In my opinion, determining whether someone's a bad person is pretty easy. Do they hurt other people in a unnecessary and malevolent way?

This question encompasses emotional, psychological and physical senses of 'hurt': only the last one really brings you under legal liability, but the damage done under the rest is just as painful. If you're only hurting yourself, that's stupid and a problem, but hardly wrong in a moral sense. Sometimes, you have to injure other people - self-defense is justification sometimes. And some people honestly can't tell when they're hurting someone - think "Of Mice and Men". I've never understood the moralistic concern with sex and drugs, although it's clear people can be hurt through their abuse.

Before answering what makes a person good or bad, it is first necessary to decide what you mean by that. Morality is very subjective, what is needed is an objective metric. Consider the analogy of clothes: peoples opinions may vary as to whether a particular item of clothing looks good or bad, but they could still agree that the workmanship was of a high or low quality.

So my measure of the goodness or badness of a person is the degree to which their actions diverge from their stated goals - how good or bad they are at being the person they claim to be, rather than the extent to which a subjective observer approves of the decisions that they make.

So Stalin was a bad person because he said Of all the treasures a state can possess, the human lives of its citizens are for us the most precious then went ahead and killed 20M of them. Gandhi was a good person, because he said he wanted to liberate India from the British and that's exactly what he did.


After discussion with Cletus the Foetus I think it's important to add that someone can be qualitatively good but morally bad. The moral measure depends on the observer. After all, history is full of things that were considered morally good at the time that we now consider to be morally bad. But that does not in any way diminish the effectiveness of the person who did them.

This is an inherently subjective topic.

My understanding of what people mean by 'good' and 'bad' in a moral or absolute sense when describing some person (or thing, trend, or idea) is the degree to which the subject conforms with the judge's aesthetic. If you (or I) have a particular vision of how the world ought to work, then we think that people who work to make the real world match our idealized vision are good and people who do not are bad.

Bad people are bad because they want a world that is different than the world I want. As a subtle example, if I happen to value prompt, polite, hard working, and thoughtful people because they help me to enjoy my time, then I think that people who are perpetually tardy, or rude, or lazy, or ignorant are bad. More distinctly, if I idealize a world where subway vigilantes are able to protect themselves with their weaponry, I am more likely to think that Berny Goetz is a good person. Someone who thinks that a world full of guns is very dangerous or that usually when dark-skinned people are accused of something they are the victims of racism, will tend to think that Mr. Goetz is a murderous bigot (bad man).

The notion of 'good people' v. 'bad people' is an oversimplification and needlessly divisive. Truthfully, I believe that virtually all people are striving for goodness -- as they understand it. I might disagree with the felicity of their aims and ideals, but I try not to think of them as 'bad' or 'evil' because of it. I don't want my understanding of the issues clouded that way.

Deliver me from writers who say the way they live doesn't matter. I'm not sure a bad person can write a good book. If art doesn't make us better, then what on earth is it for.

Alice Walker, author of The Color Purple

What makes someone a "bad person?

If you attend Princeton, and go on their on-line dictionary, the definition of the phrase "bad person" is "one who does harm to others." Hmm.

Farlex Inc.'s "Free Dictionary" online uses exactly the same description.

Should I want, for any reason, to hear the phrase as well as the definition (still exactly the same, by the way: "one who does harm to others") I can go to AudioEnglish.com and improve my diction while learning definitions to pesky, subjective concepts like this.

I believe that there are no "bad people," merely bad acts, and that we are all the sum total of our acts, bad and good. But let's get back to a discussion of the three popular definitions above.

"Harm" is a pretty broad concept. I guess I'm a bad person if I steal the stapler off of a co-worker's desk. Am I a "badder" person if I steal my co-worker's Social Security Number and take out $250,000 in credit card debt in his/her name and ruin them financially for ostensibly the rest of their life? Both the stealing of the stapler and the credit card fraud do harm, not only to my co-worker but also, in the case of the stapler, to our corporation. In the case of the credit card fraud, harm is done to my co-worker, the credit card companies and their insurers who must absorb or pay the loss in the event my co-worker is covered against fraud.

Oh, I forgot the harm perpetrated on the public in general; because if it weren't for stupid perpetrators of credit-card fraud like myself, we all wouldn't have to recite certain personal information, last four residence addresses, PIN number, mother's maiden name, and cat's sexual preference whenever a merchant calls them up to find out why they declined a charge, and they explain it was "for your own safety" merely because we bought gas at one place and then went shopping 20 miles away.

AudioEnglish went as far as to offer up hyponyms for the entire spectrum of bad people, including but not limited to:

offender, wrongdoer — a person who transgresses moral or civil law.

varmint; vermin — an irritating or obnoxious person.

snake; snake in the grass — a deceitful or treacherous person

debauchee; libertine; rounder — a dissolute person; usually a man who is morally unrestrained

seducer — a bad person who entices others into error or wrongdoing

Wait! Stop right there! Those last two are of great interest to me.
 

Is Hugh Hefner a "Bad Person?"

Look at "debauchee" above. Hugh Hefner's sexual antics are the stuff of legend, therefore making him "morally unrestrained" in the eyes of some. However, is he a "bad person?" Well, it depends upon whom you ask. Ask any man who spent his pubescence stealing glimpses at Mr. Hefner's publication and the glories of the scantily-clad feminine form contained therein, and they'll think that old Hef is a hell of a great guy.

Now, ask my dear great-aunt Minerva, who led a chaste life, never marrying, doing God's work, working for The Salvation Army, and going to church every Sunday and bible study on at least one weekday, and she'd tell you that Hefner and all of his followers are doomed to spend an eternity in Hell, with the fire melting the skin off their flesh over and over again. Minerva refused an invitation to the nightclub I worked at years ago in New York City, dismissing it as a "den of hedonism." Did I mention Minerva never took a sip of alcohol in her life?

Hefner also counts as a "seducer," I guess. Unless all those girls who live in the Playboy mansion just showed up at the door one day and said "Say, can I have a place to crash for a little while?" I doubt it. I'd hazard a guess that Mr. Hefner asked each and every one politely to be his guest. In fact, I'm pretty sure that he has asked quite a few more than the young ladies who currently reside with him; but in fact has endured a few refusals of his kind offer.
 

Forgiveness as a Vehicle to Cope With Bad People

On the other side of the coin, there are priests who spend their lives working with the most hardened criminals. I know one. He is certain that if these men accept Jesus Christ as their savior, they will be able to spend the rest of eternity with God in Heaven upon their demise. My friend, the priest, said to me one day that he couldn't do the work he does if he couldn't forgive each and every one of these convicts for their crimes.

Indeed, he says that he's forgiven a man who killed a husband and wife in their jewelry store merely because they didn't unlock the display cases fast enough. Me, I'd find it hard to forgive a person who left three children orphans in a matter of seconds without giving it a thought. And I'm pretty sure that an enormous percent of even Mr. Hefner's supporters would consider this person a "bad person."

My friend says that if one forgives another's trespasses, then there's less "bad stuff" clogging up one's mind ("stuff" like hatred and resentment). That leaves room for more "good stuff" to occupy one's mind, and that a happy mind translates into spontaneous good works. Help an old lady cross the street. Cut the lawn of an aging neighbor. Write an informative node on E2 that some thankless whelp will plagiarize doing his Humanities homework. Give a homeless person a $5 instead of just a quarter.
 

Are We Inherently Bad, or Can We Change?

Look above at the hyponyms for "bad person." Under "seducer" it admits that the seducer not only entices others into "wrongdoing," but into "error." Error.

Ivan Boesky and Michael Milken both committed reprehensible crimes of greed; yet their respective foundations give millions to this day to good causes. They also languished in jail and paid hefty fines as punishment for their deeds. Have they been redeemed in the eyes of the public? I don't know; I couldn't find a public opinion survey that's available without fee to inform me how they were doing. John D. Rockefeller was a model of philanthropy. Some would say "oh, well, that was easy; he was one of the richest persons in the United States in his day." Is it envy of the lifestyle to which he'd become accustomed that makes it easy to pigeon-hole him as a "robber baron?" Need one lead the life of a Mother Theresa to win 100% of the vote for "good person?"

I'll say it again. It's just my opinion, but there are no bad people, just bad acts. Commit one or two bad acts and then keep your nose clean for a few years and I ain't gonna call you a bad person. Just a person who made some mistakes. Yours truly has committed a few or many, many bad acts over the years, depending who you ask. On the other hand, I have a wall full of certificates, plaques and the like that are proof of my good acts. And I'm certain that there are people who'll argue that some of those acts were indeed good. Let a member of the Ku Klux Klan know that I've worked hard to improve the quality of arts education in the predominately black North End of Hartford and he'll probably want to hang me from the highest tree. Let a good religious fundamentalist know that I've raised funds for the local GLBT Center and they'll probably say that I've wasted my money because sexual deviants go to Hell anyway.

But enough about me and my opinions. This has nothing to do with God, religion, morality or lack thereof. There's a great writeup herein called Love Your Enemies. I strongly suggest perusing that and also reading up on anything to do with forgiveness. Because if you harbor negative thoughts about a person in your mind, you're letting them take up space therein rent free. Let's put a new spin on the term "bad acts." Let's call them "errors." Sure it's sugar-coating a bitter pill, but this kinda medicine works wonders for your state of mind.

SOURCES:

WordNet, Cognitive Science Laboratory, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ http://wordnet.princeton.edu/perl/webwn?s=bad%20person (Accessed 8/23/07)

The Free Dictionary (c) Farlex Inc.  http://www.thefreedictionary.com/bad+person (Accessed 8/23/07)

AudioEnglish.net http://www.audioenglish.net/dictionary/bad_person.htm (Accessed 8/23/07)

WordWeb Online http://www.wordwebonline.com/en/BADPERSON (Accessed 8/23/07)

ThinkExist.com http://thinkexist.com/quotes/with/keyword/bad_person/ (Accessed 8/23/07)

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