Are You A Good Person?

The Taoist philosopher Lao Tzu once said ‘he who knows does not speak, he who speaks, does not know’. Suggested here is knowing and speaking exist in inverse proportion to each other. The more you know, the more you know that you do not know; and if you know little without bothering to learn more, you will think that what you know is all there is. Implied in being knowledgeable is a recognition that there is so little that you actually know, and consequently, humility.

We can use a parody of this logic elsewhere. If you want to know whether you are a good person, it has nothing to do with how many charities you donate to, how much guilt you feel after you don’t call your mother back, or whether you have mastered the art of holding your tongue when someone says something dumb. The answer to whether or not you are a good person comes down to something very simple. When you ask yourself: am I am good person? that your answer is: no.

Lao Tzu might have said: If you think you are a good person, you aren’t, if you think you aren’t a good person, you are.

If you don’t think you’re a good person, it doesn’t mean you hate yourself, it means you’re able to evaluate yourself with a critical and uncompromising attitude. You know that you have not been a perfect human being. You don’t want to lie to yourself about it either. Being able to say ‘I am not a good person’ is not about putting yourself down, but rather, about recognising your flaws and acting upon them.

We are all ‘fallen’ in the classical theological sense. Nobody is perfect; nobody is truly ‘good’. There is always something or other we can improve on. We can always be more gracious, caring, compassionate and kind people.

The person who already thinks they are good will see no reason to change and will never aspire to be a better version of themselves. The person who sees that they aren’t good, however, through self-examination, has opened a space where they can become a better version of themselves. They might not have the willpower to do so, but they have the imagination to conceive it (which is an important first, but by no means only, step).

In his works, Plato emphasised the distinction between the sophist (meaning: wise man) and the philosopher (meaning: lover of wisdom). The sophist believes he possess knowledge, and therefore, sees no reason to learn. Why learn, after all, if you already know? The philosopher, however, is best described as he who knows he does not know. Because he does not think he already knows, a space opens up for learning and the discovery of truth. Similarly, if you already believe you are a good person, you will not adapt and change your behaviours, as you believe they are already how they should be. However, if you think you are not a good person, you open up the space where it becomes possible to think different, act different, be different.

Ironically, the necessary pre-condition for being a good person is to think that you are not. By rejecting the (misguided) belief in our own infallibility, we open a space where we can humbly learn from and forgive our past mistakes, missteps, and misguided judgements, and become better versions of ourselves.

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