PART ONE: PHYSICAL INTELLECT
My love for the Dragon Ball franchise was re-invigorated recently as I finally sat down to watch the dubbed version of Dragon Ball Super. Though I didn't realize it at the time, my long hiatus from one of my favorite series resulted in a rather simplified understanding of Goku's characterization. He's the dumb hick who is constantly endangering his friends because of his fighting obsession, right? I even went so far as to state as much in another post, drawing from a collective fandom understanding rather than the actual source material---something I hadn't overtly engaged with for a number of years. Once I started watching Super though, read the first four translated manga volumes, re-read Dragon Ball, dove back into the Buu saga...I realized how very incomplete my picture of Goku was.
Fans have long argued that the hit to Goku’s head as a child made him rather dumb—as opposed to the in-canon evidence that it just made him docile instead.
In contrast, others have argued that he’s a horrific father and husband, so battle obsessed that he endangers others and can’t be bothered to demonstrate a decent level of care towards those he presumably loves—an example of the cold, hyper-focused genius. I’d like to use this space to argue against both claims, laying out just some of the intellect and empathy we see Goku display throughout the franchise* and making a case for the impact of cultural misunderstandings. In short, Goku appears dumb and heartless because he doesn’t easily pick up on social cues… and people rarely, if ever, bother explaining them to him.
(*As a disclaimer I do mean “franchise” here. Though there are obvious differences among the manga and dub/sub anime, I’ll be pulling from all three to get a hopefully well-rounded look at Goku’s character across all aspects of the series.)
To start, it’s absolutely no secret that Goku is a genius at fighting, but I think a lot of people overlook exactly how much strategy goes into both his fights and all situations surrounding those fights. He’s far more than just brute strength and the final volume of Dragon Ball featuring Goku vs. Piccolo is an excellent example of how versatile, quick-thinking, and innovative Goku tends to be. During this battle we see Goku:
Re-directing energy blasts, beating an “impossible” scenario and doing a ton of damage to Piccolo in the process.
Re-invents the Kamehameha on the fly and is labeled a “genius” by his master.
Comes up with a plan to retrieve Kami in the jar Piccolo swallowed and successfully tricks Piccolo into growing big enough to enact it.
Is the only one to figure out that Kami is lying about the dragon balls bringing him back.
Overall, frequently impresses his friends with how quickly he comes up with new strategies.
(I mean yeah, okay, it’s Yamcha being impressed but that means a whole lot more back in Dragon Ball than it does now lol.)
And all of this is just one fight. Let’s make another list of some of his other brilliant moments across the series:
Re-creates incredibly difficult techniques after only seeing them once. This applies to the kamehameha all the way through to Beerus’ hakai.
Works out a good portion of Zamasu’s plan, even if everyone got some details wrong (switching bodies vs. creating a fake Goku).
Immediately realizes that he can recruit the alternate timeline Zeno to be the friend he promised present!Zeno. Even the Grand Priest initially assumes this was Whis’ doing because it’s a perfect solution to a long-term problem.
Came up with the idea to summon alternate Zeno to destroy Zamasu in the first place.
Figured out the one place he could take Cell that wouldn’t harm anyone—with the exception of King Kai, Gregory, and Bubbles, who frankly don’t need to be alive. No matter how much they might complain about it.
Figured out how to combine the Kaio-Ken and Super Saiyan Blue without totally destroying his body, something that requires more than a bit of understanding of how these techniques function and might, with training, balance one another out.
Consistently remembers the limitations of the dragon balls and how they will effect situations (i.e. who they can still resurrect, who is carrying one and can be tracked by radar, etc.)
Was the only one to realize that fighters from Universe 7 could also include the dead. Immediately had an action plan to keep Frieza from doing much damage: have Baba summon him so it’s only 24 hours. Was the only one other than Whis to consider the big picture. While everyone else yelled about it being Frieza, they calmly reminded the rest that total annihilation is kinda worse than one dictator running around…
I could go on. The point is that Goku’s brilliant moments often get misinterpreted or downright ignored. It doesn’t help that the fandom also has a tendency to blame Goku for choices that unexpectedly (and unknowingly) lead to bad outcomes. Or he's blamed for situations that are just out of his hands to begin with. As said, I’ve been re-watching the Buu saga lately and there’s a whole lot of these assumptions packed into that arc.
Claim: Goku risked millions of lives to solo Bobbidi’s men.
Yes... as did Vegeta and Gohan (for reasons I'll explain below). However, it's noteworthy that Goku was the one willing to work with Vegeta once Buu was hatched. Up until a depowered Gohan faced Debura none of them had any reason to believe that Bobbidi was a threat because to Goku and Vegeta he wasn’t.
Claim: Goku caused Buu to hatch by insisting he fight Vegeta, even when Supreme Kai told him not to.
I adore Shin, he's one of my favorites, but he didn’t have his head in the game on this one. What was the other option? Let Vegeta keep murdering innocent people? Granted, that would have been a slower way to collect energy, but we all know Vegeta wouldn’t have been dissuaded from that fight for long. If Goku had dug in his heels Vegeta would have just attacked straight out and getting beaten to a pulp gives Buu just as much energy. At least Goku went into that fight thinking that his “level beyond Super Saiyan” would end things quickly. He didn’t realize how much more power Vegeta had obtained through Bobbidi’s magic and by the time he does, Buu is already on his way.
Claim: Goku broke the Z Sword.
This is something I always boggle at when I see it because yes, Goku may have suggested they test the sword, but once again no one else disagreed. Everyone was working under the same assumption that it was unbreakable and Shin is the one who decided to summon the hardest known metal in the universe. Not an unreasonable test when you think you’re dealing with a truly legendary blade and not, you know, the cheap tool a Destroyer picked up to trap a Kai in.
My point is that Goku tends to take the heat for any and every stumbling block—whether it could have been foreseen or not; whether there were other responsible parties or not. This trend continues into Dragon Ball Super, adopting an almost meta quality in how it reflects the fandom’s interpretation of Goku’s character. In the most recent arc we get a fairly straightforward series of events:
Grand Zeno announces that he wants to see a tournament between all the universes.
Goku enthusiastically agrees.
Some time later the Grand Zenos, entirely on their own, decide that they want to erase 6 universes.
They are (presumably) about to do so when Goku visits, reminding them of the tournament.
Now at least one universe has a chance at survival and, more importantly, the prize eventually ensures everyone’s safety.
Despite this, characters and fandom alike blame Goku for their predicament.
The Zenos' decision to wipe out a huge chunk of the multiverse is entirely separate from Goku's desire for a tournament. Goku just ensured that the two situations came together, therefore changing the circumstances in the mortals' favor. Whis and Vados seem to be the only ones willing to admit that—his personal reasons for suggesting the tournament aside—everyone owes Goku a great debt for his timing. Even if we take those intentions into consideration, Goku’s love of fighting is ultimately a good thing when it comes to entertaining two child-like entities with the power to erase an entire multiverse in an instant. It strikes me that the Grand Priest thanks Goku for alleviating the Omni Kings’ boredom with his suggestion. Because what happens when they get bored? They start destroying things, be it through a game involving real planets, or through talks that lead to, “Yes. There are far too many universes. Let’s get rid of some.” Happy, occupied rulers are less likely to destroy just for the sake of something to do. To say nothing of the fact that this is helping to teach them the value of individual, mortal life. Goku might be a “bauble” to them right now, but liking him as entertainment is the first step towards liking him as his own, intrinsic person. Indeed, by the end of the arc we see that the "Goku effect" has reached the Zenos too, given that they banked on the winning mortal choosing a selfless wish. Just like Goku would have.
As I'll discuss in a moment, Goku is overly familiar with the Grand Zenos because he’s had a lifetime of experiences teaching him that the gods aren’t intrinsically better than him—and that familiarity pays off. He asks for a tournament because they were the ones to first suggest it—and that suggestion pays off. Goku acts lighthearted leading up to it because he’s not prone to panic. If you can’t change things, why worry about them? But when the first universe gets erased?
He cares. He’s mad. And he’s going to do something about it. Namely, do what he does best: fight.
PART TWO: EMOTIONAL INTELLIGENCE
In terms of his ability to socialize, Goku is working under a number of constraints that I think have little to do with that knock on the head and much more to do with spending his formative years in the woods and the rest with a very narrow pool of acquaintances (i.e. other martial artists). Remember, this is a kid who, by young adolescence, still thought a car was a monster and wasn’t confident about recognizing a girl. If you don’t have those basics down, anything more complicated is going to go right over your head.
Above all, what seems significant to me is that few people ever bother to actually teach Goku. This is a common problem in real life as well, where people don’t believe that someone could be ignorant of something that’s just so obvious to them and by extension assume that the person is being deliberately obtuse. Or is just plain dumb. If you haven't learned yet then you can't learn at all. I mean, what kind of rock do you have to be living under to have missed [insert ‘obvious’ thing here]? I had this revelation my freshman year of high school when I was having a conversation with my roommate about leadership, resulting in her question, “Who’s George Washington?” In fairness to my own mistakes, my initial thought was, “What kind of idiot?” while the second was the realization that, huh, why do I expect a girl from Taiwan to know about American presidents? Especially when I couldn’t name a single one of her leaders in turn?
We see this same setup happening with Goku. Characters consistently assume that their knowledge is intrinsic and if Goku doesn’t know it—especially at his age—then he’s simply too stupid to learn. A perfect example of this is the ongoing joke in Dragon Ball Super that Goku doesn’t know how to properly greet someone, particularly a higher deity. When put on the spot he lets out a string of nonsense so absurd that when greeting Zamasu Whis comments, “Sometimes I wonder if he’s doing it on purpose!” In contrast, the viewer gets an insight into Goku’s thoughts at this moment: namely that he “Nailed it!” Goku honestly believes he greeted Zamasu well because no one bothers to tell him otherwise. They’re too busy laughing. And when people do ‘correct’ him there’s usually very little correction involved. It’s purely chastisement without explaining how to change his behavior. When Goku consistently fails to properly introduce himself to the Grand Priest, Shin’s solution is to elbow him in the ribs and then later step on his foot. Though this alerts Goku to the fact that he’s failing somehow, neither of these actions tell him what he should be doing instead. Of course, it’s perhaps no surprise that Shin would adopt this method of ‘education’ considering that this is all he ever receives from Elder Kai. Far from demonstrating an interest in actually teaching him the things Shin missed out on due to Buu’s rampage, Elder Kai is happy to just hit him over the head and tell him what a disappointment he is. Shin then models this approach with Goku.
Add to this the confusion that stems from constantly receiving mixed messages. Goku is, as said, a man who grew up outside of society’s social norms and once he’s in a position to start learning them the lines between appropriate and inappropriate have been irrevocably blurred. Think for a moment about who Goku’s closest friends are: a renowned martial arts master, a woman who will quickly become the richest scientist in the world, the prince of his entire species, numerous gods of various ranks…Goku has, quite unintentionally, surrounded himself with the best of the best, automatically undermining this assumption that the next higher up he meets should be someone he defers to. After all, if he can crack jokes with King Kai, why not have that same buddy-buddy relationship with the Supreme Kai? If he can manage that, why not greet the Grand Priest in the same way? Indeed, like Shin allowing Goku to pick him up and cart him around like a sack of potatoes, the Grand Priest happily lets Goku wear his gi around Lord Zeno’s palace and assures him he doesn't need to bow when he shows up to give tournament details. Lord Zeno himself is thrilled to find someone willing to approach him without fearful deference, someone who might be a friend. It's the equivalent of being told you can call someone by their first name and then being continually reprimanded by others for doing so. Goku is surrounded by gods that he eats with, trains with, teases, criticizes. They’re his family. To say nothing of the fact that two of them—Kami and Whis—have expressed interest in making him a god. If the people you’re meant to be respecting consistently drop those formalities, or just don’t care about those displays of respect to begin with, then why should Goku?
In contrast, we get to see how Goku reacts to actually being told how to change his behavior and why that change is important. Dragon Ball Super gives us another time of peace wherein, of course, Chi-Chi insists that Goku start holding down an actual job. Not an absurd request when you’ve got two kids and saving the world rarely pays… Regardless, we get filler moments of Goku trying his hardest, failing so spectacularly at being a farmer that he’s got one mess of a field and is letting Goten drive the tractor off cliffs. There’s a brief reprieve wherein Mr. Satan gives him the money he got for pretending to be the world's savior, but then Chi-Chi is right back at insisting that Goku keep up his employment.
The difference between her demands and others’ is that she tells Goku why: We’re going to put this money Mr. Satan gave us towards Goten’s schooling and I want you to set a good example as Pan’s grandfather. Goku may not like farming, but now he has a solid idea of why it’s important. So he applies himself and guess what...
Goku learns. In fact, he becomes damn good at it, good enough that he can sell off his entire crop at the local market and leave the buyers wanting more. Good enough to figure out how to combine what both he and Chi-Chi want in this situation: a job + training. Nevertheless, Goku keeps up farming long enough to grow ‘weak,’ developing a bruise from a mere gunshot, all because this work is important to his wife. Goku continues farming up until he learns that Vegeta has outpaced him in training with Whis and at that point everyone recognizes the kind of sacrifice he’s made by giving up fighting for months on end. Gohan reminds Chi-Chi that Goku will always be their best bet for keeping the world safe and once he actually escapes on Whis’ back, Chi-Chi drops her faux-anger and acknowledges that that’s Goku for you. He needs to train and she’s grateful he held a job for as long as he did. I fully believe that this same setup can be applied to anything Goku is supposedly stupid at. If people bothered to explain things to him rather than making assumptions about what he should already know, we’d have a very different Goku.
Another, smaller example played for humor is when Goku exclaims in surprise about, presumably, Trunks kissing Mai. Vegeta is also shocked. How can you be married to a woman for years and have two kids without knowing that couples kiss? Well… you can’t. Not when you’ve spent years in a media filled society, there’s implications that you kissed your wife in anime filler, and at the very least you’ve hung out with Master Roshi for most of your life/bribed Elder Kai with a kiss from Bulma. Goku even knows enough to ask, “With lipstick, or without?” In reality, this is another instance of miscommunication. Goku seems to be surprised by Trunks mama birding Mai by chewing up a senzu bean and depositing it into her mouth; Vegeta interprets his shock as a response to kissing in general. Goku is then unable to follow Vegeta’s line of thought enough to correct him—“Aren’t you married?” “What does that have to do with this?”—and Vegeta, like most, isn’t inclined to explain himself. The confusion remains. In most social situations, Goku needs a level of transparency and blunt communication that his friends and family aren't willing to give him.
PART THREE: MORALITY
Like so many heroes, Goku’s kindness is his greatest strength. Part of that stems from Toriyama himself, controlling the narrative so that many of Goku’s seemingly bad decisions end up paying off: They still win against Cell even though he was given a senzu bean, Vegeta becomes their greatest ally, same with Piccolo, same with Buu, even keeping Frieza from his initial death eventually pays off in Super. There’s a lot of authorial intent making sure that Goku rarely pays for his extreme kindness. But why should he? Goku is far from the only protagonist that is (usually) incapable of killing—maintaining that moral high ground. He's not a rare breed, he just doesn’t have the ability to put his enemy in jail like Batman, or remove their power like Aang. In fact, removing them as threats would ensure that Goku can never fight them again, the selfish desire that exists alongside his morals. This is what fans tend to focus on, highlighting Goku’s desire to fight again as evidence of an indifference towards the world’s safety, or just evidence of stupidity in general. However, I think that’s a disservice to his character. It’s only half the picture. When Kami fears that Piccolo will once again threaten the Earth if allowed to live, Goku responds with, “Then I’ll just have to beat him again!!” He then follows that up with, “I’m not gonna let you kill yourself!!”
Goku’s motivations here are twofold: Keep Piccolo around to fight again and keep Kami alive. He wants the win-win scenario. Same with saving Vegeta. Same with a reincarnated Buu. Same with Frieza. He shows mercy to these characters, something we usually prize in a hero (and to be frank, by the time Goku gets to Frieza his mercy decisions have a real good track record). If this is a story about achieving the impossible, why not work towards a scenario where everyone benefits? If anything, I’d say Goku’s fatal flaw is less stupidity (an inability to read how dangerous the situation actually is) and more extreme optimism with a side of (frankly well deserved) arrogance. He honestly believes that it'll turn out alright because if there’s another threat in the future? They’ll handle it. Just like they always have before. Compare these moments to Goku sacrificing himself during the Cell arc or blasting Frieza to bits after Whis’ do-over. When push comes to shove—when someone really does have to die or the villain is too much of a threat to keep alive—Goku will make and enact that hard call himself. Until then he’d prefer to do things his way. Thinking the best of people. And as Tien once pointed out, he’s more than earned that right. Or rather, that level of trust.
A slightly more legitimate criticism in my opinion is that Goku and Vegeta risk lives because they’re not willing to work as a team. The term “Saiyan pride” gets thrown around a lot, but I actually think this is something that just happens to be a part of our two remaining Saiyans’ personality, not an intrinsic trait of the species. Gohan has always been a team player. Trunks and Goten are fused at the hip, so enamored with their double-teaming that they’ll join up as Mighty Mask and later become a little obsessed with fusion. If Saiyans were truly a solo act by nature, I doubt that one dose of human genetics would have changed these three so drastically. The recent Broly film also showed us plenty of Saiyans working in teams as they served Frieza, and Vegeta was paired with Nappa before coming to Earth. No, we don’t see them fighting as a duo, but that’s largely because that kind of teamwork isn’t necessary to win most of their fights. The same applies to Goku and Vegeta at the start of all their adventures. More often than not they’re confident that they can win solo, but when it’s proved beyond a doubt that they can’t? They do work together, always, whether it’s combining Kamehameha with Final Flash, or fusing to form Vegeto. They’re willing to team up… just as a last resort.
Why the hesitation though? Because each views the other as a personal crutch. Despite their rivalry continuing to push Vegeta to new heights, his identity—his pride—is directly tied to beating Goku. That doesn’t lend itself naturally to working with him and it doesn’t help that there’s an intrinsic class element as well: Vegeta was taught from a young age that princes don’t need help. They certainly don’t need it from a common, “low class wretch.” Goku in turn holds a strong belief that you need to own your power in order to push past your limits. Teamwork is great, but it essentially stalls any personal progress. The best way to improve, especially for a Saiyan, is during real battle, so he’s not inclined to rely on another unless it’s strictly necessary. Otherwise that would waste a crucial opportunity for improvement. Any other times where teamwork is rejected is due to Goku’s strong sense of fair play, such as when he insists that Gohan get a crack at Dabura since they all got a solo battle before him. Or giving Cell a senzu bean partly to meet that same level of cooperative respect (Cell giving them 10 days to prepare for his tournament) and partly to help release the rage in Gohan needed to beat Cell in the first place. Selfish moments? Perhaps. It depends on whether you believe in the pride of a fighter, or winning by any means necessary. Fights are sacred and for Goku that means treating his opponents with a certain level of respect. Thus, his decisions tend to fall somewhere between deliberately leveling the playing field and taking the occasional cheap shot... but then apologizing for it afterwards.
Connected to this, I’ve seen numerous fans overlook his classic Power of Love characterization, stating that it’s Goku’s drive to fight—and win—that continually saves the day. However, I’d argue that this desire only takes him so far. Yes, Goku undoubtedly has an obsession with pushing past his limits, but time and time again we’re shown that his love for others is how he does that. Whether it’s calling on all of Earth to assist in a Spirit Bomb, achieving Super Saiyan through Krillin's death, or destroying Goku Black’s blade after learning what he did to Goten and Chi-Chi, love is what tends to push Goku to new heights. Vegeta recognizes as much during the Buu arc and admits that he’d hoped he’d become stronger after having a wife and child of his own, only to discover that this wasn’t the secret. But Vegeta was wrong in his conclusion. What else would we label a power-up through love except this:
The rage that Saiyans use to break that ceiling is intimately tied to how they care for others. After all, what can generate more potent rage than threatening a loved one? Gohan learns it in the hyperbolic time chamber and then again when Cell kills Android 16. Cabba learns it when Vegeta threatens to destroy his home world. Even non-Saiyans like Krillin and 18 get by on the Power of Love.
It’s a traditional message. One might even say cliched, but the Dragon Ball franchise re-invigorates this heartfelt theme by making the viewer work for it just a little more than usual. It’s easy to assume that Goku doesn’t care because he doesn’t have “normal” relationships (i.e. prioritizing training over a baby). It’s easy to assume that the fight itself drives these characters when they’ve already convinced themselves of the same. But take a moment to look past Goku’s passion and Vegeta’s pride and you’ll find that these are consistently secondary focuses for them. The people around them still come first.
Of course, Goku’s kindness is also his greatest weakness. We see many times throughout the series—and are told straight out by Whis in Super—that Goku’s biggest disadvantage in a fight is his willingness to let his guard down, usually because he’s applying that same perspective of fair play to his opponent. He wouldn’t take a cheap shot here, so he’s incapable of imagining that someone else would.
Here, education only takes Goku so far. Despite being told on numerous occasions not to put that kind of faith in his opponents, his tendency to see the best in people continually proves stronger. Beyond that intrinsic optimism, I believe that this is partly due to Goku’s disadvantage when it comes to picking up on social cues. He just isn’t very good at reading emotions. Which isn’t to say that Goku is unfeeling—far from it—only that he has a hard time correctly reading emotion in others. On a day-to-day basis this is played for laughs. When Goku is preparing to visit Grand Zeno for the first time he’s astonished by the number of people insisting that he has to be on his best behavior. He finally asks if he really seems that rude to them and gets an emphatic “Yes” from Kabito, Elder Kai, and Shin. But Goku brushes it off as a joke: “Haha you guys are funny!” For reasons already established, Goku believes strongly that he is being polite and with no explanation to undermine that assumption, he’s left with little choice but to conclude that this is just friendly teasing. Significantly though, the tone of voice here and the serious expressions aren’t enough to challenge those assumptions. Goku is more inclined to read the emotions that he thinks are there, rather than what’s actually being expressed. He can't pick out the correct answer (we're serious) so he comes to conclusions based on outside experience (they must be joking because I'm always, from my perspective, polite to people). This is the same guy who blurted, “That yawn looked fake!” when Beerus was trying to pull one over on Zamasu. Goku has his talents, but social cues just aren’t one of them.
(As a side note, one of the clear examples I can think to counter this is Goku consistently allowing Chi-Chi and Bulma to hit him. He can obviously easily dodge them both, but recognizes that this little tradition is an important way for them to display their emotions towards him. Notably though, he's been learning and practicing this dynamic for most of his life.)
In more dire situations, this inability to read people leads to him getting hurt.
For the audience it’s glaringly obvious that Vegeta is faking here. We know him well by now and can easily read how insincere his agreement to go fight Buu is. Goku? Not so much. Notably the audience’s knowledge isn’t stemming from something non-diegetic like a dramatic soundtrack. Goku has the same background knowledge as us, gets to hear the same words we do, sees the same expressions, and yet comes to a radically different conclusion about how genuine they are. The guy just isn’t very good at reading emotions, which is a huge detriment to your development when you’re already an alien who grew up outside of the society you're now living in.
And yes, being an alien is important. Vegeta might also have been born off Earth, but he had until early adolescence to learn a variety of social skills. Perhaps even more than the average person considering his status as a prince. Goku, meanwhile, grew up in the woods with one (1) old man for company. This means that, again, much of what is considered “obvious” is just something he hasn’t been explicitly told yet, or explained in a way that justifies a change in his behavior. A favorite example of this is when Goku once again heads off to train with Whis and is shocked that Vegeta won’t be joining them. Why? Because Bulma is about to have their second kid.
Now to us it’s obvious why a father should be around for a birth because we’re humans who grew up with that expectation and have learned numerous reasons for its existence: because it’s a significant moment in a couple’s life together, because a mother needs emotional support, because childbirth is dangerous and you might lose her and the baby, etc. Thus, when Goku questions why Vegeta would choose waiting for a baby over training, people label Goku as a horrible father and husband. But notably, Whis agrees:
This moment tells us that Goku's decision is based in culture rather than personality. Staying by a mother’s side during childbirth appears to be both a human and Saiyan expectation, something Vegeta no doubt picked up on as a child. But the alien angel and Saiyan who grew up in the woods? The one who was dead for the birth of his second child and who knows where during the first? That’s not obvious to them. Your experience is not universal, and of course Vegeta doesn’t bother to explain any of the above, once again leaving Goku in the dark about why his choice might read as insensitive here. If anything, Whis' agreement further solidifies Goku's assumption that Vegeta is the weird one.
Contrast this to Goku’s moments of fatherhood where he’s in situations that he fully understands: expressing how proud he is at Gohan mastering the Z Sword in just a day, playing with Pan on the roof at night, agreeing to get his health checked when it was clear Goten was worried about him, allowing Chi-Chi to emphasize their kids’ studies and supporting Gohan’s decision to become a scholar. Yes, even deciding to train rather than come home, the supposed biggest blow against Goku’s status as a father. But people forget that this choice was largely one of sacrifice. Goku stays behind because he believes that the Earth is safer without him attracting foes (something proven correct when Beerus hunts him down years later with the sole purpose of starting a universe shattering fight). Is that decision rough on Gohan? Absolutely, but here Goku is thinking about the many rather than the one, something critics endlessly claim he can’t do. The fact that he can be wished/brought back at any point in the event of an emergency—such as something like Buu—is just a good, pre-emptive strategy. It’s all the security and none of the risk. Yes, there’s the added bonus that Goku wants to train in Other World, but that decision doesn’t negate the rest of the logic here, or the fact that they need him to train to keep the Earth safe. What’s worse, a fatherless son for seven years or an annihilated planet? Just because there’s a personal benefit involved doesn’t mean the decision itself is a bad one. The same can be said for the vast majority of Goku’s choices.
Goku isn't "normal." Not by conventional standards anyway. But why would he be? He's an alien who lived an isolated childhood, surrounded by people who rarely explain why they consider these specific, social traditions to be important, or how to adopt them, and his moral compass aligns with most traditional heroes----don't kill, be better, show mercy even if it's not deserved. Most strikingly, Goku is an individual with a very weighted skill set, but just because someone is exemplary in one area doesn't mean that the rest of their intellect suffers; a well-rounded individual is not necessarily a smarter individual, especially when we see throughout the series how often Goku can apply his fighting prowess to other situations. Intellect, like bodies, comes in a variety of shapes and sizes.
To be a bit more blunt about it, Goku is wicked smart. Full stop. He just specializes in bodily kinesthetic intellect rather than interpersonal intellect.
And he has the heart to help balance that out.
GIF #1: https://tenor.com/view/dbz-dbs-goku-grand-priest-gif-9178578
GIF #2: https://makeagif.com/gif/thats-my-bulma-mLcPvq
GIF #3: https://imgur.com/gallery/xXRNRdA