The 'doing good' framework: a manifesto against saying 'good people' and 'bad people'

I remember the first time I reflected on "doing good": I was watching the final scene of a sitcom I grew up with, Boy Meets World. The main characters, who've now come of age, speak with the teacher that has been with them through every phase of their educations and lives:

Mr. Feeny: Believe in yourselves. Dream. Try. Do good.

Topanga: Don't you mean "do well"?

Mr. Feeny: No, I mean "do good".

It's the kind of scene that sticks with you after years of investment in a show. I cried. (And I cried again when I rewatched the scene to write about it.)

A few lines later, Eric tells Mr. Feeny how because of him, he's going to be a "good person who cares about people". At the time, this felt like the pinnacle of personal goals. And in a way, it still is.

But when Eric says he wants to be a "good person who cares about people", I think he actually means he wants to be a person who cares for people by doing good. When Mr. Feeny says "do good", he's referring to caring about people as an action, not an idea. This distinction is important because there are many fallacies in framing people as "good people" and "bad people".

When we call someone a "good person", we tend to idolize them. The overly simplistic model of the "good person" only allows them to do good things, so when they inevitably do harm - we all make mistakes - we either need to categorize them as a "bad person" or to ignore their harmful actions so they can remain a "good person". Since we usually don't want them to turn into an unredeemable "bad person", we often give their harmful actions a free pass. It's important that they are able to address those actions, but the "good person" framework does not give them that space to do so. We need a framework that encourages owning up to their mistakes as a way to do good, especially when they try to repair the harm they caused and also do better in future related situations. Also, when we aren't able to give constructive criticism because it is automatically considered an attack on someone's character, society doesn't have the room to address harmful incidents to improve.

Additionally, deeming someone a "bad person" partially relieves them of responsibility for their actions because their "bad" nature means the only thing they can do is harm. When evaluating someone who repeatedly does harm within a framework centered on actions, we have the space to talk with that person about their harmful actions and how they can repair their negative effects. A framework centered on actions also more readily allows good actions to influence how we view them - if we see someone make changes to do good, we know we can expect them to do good and improve, instead of writing them off as a bad person.

We need a different way to frame people. Enter the "doing good" framework.

The "doing good" framework involves praising people for their actions instead of for their supposed nature as a "good person".

The "doing good" framework holds people accountable for their actions; "good intentions" don't count in this system. Having good intentions doesn't absolve someone of the harm they've done, but people who truly have good intentions are the people who admit they did harm and work to repair the harmful results of their actions. They also learn from their mistakes to align future actions with their good intentions.

The "doing good" framework allows for reform. Someone doing good who mistakenly does harm will not automatically be deemed terrible forever, and someone doing harm has the ability to start doing good and to be recognized for those good actions.

The "doing good" framework can account for circumstance because it doesn't operate in absolutes. If someone cannot do good in a particular situation, there are no actions, good or harmful, that contribute to that person's status under the "doing good" framework. While it is very important to evaluate if acting threatens your safety, people are usually able to do good in more places than they think they can, and inaction can be harmful.

The "doing good" framework allows for society to more carefully reflect on which behaviors it should and should not tolerate. Looking at someone's actions instead of focusing on some concept of character allows us to closely examine how harmful actions negatively affect us. We can then improve by mitigating those effects and working to prevent that harm in the future.

The "doing good" framework does not erase an individual's complicity in systemic problems like racism and sexism. Recognizing an individual's contribution to fighting racism, sexism, etc. encourages others to help eliminate those injustices, and calling out someone's behavior that perpetuates inequality encourages us to take helpful actions instead of harmful ones. However, everyone lives within our racist system, our sexist system, our classist system, etc. and the "doing good" framework still allows us to talk about how some of us benefit from that system and how we can do our part to stop perpetuating them without having to label anyone who benefits as a "bad person".

The benefits of the "doing good" framework have a lot of potential to improve our discourse and our society, and I'm excited to live in a world where those improvements will help us not just "do well" at being good people and instead "do good".