We are accustomed to evaluating people according to professional standards. “She’s a good doctor.” “He’s a good accountant.” “Their second baseman is terrible!” These kinds of statements are familiar to us. We understand what they mean because we understand that there are particular sets of standards to which people doing particular kinds of work must measure up. These standards, whether or not they are explicitly codified, are generally recognized by anyone familiar with the profession. A doctor should have a thorough knowledge of the human body, familiarity with various kinds of injury and disease, and skill in diagnosis and prescription of treatment. An accountant should understand financial record-keeping standards and have skill in the management of money. A second baseman should have a good on-base percentage, good range in the field, and be able to throw with accuracy. According to standards like these, we measure the quality of a person in his or her professional role. We judge that he or she is good or bad as a doctor, as an accountant, or as a second baseman. How, though, are we to measure the quality of a person as a person?
To be sure, we often hear it said that “he’s a good man,” or “she’s a good woman.” These statements, however, are less often associated with a clear set of standards. How can we tell whether someone really is a good person? How can statements like that be verified? The answers to these questions tend to be limited and vague. Someone might say that a good person is someone who hasn’t done anything really bad. Anyone who hasn’t committed murder or isn’t a serial adulterer or persistently spiteful, we may be told, is “basically a good person.” A good person, one might think, is someone who is, in some vague sense, “nice” or “kind” or “cool.” Beyond these very minimal considerations, there does not seem to be much widespread agreement about the standards to which human beings must measure up in order to be recognized as good.
The standards for determining the quality of a person as a person, it turns out, are much more difficult to identify than the standards for determining the quality of a person as a second baseman. There are many reasons why this is so. Being a human person is far more complicated than being a second baseman. A second baseman is a role that was invented as part of the game of baseball; a person is not a role that any human being invented or created. A second baseman has a well-defined purpose – to help his team score more runs than the opposing team; the purpose of being a human person is far more difficult to grasp. Moreover, the person who plays second base could be expected to provide a more thorough account of what makes a second baseman good than someone who has never played that position. But everyone has the shared experience of being a person and most people could not give a thorough account of what it is that makes a person good.
Added to the difficulty of determining what makes a person a good person is the fact that, for many people, the question just doesn’t come up. It’s too fundamental. It’s like asking why something exists instead of nothing – a question only a philosopher or a madman would think of asking. Everyone who sets out to become a doctor will, in some way, ask the question, “What must I do to become a good doctor?” But not everyone who embarks upon living the life of a human person asks the question, “What must I do to become a good person?” When the question does come up, it is often dismissed as impossible to answer or not worth answering.
Ethics is the kind of thinking that seeks to answer this question. To think from an ethical perspective is to see oneself and one’s fellow human beings not only as having professional capacities and social roles, but as being persons first and foremost. To think from an ethical perspective is to consider that being good and acting well apply not just to what one does as a doctor or lawyer or mother or father or violinist or chess player, but to who one is as a person. As human beings, we take on all sorts of roles, jobs, and functions. Often a single person will “wear many hats” as the saying goes. I am a Dominican friar, a Catholic priest, a U.S. citizen, and a Mets fan. All of those are good things (or so I would contend). They are good for me, however, only insofar as they contribute to making me a good person. For I am a person first of all. And if I am truly to be good, I must be good as a person.
So what is it that makes a person good? What standards must one measure up to in order to be good as a person? These are big questions, and we cannot even begin to answer them here. Still, by asking the right questions, we have taken the first step toward finding the right answers.
By adopting the ethical perspective, we have begun to consider ourselves and our actions according to the standards that measure who we really are: not just professionals or functionaries or role players, but human persons.