I have been reading Peter Cave’s This Sentence is False, an excellent introduction to philosophical paradoxes written in an easily accessible style. A particularly interesting paradox he presents is the case of Mr. Badman and Mr. Goodman (Chapter 8, pp. 148-9).

Mr. Badman is a bad man. Although married to an adoring wife and proclaiming his fidelity, he has sexual liaisons with a swathe of girls. He becomes angry easily and has at times struck down his better half. He once was so careless when driving that he hit a small girl, killing her. Mr. Badman is a liar, a wife-beater and killer – a morally bad man and, under various jurisdictions, would be in prison.

Contrast him with Mr. Goodman, who is none of these things, being faithful, having neither beaten his wife, nor hit a child while driving. A little reflection leads us to see how Goodman could be incredibly similar to Badman, except Badman is unlucky, Goodman lucky.

Goodman pursues the girls, but the girls are untempted. Goodman takes swipes at his wife: she skillfully ducks; he misses. Goodman drives carelessly, but no child ever runs in front.

It is not paradoxical that we prefer some people to others: the careful driver to the bad, the loving partner to the unloving. The paradox concerns our showering moral accolades on some and condemnations on others – when the relevant differences lie in factors outside their control.

In the cases cited, Badman initiated actions that led to the unhappy results. Badman points out that Goodman initiated similar actions, yet – through luck, through lack of good looks, or whatever – failed to generate unhappy results. So, it is paradoxical and unfair that Badman is blamed whereas Goodman is not.

We may resolve the problem here by arguing that both are equally blameworthy. Peeling off the luck of the results, we are driven to the basic actions preformed. Peel off the basic actions – for we need to look at intentions.

As Cave continues in the chapter quoted, making moral judgements based on intention can lead to some extremely troubling results. What do you think? Is Mr. Badman a bad man? Is Mr. Goodman a good man? Can the paradox be resolved? Leave a comment.

One thought on “The troubling case of Mr. Goodman & Mr. Badman

  1. What if the moral framework being applied is arbitrary? What if, in a different system of morals, having multiple partners was seen as morally good? Would the two men’s roles as “good” and “bad” be reversed? And for a real mind-bender, what if a society’s superficial moral code and deeper moral code aren’t the same? What if the society pretends that wife-beating is “bad,” but actually underneath there is a current that sees it as “good” (perhaps because men are “supposed to be” powerful and authoritative)?

    In other words, I find it very tricky to even start a conversation about morality because it is a construct, too, and not something unchanging or absolute.

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