Doesn’t going to Stanford make me better than other people? Why wouldn’t it? I benefit from an education consistently ranked as one of the best in the world. Given that society places so much value on having a great education, being a student at Stanford should qualify me as more valuable than other people. Shouldn’t it?
In general, we tend to place value on certain categories of possessions or achievements. Expensive goods and luxuries. High profile, well-paying careers. Prestigious educations. Nobody would argue that such things are not valuable. So then why would having nice things not make me a nice person? If I am well-qualified, wealthy and attractive, and I am commendable for my positive attributes, shouldn’t this mean that I am a good person?
In the article “The Disparity Between Intellect and Character,” Harvard psychiatry Prof. Robert Coles describes an encounter with a student working her way through college. She approaches him, distraught, with a problem that she cannot figure out: how can successful, motivated students with straight As still act like jerks? Coles describes her distress that students, whose rooms she cleans to make money, refrain from saying “please” or “thank you” and behave crudely and disrespectfully towards her. How can it be that those whom America considers its best and brightest lack the capacity to be good people?
Coles, bothered by this question, decided that there is indeed a disparity between being a good student and being a good person. We all forget this frequently enough on a daily basis – or at least I do. Going to the gym, wearing new clothes, doing well in class, following sports: these all have intrinsic value to me, but they are also partially motivated by a desire to make other people like me. If I have expensive shoes, a six-pack and a 4.0, I still may not be a good person, but these characteristics can damn sure make up for that.
The decision is simple: I can strive for moral and personal perfection, or I can get a tan and wear a flashy shirt. Which choice is more likely to draw people to me and improve my social status? In terms of the outcomes, it seems that being a good person is overrated. Or at least that is how the logic goes. This might not be so problematic if it weren’t for the fact that the two options become confused at some point. Investing in my “resume” of appearances and achievements is eventually not looked at as a substitute for being a good person, but is rather viewed as equivalent to being a good person.
Coles, in struggling with this problem, posits an interesting notion: moral reasoning is not to be equated with moral conduct. This is a huge bummer for me personally because it means I can no longer continue to pass myself off as a good person. But the implications apply across the board. We may be captains and presidents, attractive and accomplished, but that only makes us good at those things; it does not necessarily make us good at being people.
Such abstract armchair reasoning and speculative thought doesn’t really mean much until applied to our daily lives. The point here is not that we should abandon our pursuits of self-improvement and abandon our life objectives. The central, relevant, unconventional idea here is that we should not allow ourselves to be deceived into thinking that the personal attributes we value so much make us “good” people. I’ll probably continue to stay in shape, work hard in class and buy nice clothes, but when people compliment me on these things, I’ll try to remember that they’re complimenting me on being good at the things themselves, not on being a good person. That is because being talented and working hard at something ultimately does not excuse me for failing to be adequate as a person.
What does it mean to have a valuable character? What does this ephemeral, amorphous notion of being “good” really imply? I have no idea – my bad. I hope nobody was reading this waiting for the answer. But we need to teach ourselves that at the end of the day, going to Stanford does not necessarily mean that we are good people, just smart people. Maybe, in all honesty, being a good person is overrated – it sure doesn’t guarantee you a job or land you an attractive spouse – but whatever it is, it cannot be equated to your resume. Maybe we should strive to teach ourselves that. Theodore Roosevelt (some guy, I think he was president) once said, “To educate a man in mind, and not in morals, is to educate a menace to society.” Maybe Teddy is being a little melodramatic, but he has a point.
Roosevelt also advocated killing nine out of 10 Native Americans, so I would take his personal philosophy with a grain of salt. Just saying. firstname.lastname@example.org.