DRMacIver's Notebook

What does a good person look like?

What does a good person look like?

From Intelligent Virtue by Julia Annas, page 106:

"A philosopher", says "Hume, "might select this character as a model of perfect virtue". It is always hard to be sure that we have got Hume's tone right, but if he is not being ironic here it is obvious that something is amiss. A yuppy lawyer who is great company at parties is a model perfect virtue? Can this be serious? What has gone wrong here? We do not need to go into Hume's account of virtue in depth to discover it (one reasonw hy the example is useful in the present connection). What the description of Cleanthes brings out is that someone may have a character that is useful and agreeable to himself and others, and still be utterly uninspiring, somebody tha tnobody could take an ideal of a 8good* person to be.

Let us compare Cleanthes with someone who really is admirable and inspiring and has served as an ideal to countlessly many: Socrates. Socrates' dispositions were of course not all useful to himself or his family; his commitment to searching for truth led him to neglect his own business affairs and reduce them all to poverty. Socrates' character was in fact useful to the Athenians, in stirring them to think about their values, but this was hardly clear to them, since they recognised this too late after executing him. Also, Socrates' character may or may not have been agreeable to himself, but it was certainly very disagreeable to others.

This passage follows a description of Cleanthes which makes him sounds pleasant but very bland.

When trying to be a better person, you can try to do less harm, or you can try to do more good.

In theory you can do both, but in practice doing good requires doing more and more interesting things, and this includes increased risk of doing harm. Also one has only so much time, and time spent working on learning to do less harm is often trading directly against time to do more good.

All of which is sortof irrelevant, because regardless of whether you can be perfectly good, most people aren't, and this picture Annas paints does feel like it rings fairly true: You can have pleasant and harmless people who are, ultimately, fairly mediocre forces for good in the world, and the ones who are out there actively doing good are often deeply flawed people with many problems.

I feel like a lot of people, especially on the left, have an attitude that people like this are a problem. This tends to come from a good place ("Nobody is above criticism"), but I'm not sure it's helpful.

Perhaps this doesn't affect the people in question (Although they did very much kill Socrates), but it tends to drive people to become very morally risk averse, and provides a lack of good role models for developing agency, because the people who are actually doing good in the world are more likely to be held up as bad examples.

I don't have a good solution for this. It's important not to let good works act as moral license for bad - e.g. just because someone saves hundreds of lives it's not suddenly OK for them to murder just one person as a treat - but I do think we need to start cutting people some slack.