Saturday, May 10, 2014

Are you a good person or not?

In 1991, James Patterson and Peter Kim published "The Day America Told the Truth."  They interviewed 600,000 Americans on a wide range of topics:  Personal morality, sex, political views, racial views, gender views.  According to Patterson and Kim, their comprehensive surveys were designed in such a way as to elicit what the surveyees really believe rather than the politically correct answer; it may be assumed that someone who thinks that child rape is OK isn't going to say so, even anonymously to a stranger taking a survey.  Since statistics is not my area of expertise, I am going to assume that they got it right and that their findings really are a true measure of what most Americans think -- or at least what they thought in 1991.

I read the book when it first came out in 1991.  I found it the other day while cleaning out a closet, and re-read it.

The first thing that struck me is what a complete and total period piece it is.  Let's just say that there has apparently been a huge shift in public opinion on a wide range of topics in the past 23 years.  I seriously doubt that they would get the same responses to many of their questions today.

One of the sections I found most intriguing was the section on personal morality -- are you a good person.  The first, obvious order of business in taking such a survey is to first define what it means to be a good person.  The Taliban thinks that good people suicide-bomb crowded marketplaces; unless there is some fundamental basis for telling them that they're wrong, who is or is not a "good person" becomes a meaningless matter of subjectivity.

So, who do the authors consider to be good people?  Some of the survey questions follow:

Would you take on full responsibility for the care of your aging parents?
Would you jump in front of a moving car to save the life of a child you don't know?
Would you object to a homeless shelter being located in your neighborhood?
If your best friend lost his or her job and home, would you take him or her in?
(My favorite) If you won $20 million in a lottery, would you give half of it to charity?
Would you take a 10% pay cut to save the jobs of your co-workers?
If you found a large sum of money and knew who it belonged to, would you keep it?
Would you physically intervene to stop a stranger being attacked in the street?

The thing I find most striking about these questions is that an awful lot of them deal with extreme circumstances that most of us will never find ourselves in, and that we really don't know how we would react if we did.  I don't know if I would intervene to stop a stranger from being attacked; I'd like to think I'd be a hero and do the right thing, but maybe I'm just not that brave and so maybe I wouldn't.  It's easy, as I sit here safe and comfortably in front of my keyboard, to say that I would do this or that, but the only way to find out is to actually confront the situation.

Likewise, if $20 million dropped into my lap, I'd like to think I'd be generous, both to family and to charity.  But maybe I wouldn't; money has been known to change people, and not always for the better.  That, too, is something that could only be determined if it actually happened.

So let me suggest that rather than judge people based on the single most unusual event that ever happened to them, maybe morality instead consists of going to work every day, paying one's bills, donating to charity, not running away from one's obligations no matter how tempting, reducing the amount of pain in the world when opportunities present themselves, setting a good example, cleaning up one's mistakes, making it right to people that one has injured -- in short, morality isn't about the things that get someone a Purple Heart.  Rather, it is about doing the right thing in a hundred small ways day after day after day.

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