My suspicion is that there are no intrinsically good people. Anyone, viewed from the right perspective will turn out to have things going on that are complicated. I’m not at all sure that selflessness is a fair measure of goodness, either. It’s through the offering of our needs to each other that we form the strongest and deepest relationships. Selfless people might find they can’t do that, which means they are, arguably, withholding things that might be essential to other people, and that’s problematic, too.
Most of us need to be needed. Selflessness therefore doesn’t enable us to meet each other’s needs.
I’m definitely not an intrinsically good person – it’s a necessary qualification for being a fiction author. You’ve got to have some capacity to imagine terrible things in order to write books. There’s a case for saying that many authors are terrible people who have chosen to use their powers for good.
I think that’s often the key thing. It’s not the raw clay of ourselves that matters most, but how we choose to use it. I can examine a situation and see what the most manipulative thing is that I could do to get my own way. I almost never pick that path. However, understanding how that would work can help me find a better way through. I spend a lot of time thinking about how best to give people options and to make sure I’m not being emotionally manipulative or putting undue pressure on anyone.
Being good as an abstract concept is hard to pin down. It might be more useful to think about who, or what we want to be good for. Being good for the shareholders usually means being bloody awful to the workers. A lot of interesting things happen when we explore the idea of how to be good for each other. That’s true when we’re dealing with people one to one. It also holds up in any kind of collective human space. When we undertake to be good for each other there’s a lot more room to also be messy, flawed and not some kind of saint. On those terms it makes no sense to martyr anyone.
At the same time, so much of contemporary eco-thinking is framed by the idea of being less bad and reducing harm. What happens when we ask instead how we might be good? How can we live in a way that supports life? How can we act to be regenerative, and to move beyond sustainability into actually making things better?
I think the idea of goodness is much more interesting when we stop trying to foster it as some sort of inner quality, and start asking what it could mean as a way to live and interact.