“Every art and every inquiry and similarly every action and pursuit is thought to aim at some good, and for this reason the good has been declared to be that at which all things aim. If there is some end in the things we do, which we desire for its own sake, clearly this must be the chief good.” – Aristotle.
Since the dawn of civilisation, humanity has been obsessed with the question of what it is to be good. We devote our lives to goodness. We evaluate the goodness of others and define them by our conclusion. We ruthlessly defend ourselves if someone dares argue the goodness of our actions or intentions.
But what does it mean to be good? Is it donating to charity? Posting on Twitter about global injustices? Is goodness defined by intent, or action? Should there be objective criteria that underpins goodness, or is it better left to be subjective?
And does it even really matter?
Social scientist Dolly Chugh thinks the answer is no. She believes people are so fixated on being perceived as good that we forget that what’s really important is to be better.
At her TED@BCG Toronto talk in 2018, Chugh described the work she and her collaborators, Max Bazerman and Mahzarin Banaji, are undertaking in order to understand a phenomena they call “bounded ethicality”.
Like bounded rationality – the idea that the human mind has limited processing power and thus must make shortcuts to prioritise the deluge of information it is receiving at any one moment – bounded ethicality defines the shortcuts the human brain makes in order to make ethical judgements.
An individual arrives at this judgement subconsciously. For instance, you might find it harder to associate men with nursing than women, or women with the sciences than men. It’s not that you consciously believe that all the men in a hospital should be doctors and all the women nurses; it’s just a result of the shortcut your brain has established.
Rare is the case where we acknowledge such bias of our own accord. When being good matters above all else, why would we question our goodness without cause?
But there is a cause, says Chugh, and that cause is betterment. The modern zeitgeist is one of extremism, of absolutes, despite the reality being that nothing is ever that simple.
So what is Chugh’s solution? “…just let it go, and instead, set a higher standard, a higher standard of being a good-ish person.”
A good-ish person is one who acknowledges their faults and biases. One who doesn’t leap straight into defensive mode when someone calls them out for a mistake, because they recognise that the ethical shortcuts their brains have made are not what defines them as good or bad – so long as they work to remedy them.
Are you ready to be better?