How to be good

Title page of Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations, ...
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I’m quite disconcertingly comfortable with my own company. When I’m not at work (which is most of the time), I have all the head space I need – I can read the papers, construct bizarre diet plans I won’t stick to, shout at the morons on breakfast TV, indulge in antisocial personal habits like picking my feet.

The downside, if there is one, is that I spend a little bit too much time thinking about myself and my place in the world. And I spend an awful lot of time agonising over whether I am a good person. I once bought an AC Grayling book entitled “What is Good”, but never got past the first chapter. As a philosophical question, it takes me away from my idle navel-gazing, and into the  realms of semantics and moral determinism. My kind of reflections are mainly guilt at things I have done wrong, goals I have missed, or friends I have failed, rather than any perhaps more useful reflection on how to change. In order to change, I would need to define what “good” looks like, and defining that is a lifelong endeavour. The part you have absolute control over is your intention, but good intentions don’t negate a bad outcome, while a self-centred approach can easily be to the benefit of many, as indeed Adam Smith observed.

I’m sure I reacted the same way as everyone else, when I saw a quote from an interview with Bernie Madoff this morning – “I’m a good person”. He goes on to claim that while he is very sorry for what he did, no one saved him from himself, which somehow appears to justify deceiving his whole family for decades. Simply claiming that because you regret what you did, it was not per se bad, is quite astounding. The entire process of expressing regret, certainly in the way that he does, is even more attention-seeking. I have no sympathy and no pity at all for his situation.

White collar criminals rarely appear to suffer from any of the huge disadvantages in early life that almost always characterise violent crime, and so I often find more to pity in quite gruesome murderers, than in all the embezzlers and megalomaniacs of history. When I read about the murder (in prison) of a child killer called Colin Hatch, my first reaction to the photo of him was that he looked so broken that he was almost inhuman. I could not help pitying him. Such a strong and relentless desire to hurt a child he did not even know must have been born out of the most miserable of lives and experiences. It in no way excuses what he did. Assaulting and killing a 7 year old was no doubt some sort of perverted revenge at his own abusive childhood; and revenge is undoubtedly the basest of all motivations. It’s just that I don’t know how to judge someone who is effectively an alien to us all – not capable of understanding the emotional responses we take for granted. How do I know that given the same set of circumstances (whatever they were), I would not be as twisted as him? And since I cannot know that, how can I condemn him?

Within the more common realm of good and bad deeds in my own life, I  tread quite carefully with apologies,  because I want the remorse expressed to be 100% true, which I don’t believe it is most of the time. You more often feel remorse for the consequences of your actions, not just for the actions themselves, and since those consequences are often negative for you, it seems doubly self-indulgent to then apologise to someone else. It is often very difficult to separate one’s motivation.

Whenever I’ve come across an action I regretted, and which had no negative consequences for me at all, I’ve agonised about how to put it right – which is presumably why, when I was 13, I agonised over how to rectify my theft of an eyeliner from a small shop, and came up with the ingenious plan of selling it, and giving the proceeds to the church collection. The right thing to do would obviously have been to go back to the shop, and give them back the eyeliner, but I was too scared they would have me arrested – so again, it was completely toothless remorse. Still, I suppose I could have just kept the eyeliner myself, or sold it at full price without telling the purchaser that she was profiting from the proceeds of crime (I did tell her, and since it was being offered at the bargain price of $2, she didn’t care).

These days, I don’t do anything that obviously wrong. I just belittle people when I feel bad about myself, fail to remember anniversaries, forget about things my friends find upsetting, live for instant gratification, fail to help my grandmother. And the other day, I didn’t help a blind person on the tube because I didn’t quite know what to do. I dithered, walking a few steps in front of her, thinking “God, this is unbearable, I must help her”, without quite summoning up the courage to walk up to her and give it a go. I had some idea that she might feel patronised, but she seemed to be struggling, with her stick constantly tapping the smooth sides of the tunnel. Fortunately, I was put out of my self-absorbed misery by another woman, who walked up behind her, took her arm without any further ado, and marched her down the stairs.

Still, at least when I googled the phrase “How to be good”, the predictive text that shows what other people are searching for, and lists it in order of frequency, didn’t even have “good” in its Top 10 results. “How to be happy” and “How to be good in bed” seem to be much bigger preoccupations for most people. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness indeed.

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