Defining ‘good personhood’


Credit: Caroline Jacoby/Chronicle

Sophia Musante

Years ago, a stranger on the street caught my eye. She looked frazzled, carefully balancing a pile of boxes, prominent purple bags looming under her eyes. As I approached, a string of curses and sighs left her mouth.

I offered my help and together we walked, boxes in hand. I did not pry into her situation, nor did she explain; the smile on her face was satisfactory enough.

“You’re a good person,” she told me in parting, and although I replied that it was the right thing to do, I left feeling lighter than before. It’s almost funny, but certainly unsurprising, how much pleasure I was able to derive from a stranger’s words. After all, “good personhood,” or moral worth, is arguably what we value most as a society.

As I have grown older, pursuing moral worth has begun to bother me, as morality is unquantifiable and varies based on a number of factors like perspective, experience and culture.

Even if we assume that there are certain universally good or bad acts, good personhood remains complex. 

Philosopher Immanuel Kant argued that a good person is solely motivated by morality and duty; if one’s desires serve as an underlying motivator, the action cannot contribute to their moral worth. The consequences of one’s actions do not affect one’s moral worth, as good actions should be good in all cases.

 Motivation should matter most in regard to one’s goodness; to judge one for the consequences of their actions is to judge them for circumstances out of their control. Two people who commit the same moral or immoral act are equally good or bad, respectively, regardless of whether or not they face different consequences.

 We often assume good people are selfless, but it is impossible to escape one’s own desires. We as human beings pursue “selfless” and “good” actions because they make us feel good. Even the pursuit of moral worth is somewhat selfish; we want to consider ourselves “good” people because it brings us comfort.

Neither Kant nor I argue that one should not pursue individual happiness. According to Kant, moral worth can be derived from an action that you gain happiness from, so long as the intended consequence is not to make yourself happy. In my eyes, a subconscious priority of personal happiness is inescapable; however, it is good to pursue our happiness morally.

Our modern idea of good personhood is flawed. In pursuing moral worth, we make allowances or punish ourselves for incredibly neutral actions. Moral goodness is unachievable; it is impossible to deny your subconscious desires to improve your own material and mental conditions. Being overly concerned with whether or not you are a good person is futile; instead, focus on optimizing the happiness of yourself and others.

Perhaps it was selfish to stop and help the stranger two years ago. Or maybe my desire to help was altruistic. Ultimately, whether or not I was selfish is insignificant; our encounter was mutually beneficial and to me the right thing to do. What else truly matters?