What makes a person good?

Sometimes I am asked “What makes a person good? How do I know if I am a good person or not?” The answer to this question is that traditionally seven qualities have been ascribed to a good person. These qualities are called “virtues”, or strengths of moral character. They have been taught for thousands of years. There are first all the four “cardinal” virtues. These are hinge virtues because all the others depend on them. They are: 1. justice or fairness 2. prudence or wisdom 3. fortitude or courage and 4. moderation or self control.

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Justice means basically the golden rule “Do unto others what you want them to do unto you”. Prudence means understanding people and situations, understanding what is needed. Fortitude means the guts to stand up for what is right and to resist wrong, even when it is hard to do that. And moderation means to control your desires and animal appetites by reason, to overcome greed and selfishness. There are also three “theological”, or God-centered virtues: faith, hope and charity. These are the vertical virtues; the cardinal virtues are the horizontal virtues. The theological virtues make us right with God; the cardinal virtues make us right with ourselves and our neighbors. Faith means believing in what God has revealed because we believe in God. Hope means believing God’s promises; it is faith applied to the future. Charity means self-giving, self-forgetful love. The good person is someone, then, who strives to put these virtues into practice day by day. None of us is perfect in any of them. But if we are striving to live according to them, if we want to improve in them, if we are sorry when we act contrary to them and truly try to do better, then we are well on our way to being a “good person”. (I am indebted to Peter Kreeft in his book Your Questions, God’s Answers for the substance of this reflection.)

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