Are We REALLY ‘Good’, Or Are We Fooling Ourselves?  Tell us why...


There is a term in psychology called “illusory superiority”, also known as “the above average effect”.  This is the bias that causes most people to overestimate their own positive qualities and underestimate the negative ones—relative to other people.

If we were to ask questions like “how good of a driver are you”, “how good of a friend are you”, or “rate your appearance” compared to everyone else, the answers we would get back would overwhelmingly be above average.  Magically it seems everyone is better than everyone else.  Of course that can’t be true because if we were all above average—that would be the average.

How about this one, “Are you a good person?”.  Of course we are, right?  Shoot, we even look better than average.  But how do we know?  What is the definition of ‘good’ & ‘bad’?  By actually defining what ‘good’ & ‘bad’ really are, we are enabling more people to understand and actually BE that better person —instead of just fooling themselves.


Good & bad are not real.  There is no good baby giraffe, there is no bad hurricane.  It’s just our opinion of them that makes them seem good or bad.  But the sense of ‘good’ & ‘bad’ in our head is real.  So where does that come from?


Each of us holds (figuratively) an ideal model of the world in our head, a moral template.  A vision of how the world should work according to us.  When we perceive an action that agrees or disagrees with our model, we sense ‘good’ or ‘bad’.  The way that a person can do what we see as ‘bad’ is when their opinion of what they are doing differs from ours.


1. The sense of ‘good’ & ‘bad’ are illusory and simply personal opinions that each of us hold.


Understand that if it was REALLY just our own singular opinion of what was ‘good’ & ‘bad’, then they cease to have a meaning.  ‘Good’ & ‘bad’ would then just be what I do and don’t want, period.  It’s when we share the opinions with others that ‘good’ & ‘bad’ become meaningful.  When two or more people, a group,  share an opinion they can say “we say it’s good”, and it would be to them.


Now the problem becomes one of scope.  Does your ideal-worldview only care about you? your family, neighbors, city, country, the world, race, gender, belief?  When one’s scope doesn’t include others then their opinions of what is ‘good’ & ‘bad’ can vastly differ.  But when we do share ideal-worldviews with larger groups, we agree more and more.


2. It is only when we share the same opinions with larger and larger groups that more universal ‘good’ & ‘bad’ can be agreed upon.


Anyone claiming that they are ‘good’ simply because they want to be hasn’t satisfied the requirements because in that sentence what they consider ‘good’ seems to be really what they alone want at any one moment.  They may indeed be fooling themselves with what they think is ‘good’.  Wouldn’t it be better to maintain the appearance of ‘good’ while still taking once in awhile, than to actually BE ‘good’.  Criminals do this all the time when the rationalize their behavior.


An answer would be to share a large scale opinion with other like minded people.  The larger the scale the better.  “religion is bad because it is false and undermining society” is a ‘good’ statement to the people on this forum, but not the entire country.  


3. Therefore, an external agreement, something outside of ourselves that the largest possible group can agree upon, will define what is ‘good’ & ‘bad’.

Theistic religion made this simple and difficult at the same time.  Good is to do what the gods would want —but what the gods want is open to interpretation.  To say “I’m good because I want to be” is a fiat system —good only by decree.  

What is our driving motivation then? Why be good?

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I remember hearing that President Eisenhower was greatly disturbed when told that half of the American people had below average intelligence. 

We could also say this is why a Buddhist may be more trusted than an atheist —even though they are both atheist...  

It's that we suspect the motivation for a Buddhist is to seek internal peace and end suffering, where as the atheist (though probably a very nice person) is a position of nothing.  Critical and free thinking are admirable (100%) but they themselves don't make an atheist, and they also don't divulge WHY they should be trusted (except you and I know they can think well).

I agree with everything you said and it is exactly inline with the original post.

Now, let’s say someone else wants to be a “good person” but their views and actions are different (as you said, ‘subjective’).  My doppelganger (not me) thinks that respecting other people, helping the disadvantaged, and being pleasant just encourages all their nonsense!  Both think they are acting rightly —and subjectively they are.  In extreme cases this ends up making the news in a bad way.  How did their views become so different?

Each of healthy adults is walking around with…

  • A moral template, the sources where we gathered our ideas about what is right and acceptable: our parents, peers, institutions, Breaking Bad, Family Guy, etc…

  • Our ideal-worldview, a view of the way the world should work according to us.

  • Our scope, the boundary line of who I’m mostly concerned about upon different issues.


At some early point we become unfettered from what other people are telling us how we should act, and start acting on our own ideal-worldview.  I can’t help but think of pictures of atom smashers sending particles whirling off in different directions.  

What I am saying is that an external-reasoning that more individuals can subscribe to, will have the effect of bringing individuals into alignment (perceived good).  Theistic religion is a terrible first stab at something to fill this niche.  

Without a corralling of minds I see what we see today, an escalation of horrendous crimes both small and large (bad).

Of course the external-reasoning must reek of truth for US to follow it, a freethinker that gets it right and writes it down, maybe a Hitchhiker’s Guide to Life could do it.

I'm good because I want to be, but not everybody believes that. I find that we actually bestow goodness upon ourselves and not everybody is good.

I had a boss one time that thought he was good because he allowed his people to take their vacations. Time for vacation was accrued by years of service to the company and would be lost if not used by the employee. Therefore it had nothing to do with that "good" boss.

Ice cream is good.

All else?

...I'm thinking, I'm thinking.

Some altogether unsavory people hold "good" up as a model when they're wanting only what they want.

Yes, good is a concept that infinitely expands and contracts in scope -- good turtles all the way down and back up.  One can be a good survivor in personal terms, a good parent in a family setting, a good tribe member, a good citizen...  When used in the context of ethics, the term is necessarily social.  You can be good from your own point of view, but that has no social and so no ethical validity until someone else makes a quality judgment on your goodness.  Then we have two or more observers viewing the same thing from opposite perspectives -- "I am this" and "You are that".

So ethically, goodness is a measure of sociability, and can be infinitely parsed by the scope of the society doing the judging.  And of course those scopes can be infinitely split; I can be a good guy in the society comprising the US Army or the Islamic State, but not both simultaneously.  Intrinsic goodness is meaningless from an individual perspective.  When you're observing only yourself you can say "I feel good", but it's an illusion to think "I am good" because that would imply measurement against an external standard that you yourself accept.  Conversely you can say, "They are good", but still it's a judgment derived from a personal standard, whether it was configured by you or inherited from a society.  No suicide bomber or missionary doubts that they are doing good, unless perhaps they're a reluctant slave.


I don't see any way to add a 'like' to your reply -but I liked it a lot.

The more I look at the question of "why do people do bad things?", a question that has occupied me for DECADES, the more the answer takes on a real but illusive existence.  The question is really two questions, "why do people DO anything?", and "what is 'good' & 'bad'?".

As you alluded it has to do with scope, sociability, opinion...  And an answer to creating more perceived 'good' would be to increase that scope, increase that sociability, increase a more universal opinion.

In a similar vain, one popular author had this to say about absolute morality: We can come closer to an absolute morality and make definite decisions about what is right and wrong, when we can agree on what the purpose of that absolute morality should be.  Much like we agree that purpose of "healthcare" is long productive lives —instead of say, constant-euphoria.

Here healthcare is subjective, but a group-subjective.  And his absolute morality: "The maximum well-being of conscious creatures".

Maybe Freethinkers could and write down and follow a 'good', instead of a bunch of loose canons.  BUT this almost flies in the face of what it means to be a freethinker.

I tend to want to be at peace...not necessarily good or happy. As either are fleeting.




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