Does it pay to be good? At one point in our life, probably most of us ask ourselves this question.
After all, sometimes it feels like trying to be good holds us back from things we desire. And sometimes it feels like people who break the rules get ahead and achieve their dreams more easily.
The common saying, “Nice guys finish last” certainly reflects this common feeling.
And sometimes we feel like being good makes us a pushover or makes us meek, gullible, naïve, or impractical. The famous political philosopher Machiavelli wrote about such things when he argued, “Hence a prince who wants to keep his authority must learn how not to be good, and use that knowledge, or refrain from using it, as necessity requires.”
A portrait of Machiavelli, picture courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Machiavelli argued that the rulers of his day were so concerned about being good that they could not rule effectively and practically, especially when situations necessitated that they negotiate with wicked people. Machiavelli thought these “good” rulers was so heavenly minded, they were no early good, to quote a common saying.
So, Machiavelli would likely have agreed that nice guys often finish last. And, thus, he would have argued that it does not pay to be good, at least not all the time.
You can read Machiavelli’s ideas in his famous book The Prince, which you can find at Amazon or your local bookstore.
Some people also think that being nice means always being polite to other people and avoiding offending folks.
But certainly there are times when being polite is not the right response to a situation. For example, if someone is hurting us or another person, the proper response is to confront people’s bad behavior. We certainly have a right to defend ourselves or another person. And such defense often entails that we act in a gruff and aggressive manner.
Such behavior isn’t nice if nice means always being polite and not offending others. But it is sometimes necessary. So, if we mistake being good with being nice, we may think that it does not pay to be good.
Picture by Robert Robinson, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
But there’s another way to view being good and being a good person.
Being a good person means that you live according to a principle that aims for a higher goal both for yourself and others. We might think of this higher goal as love, justice, or moral happiness. Such higher goals are excellent because they help us become more human.
Now the phrase become more human may sound confusing because we often think of being human as a matter of biology—either we are biologically human or not.
This is one way to think of being a human being. But being a human being means so much more than this. Being fully human means being able to fully express all our human capacities like creativity, kindness, compassion, reason, care, and wisdom.
“La parabola del Buon Samaritano Messina Chiesa della Medaglia” (“The Parable of the Good Samaritan”) by G. Conti. Picture courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Human beings have the capacity for all these wonderful character traits, but they are capacities we must develop.
And the more we develop them, the more fully human we feel because we express our unique human powers.
For example, imagine that some parents locked their son up in a room and refused to allow him to go to school, to play outside, or to make any friends. We would certainly view such behavior as abusive. But we would also view it as dehumanizing.
Dehumanizing behavior actively prevents people from developing their constructive human capacities and powers like the ones mentioned above– creativity, kindness, compassion, etc.
Generally speaking we feel disturbed by dehumanizing behavior because we believe that every human being has a right to develop their constructive human capacities. Doing so helps them become fully themselves and fully human.
Dehumanizing behavior robs us of the opportunity to become fully human. On the other hand, when we are good people, we act according to higher goals that support ourselves and other people in our endeavors to become fully human.
Once again, such higher goals might be goals like love, justice, and moral happiness.
As you can imagine, if we aim for love, justice, and moral happiness in all our actions (even if we don’t perfectly reach these goals all the time), we create space for ourselves and other people to develop our human powers.
“Compassion Holding Hands”, picture courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
For example, if we aim for love in all our actions, this means we practice some of the following behaviors:
Listening to other people (and listening to ourselves).
Caring about their concerns (and caring about ourselves).
Supporting their dreams (and supporting our dreams).
Encouraging them through hard times (and encouraging ourselves through hard times).
Being honest with ourselves and others about how certain negative behaviors affect us.
The more we treat ourselves and other people like this, the easier it is for them to develop human powers like creativity, kindness, compassion, reason, care, and wisdom.
After all, when people suffer cruelty, neglect, disrespect, and dehumanization from other people, they often focus merely on surviving. As such, it is hard for them to develop their human capacities.
And in the same way, when we treat ourselves cruelly or neglect, disrespect, and dehumanize ourselves, we begin to focus merely on surviving. As such, it is hard for us to develop our human capacities.
And this brings us back to the question, “Does it pay to be good?”
It certainly does pay to be good. Because when we are good, as I have defined it above, we increase our own power as well as the power of others. As such we strengthen our communal ability to be creative, kind, compassionate, rational, caring, and wise. (And those are just a few of the powers we encourage by being good.)
But what about Machiavelli’s concerns that caring too much about goodness make us gullible and naive, unable to handle wicked people in the world? Well, wisdom is a part of goodness. And a large part of wisdom is understanding how to deal with all sorts of people in the world, both good and evil.
For example, in his sermon, “Loving Your Enemies”, Martin Luther King Jr. quotes Abraham Lincoln’s preferred method of dealing with his enemies. Lincoln said, “I don’t destroy my enemies; I make them my friends.” Cultivating wisdom can help us figure out skillful ways of dealing with difficult people. (Lincoln’s method is just one example of this. There are certainly others.)
You can find this sermon in Martin Luther King’s book Strength to Love.
Imagine how amazing the world would be if we continually nurtured a space where it was as easy and as natural as possible for people to be creative, kind, compassionate, rational, caring, and wise. And imagine the problems we could solve and the beauty we could create.
That world is closer than we think.
Every time we decide to pursue goodness, we take ourselves one step closer. Goodness is power, and it brings healing energy into the world. Such power and energy are always an excellent investment, and they always pay off in the end.
You might like this post about how to be good. It also contains links to other posts: How to Develop Your Own Moral and Ethical Code.
And you might like this post about the philosopher Paulo Freire, which discusses how we can avoid dehumanization: Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Chapter 1.
You might also like this book by bell hooks about how the power of love strengths us individual and communally: All About Love.
And this book by Paul Tillich is about the courage to be, which is a courage that helps us become fully human together: The Courage to Be.
 “The Prince.” Skills Manual, Volume 2: Reading and Writing. John Henkel, 2nd ed. W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. 2021. pg. 267