1. Interpretation: The literal meaning of the saying is that all people are ethically good. Of course no one can deny that people do bad things, but perhaps the good they do outweighs the bad. Some have described evil as a kind of nothingness, and if that were true any amount of good, which is something, would outweigh any amount of nothing. Or perhaps this saying should be taken as part of an ethical approach that describes something unorthodox, such as selfishness, to be a virtue. It is possible that all people are selfish to some degree. Finally, all people might be ethically good in the sense that they are inclined or predisposed to be good. In other words, human beings are naturally good.
Evaluation: No matter how this interpretation is construed it seems implausible. However, without some standard for what a person ethically good, which is a matter of dispute, it is hard to refute. But suppose that this interpretation was true. Wouldn’t it undermine the force of ethics? If everyone is good what is the point of avoiding doing bad things in favor of good things? According to the saying we would still be good people, and thus to be approved of ethically in spite of our bad actions. Thus we may retreat to interpreting the saying as asserting that we are all inclined to be good. This seems more plausible, but it is also much harder to evaluate. What predisposes a person to be good or evil? It is certainly not impossible for people to born with a predisposition towards good behavior. For example, if you believed that homosexuality was a virtue then it is the case that some people are born with a predisposition to be good, at least under that definition of virtue. However, the environment that someone grows up in seems to be a much more powerful force for predisposing them towards good or evil – people tend to adopt as their own morality that of their culture. Thus whether people are inclined to good or evil by birth seems almost a moot point, given that where they grow up has larger effect. And it also makes determining whether people are inclined to be good or evil at birth nearly impossible, since any such inclination is overshadowed by other influences.
2. Interpretation: Often when the word good is used we are inclined to understand it in the ethical sense. However, good can also mean something that is valued, and so the saying could be understood as asserting that all people are valuable. In a practical sense this means that the life of every person is worth preserving, and that every person is worth investing some time and energy in. Such a perspective coheres well with ethical perspectives that place a high value on life in general.
Evaluation: As with interpretation 1 there is no way to refute such an assertion without appeal to a specific ethical perspective. However, we can point out that a number of possible unappealing consequences of such a view. Consider the worst person in all of history (probably Hitler or Stalin). Now suppose that they had lost all power and had no hope of getting it back. And suppose that it was your job to catch them and put them in prison. Now you find yourself in a situation where this person is about to elude your grasp and escape, and you know also that if they escape now they will remain free and have a happy life. And the only way to prevent them from escaping is by killing them. Should you kill them or should you let them go free and be happy? If we place a high value on life then we would be forced to conclude that letting them live is more important than punishment. Certainly that will strike some of you as the wrong choice. If it does that means that you are not inclined to place so high a value on life that all lives, no matter what the situation is, are considered to be good.
3. Interpretation: The saying does not indicate which perspective everyone is judged to be good from, which has made evaluating the previous interpretations difficult. And so we could take the saying as asserting that everyone judges themselves to be good (i.e. by their own standards). One reason this might be the case is if the standards that people use to determine whether someone is good vary so much that people we would judge to be evil are simply living by radically different standards. Alternately, it could also be that most people share similar standards but unconsciously overlook their own failings or are more likely to excuse them as justified than they are to excuse the failings of other people.
Evaluation: This interpretation does seem to be true for most people. No matter what they are doing most people believe that their actions are justified, or at least aren’t clearly wrong. For example, those who perpetrate genocide often believe that the people they are killing deserve to be killed, and thus that they are doing the right thing. And if someone can justify genocide to themselves then they can probably justify anything. However, I’m not sure that everyone does consider themselves to be a good person. Some people are plagued by guilt, which in some cases is justified and in others is cased by holding themselves to an unreasonably high standard. These people don’t think that they are good people. Even so it is wise to keep this interpretation in mind. Just because someone professes to be good doesn’t mean that they are, even if they sincerely believe themselves to be good. And just because we believe ourselves to be good doesn’t necessarily mean that we are either (although it is equally a mistake to believe yourself to be evil without evidence; I suggest withholding your judgment).
4. Interpretation: To say that all people are good could be construed as asserting that all people had or have the potential to be good (not to be confused with the inclination to be good, discussed as part of interpretation 1). Thus this interpretation serves as a caution against judging people too harshly on the basis of the person that they currently are. Yes, the person they currently are may be bad, but it is just as important to steer them towards changing into a good person as it is to punish them for being a bad person.
Evaluation: This interpretation does appear to be true; people are malleable enough that almost everyone can change. However, there are dangers to taking it too seriously. First of all that someone might change into a better person doesn’t mean that they will change into a better person. Nor is it obvious what influences would lead them to become a better person. Thus knowing that a person could improve isn’t necessarily useful unless we also know how to lead them to fulfill that potential. Secondly, taking this saying seriously could lead you to be deceived by someone who is pretending to have become a good person; the repentant and the unrepentant alike profess that they have changed. Thus this is an interpretation that is worth keeping in mind when thinking about human nature, but something that it is probably best to ignore, for the most part, when actually dealing with people.
5. Interpretation: All people are good, not all the time, but sometimes. And so it is possible to encounter an evil person in their rare moments of goodness and mistakenly judge them to be a good person. Thus we should try to judge the whole person, not one or two conspicuous acts. And of course the opposite is true too. We shouldn’t condemn a person as evil because of one or two conspicuous mistakes either (although punishment may still be warranted).
Evaluation: This interpretation appears to be a good one, and can be legitimately extended beyond ethics. For example, you shouldn’t conclude that someone is easily angered just because you see them fly off the handle once; maybe they were having an unusually bad day. It is easy to generalize from memorable incidents to conclusions about who a person is, but that habit is often misleading, since in many cases memorable incidents are out of character for a person. Additionally, devious people often exploit that tendency, and do good things conspicuously to distort our perception of them. Which can make distinguishing a truly good person from someone who merely wants to appear good difficult. One strategy I use is to do something conspicuously virtuous, such as tipping where it isn’t expected, and see whether that person does the same thing. If they follow suit then it is likely that they are worried about being seen as good, and hence are copying you because they don’t want to appear bad in comparison. A truly good person has no reason to copy you, and if they don’t normally tip in those situations they won’t start just because you did.
6. Interpretation: Claiming that everyone is good could be part of a perspective in which everything is taken to be good the way it is. Such a perspective would be a kind of stoicism, which emphasizes accepting the world as it is rather than passing judgment on it. Instead of getting upset over the fact that someone is evil we should simply accept that the person is an evil person, and accept that things are fine the way they are. By embracing such an attitude we thus shield ourselves from unhappiness and frustration, because those emotions are a result of wanting the world to be other than it is.
Evaluation: The problem with this kind of stoicism is that it promotes inaction. If you are fine with the world the way it is what reason is there to try and change anything? Now inaction is not necessarily bad. Stoicism promises happiness, and maybe inaction is a fair price to pay. Ultimately whether stoicism is agreeable depends on what your values are. If you just want to be happy then perhaps stoicism is the perfect fit, since it promises happiness without actually having to do anything. On the other hand, if you value anything outside yourself, such as justice, the happiness of other people, preserving the rainforest, etc, then a stoic attitude can be counterproductive. Being frustrated or unhappy motivates actions to change the way things are. If the thought of the rainforest being destroyed makes you unhappy then you will be motivated to try to do something about that. Inasmuch as stoicism promotes inaction it can create situations where a person is led to ignore the things they value because they are busy trying to accept destruction of those things instead of attempting to do something about it. Of course this doesn’t shed any light on whether a stoic perspective is a good one. To determine that we would have to know whether valuing things outside yourself is good or bad.
7. Interpretation: When we say that something is good we may mean that it is performing its function properly. For example, a good hammer is one that drives down nails, and a good thief is one that doesn’t get caught. In that sense if someone was a good person it would mean that they were performing their function or purpose as a person well. But what the function or purpose of a human life is, or if it even has one, isn’t clear. In a roundabout fashion this saying could be providing an answer to that question. Read in this light the saying claims that each and every person is fulfilling his or her purpose. And if everyone really is fulfilling his or her purpose then that purpose must be something that is shared universally, such as life itself. And so the function or purpose of a human life would be to live that life.
Evaluation: Of course it is not entirely clear whether talking about a human life having a function or purpose even makes sense. Most things in the universe don’t have a purpose but simply are. A rock, for example, does not inherently have any purpose. Of course we can put a rock to some use, and thus give it a purpose, but what is there to put human lives to use and give them a purpose? (And is it ethical to use a human life as a means to some end?) But let’s suppose that human lives do have some inherent purpose. Now to call a life good in this sense is to say that it is fulfilling its purpose well, which in turn implies that a life can fulfill its purpose to a better or worse degree. But if that is the case why say that every life is good? Why not draw the line for what counts as a good life somewhere in the middle, so that some lives are good and some are bad? Granted, there are no principles that say the line must be drawn in the middle, and so we could classify all lives as good without making some logical error. However, it seems to me that if we are willing to call all lives good then calling a life good loses its meaning. The life would have been good no matter how they lived it, and so under such a definition a good human life means nothing more than a human life. And thus the distinction between good and bad lives becomes useless.
8. Interpretation: So far these interpretations have taken the saying as making an assertion, as claiming that in some sense people are good. However, it could instead be taken as a definition for personhood in terms of good human beings. The notion of personhood has a special role to play in a number of contexts. For example, people are often given rights and privileges that are not extended to animals and plants. Being a person gives you special status, both ethically and legally. Usually it is assumed that all adult human beings are people and any debate surrounding the issue revolves around how far personhood should be extended. This definition, however, would narrow personhood to only those human beings who were ethically good. This might seem absurd, but when you think about it the legal system already reflects this idea to an extent. Criminals, who are supposed to be bad people, are not given all the rights (such as freedom) we assume people to have. Restricting personhood to good human beings would be one way to justify that practice.
Evaluation: This sounds reasonable in principle. Adopting such a perspective provides additional reasons to conform to ethical standards (in order to merit the full benefits of personhood) and provides an easy way to justify punishment, which can often be a tricky issue. However, no matter how good this sounds in principle, even if it can be demonstrated to be true beyond all reasonable doubt, it should never be incorporated into public policy. Doing so would give governments a backdoor for all sorts of abuses, so long as they could paint their victims as evil. Secondly, even the best intentioned government will probably be at least somewhat confused as to what the correct ethical standards are. For example, is abortion ethical or unethical? The US government can’t seem to make up its mind, nor does every other government take the same position. And so, because of its inability to get the ethical standards right, inevitably some human beings would legally be deprived of their personhood that didn’t deserve it. Thus it is better to form public policy under the assumption that every adult human being is a person, for safety’s sake.