Are Human Beings Inherently Good?
This week, I debated radio show host and author Dennis Prager in what was dubbed “The Great Debate.” We engaged in a vigorous exchange of views regarding the vexed topic of human behavior, trying to establish whether humans are inherently good. I believe they are, and that Jewish tradition backs me up; Dennis disagrees.
Dennis has several well-worn arguments to support his position. According to him, selfishness — which all humans are, unless they are educated and trained to be selfless — is the antithesis to goodness. Or, to put it another way, fixated self-interest is more-or-less equivalent to evil.
To prove his point, Dennis uses a rather jarring example. “Take babies,” he says: “babies are lovable and innocent, but they’re not good. Babies are entirely self-centered: ‘I want mommy!’ ‘I want milk!’ ‘I want to be held!’ ‘I want to be comforted!’ — ‘And if you don’t do all these things immediately — I will ruin your life.’” In summary, according to Dennis, humans cannot be inherently good, because we all start off as babies, and babies are not inherently good.
But is that actually true? Personally, I think it’s not. Babies cannot fend for themselves. We are the ones who brought them into the world and now, in their helpless state, they want to eat — because otherwise they’ll die. And so they cry. What else would you expect them to do? Why is that “not good”? Does Dennis really think that it is evil to be concerned with your own survival? My view is that to equate a baby’s survival instincts with evil is about as disingenuous an argument you can come up with.
In 1943, Isabel Paterson (1886-1961), a noted journalist who was also a highly respected political philosopher, published “The God of the Machine,” a libertarian manifesto promoting individual rights, limited government, and economic freedom.
Inter alia, Paterson tackled the problem of evil: “Most of the harm in the world is done by good people, and not by accident, lapse, or omission,” she wrote. “It is the result of their deliberate actions, long persevered in, which they hold to be motivated by high ideals toward virtuous ends. This is demonstrably true; nor could it occur otherwise. The percentage of positively malignant, vicious, or depraved persons is necessarily small, for no species could survive if its members were habitually and consciously bent upon injuring one another.”
Dennis often poses the question: why would “basically good” people commit acts of violence and genocide? If Germans were good, how could they have been Jew-murdering Nazis? If ISIS terrorists are good, how can they chop off people’s heads? But the truth is, he’s missing the point. In the first instance, even the most evil acts are justified by their perpetrators as being for the greater good, however warped that rationale may be.
And secondly, on a societal level, the reason Germans did not oppose the Nazi regime, or why they may even have gone as far as actively supporting the Nazi regime — was sociological. It’s a sad truth that survival often trumps altruism. The result may be evil, and a weak person may have evolved into an evil person — but at their core, every human wants to be good. Our job for ourselves, as well as in our role as educators and mentors, is to ensure that true goodness always prevails, and that it never becomes warped by life’s circumstances or for shabby expedience.
Parshat Nasso contains a section dealing with the Nazirite vow. An individual who takes on this vow cannot drink wine and cut their hair, nor can they come into contact with a human corpse. The Torah gives no reason for the adoption of the vow, and neither encourages it nor discourages it. But the Talmud adds context and background, with one opinion going as far as to say that the Nazirite vow is not a good thing, deeming the self-imposed restrictions as sinful.
A fascinating Midrash sheds light on what may have motivated individuals to become Nazirites. Simeon the Just, a pious Second Temple-era high priest, declares that he had never eaten the guilt-offering of a bad Nazirite, except for on one occasion. On one occasion he encountered a handsome Nazirite with beautiful hair — hair that would be completely removed once the period of Nazirite abstention concluded.
“My son,” said Simeon, “why would you want to destroy such beautiful hair?” The Nazirite explained that he had felt compelled to become a Nazirite after coming face-to-face with his material weaknesses. One fine day he had spotted a reflection of himself in a brook, he told Simeon, and had been very taken by his good looks. Almost immediately he regretted this moment of self-indulgence, and, after realizing how transient his good looks were, resolved to take the Nazirite vow upon himself, so that he could ground himself thoroughly and properly before his physical appearance ever gained a foothold over his spirit.
“I immediately arose and kissed him on his head,” says Simeon the Just. “I said to him ‘my son, may there be many more like you who take Nazirite vows among the Jewish people.”
This story of Simeon the Just and the Nazirite is so beautiful. It demonstrates just how deeply we desire to do the right thing — simply because at our core we are good. And yet, it is only too easy to fall into the traps set for us by our animal instincts and personality weaknesses.
The rabbinic luminaries who disparage the Nazirite vow are of the view that we can easily prevail over our base animal desires without becoming hermits and ascetics. Judaism rejects asceticism for the simple reason that we are both good at our core, and because we are capable of great good, without having to resort to hiding away from society.
To paraphrase Plato, “good people do not need laws to act responsibly, while those who want to be bad will always find a way around the laws.”
The author is a rabbi in Beverly Hills, California.