The Invisibility of Goodness

Tuesday July 7, 2009

Tyne Bridge

Several years ago, I went to visit a friend of mine who lived in a flat overlooking the Tyne river in Newcastle. As the seagulls squabbled outside, we drank tea, and my friend told me about a falling-out that he had had with a mutual acquaintance. “Oh, Will,” my friend muttered as he sipped his tea, “I’m such a terrible person.”

I had to admit that he had a point. Of all of the people I knew and counted amongst my friends, of all the people I had ever met, this particular friend seemed to have the most impressive knack of causing trouble. And yet, of all the people I knew, he was also one of the kindest and the most generous, one of the people whose company I enjoyed the most, and one of the people who cared most passionately about others and about the world.

When it comes to our virtues and our shortcomings, it does not seem to me as if we are dealing with the kinds of things that can be counted up, so that we can be given a final mark on how we we are doing in our lives. There are two reasons for this, I think. Firstly, it is because our acts of thoughtlessness do not cancel out our acts of kindness, nor do our acts of kindness cancel out our acts of thoughtlessness. It was true that this particular friend was trouble, but it was also true that he was immensely kind and generous. Neither of these facts excluded the other. But there is another reason as well, and that is that those things that we notice most of all are frequently all those things that go wrong: the words that we speak out of turn, the unkind thoughts, the clumsy acts that we later regret. What we don’t notice are the everyday kindnesses, the moments of ease, the small acts of generosity. These things are not invisible to us because we are gloomy or ungrateful, but because they have kind of natural ease to them. What we notice are the bumps and the ruts and the knocks, the things that break with the flow of our lives. We don’t notice when people manage to get by with each other in a crowded street, stepping out of each other’s way, or letting each other be; we notice the rare times when people snarl or snap or come into conflict with each other. The virtues, that is to say, appear quietly, and without fanfare – so quietly, in fact, that it takes a degree of attention to notice them at all.

No doubt it can be useful to notice the things that go wrong, the acts of clumsiness, the words we should really not have said. But at the same time, it can also be useful to notice that this is not the whole story, to recognise that our life is not an examination, that we are not going to be given a final mark, and that even if it were, we might already be doing rather better than we realise.

Photo: Stock Exchange  

# · Clarke Scott (Loden Jinpa)

Dear Will,

I believe when we are making distinctions of moral acts, we need to take into consideration underlining motivation. Motivation or intention plays a large role in determining whether the action is a moral act. If your friend is good enough at pretending (I think that most people who have these traits don’t even realize they do. Moreover most people do not fully understand their own intentions most of the time), he could in fact be selfishly appearing to be kind and generous but, in fact, it is nothing more than a subtle egocentric happiness seeking activity. Then when something goes wrong he gets upset and lashes out? Just a thought not a judgment.

I believe people who are truly kind and generous rarely upset others, as their instinctual thought patterns and habits naturally prevent this from happening. This is true because they naturally think of others before themselves. They naturally and instinctively take in to account the effects their actions will have on others.

I would also claim that your theory of not noticing the acts of goodness, is you imputing your instinctual habits onto this situation. However, I think this also shows us you are in fact a genuinely good person. Here is why I say this.

People who naturally think of others first, or at least they do this most of the time, for them, it is unusual to act badly towards others, therefore, when they do it is very clear to them they have done so. The clarity of this action and its effects is clear in their mind. This happens as they see egocentric or selfish actions as inherently unattractive. They thereby scold themselves for acting in such a way, and this to my mind, as long as it does not lend to feelings of prolonged guilt, is a good thing, as it reinforces the motivation to act for the benefit of others. And acting to benefits others will benefit oneself in an immediate way. This is a good thing, right?

By contract the person who is not so motivated will more often than not, see all the good things they do very clearly, patting themselves on the back and will be keen to point out all their wonderful endeavors to do good. Their motivation to act for the good of others is not for the good of others but, for their own benefit. For them, when they act badly they feel justified in doing so, and they are often but not always trouble makers, for this very reason.

# · Will

Hello, Loden. Thanks for the long and thoughtful comment. I think that what I’m attempting to pick away at is the idea that it might be helpful to call a particular person “truly good” or “truly bad” in the first place. To claim that someone is “good” or “bad” is, when it comes down to it, rather a blunt instrument when it comes to really looking at ethics. In terms of ethical practice (and here I’m thinking of my own practice), asking whether “I” am good or bad doesn’t really get me anywhere; but asking whether this or that particular action is skilful or unskilful, asking whether, in those particular circumstances, I acted as well as I might have done, is more helpful. And so it is perfectly possible that I may act skilfully in situation A, and not in situation B. Most of us, that is to say, are a bit of a mixed bag when it comes to our ethical practice; and that is why ethics is something to be practiced at all.

I think you are right about the positive value of remorse – one of those few states of mind that seem to be both painful and at the same time skilful (as long as, as you say, it does not tip over into guilt). And one thing that always struck me about this particular friend of mine is that he had a very strong sense of remorse. Remorse may indeed increase the motivation for acting well in the future; but at the same time, our lives are big, unwieldy things, and turning them around may take a considerable amount of time, however remorseful (or resourceful!) we may be.

All the best,


# · Peter Clothier

Your post is a useful and important reminder for me to be more mindful of those skillful gestures of kindness and compassion; and to practice them more often myself. Thank you! (And by the way, Newcastle is my birthplace. I’m inordinately proud of being a Geordie, even though I spent only a year and a half of my life there…)

# · Juliette

Recently I was hurt by somebody who I always considered to be a good person (and also my closest friend). On this particular occasion the person in question has shown no remorse or care for my feelings. I am not sure if I am at fault for not realising this person was capable of cruelty to me. The frase that comes to mind also is “With friends like this who needs enemies.”
I think I must be doing something wrong to find myself in a situation like this, but I am not sure what. Wish one could take some paracetamol for emotional pain

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