A burning question: Am I still a good person?
A follow-up: Does it even matter?
My Netflix’s browsing history is an embarrassing mosaic of guilty pleasures, pieced together by kids cartoons and comedies. Earlier this week, in a spell of Zoom-induced languor, I sifted through my “Watch It Again” lineup, scrolling through the endless reel of shows and finally landing my cursor on a Niko classic. Wedged between Victorious and Parks and Rec, The Good Place snagged my attention.
The Good Place is a comedy series that follows four characters that — by racking up points through their apparent virtue during their lifetimes — have gained admittance into a heaven-like utopia known as the Good Place. As is expected, the Good Place’s acceptance rate is fairly slim, only opening its doors to a select few, and condemning the rest of humanity to the hellish Bad Place. On the surface, it’s just another comedy about quirky thirty-somethings navigating (after)life. But unexpectedly, the series also tackles loaded questions of moral philosophy. What does it mean to be good? Can morality be measured in a point system? Should it be?
At times, the show’s answers to these questions can feel heavy-handed and clumsy. Yet, while rewatching, I found myself unable to shake the series’ universe of systemized moral absolutism, in which a good/bad point system determines a peron’s worth and virtue. It recalled a younger, more wide-eyed version of my worldview — obsessed with being good, consumed with being right. Just as the universe operates in The Good Place, my childhood perspective of the human world functioned under a framework of moral binaries. Good and bad. Light and dark. Right and wrong.
As a communication major (yeah, yeah, make your jokes), I’ve taken a handful of classes that recite the same mantra of media studies: We grow up products of the socializing forces that inform and construct our realities. Stitched onto pages of Harry Potter, woven through episodes of Arthur and embedded in everyday life lessons — my childhood media consumption was dominated by a single thread of moral ideology. Be a Good Person.
That’s capital G, capital P. A Good Person doesn’t lie, cheat or steal. A Good Person is generous, helpful, kind, forgiving, patient, honest, trusting. A Good Person is driven by morals. A Good Person does the Right Thing. And a Good Person is rewarded for being Good.
I marched through most of my life with this blind faith in the world, trusting that the puppet strings of the universe defaulted to karmic justice. For years in elementary school, my Christmas letters to Santa followed an identical format: Instead of asking for new Nintendo DS games or Percy Jackson books, I would scrawl down wishes and requests for Santa to make everyone in the world happy. I was scarily nice to my classmates, I never cursed, I always shared my lunch. I never dreamed of breaking rules. It was haunting how sturdy I was in my determination to be good. It was even more terrifying how much I believed — genuinely believed — that that’s how the world worked.
I was, undeniably and categorically, a Good Person.
Am I still?
Now I’m nineteen. And when I think of that rose-tinted innocence, all I want to do is ruffle little Niko’s head of hair and knowingly grin at that dopey, unbridled optimism. Since then, the throes of adolescence have pushed me every which way, flipping me upside down, spinning me on my head and shaking the shit out of me like a snowglobe. I’m still trying to decipher what’s up and what’s down.
I think my outlook on life has hardened, too. I’ve already trudged through the ruins of my naive assumption that lawfulness and obedience equate to goodness — and that goodness is always rewarded. That once tender innocence has crystallized into a calloused apathy. I just don’t really care anymore.
Does posting a singular black square on my Instagram feed make me a better person? Or is it a performative display of virtue signaling and social preservation without tangible impacts for social change?
Are those involved in the first Cornell-related COVID cluster bad people for partying during a pandemic? It’s reckless, definitely. But when Cornell administration invites thousands of college students back to campus as government negligence continues to fuel this pandemic, I find it difficult to pinpoint blame on particular individuals when entire institutions should be held culpable.
Does voting automatically slot me into a rung of moral superiority? Or am I merely partaking in a broken process that masquerades as a moral and civic imperative that keeps us blindly cucked to this so-called democracy? (For the record: I do encourage participating in the voting process, but I find it monstrous that the average citizen’s means to government representation relies solely on voting once every few years for candidates that do not represent them. From our perch of privilege at Cornell, it’s easy to assume that this isn’t the only channel of civic engagement — but for the majority of America, voting is already an affordance and a single vote will not likely change the systemic inequality that plagues our working class.)
I’ve become disillusioned and disengaged with the notion of being a Good Person. All this shit that’s branded to us as the “moral high ground” doesn’t carry substantial weight or significance anymore. Mainstream liberal echo chambers rattle on about the individual’s imperative to act for public good, effectively blaming the plights of society on lack of individual action. But I’m struggling to see the pursuit of personal goodness when there are larger, institutional structures that dictate our existence, that stamp out what individual morality can achieve.
Maybe I was happier when I naively strived to be good. But the growing pains of young adulthood have solidified my disenchantment: I don’t find solace in my goodness like I once did. To revel in that self-assurance of moral superiority only feels like a frivolous surrender to indulgence and narcissism.
Maybe this is just growing up. Maybe I’m just bitter that when reality hit, it hit hard — and it spit me out into this listless, nihilistic existence. Or maybe I’m completely wrong, and there’s still some worth in the striving to be good. I really don’t know.
But let’s circle back to the opening question: Am I still good?
An answer: I’ve stopped caring.
For now, at least.
Niko Nguyen is a junior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]. Unfiltered runs every other Monday this semester.