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Does it make sense to always want to be a good person?

Author: Tatjana Schnell

Does a falling tree in the forest make a sound if no one is there to hear it?

Is it reprehensible to watch the World Cup in Qatar – if I don’t tell anyone about it?

Am I a good person if my goodness is not seen, liked and respected?

Questions like these represent the public side of our moral identity. For many, what matters most is to be seen as a good person by others (Ariely et al., 2009). However, being in the public eye does not necessarily make us better people, as recent studies show. Wanting to be a good person in the eyes of others does not motivate us to do good things (Boegershausen et al., 2015) – but rather to avoid doing things that could be seen as bad.

Besides this public side of moral identity, there is an internalised one that comes with doing good. If I have identified something as good, then I assume that it is better to do that good than not to do it. Simply because it is good, regardless of whether anyone hears about it. Doing good is thus a matter between me and myself, a matter of being coherent and self-respecting. Can I trust myself? Would I trust myself if I were a friend? If I cannot answer these questions positively, I have a problem with myself.

But what does “good” mean anyway? Our understanding thereof is not primarily a matter of reason. When it comes to issues that raise questions of right or wrong, quick, intuitive, “hot” processes come into play first. These are spontaneous reactions – but they are not the same for everyone. For example, studies have shown that politically liberal people tend to pay more attention to whether things are fair and whether harm is avoided when making moral judgements. Conservatives, on the other hand, are more oriented towards loyalty, obedience and purity. This orientation, in turn, might be attributed to the fact that conservative attitudes are associated with authoritarianism to a greater degree – which suggests a higher likelihood of following conventional values and being hostile to those who deviate from these values (Kugler et al., 2014).

So much for the first, immediate reactions. They are strong and impressive, but we do not have to act on them. Whether liberal or conservative, we all have the opportunity to question our initial intuitions and act with consideration, through slower and “cooler” cognitive processes (Patterson et al., 2012).

Is this how we become good people? Are we then developing differentiated moral standards according to which we act? Not yet. Because moral action requires more than moral judgement. And there is a whole series of psychological processes that support us in decoupling our actions from our own moral standards – while keeping us from being bothered!  

Psychologist Albert Bandura has identified eight such mechanisms of “moral disengagement” (Bandura, 2017). One is moral justification. An analysis of police misconduct, for example, found that police officers faced with the choice of either testifying against a colleague or committing perjury usually choose the latter. Perjury is morally justified on the grounds of being loyal (Kappeler et al., 1998). Euphemistic labeling is a kind of verbal manipulation, through using terms that disguise the severity of an action: there is no war of aggression, but a “special operation for the purpose of cleansing”. Advantageous comparisons suggest that one’s own actions are significantly less bad than those of others: “Our CO₂ emissions are almost nothing compared to China’s.” Responsibility is either displaced (“orders from above”) or diffused (“The others aren’t doing anything either!”). I can distort the consequences of my actions: “In the end, it doesn’t matter how often I personally eat meat.” I blame victims for my actions (“Why did she dress so provocatively?”) or dehumanize them.

These processes can explain why people who want to be good, who may be otherwise correct, caring and compassionate, act immorally.

But who decides what is moral? Why should honesty be more moral than loyalty? What is the argument against obedience? Empirical studies show that our “goodness” can be corrupted by these very values. People who are oriented towards loyalty and obedience are therefore more likely to be racist, sexist, xenophobic or homophobic. On the other hand, those who are oriented towards fairness and avoiding harm are less likely to behave in a hostile and discriminatory manner (Kugler et al., 2014). Instead, they themselves repeatedly experience hostility, and are devalued and ridiculed as “do-gooders” (Minson & Monin, 2012). Those who uphold rights for everyone and seek to avoid harm – whether to animals or humans, in speech or deed – annoy others, disturb, exaggerate, and are naïve or too idealistic in the eyes of those who see themselves as pragmatists.

Yet today we need both: a realistic view of the world and the ability to think of a better world. Our ability to formulate utopias and stretch towards the “not-yet-there” is a human quality. As is the fact that we can transcend ourselves and take responsibility for something that is bigger than us.

This even makes sense, or meaning – in the literal sense of the word: findings from a German representative sample study show that people experience their lives as meaningful when they orient themselves towards multiple, diverse sources of meaning and, above all, sources that transcend the self (Schnell, 2011).

So wanting to be a good person seems to be meaningful. But does it make sense to always want to be a good person?

What would be the alternative? Wanting to be good once in a while? Sounds less stressful, but it views our actions as separate from our being. Do we want to sometimes be loving to our partner? Be respectful and kind to employees every now and then? Or do we want to be a loving partner and a respectful boss? For coherent action, these values need to be part of our identity (Hertz & Krettenauer, 2016). We all know from experience that taking action is not an automatic process. It needs practice, as Aristotle already emphasised when referring to virtues: We gain inner qualities only by practising them. Thus one becomes “just by acting justly, prudent by acting prudently, and brave by behaving bravely”.

But here, again, the question arises: what is just, what is appropriate prudence and bravery? In the realm of the good, there is little unambiguity. Wherever it does seem to prevail and demand obedience, special attention is called for. If “the good” is critically questioned and tested, then the unambiguous becomes ambiguous. Then it is also a matter of feasibility, appropriateness and weighing. In this way, moral identity – our self-image of wanting to be a good person – may be called into question, but not necessarily refuted, when I secretly watch a television broadcast of men running after balls in Qatar.

This text appeared on 13 December 2022, as part of the DIE ZEIT series “Better Living”. Every fortnight, meaning researcher Tatjana Schnell responded to a question the answer to which could change life for the better.


Ariely, D., Bracha, A., & Meier, S. (2009). Doing good or doing well? Image motivation and monetary incentives in behaving prosocially. American Economic Review, 99(1), 544-555.

Bandura, A., (2017).

Boegershausen, J., Aquino, K., & Reed II, A. (2015). Moral identity. Current Opinion in Psychology, 6, 162-166.

Hertz, S. G., & Krettenauer, T. (2016). Does moral identity effectively predict moral behavior?: A meta-analysis. Review of General Psychology, 20(2), 129-140.

Kappeler, V. E., Sluder, R. D., & Alpert, G. P. (1998). Forces of deviance: Understanding the dark side of policing. Waveland Press.

Kugler, M., Jost, J. T., & Noorbaloochi, S. (2014). Another look at moral foundations theory: Do authoritarianism and social dominance orientation explain liberal-conservative differences in “moral” intuitions?. Social Justice Research, 27, 413-431.

Minson, J. A., & Monin, B. (2012). Do-gooder derogation: Disparaging morally motivated minorities to defuse anticipated reproach. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 3(2), 200-207.

Patterson, R., Rothstein, J., & Barbey, A. K. (2012). Reasoning, cognitive control, and moral intuition. Frontiers in Integrative Neuroscience, 6, 114.

Schnell, T. (2011). Individual differences in meaning-making: Considering the variety of sources of meaning, their density and diversity. Personality and Individual Differences, 51(5), 667-673.

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