Ethics tells us to do good things and to avoid doing bad things. I don’t mean to challenge this conception of ethics, but I think that when we call someone a good person we mean something more than this. To describe someone as a good person is to say something more about them than just how they act; we mean to say something about who they are. We mean to say that they do not act from selfish reasons, or, in positive terms, that they do good things because they are ethical, and not because they serve their own interests.
The reason that being ethical and being a good person aren’t one and the same thing is because ethics is normative. Which means that we have reasons to act ethically, for example because to act ethically is to benefit society, and we want to live in a society where people act ethically. Or because society tends to reward ethical behavior and punish unethical behavior. Or because people treat ethical people better than unethical people. These are reasons to act ethically, but to act ethically because of these reasons is to act selfishly, to act ethically only because it gets you something in return.
But we can only tell who is and isn’t a good person by their actions; we have no way of telling who is and who isn’t a good person directly (until they invent a way to read minds at least). However, it is reasonable to suppose that those who act ethically because they want to be rewarded for acting ethically are those who will make sure that their ethical actions are known. And thus it seems likely that the people who we think of as good people really aren’t, that they do good things only to be known as a person who does good things.* Of course it isn’t impossible for such people to be genuinely good, perhaps they are known as good only accidentally. But, all things being equal, it is likely that the truly good people are those who are never known for doing good things.
Knowing this we might be moved to try to correct who we call a good person, by calling good only those people who do good in secret, who never make a show of doing good. Let’s just assume it is possible to accurately identify those people. But, even if it were, we wouldn’t want to start calling only them good. I suspect that there are many people who act ethically only because they wish to be known as good. If we took that reward away from them they would stop acting good. And of course the truly good people won’t act any better just because they are recognized as such. Thus we would have eliminated a small injustice (calling good those who aren’t) at the cost of a decrease in overall ethical behavior. And that is not a price worth paying.
So what then is the lesson to take away here, if not to change who we call good? I think it is simply to place less significance on who is picked out as good. Although we can’t change who we call good we can stop caring about it. Nothing stops us from recognizing that whether someone is called good, or stand out as good, tells us nothing about who they really are, only about how they are trying to be perceived by us.
* Identifying such people can actually be relatively easy, and amusing. Simply do something good, but not excessively so, and see who tries to match or outdo your public act of goodness. Of course it is possible you have just inspired a truly good person, but if you notice a habit of reacting in this way then it is a good bet that they just don’t want to look bad in comparison. Once you have identified who these people are it is possible to have some fun with them. For example by doing something conspicuously good that they can’t easily match, for example by tipping generously or unexpectedly after they have already paid. This can prompt silly displays of goodness, or pronouncements of the good things they have done in an attempt not to be outdone, since there is no simple way they can match your behavior.