivism Rest on a Mistake?” and later in her book Natural Goodness.

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