Eettickal: Why there are no “good” people

Enya Eettickal, Staff Writer

For as long as I can remember, I’ve always cared about the words that I use. Unsurprisingly, I’m often told that I argue semantics. But I don’t mind—I stand by my belief that certain words can alter the meaning of a phrase entirely. 

I was reminded of the importance of semantics when I was watching season one of Attack on Titan, a popular anime. While reaching the end of the first season, a main character in the show, Armin, tries to get help from a soldier to defy the government and free an imprisoned friend. The soldier asks if she seems like “that good of a person.” Armin responds as such: “I’ve never been fond of phrasing it that way. Because, to me, it feels like [‘good people’ is] only used to refer to people you use for your own convenience. And I don’t think there’s anyone who’s convenient to everyone.” He then ends the conversation by saying that if the soldier doesn’t help him, then she will be a bad person in his eyes. 

Armin’s comment on good people stuck with me for a long time before I understood what he meant. Using the word “good” to describe people is something that I’m very wary of now. Sure, there are kind people, but there are no universally good people because what is good to some could be viewed as bad by others. 

Immediately after watching that episode, I was very hesitant to agree to “good people” being a legitimate saying. It was a phrase I had said to others, and I have also been told I am a good person. But after the show planted the idea in my head, I started to hear the phrase differently. 

The first place I started to question my perspective was in stories. Going back to Armin’s point of no one being convenient for everyone, I saw the “good people” dilemma in the traditional stories of heroes and villains. No matter what the fictional universe is, heroes can’t be good to everyone. There are instances in many hero-centric stories where the hero’s actions disadvantage or injure people who are neutral parties in their missions. 

Moreover, people just don’t always want to be saved. We see heroes who supposedly exist to save the public act in ways against citizen or government interest, and those are the moments they are not truly heroes to everyone. Likewise, there are instances where villains amass a following of genuine supporters. And while they may not be civil or law-abiding, these villains represent a set of interests shared by others, as they recognized that acting on those interests may benefit a larger population. There are even times where villains believe that they are saving society or a group through their criminal acts. In this way, “good” and “bad” sides can be blurred, and no true universal example of good remains, proving the second half of Armin’s point.

With the understanding that “good people” can correlate to both benefit and leverage, I began to understand what Armin meant in the context of day-to-day life. I examined people, from classmates who were in group projects together to my teammates and coaches back in high school to my friend groups. I saw that people, including myself, were told they were “good” as a form of placation when forced into difficult situations that disadvantaged them and benefited others. Whether it was giving up a position or being forced to concede a deal, my friends, family and I were labeled as good people when we made sacrifices.

For a long time, I never minded being called a good person. But I suddenly found myself slightly frustrated at the term. Were people genuinely praising my kindness, or were they attempting to condition me into believing that making a sacrifice for their sake was the right thing to do? 

Obviously, my suspicions of people are not generalized. I don’t think everyone who refers to others as “good” is doing so with malicious intent—I’m well aware not everyone is as picky about their word choice as I am. But I was surprised to see that even if people don’t acknowledge the difference between being kind and good explicitly, they subconsciously seem to pick up on the differences and use the words in slightly different contexts. 

The term “kindness” is what I believe is most often confused with the meaning of “good.” My working definition of a kind person is someone who is generous, loving, caring and can make sacrifices without considering what others will think or say. A particular instance that encompasses the definition of kindness was when an acquaintance of mine relayed a story of how a mutual friend had given them medication and a place to rest when they weren’t feeling well. They explained how “she was so kind to me the whole time.” 

This acquaintance was speaking to the generosity of our friend rather than the trouble she went through to take care of them. In my mind, this is an example of why the two terms are commonly interchanged, but also showcases the need for a distinction. The biggest difference between the two terms is that “good people” maintain an image or a status among a group, while kindness is usually an individual and intimate experience. While good is relative because it relies on the interest groups it represents, kindness is more objective and easier to pin down. Acts of kindness are universal, personal and unbiased, in that a kind person or a kind act can impact anyone, regardless of what larger group or benefits they stand to gain. Kindness stems from a desire to help others, while the title of good comes from the act of pleasing others. 

Regardless of whether or not all my semantics hold true, I’ve found that this differentiation between good and kind has been a productive way of reframing my thoughts about myself and how I act. I was big on trying to be a good person in high school. And while I didn’t think of it as different from kindness at the time, I definitely treated it as such. I found myself making sacrifices I didn’t need to make for the sake of pleasing my peers and having a strong reputation. It left me disadvantaged and unhappy. Since then, I’ve worked on trying to be kind, rather than trying to be good. Regardless of how others respond (or contrarily, not respond at all), I want to help others by my own choice. By helping others with agency, I feel happy, rather than forced or controlled by those around me. 

No matter how good I try to be, I’m never going to be able to please everyone, and I don’t mind. As long as I’m kind to the people I run into in this lifetime, that’ll be more than enough for me.