Every month, Eric Kaplan, a philosopher and writer for The Big Bang Theory, will answer your questions about life, the universe, and everything else. To send Eric a question, you can him email him here.
Dear Eric Linus Kaplan,
I met a guy in a bar and said I am pregnant even though I’m not. Why did I do it? Why do I lie? Am I a bad person? I know that advice columnists, therapists, and teachers always say “You’re not a bad person,” when people ask them that, so please don’t give me an easy, cheap answer. I mean I know there have been bad people in the world — Caligula for example — so how do I know I’m not one of them?
I Hate Myself
You said you don’t want an easy answer, so I won’t just make the easy point that Caligula never seemed to have worried that he was a bad person, so if you’re asking about whether you’re bad or good, it shows you care to be better, and therefore can’t be that bad.
It’s a nice point, but it’s wrong, like the similar point that if you worry if you’re crazy, you’re not crazy. Marshall Applewhite, who encouraged a bunch of people to kill themselves and castrate themselves so they could fly away on the Halle-Bopp Comet was a crazy person. But he experienced moments of self-doubt. He once got depressed and asked a friend “I wonder if this is all crap? What if there is no comet?” His friend told him to cheer up and Marshall went on to a promising career as a crazy cult leader.
Just as crazy people sometimes worry about being crazy, bad people do sometimes worry about being bad. Imagine a bad person, after stealing a pie from an orphanage, asking his friends, “Does this make me a bad person?” This bad person is hoping his friends will say, “No it doesn’t.” And to make sure he gets the answer he’s hoping for, he will give his friends some pie.
How can I help you answer your question? I don’t want to be one of the pie-thief’s gang, giving you absolution in exchange for love and friendship. I think the best I can tell you is that I don’t feel like you are putting me in that position (and if I did, I would tell you).
You already know that the question, “Am I bad?” is meaningless as is. Bad compared to what? The question you really want to know is, “Am I getting better?” And by asking yourself why you do what you do, and paying attention to its effect on other people, and fearlessly asking others how it affects them, you will get better.
As to the particular question of why you told that lie – you know that. Maybe because you didn’t trust the guy in the bar enough to learn the truth. Maybe because being pregnant is a fantasy of yours. Maybe because you wanted to have fun by breaking a rule.
None of these things – not trusting people, having fantasies, or breaking rules – makes you a bad person…or a good person. They can all play out in millions of different ways. Take an interest in how you use them and you will find out what is going on.
But, do notice that people often do things that are conventionally labeled “bad” as a trick to make them hate themselves. And if I were you, IHM, I wouldn’t hate myself.
After all, you’re stuck with yourself for the long haul. It’s a long car trip, IHM, and it’s not going to be much fun if you and your passenger – you – spend the whole trip hating each other.
But if you continue to take an interest in your driving companion, it can be a lot of fun.
Hang in there!
Eric Linus Kaplan
Send Eric your question about about life, the universe, and everything else, by emailing him here.
Eric Kaplan is an executive producer of (and writer for) the CBS sitcom The Big Bang Theory and the author of Does Santa Exist: A Philosophical Investigation.
He studied Buddhist thought and practice at Wat Chulamani in Thailand, Jewish thought in New York and Jerusalem, and philosophy of science, philosophy of mind
and existentialism at Columbia University and UC Berkeley. His blog is ericlinuskaplan.wordpress.com.