The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

What Makes a Good Person?

I was reminiscing today about the few actually good people I’ve known.

Two stand out, my friend Peter, who fought for Hitler; and my old teacher and coach Craig Newell.

I had a bad childhood. My parents were alcoholics, and my father was an angry drunk. Then I went to boarding school, and I was not the sort of kid who did well at boarding school, though the one I went to was well-run and preferable to being at home.

I did not come out of this believing in the goodness of humanity or that authority figures could be trusted. It’s one of the reasons I’m a good analyst in our current situation: I assume people with power are basically scum, and that when they aren’t they do the minimum and do it badly, and I’ve usually been right.

(I can also tell who the few good people are, which is why I supported Corbyn and have no time for the people who lied and smeared him.)

The only person in my life who ever proved completely worthy of trust was Craig Newell. The reason is simple: Mr. Newell (as I called him) had a code, and I NEVER saw him break it. Not ever. He never talked about his code, mind you, but I could tell he had one. He didn’t judge hardly at all, and he was never cruel. I literally never saw him be cruel even once. I never even heard of him being cruel and I did hear of his rectitude (in the best sense).

This isn’t something you can conceal in a place like a boarding school. It is not possible.

He didn’t go out of his way to be kind or good or anything, but he didn’t step away from it when the need was obvious. (As he didn’t with me, if that isn’t clear. And I was not a pleasant teenager.)

What I learned as a child is that most people don’t even meet the responsibilities of their positions (husband, wife, teacher, boss, politicians, whatever). A few do their duty, and I honor them for it, because it is rare. But to go beyond that and actually be a man of honor is unbelievably rare.

Still, Mr. Newell wasn’t as good a man as Peter, though he was more trustworthy. Peter went out of his way to be kind. Mr. Newell wasn’t cruel, and didn’t step away from need, but Peter stepped into need and helped.

Those people who see need and help, even if it is only a little, are, again, incredibly rare.

I tend to like people, and dislike humanity. But I don’t trust either.

Still, good people exist, as do honorable ones.

There is a Jewish myth:

Lamedvavnik (Yiddish: לאַמעדוואָווניק‎), is the Yiddish term for one of the 36 humble righteous ones or Tzadikim mentioned in the kabbalah or Jewish mysticism. According to this teaching, at any given time there are at least 36 holy persons in the world who are Tzadikim. These holy people are hidden; i.e., nobody knows who they are. According to some versions of the story, they themselves may not know who they are. For the sake of these 36 hidden saints, God preserves the world even if the rest of humanity has degenerated to the level of total barbarism. This is similar to the story of Sodom and Gomorrah in the Hebrew Bible, where God told Abraham that he would spare the city of Sodom if there was a quorum of at least ten righteous men.

This story largely encompasses how I feel about humanity. Most humans are weak: They aren’t good, bad, or honorable, because they don’t have the strength. It mostly isn’t their (our) fault.

But a few are good, or honorable, and, rarely, both.

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Week-end Wrap – Political Economy – February 16, 2019


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  1. nihil obstet

    Most people are as good as their society encourages them to be. There are exceptions, like Peter, who are better. The rest of us need support and leadership. Not strong man leadership, but enough good, kind examples and speakers.

    It’s first necessary to respect persons. That’s hard because we do need to discriminate between good and bad, and hold to the good. It’s hard not to try to win the one argument that I’ve never won — “You’re stupid and evil.” And I’ve had reason and morality on my side every time I’ve argued it. Go figure!

    Usually badness displays as kissing up and kicking down. I’m ready to go hammer and tongs at kicking up, but the kissing down still eludes me.

  2. StewartM

    Maybe I’m more forgiving than you, Ian, as I don’t condemn ‘weakness’ in the face of sure and significant punishment (say, Galileo recanting when shown the instruments of torture). Martyrs are atypical and it’s the rare soul who would suffer permanent loss or death in the face of doing right in what is often a hopeless cause (because even if your tormentors don’t succeed with you, they’ll succeed with the next person).

    But there is a difference between being coerced into doing evil and being a willing participant for personal gain. One of the things I learned in visiting the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC, was the degree that the Holocaust’s success depended on the quite willing cooperation of the people in the Naz-occupied territories. The reason why the Holocaust was so bad in Poland, Russia, and other places in Eastern Europe was that the locals ferreted out and identified the Jews and other ‘enemies’ of Nazism quite willingly, of their own volition, even volunteering.

    By contrast, only 50 Danish Jews perished in the Holocaust. That’s because the Danes simply refused to play along, clamming up when ask to identify or ferret out Jews, and the Nazis proved unable to accomplish that task themselves. Even just passive resistance to evil can be effective.

    My background differs from yours. I can count several family members who while not perfect, and certainly not martyrs, usually did the right thing even if it cost themselves. My family was among the first to desegregate their business in my Southern town and we had suffered occasional minor acts of vandalism probably due to that (I don’t know how active the Klan was in my locale, it wasn’t the Mississippi Delta by a long shot, but they were there). My father extended credit in his business to people struggling to make ends meet (“and most of those people probably never paid him back”, a relative said). My mother let a poor elderly woman stay in a family property with the admonition of “don’t worry about paying rent, especially if it means skimping on food or medicine”. None of these things were heroic acts, sure. But they taught a lesson of “other things are more important than gratifying yourself or maximizing your own pleasure”.

  3. Ian Welsh

    Those are important acts, Stewart, not minor ones. I don’t demand perfection, Peter was not perfect. But he only cooperated with evil when coerced, and even then truculently.

    Mr. Newell was not nearly as kind, but I never saw him bend. There are different virtues.

    There were a few other good people (my Uncle Jack), for example; a woman who made a big impression on me even though I met her only once (at a wedding) and don’t remember her name. Maternal in the best, and non-smothering way. A few others, including the headmaster of the school I went to. I didn’t like him and he didn’t like me, but I respected him (I doubt he respected me, but then I wasn’t a very nice kid.)

    There were a couple other teachers I liked at the time, but what I heard about their later behaviour was disappointing: the kindest way to put it would be that most of the “masters” acted like high school kids, and not in any good way.

    I remember Mr. Bacon, the physics teacher. We didn’t get along at all. He once banished me from his class for talking along with another kid. The kid begged to stay, he let him, I just walked out. “I can read the textbook!”

    Graduation day, he took me aside and said he respected me. I was floored. I sure as hell would never have guessed.

  4. anon y'mouse

    Capitalism is a system of morality, injecting a cost-benefit analysis into every activity in life.

    under it, most of us are bad because we are forced to be so, even in myriad small ways, in order to pay the rent. most organizations we are apart of force us to be bad to each other, and penalize us when we do not. we then gloss this over with numbers and abstractions.

    not to belittle your fine examples. one has to admire people who swim against the tide, but they wouldn’t be so rare if the cost were not so high.

    this society is also culturally quite sick, and i theorize has been for the past few hundred years at least. motivating people to move, tear themselves and their families apart so they can take over land denuded of its former occupiers, move about for the best financial opportunities, and not give a toss about communities. actually, encouragement to leave them behind (hence “flyoverstan” and “making something of yourself”). that amount of dislocation has led, i believe, to a kind of intergenerational transference of personality-disorders. we laud it as “progress”, though it is unlike the lives of all previous human societies not under warfare and invasion.

  5. Neil M. Dunn

    After reading this article and the links (excellently decribed), would you care to share how you rate yourself. And do you have other criteria you think are important for this process. I think I am on the plus side of “being good” but tend to be overly judgemental and certainly could benefit from the Socratic questions procedure.

  6. Dan Lynch

    This is an interesting essay & an interesting question. Thanks for asking it.

    Your essay on Peter made a lasting impression on me, and remains my favorite Ian essay. Somehow I missed the 2010 Craig Newell essay so I will go read it next.

    In someways my childhood was similar to Ian’s. I believe I started out as a good person. I had good thoughts. I wanted to be nice to people. I did not do mean things. That lasted until about age 5 or so. Then I became corrupted, I believe, due to all the bad influences in my life (and due to the conspicuous lack of positive influences).

    I went through some rough times, some crazy experiences, and it made me reflect on my life and on what’s important. It’s hard to point to a single incident that was a turning point, but there were numerous incidents where someone helped me out of a jam, and while I could not “pay” the person at that time, I resolved to “pay it forward” by helping other people who were in jams.

    There were also incidents where I was treated exceptionally badly, and I resolved that I should strive to be the opposite of my tormenters — to be a “helper,” not a “hurter.”

    Being a parent and raising a child also helped make me a better person, because I made a conscious decision to try to be a good role model for my child (I think in some ways parenting is a litmus test for whether a person is good or bad — there are people who “straighten up” after becoming a parent, and then there are people who use and abuse their children).

    Now days, nearly every day I make conscious decisions to “try to do the right thing” in every situatation, and I think that by itself makes a difference. As opposed to say, making conscious decisions to try to make more money, or to try to impress people, etc.. I *want* to do the right thing. When I am dead, I want people to remember me as someone who treated them well and made a difference in their lives. Of course I don’t always succeed — sometimes I’m not sure what the right thing is, sometimes I am selfish or unthinking, etc. — but I have made the decision that life is about helping people and trying to make a difference.

    One more observation and then I’ll shut up — I think people are a mix of good and bad. Take Martin Luther King — he was a jerk in his personal life, yet at the same time he did great things. We all make mistakes. We all screw up. I like to believe that even the worst people can turn their lives around (though admittedly it does not happen very often). I like to believe that we all start out innocent, that if we become bad, it is usually because bad things happened to us.

  7. Ian Welsh

    I am neither as good as Peter nor as honorable as Mr. Newell.

    One thing I have almost always stuck to, however, is that in my writing I tell the truth as I know it (which is not the same thing as always being right, I have made occasional mistakes in the truth, but they were mistakes.) I only broke that once, for about 2 weeks around the time Obama was being elected, because I knew people in the White House and Congress were reading my stuff (for a fact) and didn’t want to be too harsh.

    That was unethical, and I have not repeated it.

    For honor I rate “without fear or favor” as an important question: do you judge people the same no matter how scared you are of them, or what you want from them? Do you treat people the same if they can do nothing for you, or if they can do a great deal?

    One can’t help everyone, there is way too much need, but some people are at least kind almost all the time. I try to be in my personal interactions, and in particular, kind to service personnel and so on. I don’t always succeed, especially the higher ranked people are (upper management usually hated me, lower ranked people usually liked me) and I used to be a very polarizing figure — people tended to either hate or love me. Not sure how that would play out now, I’ve changed a lot of my personality over the last 7 years, but haven’t been in a role with a lot of in person interaction with people.

    I try to treat people as individuals and with interest, and to find something to admire in them. Most people never get any sincere admiration or apreciation, and it’s something I find easy to give, as most people do have some good qualities. I’m a lot more judgmental online, but then in my writing I am usually dealing with people who have power, and they should be held to a higher standard some joe schmo.

    My online persona is not identical to my offline persona, to put it mildly. I have been considering if I should change that.

    Overall, I value kindness and not bowing to power or fear, as the article probably suggests. In figures who have power, I mainly care if they live up to their responsibilities and treat people the same, no matter their power.

  8. Bruce wilder

    it is probably only a matter of emphasis, but as I think about it, I think most people I have known well were mixed bags.

    a close friend had an unaccountable impulse to become cruel to anyone too familiar — I learned not to spend three consecutive days with him, but witnessed psychological abuse to his wife. still, he was capable of acts of great, even life-changing generosity to strangers. and, he was thoughtful about ethics, despite some larceny in his soul and a deliberate parent to his children.

    my own father is not someone I think anyone knew well. He was physically present in my life, but spiritually not-present. His moments of fatherly advice or teaching were rare and usually to me, curious and surprising incidents. Long before I was born, before he was married, in his early professional life, he performed an act of heroic honesty that brought down epic corruption in the organization he worked for, ruining his prospects for promotion forevermore; that honesty was thorough and typical.

    I liked especially what your friend Peter said of his deliberate good works: “We know we do harm all the time. It’s not balance. “

  9. Ian Welsh


    yes, this article touches on the fact that people are mixed bags. A person can have virtues and be terrible in other ways. My father was that way–terrible father, but did a lot of good in the world. He was a good friend, mixed as a boss, but many people who worked for him were very loyal, because while he had anger problems, he was himself very loyal and always believed in “the mission.”

  10. Neil M. Dunn

    Thank you very much for the follow up reply. I now need to think on all this relative to:
    1. How I am now (in my 70s)- analyze in more detail.
    2. How have I changed over the years–for the better? due to internal vs external considerations(or combined.
    3. I only occasionally comment on line, and I use my real name–so I do no “anonymous or pseudonym” fantasy projecting. Still, I need to evaluate how consistent I am in various circumstances e.g. treating people fairly vs dominating.
    4. Others,to be determined–as I go back thru your article, links to good folk, your comment and the others.

  11. Tom

    “It also reported a case that was confirmed 94 days after the patient’s contact with a relative from Hubei. The patient had taken care of his father-in-law, who arrived from Wuhan on November 13 and died days later. The son-in-law continued to stay in the father-in-law’s house until January 31. However, the government statement said the origin of the son-in-law’s infection had yet to be identified.

    Zhuhai, in the southern Guangdong province, last week reported two cases with incubation periods longer than 14 days. Similar cases have also been reported in Anhui and Shandong provinces.”

    This virus is uncontainable. Soon we’ll see who are angels and who are demons as this hits the US.

    As a Medical Professional I’ll be on the front lines. So far nothing unusual though I hear Zeeland to the north has a suspected case. I’ll be on the rig for the next few days, so…

    Live Long and Prosper.

  12. The product of mid-fifties promiscuous pregnancy and sixties serial Southern California divorce, the bastard no one wanted, abandoned at eight on my own at twelve my parents didn’t do me any favors, and if not for my college educated atheist, socialist grandparents hiding out in a merchantile somewhere out in the middle of the nowhere I would not have had a childhood home nor any outstanding examples of which to learn from. I’ve lived a hard-assed life in the fifty-three years since I last hitch-hiked out of LA, done things I’m not proud of (Army), things I won’t speak of (Outsiders), things many cannot grasp (volcanoes, eclipses, bears)… but I never abandoned my kids, been there for them forty years, raised ’em alone when their mother went her way; there for the grand-kids now, and the g-grand in the oven. Yeah, I got a bad attitude about humanity, ain’t prejudiced hate everybody, but, like alcohol evil is what men make of it. Men, churches, governments.

    Am I a good person? I don’t know. Not sure I care.

    I am oft reminded of a line from the Ballad of Pancho and Lefty:

    Pancho needs your prayers it’s true, but save a few for Lefty too, he only did what he had to do, and now he’s growing old.

  13. Dan

    In our society we are constantly required to overlook what are essentially miniature emotional traumas in order to celebrate and partake in the accomplishments that the folks causing these traumas achieve. There is apparently no other way to live.

    Ben Franklin commented on the fact that Indians would always go back to living the way they lived even after being exposed to this great new way of life the colonists were engaged in. Likewise, colonists who were exposed to the Indian way of life much preferred it to the colonial (“civilized”) way of life. They went into the woods and never came back.

    Franklin wasn’t able to psychologically handle a carefree, egalitarian, peaceable way of life. The Indians had to be taught industriousness, acquisitiveness, etc. Ultimately, they had to be slaughtered.

    My father is more like Ben Franklin. I’m more like the Indians. It’s not easy.

  14. Dan

    Ian, your father sounds a lot like mine.

  15. Ian Welsh


    then you have my condolences.

  16. Michael M

    Hi Ian,

    I agree about Craig Newell. I remain constantly surprised about our old high school classmates\’ remembrances about school – often very different than I would have interpreted their sometimes- free-spirited and enviable spirit – and then others for whom I would have thought the experience was horrible, in fact had a wonderful time as an escape from their family life.

    In any event, Apted\’s \”Show me the child and I will show you the man\” has been disproven time and time again by my personal experience – and thank god….

    I look forward to reading more of your blog.


  17. Ian Welsh


    nice to see you here.

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