How To Be A Good Human.

June 15, 2009

We know a good human when we see one. An act of heroism? Good human. Donated a kidney to a stranger? Good human. Launched a non-profit to end human slavery? Good human. Dalai Lama? Good human. Adolf Hitler? Evil human.

But it’s not so simple. Most of us are neither the Dalai Lama nor Hitler. We try to be good, but we are ignorant of many of the effects of our choices on others, and sometimes we get lazy and greedy. Often our desires and perceived needs compete with our values, leading us to buy products that cause harm to the environment (e.g. electronics), or were made in sweatshops (e.g. most clothes produced overseas), or may have been tainted with human slavery (e.g. much chocolate) or animal suffering and cruelty (e.g. almost all meat, dairy, eggs, fur, leather).

One hundred years ago, where I live in rural Maine, it was fairly obvious how to be a good human. Everyone knew where their food, clothing, energy, shelter and transportation came from and who and what was harmed or helped by their actions. It still wasn’t easy to always be good though. Fear, jealousy, anger, and other emotions all led our great grandparents to make choices that weren’t always good.

Today, not only do we have those same challenging emotions and impulses, it also takes enormous motivation to find out who and what was harmed or helped to supply us with our basic needs, let alone everything else we indulge in. Because our lives are inextricably connected to everyone and everything across the globe through economic globalization, to be truly good means that we must become conscious of these connections and make choices that help rather than harm everybody, not just our family, friends, and neighbors.

In my book, Most Good, Least Harm, I write about the MOGO (most good) principle, which asks, “How can we do the most good and the least harm to ourselves, other people, animals, and the environment?” It’s become the guiding principle of my life, and no one has told me it’s not a good principle by which to live. In fact, it’s so obvious as to raise the question, “Why did you have to write a book about it?” The answer is because it’s really hard to be a good human and practice the MOGO principle. So many current systems make it impossible much of the time. For example, I’m typing this on my computer which is filled with toxic metals, mined in an unsustainable way, and which harm people and the environment during both production and disposal.

So how can we be consistently good humans? We can do so by endeavoring to the greatest degree possible to bring what I call the 3 I’s of inquiry, introspection, and integrity to our life choices, whether these are daily decisions about what products, foods, or clothing to buy, or larger decisions about our work, activism, volunteerism, and involvement in change-making.

What does this look like in practice? To bring our inquiry to our decisions, we must continually seek out knowledge by asking:

– Who or what was or will be harmed or helped by this choice?

– How can I find out?

Then we introspect. We consider where the confluence of our values and our choices lies. We ask if a product, food or article of clothing we may desire is worth the harm it causes. We explore whether our work and free time could be better aligned with our deepest passions and concerns. We self reflect about our desired epitaph and examine what is most important to us. We cultivate our ideas for changing unsustainable and inhumane systems so that they are healthy, compassionate, and just.

Finally, we commit to living with integrity, that is, we choose to live according to our values to the greatest degree possible. We become conscious choicemakers and engaged solutionaries based on what we’ve learned and on what matters most to us.

That’s it! Except it’s the biggest challenge in the world to be a truly good human. But really, what else is there worthy of our lives? How else will we die without regret, shame, or guilt? How else will we know the depth of inner peace and the power of pure human joy that comes from being a good human?

- Zoe Weil is the President of the Institute for Humane Education, and author of Most Good, Least Harm: A Simple Principle for a Better World and Meaningful Life. She blogs at www.zoeweil.com and Twitters at ZoeWeil.

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Comments (2)

  1. Wendy says:

    Such an amazing post! I’ve read Zoe’s book and am in the process of rereading it (thanks to The Good Human… I won the book here!). It is so important to live a thoughtful life!

  2. amanda h says:

    “Who or what was or will be harmed or helped by this choice?” – I think that’s the most important question

    That’s the whole reason we shop at our farmer’s market on the weekends – it’s local, and we can see the people & get to know the people we’re supporting.