(And a New Definition of What it Means to Be a Good Person)

Summary: Most people seem to have a static definition of what it means to be a good person. A higher, more dynamic standard might produce more engagement and zeal, saving more lives and alleviating much more suffering. “Supergoodness” is an improved definition of what it means to be a good person. It means to want to learn how to do more good and to regularly apply the learning to your life. In other words, people wouldn’t just do the kinds of actions their parents and religious teachers taught them when they were growing up. Instead the quality and impact of the actions they did would regularly increase, because they would be learning and applying better methods

At this time, we can’t determine if supergoodness can be a global upgrade for humanity, or just an idea and set of methods with a trillion-dollar impact.


Imagine that a surgeon is taught some improved medical procedure that will save many more lives. Now suppose that at the end of the training the surgeon says: “Even though I understand why these new procedures are more effective, I’m more comfortable with the old way of operating. Besides, I enjoy doing things the old way—it’s become my style!” Obviously, this would be a shocking attitude for the surgeon to take. In fact, it might even cause the surgeon to lose his or her license if a patient died that could have been saved with a better procedure. But while such an attitude is unthinkable in a surgeon, it’s quite common in people who decide to do good. Most people prefer to do a good deed that they are comfortable with, rather than learn to do an unfamiliar yet strategic action that can produce more good.

Now imagine that some people take the attitude of surgeons. They would then ask themselves and each other, what the best, most loving actions would be. With mutual support, reflection, study and practice, they would choose actions that alleviate great suffering and save lives rather than other good actions. While medical surgeons take about eight years to learn to save lives, people who adopt a surgeon’s attitude can begin to save lives and reduce suffering in a matter of months, not years.

“Supergoodness” means taking on something like a surgeon’s attitude. It means thinking strategically. It also means regular action and regular study—ongoing learning to do more good. Most people do the traditional kinds of good actions they are taught when they are young, or they do the good actions that are popularized through the media. Most people don’t ask themselves the question, “What is the best, most loving action I could do?” Thinking about that question and answering it with action would be what we are calling ‘supergoodness.’ If you want to practice and maintain this attitude you should probably join a group of others who wished to practice this attitude. Regular ongoing support, even if it’s with one other person by phone, is probably essential to optimum action.

Supergoodness is to have the seriousness and focus of surgeons who know that lives depend on the quality of their work. Perhaps there are five parts of the attitude:

a. Commitment to the best methods. A surgeon would never be considered competent if he or she used less than the best methods.

b. Passion. Good surgeons are not totally detached and cold. The spirit of supergoodness is to “Act as if your child’s life was on the line, and not someone else’s.—your Molly, your Jason, your Kizito, your Prajhi, your Ling. Act as if you can see their faces.”

c. Reasonable stretches. We make reasonable stretches, not “kamikaze” stretches. “Make reasonable stretches” is a useful slogan to bear in mind. Do your level best.

d. Conscious effort. In some of our superprograms we ask for conscious effort for five hours per week, but we expect that the spirit of doing the best, most loving things will pervade the rest of your life.

e. Commitment to ongoing learning. Just as a medical surgeon must keep learning, we need to keep learning because our global and personal situations keep changing.

Are You a Good Person?

We think that if most people were asked for an informal definition of what a good person was, they’d probably say that a good person is someone who regularly does good deeds – actions to help others – and/or is kind and considerate. But we think that many people who do good were brought up that way by their parents, with some help from their ministers and teachers. We also think that many kind people were just born with a gentler disposition.

Our definition of a super-good person is someone who is willing to learn how to do more good. According to this definition, people who are not interested in learning how to do more good would not be considered super-good people, no matter how much good they currently do.

We defend our definition by saying that people who are too proud of their efforts or methods, or too caught up in their projects, are like surgeons who are not interested in the best, most up-to-date techniques. This view may anger people who want to be thought of as good, since it might threaten their self-esteem. We actually prefer not to use the word ‘good’ since it has religious and philosophical connotations. Instead, we introduce the concept of supergoodness as being a higher goodness, not in the religious or philosophical sense, but in terms of likely results.

If you were one of the many people facing great hardship in this world, you’d probably prefer that people be supergood because it would be more likely that you or your children would experience a release from suffering, oppression or the threat of death.

Three Criticisms of these Ideas

(1) Someone may want to dismiss supergoodness as an idea that’s already more or less contained in the phrase “best practices.” We think that someone who is asking or seeking the current best practices probably is at the moment being supergood, but supergoodness seems to be much more than best practices. — Perhaps it’s an ethos, an attitude toward life and toward others.

(2) Someone might want to dismiss supergoodness, saying that the Christian language of “loving with all your heart, mind and strength” is stronger, better and more forceful. That may be true, and therefore that Christian appeal might produce something equivalent to supergoodness. Over time, however, any formulation of words gradually loses its power through repetition. So Christians and others might see supergoodness as a fresh formulation, one that might produce renewed zeal in some people. It’s also a nonreligious formula, and so it may inspire many people who would reject religious language.

(3) Someone might say that ‘supergoodness’ is not really new or important because there have always been some people who keep trying to be supergood, who keep looking for better ways to do greater good. But part of the power of creating a new category of goodness is that it highlights a distinction. In the past, people could just see goodness as a continuum, and they would see being “really good” as mainly exerting more effort. But now once people understand the concept, they can see that supergoodness is a higher, more efficient approach to doing good, not merely a matter of exerting more effort.

Status: Supergoodness and related teaching stories can be found in the Goodness section. Supercharity is a simple idea that’s one major application of the supergoodness concept. Many other tools and links for learning to do good can be found on the Goodness Materials List. Check out “Wise Giving” and “Choices Regarding the Empowerment of Others,” too!

Plans and Needs: The supergoodness attitude can be promoted through super-programs and the question, “What is the best, most loving use of my time, right now?” It can also be promoted through programs designed for religious and ethical teachers, and through service-learning programs.

Potential Impact: Just as Wide Weath (TM) is a radical re-definition and upgrade of wealth, and just as the Golden Rule 2.0 is a radical re-definition and upgrade of fairness, Supergoodness does the same for the concept of goodness. People would likely do good deeds of much higher quality. Much more suffering would be alleviated. On the other hand, more people seem to be more interested in wealth than in doing good, so the impact of Supergoodness may not be as great as that of Wide Wealth. Similarly, more people are interested in fairness as a means of assuring that they get their fair share, than are the people actively interested in doing good.

Is this a major upgrade that would lead to a better world if people embraced it? Please comment!

Past a certain point, loving is a learning experience, and learning is a loving experience.” — Tim Cimino

“Act as if your child’s life was on the line, and not someone else’s – your Molly, your Jason, your Kizito, your Prajhi, your Ling. Act as if you can see their faces.” — Tim Cimino

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *