We “modern” people of the technological age tend to think of mythology as something from the past, but myth is still very much alive today, and it is in some ways just as pervasive as ever precisely because we are less wary of a thing we believe no longer exists for us. Whereas the ancients often accepted myths because many people unthinkingly believed them true, many contemporary thinkers accept myths because they unthinkingly believe that they couldn’t possibly believe anything that is a myth.
Many good people have fallen prey to myths, and many of them have fallen prey to a myth that they are good people. This, of course, does not mean that they are not a “good person” though it does suggest that they believe themselves to be a good person because of a myth rather than because they have measured anything objective about themselves.
So what’s a myth, and what’s the myth of the good person? According to the grand dictionary of dictionaries, it is:
“a traditional or legendary story, usually concerning some being or hero or event, with or without a determinable basis of fact or a natural explanation, especially one that is concerned with deities or demigods and explains some practice, rite, or phenomenon of nature.“
So as a baseline, the myth of the good person would be a story that may or may not have a factual basis, but would seek to explain some observable phenomenon of nature by appeal to some superhuman entity.
It is not difficult to find references to the cultural concept of a “good person” with a quick Google search. There are of course online tests which purport to tell you whether or not you are a good person by reference to a particular standard for goodness. Fortunately, WikiHow is able to instruct us in how to be a “good person” so that we can pass such paltry tests with ease.
Step 1 in our grand journey toward becoming a good person is apparently to identify our personal understanding of goodness rather than some factual understanding of goodness. Well this is very convenient, isn’t it? We don’t need to find any objective standard by which to measure our goodness because we just create our own. The beauty of taking the facts out of the equation is that we get to see ourselves as a good person regardless of our behavior. Of course, this is generally how many of us see ourselves anyway.
By default, we conveniently ignore our own cognitive errors and remember our moments of whatever goodness we believe ourselves to have done to reassure us of our “good person” status. It’s a great way to protect our egos and is quite in line with the Dunning-Kruger Effect mentioned in the previous post. We strongly desire to believe in our own goodness, and our confirmation bias will lead us to find evidence that such is the case while ignoring the little lies we tell, the moments when we were too afraid to help a homeless person, the fact that we stayed home and played games while our sick relative was in the hospital, and our habit of generally being friendly primarily because it gets people to like us and feeds our ego.
We explain our perfectly natural and largely erroneous self-perception that we are people of great virtue by reference to our innate status as a “good person” which can only be explained by some superhuman quality of goodness welling up from deep within us and not consistently showing itself in our behavior.
We don’t need more people who think of themselves as a “good person.” Nor do we need to reassure people that they are a “good person” in spite of their many failings. We need everyone to be willing to take a hard look at their failings and work diligently to improve their behavior by reference to an objective standard. We need to reassure ourselves that with great effort, we can become better people than we are now.