Is being a “good person” something you've strived for throughout your life? Have you ever said something like, “They're just not a good person” about someone else? I have a bone to pick with the concept of being a good person, starting with who gets to define what it means to be one in the first place.
Three major players come to mind when I think about how we define what it means to be a good person: religion, law, and philosophy.
Moral goodness is a central component of all the major world religions. In the U.S. and in many colonized countries around the world, Christianity, in particular, has influenced what behaviors people see as morally good.
Most Christian leaders would probably say that good people believe in God and Jesus and live according to the Bible. They would also likely say that good people don't have sex before marriage, are straight and cisgender, and never get abortions.
As for the rest of us? We have eternal damnation to look forward to (but at least there's a chance we might see Lil Nas X as we're pole dancing our way to hell).
Then there's the law. If you believe that one of the things that separates good people from bad people is that good people don't break the law, then there's an argument to be made that the law at least partly codifies what it means to be a good person.
If that's true, then in the U.S., the law says that good people don't kill, steal, or commit assault—crimes that a lot of people would probably agree impede goodness. However, the law also says that good people drive the speed limit, don't smoke weed in states where it's not legalized, and don't use their friends' Netflix login credentials—crimes fewer people would agree make someone a bad person.
And that's not even taking into account the patchwork of different laws across states and how the laws are determined by the beliefs of the party that is in power at any given moment.
Lastly, there's philosophy. Philosophers have tried to define what it means to be a good person for centuries. You can find philosophical writings that examine goodness from every angle, including ones that wrestle with the human conscience, ones that try to determine if goodness is objective or driven by society, and ones that define goodness by the consequences of choosing not to be good.
Of course, religious, political, and philosophical leaders throughout history are far from the only ones who have influenced how we define what it means to be a good person, but all the groups do have something in common: they were (and still are) overwhelmingly made up of cishet men, often white, who held immense privilege and power in society,
In fact, claiming the authority to define moral goodness is one of the things that allowed those leaders to exercise control over others and retain power to begin with! They set up goodness as a test that people must pass in order to be seen as worthy, holy, and respectable (to name a few).
Not only has that created a jumble of ideas of what it truly means to be a good person—ideas that cater to only some people's morals—it's easy for a person's desire to be a good person to morph into a desire to be seen as a good person when the alternative will bring punishment and judgment.
Some people might argue that the solution is to reconceptualize what it means to be a good person by adopting a more inclusive lens, but I disagree.
First, it's hard to imagine ever reaching a universal agreement on what it means to be a good person, and even if we could, it wouldn't help us when put in situations where none of our choices are good.
Second, because the false dichotomy of goodness requires us to always be our best selves, it denies us permission to be our whole selves. If there are good people, then it follows that there must also be bad people. Good people are part of a superior in-group, and bad people are part of an inferior out-group, with no room for anything in between.
This ignores that we all contain complex, contradictory multitudes and no one is “good” all the time. We all make decisions we're not proud of and don't want to repeat. We all hurt others and act on our worst impulses sometimes.
As humans, we have the capacity for a wide spectrum of feelings and behaviors, and every day we are presented with hundreds of choices that can have varying degrees of impact, not all of which are visible to us. Further, we don't all have access to the same choices. Privilege, location, and even luck play into a person's ability to conform to any definition of goodness.
Living authentically means seeing and holding all of our different parts, even the less-than-favorable ones. It also means extending the same grace and compassion to others rather than writing them off as bad people.
If we no longer strive to be good people, that doesn't mean the world will fall into chaos and lawlessness. We can abandon the belief that goodness is a destination we're all supposed to arrive at and maintain and still feel motivated to be better and make the world better.
Letting go of being a good person will allow you to focus on determining what matters most to you. What do you value? What do you want to live by? What feels most true? Maybe goodness doesn't resonate with you, but kindness does. Or empathy. Or connection. Or service.
You have the power to construct your own compass to guide you through the tough choices of this messy life. There's no need to follow someone else's instructions.
How To Support My Work
If you appreciate my content and what you’re learning from it, there are multiple ways to invest in and support it so I can continue to create for months and years to come.
1. Sign up for my email newsletter.
As a subscriber, you’ll receive my email newsletter, The Queer Agenda, most weeks, and you’ll also be one of the first to hear about offers and announcements related to my work and content. Sign up here.
2. Leave a tip.
I put a lot of time, energy, and research into accessible free content. If you benefit from my work, consider leaving a tip through Paypal, Venmo, or the Cash app:
I’m a self-trust coach, writer, and podcast host with a mission to help people figure out who they are and what they value so they can come home to themselves.