Do You Want to Be a ‘Good’ Person?

Many years ago, I was discussing religious beliefs with my friend Phil, a thoughtful man who believes in the God of his faith (Judaism).  When I told him that I was agnostic, that I didn’t really know what to believe about the existence of a supreme being, he asked how I could be a moral person.  I insisted that my lack of belief in the Judeo-Christian God didn’t mean I had no moral values, but he continued to wonder what force those morals could have without religion to back them up.

It’s an interesting question.  Phil’s position implies that morality has to come from the outside, from a greater authority or system of values to which we submit; without such a source of authority, he believes we would behave in an amoral fashion.  And yet I don’t behave that way.  By most people’s standards, I am a “good” person:  I’m a law-abiding citizen, an involved father, considerate friend and a psychotherapist who has helped many people in his career; I care about the welfare of my friends and family and do what I can to help them; I remember birthdays and write thank you notes.  In my financial dealings, I never take advantage of people.  If no God or religion is urging me to behave in these ways, then why do I do so?

You could argue that I’m nonetheless subject to authority in the form of values internalized from my parents and society at large.  This has to be true to a large degree.  It’s part of what Freud meant when he developed his theory of the superego.  That internal agency embodies attitudes and values we absorb from our parents, teachers and the people we’ve chosen as role models.  The superego is a kind of internal God, enforcing standards and punishing us with guilt when we fail to meet expectations.  Fear of internal punishment and guilt may, in part, keep me in line.

Beyond that, I believe two other factors lead to “moral” behavior:  empathy and enlightened self-interest.  First of all, I believe that the capacity to feel what others are feeling, to put yourself in their shoes and emotionally identify with them, is the basis of much behavior sanctioned by moral codes.  For me, and I suspect for a great many people, it’s more than a capacity; it’s an inclination, something that happens automatically, whether or not I intend to empathize.   Since humans are a social species and function best in groups rather than in isolation, it makes sense that we can empathize:  it improves communication and promotes social cohesion.  To be “moral” in this light is to behave in ways that benefit the family/group/tribe/species as a whole, rather than simply gratifying individual desires without regard to the feelings or needs of anyone else.

I confess that I feel a great deal of empathy only for those who are close to me and the strength of my empathic response diminishes with distance.  When I’m listening to a client in my office, sobbing over a major loss, my body will literally ache in sympathy.   When I see videos of the current suffering in Japan, I feel something, but it’s faint compared to what I feel for the suffering of my loved ones.  In other words, empathy (for me) has its limits for promoting moral behavior.   That’s where enlightened self-interest comes in.

Let me give an example.  Over the years, I’ve had many clients ask me to submit claims to their insurance carriers over-stating my fee so that their co-payment would be less.  From my point of view, this would be a mistake and  I have never done so.  I explain to my clients that insurance fraud is a federal offense.  It’s against the law, and we could both be punished in the unlikely event we were caught.  And if everyone were to submit inflated claims, the insurance carriers would merely pass along their additional costs to the consumer as higher premiums.  In other words, despite the fact that a few patients have gone elsewhere because I wouldn’t lie for them, despite the fact that I might have helped my clients and maybe benefited financially if they came for session more frequently as a result, I believe such an act would be short-sighted.  In the long run, it would be better to tell the truth and submit an honest claim — better for me and better for society as a whole.

Now some people may think I’m a very upright, moral person for taking such a stance; others might think me priggish and self-righteous.   I don’t think either is true.   First of all, at least for me, it’s not about honesty and rectitude so much as it is a kind of cost-benefit analysis, weighing the possible gain for my client and me against the risks we’d run and the costs to us and our society.  This wasn’t a value instilled in me as I grew up but rather an opinion I came to by thinking about it, and through conversations with other professionals.  And I don’t think that my position makes me a “good” person, although by many people’s standards, I would appear to be.  I don’t feel superior to those therapists who do, in fact, submit false claims.

Many men and women who come across as “good”, who strive to appear as if they are very good people, can seem self-righteous and superior.  I’m sure you’ve known men and women like that.  To be frank, I have a deep distrust of people who appear to be extremely good, who seem to me to be trying to come across that way.  I believe that in those cases, the effort to appear good serves as a defense against something else, often a sense of shame that may be unconscious:  it’s a kind of narcissism where displaying virtue means winning instead of losing.

There’s a difference between people who simply are, by nature, extremely “good” in any sense of the word — I’m sure you’ve known some — and those who long to be good (and to appear that way to others).   In my view, the first group are men and women who genuinely like themselves (i.e., have authentic self-esteem) and can feel deeply for other people.  The latter group has something to hide.

Here’s a clinical illustration.  Stephanie, a 19-year-old woman came to see me for depression, recurring nightmares, substance abuse and other issues; she was deeply troubled, with many of the features characteristic of borderline personality disorder.  She also cut herself with razor blades.  In one early session, Stephanie was recalling an episode from elementary school when some other children found and tortured an injured bird.  My client began to tear up as she told how she’d tried to stop the other kids, pleaded with them to spare the poor bird, to no avail.  “How can people be so cruel and hateful?” she cried, weeping tears that felt inauthentic to me — what we usually refer to as “crocodile tears.”  I don’t mean to suggest she was consciously faking pity and sadness; while I found her depiction of the good-her-versus-cruel-them emotionally unpersuasive, she was completely taken in by it.

Over the course of our work together, we came to understand that Stephanie struggled with powerful sadistic and masochistic impulses, violent rage and murderous feelings that led to explosive attacks on other people, a characteristic of borderline functioning.  Her attempt to be “good” involved splitting off and projecting all that hostility, locating it outside in other people and then defining herself as its opposite … at least until the defense failed and all those disowned feelings overwhelmed her.

The appearance of exaggerated goodness, the “holier than thou” sort of virtue always reflects a process of splitting, where good-and-bad, loving-and-hating are kept widely separate.  The longing to be an extremely good person often embodies the wish for a permanent and perfect solution to the difficult problem of ambivalence, and behind the virtuous veneer may lie a painful store of destructive emotions that can’t be tolerated.

Finding Your Own Way:

Are you a good person?  What does that mean to you?  Is it important to you to be a good person, and why?  Do you care whether people perceive you as a good person?  I imagine you won’t be able to get far in this line of thinking without recourse to the word love.  Most people associate goodness with feelings of love and generosity.  Why do you think those feelings are considered good?  It may seem self-evident to you — that they simply are good — but sometimes they seem politically correct to me, that it’s the way you’re supposed to feel, or at least the kind of emotional attitude you should demonstrate in public, regardless of how you feel.

Think about the “good” people you know.  Among your acquaintance, are there people who try too hard to seem kind and empathic, whose sincerity you sometimes doubt?  Maybe you feel guilty because at times you dislike them.

If you’re a religious person, this line of thinking may seem foreign to you.  You may think of being good as following God’s will.  It’s nonetheless worthwhile thinking about these questions.   Why, within the terms of your religion, are certain emotions and actions “good” but not others?





By Joseph Burgo

Joe is the author and the owner of, one of the leading online mental health resources on the internet. Be sure to connect with him on Google+ and Linkedin.


  1. I try to be a good person, not really because I want to appear that way to others, but mostly for myself. I am hard on myself and if I have behaved in ways I am not proud of, I tend to berate myself and think through the situation over and over to try to figure out and why I did what I did. On the other hand, I am not one who can fake liking everyone. There are (many) people that I don’t click with or that I find impossible to be real with. I generally am polite to most everyone however. I oftentimes wonder if there is something wrong with me in that I don’t get very deep with many people. I also find that a lot of the acquaintances I have are heavy into alcohol and that of course, prevents any real connection.

  2. This is not intended to be a reply to this post but a request I guess. If at all possible, at some stage I would love to read your take on the ‘move’ from insecure to secure attachment and the resulting feelings that invokes in a person. I find myself feeling more and more detached from the world, people and in particular my family as a result of becoming more secure within myself. I wonder whether this is a ‘normal’ place to ‘be’ after intensive psychotherapy and the huge change in oneself that brings. It is not that I am concerned about it, just that I find it so very, very different from where I once was (within myself) and it is taking a bit of getting used to.

    I don’t think there is anything ‘wrong’ with me; I feel happy 97% of the time – I have a wonderful relationship, great job, two homes (one in the city which is close to work where we spend the week and one in a smaller town 2 hours away where we go at weekends), friends, interests, engage in exercise, eat healthily most of the time so I there is nothing that needs ‘fixing’ (apart from the food thing which I have previously posted about and now I realise this will always be my ‘issue’ and I will continue to work with that).

    Your comments or a post would be greatly appreciated sometime.

    Warmest regards

  3. Oh yes, I `d like to be good, good to myself and good to every creature on Tellus.
    In the mythical garden of Eden there was a tree bearing fruit that would enable man and woman to discern good from evil. The myth says mankind did eat of the fruit. Yet, the older I get, the more I wonder what is “good” . I cannot tell, except that I clearly see, or rather feel, how good it is to get rid of pain.

    Relief of pain in psychotherapy is another matter, I gather. According to several books the aim is not to ged rid of pain, rather to bring it fort, and turn the client into a passionate lover. (passion in the meaning of suffering. ) Sigmund Freud once termed good health as the ability to love and to work. (That may come to the same thing, as some claim that work is love made visible.)

  4. You do have an amazing ability to feel empathy. I do think some people are blessed to be very compassionate but I don’t think a person who doesn’t have such strong inclinations is bad if their actions are good. I am not talking about people who are just doing good for show. But sometimes a person may not feel a lot of emotion but still want to help because it is the right thing to do.

    At one time, I was so very sweet but I was also caught up in myself because I felt I was very good. That is not so uncommon from an article I recently read at or maybe it was psychology today. I get around. Now I try not to take myself so seriously.

    I do believe agnostics and also unbelievers can still have a strong moral compass. I knew someone who was an unbeliever(don’t know if he was even agnositc) who said his faith was in humanity as in inspiring people. We had Spanish together. I don’t know how honest he was because I think he sat next to me once during a test as the teacher had a verbal part where we would circle the right one and he could circle the same time I was. But I’m not sure. He also said he was going to be a psychiatrist so a lot of rich people could tell him their problems. But he seemed like a nice go over all.

    I feel I can be a little more open now as I removed the link to my sister’s blog. I don’t want it to reflect on her and the good work she is trying to do. I have my problems and my issues and a condition even. But I’m not here for free therapy so I won’t go into more. But I do feel like I am happier than most.

    I have this thing about saying someone is good and all. I think that we all have our breaking points and the jury is still out on all of us. I guess I do have an image of what good is and certainly do like to think of myself as good.

    I don’t like to open myself up to people who are very black and white and are always talking about people in terms of good and bad. I figure they might judge me if they knew my imperfect side. People think I am such a goody goody. I had a cousin who said she wanted to be a nun growing up because that was the closest she could get to being like me or something like that. Well, those who lived in my own walls know I’m not perfect. Although there was a period when I was about 19 to 23 when I was able to be very good even in my own home and tried to be the example all of the time. Now with my condition, I have my moments. But enough of that.

    I probably won’t comment again but will probably drop by to read from time to time.

    1. Here’s the strange thing, and the point I never quite made in my essay: I really don’t care about being good; it’s not one of my goals. And yet, by just about anyone’s standards, I am a good person. I’m skeptical of people who want and try so very much to be good.

  5. I do care about trying to be good. With your ethical behavior at work and how you care about those you have relationships with in life, you seem to internalized good behavior that is important for society. I would be afraid of a person who really wanted to be evil and had evil actions. If their evil heart did not bear evil fruit, then it wouldn’t bother me. I guess I take comfort in people wanting to do good even if they fall short.

    I don’t have a degree in psychology so I will be speaking in lay man’s terms. There are some who may try very hard to define themselves as good because they are trying to prove to themselves that they are not like the abusive person in their life. They can be preachy at times. Yet, they are really trying to overcome a lot. There are others who may or may not have had an abusive background who seek to seem very good in public while they are cruel to those people who live in the walls of their own homes. Or they may do works that they try to keep secret that are bad.

    I didn’t mention that between about 23 1/2 and nearly 25 that I was away from home but was considered to be very sweet among those that I lived with. I was so forgiving if they did wrong and did not judge people I lived with or those I encountered in a mean way. I tried to give people the benefit of the doubt and believed that they could change if they had problems. I saw so much good in people. While I still tried to be good when I returned, I developed problems that effect my relationships. I have gained insights but still have times when I feel out of control in situations. Yet, there are ways that even when I am out of control that I can minimize the damage. I guess that I should not be so vague as that will not help you know the situation. I have ocd.

  6. I think is was Socrates who said “all men desire the apparent good.” Meaning as a principle, each person sees good in the environments / contexts / pursuits of importance to them. Very few actually desire bad or wicked things, at least deliberately. Our perceptions of each other as human beings, however, can vary greatly, reflecting the breadth of fragmentation in human culture. Two people can see themselves as both pursuing and fighting for “the good” yet each may perceive the other as essentially a moral opposite.

  7. I don’t try to be ‘good’, I try to be honest, generous and caring. Because ‘good’ is too often subjective. I suspect you think so too. Why else put ‘good’ in quotes in the title of this article?

    Attempting to be truthful all the time (I’m far from perfect) has been a freeing experience. I don’t have to evaluate each sticky situation, and decide anew what to do. I find money at the mall, get too much change, am asked to lie for a friend, asked my opinion… I go for the honest action in a CARING way, no matter the consequences. You might suspect that this makes me feel superior to those who are aren’t so militant about the truth. It doesn’t. Doing this has made me acutely aware of how dishonest I really am.

    Why do this? The back story is somewhat long, but the reason is surprisingly simple. Bear with me. Like many dysfunctional organizations, my family of origin looked great from the outside. That fantasy took a huge effort on the part of every family member and was as much for ourselves as for others. I was aware enough that I ‘escaped’ my family home when I graduated HS. But I kept closer ties than was smart or healthy. After about 25 years the disconnect between my view of myself, the world, my childhood family and its members was so large that it threatened the elaborate facade of family greatness. I wasn’t actively tearing away at their fantasy. Just being me was enough. The ‘normal’ attitudes and behaviors of me (and my husband and kids) highlighted the bizarre, twisted dynamics of my childhood family and its members. So I was rejected. I became the black sheep, the scape goat for all the family’s ills. And though I had known for most of my life that my family of origin was dysfunctional, I had never admitted to myself how bad it really was. All my remaining denial, sugar coating, rationalizations and fantasies of being cared about, being a worthy human being were blasted to bits. The only way I have made sense of the soul murdering actions of my closest family is to follow the truth.

    I no longer care how painful or awful the truth is. Lies are worse. I can mourn and deal with the truth because it’s real. Lies and fantasies are smoke and mirrors. With them there is nothing real to mourn, nothing real to work through or learn from. The only thing real about lies is their pain, their never ending pain that can morph and grow and leak out in unexpected ways.

    From your last paragraph, your understanding of Christianity is based on the Christians you know and the media. It’s like deciding you don’t like Mozart based on a novice’s first practice of a piece. If you are interested in what Christianity is meant to be, I suggest reading ‘Mere Christianity’ by CS Lewis. I guarantee it’s not what you expect.

    1. One of my favorite theorists says that truth is like food for the mind — we need it to function in a healthy way. I understand what you’re saying about being honest — I do the same thing with change, finding money, etc. It just seems “right” to me, although in my case, it has no reference to a religion.

  8. Joseph, this paragraph resonates with me:

    “There’s a difference between people who simply are, by nature, extremely “good” in any sense of the word — I’m sure you’ve known some — and those who long to be good (and to appear that way to others). In my view, the first group are men and women who genuinely like themselves (i.e., have authentic self-esteem) and can feel deeply for other people. The latter group has something to hide.”

    IMO the key words there are “genuinely like themselves”.

    Maybe it is the distinction between “nice” and “good” . Thinking of Iris Murdoch’s approach in her novel “The Nice and the Good”.

    Going back to Joseph’s article, I also think I am a “good”person by most people’s standards (not always an entirely patient person, mind you! L).
    I am also agnostic, but I hope I am ethical and spiritual. I was brought up Catholic (Irish) , went to a convent boarding school, and as a result understandably do not have a lot of time for organised religion.
    Religion was studied in-depth, grass roots, full-on, what seemed like all the time.

    As Diane says about faking liking everyone, I could not do that either. Then again religion is strong on saying the great merit lies in doing something good for those we do not even like.


  9. May I suggest a further resource to learn more about empathy and compassion.
    The Center for Building a Culture of Empathy
    The Culture of Empathy website is the largest internet portal for resources and information about the values of empathy and compassion. It contains articles, conferences, definitions, experts, history, interviews,  videos, science and much more about empathy and compassion.

    I posted a link to your article in our
    Empathy and Compassion Magazine
    The latest news about empathy and compassion from around the world

  10. I found your site very interesting. I have a question about sympathy: how comes i can be super sympathetic and empathetic with certain people, but lets say i just CANT be like that with my mother or people who have attitudes as sufferers etc?


    1. I’m not sure what you mean by “attitudes as sufferers.” If you mean they play the victim, then it’s no surprise you don’t empathize because they’re probably quite hostile underneath.

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