By Deborah Reed

“Good versus bad” is hands down one of the most important decisions humans face. It could be argued that choosing good over bad is the very reason for our existence. We are here to be good, to choose the “right” path each time we are faced with a decision.

But what exactly is good? Is bad just the absence of good (as darkness is the absence of light), or is it a thing in its own right? Can something be good in one situation and be bad in another? Do we, as humans, get to decide what is good, or has goodness already been established by a power higher than ourselves? Is there even a definition for this word good?

Let’s address the last question first. We might say of someone: She is a good person. So what are we saying here? What has this person done, or not done, that would make us say such a thing about her? What do “good” people do that differentiates them from “bad” people? Or is it something they don’t do?

It is both. When we make this “good, not bad” judgment call, we consider both the things people do (she is always helping people) and things they don’t do (she would never lie to me). The definition of good encompasses both the positive and the negative. To be considered a “good” person, you must not only do a lot of good things, but you must not do too many bad things. A man who tortures and kills children is considered bad regardless of the fact that he supports his elderly mother.

But we still have not defined good. Perhaps the definition lies in the fact that we exist with other humans. If you were stranded by yourself on an island, the issue would probably never arise. Nothing you did would be either good or bad. Many of our judgment calls on good or bad actions have to do with how other people are treated by the person who is being labeled. To be an honest person, you must be involved with another person —the person you don’t lie to or steal from. There must be children involved in order for you to be a good parent. Goodness, then, seems to go back to the Golden Rule: Treat others as you would want to be treated. These “others” play a big part in your goodness. So one definition of good can be said that the good person follows the Golden Rule. Even those who have never read the Bible or have never heard of the Golden Rule can easily accept this definition of goodness: You treat others well.

But some of us, those who believe in God and desire to return to Him, take this a little further. We expand the definition of good to include being good in God’s eyes, not only in the eyes of other humans. Catholic Christians attend Mass weekly, receive Communion, go to Confession. Other Christians follow their religious beliefs. Non-Christians, too, are good—many Jews take their religion just as seriously as we Christians do and strive to be good Jews. So perhaps the definition of good is that a good person tries to treat others as he would want to be treated and also strives to do those things that unite him with God.

The next issue we want to explore is that of whether good is situational. Can something be bad for one person and good for another? Unfortunately, the answer is yes.

I enjoy my morning cup of coffee with nary a twinge of guilt, while my Mormon friend will either go without or feel guilty if he indulges. I had pork chops for supper last night, something a religious Jew would never do. Why are these things right for me but wrong for them? Are right and wrong not absolutes, but rather varying shades of gray, and each person may choose for himself which shade he chooses to follow? How can that be? It would seem that something is either right or wrong.

The answer, in my opinion, is that there are many things that are just plain wrong, and other things, well, you get to decide for yourself. Killing a store clerk so you can steal a case of beer is just wrong, no rational person can argue with that. Drinking coffee or eating pork is something that is wrong in some situations and not wrong in others.

So where does this leave us when we consider the problem of a “good” person vs. a “bad” person?  How can we know when whether we are being good if sometimes goodness is situational? Are there any traits that a good person possesses that a bad person doesn’t?  In my opinion (please note that I realize this is just my opinion) the answer to this question is yes. There are two traits that are common to all good people, regardless of whether they drink coffee, eat pork, whatever. These two traits transcend (but are not contrary to) any religious or societal beliefs. It is my opinion that a person must have these two traits or they are not good, regardless of how often they go to church or how strictly they adhere to the laws of the land.

The first of these traits is kindness. Kindness is at the very root of treating others well.  A good person, when faced with two choices, chooses the kind choice, the one that makes the other person feel good (or not feel bad.) A good person lives by the saying: Be kind, everyone is facing a hard battle.

Perhaps you have had the experience of admiring someone for being a good Christian, only to change your mind when you caught them being unkind. We somehow intuit that “kindness” and “goodness” share a common bond. Kindness makes us be good because we can’t have the latter without the former. This concept goes a long way toward solving the “situational” question of good vs. bad. Whether you drink coffee or not is not a question of kindness, but rather a matter of following a set of beliefs you subscribe to and therefore falls into the “some people are good even if they do drink coffee” category. But how a boss treats his employees does raise the question of kindness. His treatment of them can be judged either good or bad depending on how kind he is to them. This boss will be considered a good person if he treats his employees well and a not-so-good person if he doesn’t.

But this “kindness equals goodness” concept only works if you apply it to every situation in your life. A good person isn’t just occasionally kind—he is a kind person, kindness is a big part of what he is. All his choices are made by asking the question: Is this kind or not? A good person considers this an important question, one that is raised every time he is faced with a decision.

I will admit that perhaps, in some circumstances, that kindness may not be the best choice, but I believe that a good person takes it into consideration every time he makes a decision. Kindness is a very important part of being good, so important that you can’t have one without the other.

The other trait that a good person possesses is that of putting others first. A good person has a “less of me, more of others” attitude. If you are constantly thinking of the other person, striving to look at things through their eyes and making their lives better, how could you help but be a good person? A bad person does the “bad” thing because he is thinking only of himself. A thief who breaks into your home, ransacking it and stealing your possessions, is certainly not taking your feelings into consideration when he does this.

Although most of us are not thieves, this concept applies in all situations. If you think only of yourself and your little needs, others are going to suffer for it. A mother who enjoys having an extensive wardrobe and buys clothes with the grocery money cannot be considered a good mother. She is thinking only of herself.

So these two things—being kind and putting others first—are my two criteria for living a decent life, for being a good person.

Let’s look at “badness” for a moment. How do we know if we are being “bad”? The answer, of course, is we just know. We know when we are doing something wrong. This knowledge has been instilled in us from birth. We know a certain action is wrong before we do it and we know that action is wrong after we do it. The feeling that we have before we do something wrong is called a conscience; the feeling after is called guilt.

Now, it would seem that, because we have a conscience and because we have guilt, that we would never do anything wrong, we would never be “bad”. But these two things have one thing in common: If you ignore them long enough, they fade. If you do a small thing wrong, despite the fact that your conscience told you not to, it is easier to ignore your conscience the next time you are faced with temptation. If you feel guilty that you have done something wrong, but push the guilty thoughts aside, it is easier to cope with the guilt next time, ignoring it or rationalizing it away. If you do a wrong thing often enough, or do too many wrong things, eventually “conscience” and “guilt” cease to do their job.

Could this, then, be the definition of a “bad” person? Can we say that a bad person has learned to ignore his conscience, has learned to push aside feelings of guilt? Granted, this is a very simplistic definition, but it just might work. We are being “bad” when we hear our conscience but decide to ignore it, when we feel pangs of guilt but rationalize them away. This definition could also be applied to a “good” person. A good person listens to his conscience; a good person learns from his pangs of guilt and modifies his behavior accordingly.

The final issue to explore is the question: Is “good” good enough?” Is this all God wants—for us to be good? Is He happier with the person who is good 95 percent of the time than with the person who is good only half the time? Does He love us more when we are good?

The answer is that good is not good enough. Good is pleasing to God’s eyes, yes, but I don’t think His love is meted out on a sliding scale, that He loves the sinner less than the saint. Goodness is not a criterion for God’s love, but rather a means for us to evolve into the kind of person that eventually unites with Him. We should be good if heaven is in our future, but we must do something else also, something that will be discussed in detail in the next article.

3 Responses to “Good versus Bad”

  1. […] “Good versus bad” is the second essay contributed by Deborah L. Reed. She currently resides in a small bedroom community in Central Texas with her daughter, grandson, and two dogs. She has had over twenty short stories published, one of which, ”Leah and Her Stuffed House,” has been nominated for a 2011 Pushcart Prize. […]

  2. […] Deborah Reed thinks through “Good versus Bad.” […]

  3. […] Please also read her previous essays: “Prayer” and “Good versus Bad.” […]

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