Almost 30 years ago, Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote “When Bad Things Happen to Good People,” a powerful book that propelled him to national and international renown. Though we have differed on some important theological matters, many of the book’s insights have been indispensable to me in understanding God and suffering.
Today, we need another book that uses the words of Rabbi Kushner’s classic work, but addresses an entirely different issue: When Good People Do Bad Things.
We need such a book because of the disheartening fact that much, perhaps even most, evil does not emanate from the bad parts of human nature but from the good parts.
Most evil is not committed as a result of unbridled lust or greed. And the sadistic monster who revels in inflicting excruciating pain on other people is relatively rare.
Good intentions cause most of the world’s great evils.
Take communism, for example. The greatest mass-murdering ideology in history, the greatest destroyer of elementary human rights, was an ideology supported by many people who believed in moral progress and human equality. It took Stalin’s peace pact with Hitler to awaken many Western leftists to how evil communism was. And still, vast numbers of Westerners went on to support Stalin, Mao, Ho, Castro, Guevara or all of them. Were all these Westerners bad people, i.e., people who reveled in the suffering of others? Of course not.
Were all the Koreans who supported Kim Il Sung bad people? Were all the Russians who wept at Stalin’s funeral lovers of torture and mass murder? Of course not.
For that matter, most Germans who voted for Hitler and the Nazis were not voting for gas chambers. More than a few of them were preoccupied with reviving Germany. Contrary to what many people understandably but erroneously believe, Hitler actually played down his anti-Semitism to win Germans’ votes.
What is the major lesson to be learned from all this?
The major lesson is already noted, but I will restate it in the words of another rabbi who influenced me, the late Rabbi Wolfe Kelman, head of the Conservative rabbinate for many years. In my late 20s, I sought advice from him, and I have never forgotten this piece of wisdom: “Dennis,” he said, “I pretty much have my bad inclination (‘yetzer hara’ was the well-known Hebrew term he used) under control; it’s my good inclination (‘yetzer hatov’) that always gets me into trouble.”
When it comes to personal relations and even more so to formulating social policy, intending to do good is largely worthless. Given how much evil has emanated from human idealism, the heart is an awful guide to doing good.
In order to do good personally and in order to support social policies that do good, what humans need even more than a good heart (as beneficial as that can be) is wisdom.
This explains why we are in the morally confused world that I and other columnists document almost every week (and daily in my other life as a radio talk-show host). There has been a war on wisdom.
Many of the destructive and foolish ideas of the baby-boomer generation emanated from the Mother of Foolish Ideas – “You can’t trust anyone over 30.”
In that one sentence, the 1960s and ’70s announced that there was nothing to be learned about goodness or about life – it was enough to rely on one’s terrific heart for insights.
Western universities have an abundance of people of intellect, people with a vast repository of knowledge and people who mean well. Yet, the Western university is a moral wasteland. Why? Because it lacks wisdom. The university relies on the good intentions of its professors, not on the accumulated wisdom of the past, for answers to society’s problems. Thus, the Founding Fathers have little to teach us (they were rich, white men and often slaveholders); the Constitution is what we today say it is (which means it is anything a person with good intentions wants it to be); and the Bible is superstitious nonsense at best, pernicious nonsense at worst.
Instead of wrestling with the great ideas of those who lived before them, the university is dominated by people who are convinced that all one needs to know to achieve good is to love equality and social justice, and to regard reliance on the Bible, Judeo-Christian values and the American founders’ values as an indication of moral and intellectual weakness.
Having grown up in religious schools (Jewish), I knew early in life that my heart was an awful guide to what is right, that the human being is essentially morally flawed and human nature weak, and that the greatest moral ideas preceded my birth. By the time they graduate, most Americans who studied at traditional Jewish and Christian high schools have more wisdom (though, of course, less knowledge) than many professors, artists and editorial-page writers.
The wise – as opposed to most of the highly educated – know, among many other things, that when you give people something for nothing, you produce ungrateful people; that when you obscure the differences between men and women, you end up with many aimless men and angry women; that when you give children “self-esteem” without their earning it, you produce narcissists who enter adulthood incapable of handling life; that if you do not destroy evil, it will proliferate; and that if you are kind to the cruel, you will be cruel to the kind.
If you really want good to prevail, the key is wisdom, not the heart. That’s why we have a minimum voting age. And that’s why we have a minimum age for running for public office. We once understood that as good as a young person may be, goodness was not enough to be able to choose society’s leaders or to be one.
So, why do good people do bad things? Because they lack wisdom. Without wisdom, you can be nice and kind, but you will not do nearly as much good as your good heart would like you to do.
And you may even do harm.