Several people who I respect immensely, notably my former professor Rick Garnett, have recently been advocating the idea that what we really need in this country is to be nicer* to one another. Rick points to a recent post by Robert Miller over at First Things regarding the late Ronald Dworkin. Prof. Miller's thesis is, generally, that one can be a "good person" while holding and disseminating dangerously wrong ideas, and that we should all be nice to people with whom we disagree because, apparently, they're probably good people.
Now, I certainly will not advocate acting uncharitably. But charity demands neither that we be "nice," in a conventional sense, nor that we think that people who spread lies are "good people." Laying aside for the moment the first point, who is a "good person"? That should be an easy question for even the most lackadaisically peeping Thomist. A good person is a person who does good things. And how many bad things must a person do before we agree that he is no longer a "good person" in a conventional sense? Well certainly if he dedicates his life to promoting something evil, it becomes rather difficult to continue to claim that he is nevertheless a "good person." Does a person's wrongdoing "not count" because he refrains from beating his wife, or because he puts a roof over his children's heads? May the saints preserve us from the tyranny of small expectations. This sounds like nothing so much as the classic intellectual-property line: the defendant may not escape liability simply be showing how much of the plaintiff's work he did not copy.
To hold otherwise---that we can say a person, irregardless of the things
he believes, is nevertheless a "good person"---is to fall into
nominalism and related errors. A person's character is defined by his
actions, including his actions of belief and advocacy. So we would never
say "Jim believes and advocates the Arian heresy, but is not an Arian,"
or "Bob vehemently and firmly believes that it is good to barbecue
infants, but he's not a barbarian." This makes no more sense than the
statement "Steve sleeps with numerous women who are not his wife, but
he's not an adulterer."
Granted, "good person" is almost vacuously vague. And even "bad
persons," again somewhat vague, deserve love and respect (for
themselves, if not for their ideas and actions). But it's stuff and
nonsense to say that a person, otherwise guilty of profoundly wrong and
destructive actions (such as the widespread propagation of false ideas)
is a "good person" because he is not also an axe murderer, or a
sociopath, or a burglar. One doesn't get a pass for murder because one
says one's prayers at night and gives generously to the poor. One
oughtn't to receive a pass on writing vile books because he throws nice
The advocacy of such passes is Laodicean at best.
* In fairness, the word "nice" does not appear in Rick's most recent post or in Prof. Miller's linked post. It's my gloss, based partly on a prior Mirror of Justice post---to which I don't have a link at the moment---about dinner parties.