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Self-Knowledge • Know Yourself

The One Question You Need to Ask to Know Whether You’re a Good Person

There is really only one question you ever need to direct at someone to work out whether or not they are a good person – and that is, with deliberate simplicity: Do you think you are a good person?

And to this there is only one acceptable answer. People who are genuinely good, people who know about kindness, patience, forgiveness, compromise, apology and gentleness always, always answer no.

One cannot both be a good person and at the same time feel either blameless or pure inside. Goodness is, one might say, the unique consequence of a keen and ongoing awareness of one’s capacity to be bad, that is, to be thoughtless, cruel, self-righteous and deaf to the legitimate needs of others. Only on the basis of a perpetual vigilant impression that one hasn’t got the right to judge oneself above suspicion, does one come anywhere near the ethical high standard that merits the title of ‘good’ (a word one can still never use of oneself). The price of being genuinely good has to be a constant suspicion that one might be a monster – combined with a fundamental hesitation about labelling anyone else monstrous. A guilty conscience is the bedrock of virtue.

Correspondingly, only properly bad people don’t lie awake at night worrying about their characters. It has generally never occurred to the most difficult or dangerous people on the planet that they might be lacking. Their sickness is to locate evil always firmly outside of themselves: it’s by definition invariably the others who are to blame, the others who are cruel, sinful, lacking in judgement and mistaken. And their job is to take these impure people down and correct their evils in the fire of their own righteousness. 

It is a grim paradox that the worst deeds that humans have ever been guilty of have been carried out by people with an easy conscience, people who felt they were definitely on the side of angels, people who were entirely sure that they had justice in hand. What unites the people who report their neighbours to the secret police, the crowds who burn their victims at stakes while dancing around their agonised bodies, the government officials who set up purification camps and the nations that wipe out their enemies with special barbarism is their consistent and overwhelming sense that they are doing the right thing – in the eyes of god, history or Truth. When trying to understand why people do evil things, never start from the position of imagining that they understood them as evil; remember that they would have carried out their nastiness cocksure that they were paragons. An impassioned feeling of being the instrument of justice has been at the heart of humanity’s most appallingly unkind moments.

It isn’t always easy to worry about whether or not one might be good. It’s painful to have to be aware of how often one might have benefitted from unfair advantages, how often one might have been impatient or intemperate, malign or thoughtless. Then again, it is only through such arduous doubts that one can keep any sort of check on one’s vanity and aggression and render oneself appropriately thoughtful and gentle.

It is a hallmark of all the cruellest ages of history that certain groups decide that they have landed on a cause that gives them a monopoly on justice: that a particular god has given them a special mission to eradicate sin or when their study of economics or biology have shown them one true path to an upright future – at which point there is no limit to the number of eggs that can be broken to concoct the righteous omelette. And by implication, the kindest stretches of history are those when a majority daily awake wondering how they might go easy on others because they are so flawed themselves, when a sense of scepticism and apology dominates every social exchange, when one is constantly charitable in word and deed from a sense of impeachability – and when people can always readily forgive because they know how much in them needs to be forgiven.

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