Maggie and Me (a philosophical dialogue): Following Rules and Being Good

Question: There are so many rules to follow, rules about everything. How can I be good when there are more rules than I can even remember?

Answer: I agree. There are a lot of rules. I also can’t remember all the rules I am supposed to follow. But here is the thing: being good is not about following rules.

It is true that there are many people who think that following rules is the measure of goodness. They think that people who follow the rules are good and people who do not are bad. More than a few religious traditions teach this and it is the standard approach to ethics for professionals like lawyers and doctors. These folks think that if they can memorize all the rules in the Bible or the rules of professional conduct, and follow those rules, they are good people.

But let me ask you this question: how many people do you know who follow all the rules and are still horrible and mean? Quit a few, I suspect.

So let’s stop thinking about being good as following rules and start thinking about being good as having good character. Are you kind? Are you honest? Are you loyal? These are the types of questions you should ask yourself when you are thinking about whether you are a good person. Are you brave, generous, friendly, honorable, loving, patient, and self-controlled? These are the characteristics you should develop to be a good person.

You have many of these characteristics already. Most people do. Especially kids.

We should continually work to develop these characteristics so that we can become better people. But while you are doing this, don’t worry too much if you break an occasional rule or occasionally fail to act in a virtuous manner. Even the best of us are unfriendly and less than patient at times. Just keep trying. And like yourself for doing so.