When ‘good’ people do bad
An incredibly brief discussion on morality in the wake of the Brett Kavanaugh hearing.
Most of our heroes are dead. That isn’t really a negative thing. The entity that we conjure when we discuss an individual, especially one that is deceased, is different than the original person. For example, JFK was a real human being with a very real and deep level of existence. Like any person he had an incredible level of complexity as that is one of the characteristics of being human. However now we do not really talk of JFK the human. To some he is JFK the progressive icon, to others he is JFK the womanizer. There always exists in the discourse of others the multiple images of an individual, this much is not ground breaking. However when someone is deceased, we have the option to commemorate certain images of that person. The images that are ‘good’. But what about when the people are alive? When the person still has the ability to act, to try and define the images that would be made. When the person is alive we must confront the humanity of that person in a way that the deceased are excused from.
So what is the difference between the image and the human.
I remember when I first read Saint Augustine’s City of God I was confused with his idea that (assuming there are people who are good and bad, and pilgrims from the City of God as Augustine puts it) we can never know if someone is destined for the City of God or damned. As surely, we know who is good-those who are righteous. But no matter a person’s actions, wrote Augustine, we, while living in this mortal world, can never know the ultimate destination of an individual’s soul. I find it useful to implement these ideas as a kind of metaphor. That being, we need not believe literally that there exists a City of God and an Earthly City, but the mentality and framework of the idea is useful. It must also be said the original idea is a product of predetermination, or the belief no actions may change a person’s fate. What I find is useful about this is the this sort of uncertainty principle that it entails. That we can not in any real way know whether a person is ‘good’. Especially when we are not discussing an image. With an image of a person, we know the totality of that image’s actions and being because we constructed it, that is not true however with an actual human, whose humanity we can not ignore.
We do not know a person’s intentions, the thought process or even every action that person has done, and it is impossible to know if a person is ‘good’.
But I have consistently put the word good under inverted commas so far, and there is a reason for that. The entire discussion was with a pretext that there is a ‘good’ that we can categorize people into. It must be asked if that such a category exists. When we discuss morality in such a way it will forever be relevant to bring up Nietzsche.
When Nietzsche wrote The Genealogy of Morality he coined the idea of a master/slave morality, or good-and-bad morality. The genesis was the social hierarchy of the society. The ‘masters’ who had power decided that what they did, was good, because they are good. The circular argument was one of many reasons he thought poorly of the morality system. How this was extended was the masters saw their antithesis (the ‘slaves’) and decided because what they did was good, what the slaves did was bad. Eventually this would be inverted by the introduction of Christianity, but the incidental categorization of ‘bad’ remains.
How has that changed now? We have people in power, who conduct certain actions, and those who conduct those actions are good, and those who do other things, are bad. What is fundamentally important to this argument is that the basis of ‘good’ exists in the people who do ‘good’ things, not anything external to the individual. Because of this, the ‘good’ people must be good, otherwise the system of morality is false. Because beyond anything, Brett Kavanaugh is a symbol of something greater. The son of a successful family, who went to good schools and worked hard. The man who did less than savory things but were kept to a particular time in his life where it’s ‘ok’. His life is one that we society has loved in the same way we love the American Dream, and because Kavanaugh is a symbol of that, he is the master who is ‘good’ and can do no bad.
And here we are, with an arbitrary system of morality based on people, and the inability to recognize those people as ‘bad’ as that would weaken the morality system they believe in. And even within a morality system, we have no way of knowing where people, actually, fully fall into any category. So how can we say people, are ‘good’ and that because we know they are ‘good’ they can not do bad. It is an argument based on nothing, that follows nothing.
So ‘good’ people can do bad, because there is no real ‘good’ person, and you prevent real discussion on morality when you force that dichotomy to exist.
The Genealogy of Good and Evil, Nietzsche
The City of God, Saint Augustine
Photo taken from CNBC