Article 8 - It is not as simple as it seems

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“I don’t know if people are trying their best or not, but when I assume that they are, it makes my life better.”

The following is the message I would give to myself if I were society. It has helped me to find myself and my path:

What if being good wasn't enough? What if being a good person doesn't actually mean that you are of benefit to society? What if the best amongst us could actually be bad people? - bad people who find themselves seemingly making situations worse by virtue of their contributions.

I have spent a lot of time thinking about the person I have been and how that differs from the person I need to be. In the last chapter of my life, as I have become aware of the effects of that disparity. It has provided an intermittent source of angst with the ebb and flow of life drama. This led me to question how much validity there was in my claims to be a good person -

“If you have an inconsiderable list of ‘bad’ things you have done, how much bearing should this play in your self-evaluation?”

Solace, for me, came from the visualisation of throwing a ball. Despite having no logical link (it was 3am when I made the analogy!) it taught me something profound about the nature of myself, others and potentially society:

If I took ground level as being bad then the closer to the ground you (being represented by this ball) are, the worse of a person you are. The higher your altitude, however, the better you are. At some arbitrary height exists the threshold between being good (above) and bad (below). Say we hold some balls (people) at differing heights, at the most basic analysis we can evaluate the good and bad amongst us based on an instantaneous assessment - their current height: “Saints are good, sinners are bad. Police are good, criminals are bad. The progressive amongst us are good, the regressive are bad.”

Perhaps we can even evaluate people as better or worse than each other based on their height - the best amongst us are those at the highest altitude and the worst are those at ground level. If you give more to charity than myself, you are a better person than I. This can seem largely appropriate as it can be largely accurate - it was how I would opt to evaluate myself straight after one of my ‘regressions’ -

“I have done bad; therefore I am bad.”

It is how many of us appear to form most of our opinions of others - “that politician said something non-politically correct, therefore they are a bad person”. I have learnt this process can also be very dangerous; it fails to show us the majority of the picture; it is just not as simple as it seems.


So far, we have evaluated someone at one given point in time - that politician said something non-pc. Should that invalidate a lifetime of possible good, however? If this is just one event which ultimately reverts back to the mean, need our opinions change at all? Surely, they should - what you do now effects who you are now and how you are now perceived. Instantaneous assessment is just too simplistic of an evaluation to be of any merit, however.

Thinking back to my projectiles highlighted the fact that instantaneous assessment fails to capture how things are changing over time - where the things are headed or which directions our balls are moving in. Surely this is much more important in properly understanding the forces at play?

Let’s take a high-altitude person. By the first - positional - evaluation, surely this “good” person is morally virtuous and, by extension, a benefit to society. In doing so we realise it is not that simple: there are two possibilities for this scenario - rising or falling balls. In both cases, the ball is still at high-altitudes and therefore will still evaluate as good - because it represents a “good” person. However, in rising or falling, this “good” person could either be getting better with time or getting worse with time. Are both scenarios still of benefit to society?

Personally, I have sought great solace in not identifying as the person who is good - life is too tumultuous and I am too imperfect to feel that way about everything all the time. Predicating my self-worth on such would provide too fragile a foundation for self-acceptance and self-appreciation. So instead, I have identified myself not as a person who is good, but as a person who is always seeking to improve. So I may be the worst person on the planet today (a ball at ground level), but that’s okay because intrinsic to myself is a propensity to improve. So tomorrow, I may be a little less heinous and the day after, and the day after etc. With time, maybe even over the course of an entire lifetime, if I stay true to myself and uphold my identity as the person who is always improving - the ball that is always rising maybe - then one day, I will cross that threshold and register as morally virtuous. One day, I will be a good person.

I developed this mindset as I believe it is what I needed to keep me from constantly questioning myself, the effect that I was having on others and where I was heading as a person. For the past few years I have held this mindset with me because I believe it is what is necessary to keep me focussed not on my successes or my downfalls, but on fulfilling my potential for self-improvement. In doing so, I have developed the opinion that this, on the microscopic scale, is what society needs from every individual - a focus on improvement. On the macroscopic scale, once we have sorted ourselves out - once we have ensured that we are all balls with positive (improving) trajectories - we have pathed the way for the solution to all of society’s problems.

Does society actually need a whole load of “good” people? Does society need a whole load of “good” people who rest on their laurels by virtue of already being “good” and aren’t, as a result, always rising; always striving for better and always improving? Is a society full of “bad” people, who are all rising on a path of improvement not better than a society of "good" people with ambiguous velocities; some rising, some staying constant and some falling? Will prioritising constant improvement instead of how you evaluate today not ensure long-term, sustainable harmony? Does it not tend towards the best possible society?

So that sorts it doesn’t it? "Maybe being good isn’t good enough". Maybe, rather than being good or bad, all that is important is that you are improving rather than regressing? Maybe we can dispense of this imaginary good-bad threshold altogether if it is of little significance? The precursor for being genuinely “good” comes not from how you evaluate today, but from the direction of your moral development; are you improving or are you regressing? Sorted.

It’s not that simple.


Despite still thinking I am, on the whole, progressing towards the good, I have spent various extended periods feeling as if I have been bringing about an ever-increasing amount of bad into the world. An ever-increasing number of people whose moment, day, or week I made worse rather than better, and an ever-increasing number of mistakes and regrets on my conscience. Given the effort I put into self-awareness, empathy, and self-betterment, I am still on a path of improvement, surely? I am still a good person?

That doesn’t make sense, however. Someone who could be argued to be "bad" in the effects they have on others, who is getting “worse” with time, but is still focussed on good and still striving towards improvement? Maybe there’s more to our equation.

Evaluating the trajectory of the ball tells us not only where it is heading, but where it is accelerating towards and how its motion changes with time. This models the rate of change of your moral improvement/regression, and again, this opens up two more scenarios. Let us look at a ball being thrown into the air to clarify our moral trajectory:

To spare us gravity-defying balls, let us flip our reference so that the ground represents the ultimate good and higher altitudes represent increasing bad. If the ball begins its flight above the good-bad threshold, by the first analysis, this is a bad person. After it is thrown, the ball is initially travelling away from the ground so by the second analysis, it is a person who is either getting worse or making things worse around them. Although as we know, the ball is bound by gravity - it was always accelerating back down to the ground, back down to the good.

Almost contradictorily, it was headed away from the ground but always drawn towards it. If left to complete its flight, it will always return to the ground (good) and so was always orientated (accelerating) towards the good. So by this third analysis, you have a bad person, making things worse, who is always oriented towards the good. A person who is slowing down their regression towards bad and if left in this state, will reach a turning point where they are no longer getting worse (rising) and in fact proceed to improve (fall). To continue on this trajectory would see them pass the good-bad threshold, at which they will evaluate as "good", and fall back down to the ground (the "good"). All of this would have happened without them jumping ship, without them abandoning themselves and their morals, and by simply continuing true to their path, true to their initial orientation towards good.

So what is to say they were not a good person all along?

Maybe it is not your initial evaluation, nor your current direction, but your trajectory which evaluates you as a good person? Maybe only this trajectory is what determines whether or not you are of benefit to society? What if we needn’t beat ourselves up and abandon our moral identity in the times that we find ourselves at an ever-increasing detriment to ourselves and those around us? Maybe we can have faith in our orientation - trust that, with the self-transformative forces we impose upon ourselves, we are still on the path towards good. Maybe, through thick and thin, we can be proud of the person we are becoming.

The converse is even more interesting. A good person, getting better, but orientated towards the bad? Surely that makes no sense? A visualisation of this comes in the form of a ball being thrown in our initial framework: the ground being bad and increasing altitudes representing good. One of the domains in which I am seeing this in practice around me is compassion at all costs. What this is teaching me is to respect my boundaries - how far am I willing to let this (positive) sentiment go? Where do I draw the line? - because after a while, it may cause harm.

The least polarising example of this is a parent parenting with unwavering compassion and as a result never telling their child “no”. The first, positional, analysis would go something like this:

“I care for my child and I wish no ill upon them. I have embodied this wish by not parenting with harsh methods that will upset my child or make them feel inadequate. My intentions are clearly pure; therefore I am a good parent.”

All of which would be absolutely correct, but it is not as simple as it seems...

The second analysis:

“Looking at the passage of time, I am disciplining my child with positive reinforcement without saying ‘no’. I don’t tell them off, I just reward the good to incentivise good and nurture it out of my child. I am still disciplining my child and they are learning valuable lessons. Therefore, I am a good parent.”

Again, it is not wrong, but it is not that simple…

Third analysis, looking at the underlying forces at play:

“My child never hears ‘no’, so is never prepared for the inevitable rejections the world has to offer them. They never hear ‘no’, so never learn to truly respect authority. They are never made to feel a healthy, constructive level of inadequacy (essential - I can’t love the fact that my room is always a state!), so they are never independently incentivised to live their life in a constant state of manageable improvement. Clearly, I have been failing my child all along, so can I even claim to have ever been a good parent?”


One of the truths underlying this analysis is that it is not that simple as it seems - it is never as simple as it seems. There is a danger, with polarising “yes or no”, “right or wrong”. and “black or white” issues in stopping at the first level of analysis. This only paints a surface-level picture which is good enough, just, for us to form impressions and stake a (false) claim at an understanding. It is not, however, good enough for us to be assured in our ways and to launch criticism at those who object.

Therein lies the danger.

A constant search for deeper meaning, deeper influences, more excuses, and a less reactionary outlook is essential if we are ever to agree and if we are ever to solve our problems as a society.

The “you do you” mantra is a narrative I have always agreed with. Despite that, I have never gotten behind it for a reason I haven’t been able to clarify to a greater resolution than “it just doesn’t seem right”. This narrative comes from good intentions, good people seeking to instil a sense of independence and resilience in the face of adversity. Good people seeking to enact meaningful change and improvement within our society.

On first, and maybe even second analysis this seems good doesn't it? But I have always felt that that doesn't mean it is, in fact, good - not all positive sentiments bring about good. In fact, I actually believe this sentiment is hugely damaging to society. The reasons for this present themselves at the third level of analysis; “where is this ideology headed? What is its long-term trajectory?”

“What if everyone were to adopt this mantra?” What would that look like? Well, everyone would adopt that mantra, not only the “good” people like yourself. “Good” people on “bad” trajectories - like our compassionate parent, maybe - and “bad” people making things worse would all be thinking "I'm going to do me and anyone who objects is a hater". They would all be continuing their path towards the bad and fragmenting society in stubbornness and arrogance in the process. None of our problems would be solved.

That's not what anyone needs. What we need are strong-minded people. Strong-minded people ready to speak their case and back to their corner. What is crucial, however, is that these strong-minded people are oriented towards the “greater good”. Given none of us truly know what that is, and that society is shifting to mean that “good” is constantly being lost in the translation of time, being oriented towards “good” is being oriented towards openness. Not only being open to challenge and criticism, but to actively seek it and constantly reorienting oneself as a result. Only then can everyone learn from each other in such a heterogeneous society.

This does not mean standing for nothing and changing with the wind, however.

We will never all agree, but we don’t need to agree to communicate, we don’t need to agree to accept, and we don’t need to agree to solve. At the PDProject, I have sought to adjust the reason why we share - not for others to agree or disagree, just to understand. Understand exactly where we are and where we are coming from, so you can connect with that person and that message .

At best we can strive for a harmonious, but not homogeneous, community. Only then can society understand who it is, where it needs to go and then iterate towards who it needs to be one disputatious conversation at a time.

What that means for the individual is to refuse hastening towards judgement, or moreover condemnation, after the first or second level of analysis. That applies just as much to myself - yourself - as it does to other people. Only if you evaluate positively at the final level of analysis are you of benefit to society and can you be assured in your stance. Assured in your stance but still inviting of criticism and oriented towards acceptance. What is the final level of analysis, however?

“If this approach were to be widely adopted, would, long term, society be a better, more meaningfully connected and harmonious place?”

We don't just need good people. We don't just need people who improve things. What we need is people on a trajectory back down towards the ground; back down towards “good”. That can be regardless of where they start or what direction they find themselves headed in. We need people who are oriented towards openness, towards understanding, and towards acceptance. People who aren't afraid to stick to this, even if it requires themselves taking an ideological U-turn in the process.

We need to ask ourselves "what if people are in fact striving towards good?" before we condemn them. We need to ask ourselves “what if people were trying their best?” No one goes through life thinking they are a bad person making everything worse. We all, however, have a tendency to treat others as if they are intent on being bad people making everything worse. What if your opponents evaluate positively at the final level of analysis? Be it the prudish conservatives or anarchic liberals. Be it the leave or the remain, the religious or atheists. We cannot simply assume that we are right and they are wrong. We cannot simply assume that we are the ones on the correct orientation. Before we act, we need to ask ourselves: "if this approach were to be widely adopted, would, long term, society be a better, more meaningfully connected and harmonious place?" We need to evaluate things at ever-increasing levels of analysis because it is just never as simple as it seems...

Written by Yunus Skeete


PDProject Founder and Manager

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