By thinking of goodness as a measure of an inherent trait rather than the results of our actions we disconnect ourselves from reality and base our decisions on a fantasy world making it more difficult for us to achieve what we want out of life.
By instead focusing on actions, we allow our fundamental value as a person to become independent of our history of ignoble actions which in turn frees us to be able to take actions driven by our goals.
Morality isn’t theoretical
The biggest obstacle to living an effective life and making progress towards our goals and desires is the fact that we assume things but don’t actually check to make sure that our assumptions are valid. Nowhere is this more of an issue than when it comes to our moral compass.
We all like to think of ourselves as basically good people and usually take pride in our moral judgement. Unfortunately we often just stop there and don’t pay attention to whether or not the actions and decisions we are actually making are good.
We assume that just because we are “good people” our actions must by definition be good. Ie we get it backwards, defining good actions as those being done by good people rather than good people being those who do good actions
This habit is hard to break because our basic self-worth becomes attached to this idea of being a “good person” so that if our actions lead us to think that we are bad people, then that calls into question all our actions.
If we actually start paying attention to the actions we do and they don’t match what we expect from good people, that could force us to suspect that maybe we aren’t good people after all.
Ego is not self-worth
This is highly stressful, but not because we feel bad about potentially being a bad person, but because our basic judgement is called into question. After all if we think we are good and we are not, what else could we be getting wrong?
This habit is reinforced because we weirdly define good actions as those being done by good people but define bad people as those who do bad actions. This means that since we define goodness as inherent but badness as determined by our actions, we are incentivized to not examine our actions.
Our ego is constructed on this contradictory foundation and as result we shy away from self-examination and avoid paying attention to the actual actions we are doing because they could bring the whole edifice crashing down.
The real trouble is even worse than that because once you’ve gotten into the habit of not paying attention to the actual effects of your actions its easy to drift into not bothering to act in the first place.
Our default solution to the problem of how to be thought of as a good person ends up being to just do that. We think of ourselves as good people and then just stop there.
We don’t examine our actions to see if they are good or bad because rather than looking upon the actions as evidence of our inherent goodness we look on our supposed inherent goodness as evidence that our actions must always be good.
The cynical among us may say, so what? Why does it matter to us if we do good in the first place?
Believing in something doesn’t make it true
Unfortunately, regardless of whether we actually care about doing good or not, the real problem is that this attitude delinks our perception of reality from actual reality. It encourages us to take a self-centered view that starts and ends with what we already believe inside our own heads.
Note, not what we know, but what we believe.
“Knowing” means sampling actual reality, it is asking a question that we don’t know the answer to. That answer may or may not reinforce a concept or judgement that we already have but as that judgement is based on data, if the data changes, our judgement changes.
“Believing” means defining reality to be a certain way regardless of how it actually may be. It means that data is trusted based on whether or not it supports our judgement. We seek data to prove a particular point of view by selectively presenting evidence rather than discovering the truth by looking at every piece of data.
So when we are presented with evidence that we are not actually doing good we assume that the evidence is wrong. Our reality becomes entirely self-referential and exists only within our own heads.
Therefore assuming you are inherently good while actually doing bad actions disconnects us from truth. Our internal concept of reality becomes further and further away from actual reality . We start making decisions based on this imaginary reality rather than on what is actually happening in the real world.
So how do we avoid this?
Actions are in the moment
First off the very concept is off, there is no such thing as a good person, there are only good choices, good actions.
And while it seems reasonable to assume that if someone has shown a pattern of good actions in the past then it is likely that they will continue that pattern, the problem is that for most of us the good actions are a result of circumstance and internal motivations that, if presented with different circumstances, could result in us doing bad things.
In other words if we stay the same but our circumstances change, then it could be that the same core motivations that resulted in our doing good in one situation could result in our doing bad in another situation.
So if our good actions are the result of circumstances then we really can’t be trusted to continue them since they have nothing to do with us. We have as much hand in the goodness we are putting out into the world as the color of a car has on how fast it can go.
On the face of it, this seems like trying to be a good person is futile. But in fact this focus on actions is actually freeing.
We are not our actions
An inherent trait cannot be changed. Thinking of people as fundamentally good or bad means thinking that all of our traits are fixed.
But if instead we focus on actions, that delinks our fundamental goodness as people from our actions. It frees us up to accept that we have inherent value and focus on any one action or decision point in front of us without having to worry about a mistake being a sign of our unworthiness.
It doesn’t mean there are not consequences for our actions, but it means that our fundamental self-worth is not chained by our history. We can be free to reinvent ourselves, every moment in time is a chance to remake ourselves.
If we make a bad choice in the past that doesn’t have any bearing on the choice we are presented with now. We can go with the good choice independently of having made poor decisions up to now.
Mistakes become externalized and correctable because they no longer imply anything about our basic worth as people.
Recognizing that we sometimes do bad and deciding to do good is the pathway to making more effective decisions AND to feeling better about ourselves in general.