It’s comforting to believe that you’re a good person. We all do it. We’ve wired ourselves to not really think about how we perceive morality and where we stand on our own scale of judgment.
The scale is often freely applied to other people and events, but a ton of people forget to look inwards first. It’s not really their fault. It’s just conditioning and a byproduct of our societal obsession with winning and being right.
Forgetting to correct ourselves is a byproduct of our obsession with being right.
Self-ignorance may also be a defense mechanism. Because we as a people tend to believe ourselves ‘right’ all the time, we feel secure enough to exist in a state of comfort most of the time. As long as we’re not bad, we think we’re good.
Morality is a social construct
Before I delve into the misconception, it is important to understand that the concept of morality i.e. good and bad, is a made up concept. The law of nature is survival of the fittest. Those that can run faster, hide deeper, hunt better, and fight more fiercely win. They get to eat, and the others die.
Before society evolved, human beings did the same. But with the concept of settlement and civilization came the idea of shared survival. We work together to survive and flourish. Our religious books say that the meek shall inherit the earth – that simply means that in the new system, those that don’t fight shall be the ones who win.
We created good and bad so that we can survive together. Things that are bad, such as resource hogging, murder within the species, and internal conflict are all things that go against the concept of shared survival.
That kind of behavior is punished by isolation or exclusion from the group, hence making it hard to ‘survive’, whatever that means in today’s time. This is why all our literature and education works so hard towards defining good and bad.
Hence, take the ideas presented here with a grain of salt. After all, what does it really mean to be a good person?
Comfort in Feeling Good
So why do we automatically assume we’re good people? Simply because it would be absolutely exhausting not to. If you constantly doubted your behaviour, you’d be tired and anxious. Ironically, that action is precisely what points us in the direction of good.
Does that sound like you – a ball of anxiety questioning their own morality? Chances are you’re part of the current generation – millenials, as we’ve all been dubbed. Issues of self-worth are rampant in young people today, much more so than previous generations.
It is worth noting that a significant percentage of our popular media leads people to ask questions about ethics and selfish behaviour of past generations. It is possible that there is a link between this and the self-doubt of millenials, leading to a more conscientious morality. Of course, this requires more research.
However, that’s only a percentage of people. The rest are comfortable in their ignorance, and are prone to being swayed by the selfishness and self-serving attitude present in social environments around the world. Schools, universities, businesses and jobs, advertising and media, all espouse selfishness to various degrees. “You need to win! The world will leave you behind! Success is everything! i.e. Your actions should further your own cause.”
If everything tells you that you need to be self-serving, you automatically associate goodness with success, not altruism. Once that connection is made, you believe you are good as long as you are working towards your financial and economic goals.
Excuse for Inaction
“I already put all my trash in bins today AND I ate responsibly AND I was polite to everyone I met! I shouldn’t have to do anything else!”
Continuing from the misconception of success being goodness, and the idea that we’d rather be comfortable than happy, we become more than satisfied in what we’re already doing, and going out of the way to be more helpful, more altruistic, more good is an unnecessary burden. Our perception of ourselves becomes our excuse for inaction.
Hence, good isn’t our default state, apathy is.
And it is important to reiterate here – that is okay. Morality is a forced concept, and as long as we’re not hurting anyone, it’s okay to be apathetic. Basic kindness to the people around us is enough self-expectation.
However, if one wants to be better, it requires a great amount of effort, which begins with awareness.
Good by Omission
Ultimately, we believe in goodness by omission. We believe being not bad means being good. But like comfort is not happiness, apathy is not goodness.
Am I telling you to go out of your way to be charitable and join movements or make other grandiose gestures? No. I’m asking you to recognize the difference between being apathetic and being helpful. When you do that, chances are you’ll find it a lot easier to be kinder in your daily life. You will be less angry, less anxious, and less despondent, as you will have found small actions for self-improvement.
And even if you don’t feel the need to change, you will at least be comfortable in the knowledge of yourself. You will be a little bit more self-aware, and that is always good.
This post is the third of four in a series called ‘Misconception Month’. Every Thursday in April (12 PM IST), I’ll be releasing another post from the series, and they’ll all be about a common misconception that we might not really give its due attention. I hope you enjoyed this read and found it worth thinking about.
Do you agree or disagree with the ideas in this article? Tell me below.