Have We Stopped Trying to Make Good People? – by Dennis Prager

good

The most important question any society must answer is: How will we make good people?

That is the question Judeo-Christian values have grappled with. There are many and profound theological and practical differences between Judaism and Christianity. But in the American incarnation of Judeo-Christian values — and America is really the one civilization that developed an amalgamation of Jewish and Christian values — the emphasis has been on individual character.

One cannot make a good society if one does not begin with the arduous task of making good individuals. Both Judaism and Christianity begin with the premise that man is not basically good and therefore regard man’s nature as the root of cause of evil.

This may sound basic and even obvious, but it is not. In the Western world since the Enlightenment, belief in the inherent goodness of human beings has taken over. This has resulted in an increasing neglect of character development because evil has come to be regarded not as emanating from human nature (which is essentially good) or from morally flawed individuals but from forces outside the individual — especially material ones. Thus, vast numbers of the best educated in the West have come to believe that “poverty causes crime.”

Now, while no one could possibly refute the argument that starving people will steal bread for their families (an act that is morally defensible), the argument that poverty causes crime posits that when poor people in America commit murder and other violent crimes, it is because they are poor.

This is irrational dogma, as much a matter of faith as any theological doctrine. Two simple facts illustrate this: First, the vast majority of poor people, in America and elsewhere, do not commit violent crimes. Second, a large amount of crime is committed by the middle class and even by the wealthy. Neither fact prompts the “poverty causes crime” believers to rethink their position.

They need to, however, not only because the poverty-causes-crime thesis is so demonstrably false, but because it prevents societies from making good people. When society blames evil on forces outside the individual rather than on the individuals who perpetrate evil, society will work to change those forces rather than work to improve the character of individuals. That is a key to understanding why the left constantly attempts to radically change society — how else make a better world?

Conservatives, on the other hand, believe that the way to “repair the world,” in the oft-used Hebrew phrase of those most concerned with “social justice,” is far less dramatic, far less revolutionary and far less macro-oriented. It is the laborious process of raising every generation from scratch with good values and self-discipline. Without both of these, individual goodness and therefore societal goodness is impossible.

That is why the most important question a society can ask is how to raise young people to be good adults. American society, under the influence of the left, asks other questions: How do we make young people environmentally aware? How do we teach them to fight allegedly rampant racism, sexism, homophobia and xenophobia in society? How do we fight AIDS and breast cancer?

It is, of course, good to be environmentally aware, to fight AIDS and breast cancer, and to oppose bigotry. But before training young people to be social activists, they must first learn character traits — truth telling, financial honesty, humility, honoring parents and, above all, self-control. Before learning to fight society, people need to fight their own nature. The world is filled with activists of all varieties who are loathsome individuals.

In general, we would do well to be far more impressed with a young person who sits next to the less popular fat kid who is eating alone at lunch, who fights the class bully, who doesn’t cheat on tests and who refrains from drug use.

There is no federal budget, no Senate or House bill, no social policy, no health care fix that can do as much good as a society that is filled with decent people.

  • brimp

    Not only is it not a goal to create good people, we can't even define what a good person is. Is a person who harms nobody a good person? Are they still a good person when government determines that home schooling is evil? Or, they have a large carbon footprint? Or, they don't wish to go to a government doctor? Or, they are unwilling to pay taxes to support government doctors? Or, they won't submit to vaccinations? Or, they wish to self medicate with cannabis? Or, they have consensual sex with another adult who they are not married to? Or, they have more than one spouse? Or they say nothing when evil forces take over the government?

    Before we can talk about good people we need to get agreement on the nature of good and evil. Are they objective or are they the values of the community? If Muslims move into your neighborhood, does the definition of good and evil change? Is a woman who is not wearing a pillow case evil in such a community? If nudists move into your neighborhood, are they evil for not wearing clothes? Are people evil for having too many kids? Or, not enough? There are many tricky issues involved. But without a definition for good and evil, then everyone will think that the values that they hold are good and anyone with different values is evil.

  • beetyboop

    Profound article, and even more profound comment. This is where we find ourselves in the age of relativism, when we've been taught that no religion is better than any other, that all voices have equal value, and that the legal system should decide what constitutes “political correctness”, and “hate crimes”. The basic Judeo-Christian principles our founders drew upon had been tried and proven for centuries before they became the basis for this miraculous experimental government. Throwing them away to step off the precipice into uncharted moral territory is proving to be the biggest mistake mankind has ever made.

  • Steeloak

    This is a critical point that Dennis makes. If you study our founding fathers, you will see that they (Jefferson in particular) believed that it was impossible for a government like ours to function without a strong moral code in the population. I am of the belief that the shameless corruption we see in Washington is a reflection of the moral decay of the population in general. We elect representatives who reflect our core desires and “gimme mine” seems to be the key principal guiding the electorate.

  • http://leicestersquared.wordpress.com/ Kathy Leicester

    It is the primary goal of society to create good people. Dennis has stated the truth clearly and simply.

    Rather than overcomplicate it, as brimp has done, here's what good is (as proved for at least a few thousand years).

    A good person is a person of integrity.
    Integrity = good morals and good character.
    Good morals = not doing the wrong thing.
    Good character = doing the right thing.

    As for right and wrong, look to the 10 Commandments. If you are not a believer, you may ignore the first three, as they tell us how to love our Creator with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. But the last seven tell us how to “love our neighbor as ourselves.”

    Simple. Achievable. Necessary.

    Thanks for the great article, Dennis.

  • drungar

    While there is no common agreement defining a “good” person, there is an explanatory one that defines the difference between good and evil, in this case evil being broadly conceived as the absence of intelligibility.

    Would one say that a “good” person is:
    1. the kind of person that is open to experience, as opposed to those who close themselves off from reality?
    2. the kind of person that is intelligent when it comes to understanding what is going on, as opposed to those who are either stupid or unintelligent?
    3. the kind of person who is reasonably when it comes to judging what is real and what is of true value, as opposed to unreasonable often arrogant persons who pronounce then close all debate?
    4. the kind of person who is responsible, who will seek to do what is truly good?

    Together, these injunctions define an attitude toward the world and toward each other. If we attempt to follow them, situations improve; if we move away from these standards, situations go into decline.

    This doesn't solve the problem of how to encourage the emergence of such people, but it does give a sense of a proper direction in which to move.

  • Stuart_from_Austin

    Amen.

  • brimp

    This is a complicated issue. My goal was to simplify it. You have substituted the words ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ for ‘good’ and ‘evil’. You have not defined what these ideas are except to refer to the Bible. Both MLK and the KKK used the same Bible to come up with very different sets of morals. Any document that can be interpreted so widely is insufficient to give direction. The Bible is a good place to start but one could find a Bible passage to support almost any position. The Amish and the Rastafarians are both Christians but very different from each other. As long as they do not try to force their beliefs on others then they are both good. The civilization principle has been refined over the last 10,000 years. This principle is that you do not initiate force against members of your own group. The Commandments that prohibit murder, theft, and lying are restatements of the civilization principle. If I see groups of people who violate this principle (government employees) and I say nothing, am I a good person?

    How do you deal with your neighbors who have ideas that are radically different than yours? If they think that you are consuming more than you need or producing less than you are able to, your collectivist neighbors might consider you evil. If a majority of the people say the answer to our current problems is to kill the Jews then should the death camps be in Denver or Detroit? The American system was based on the idea that each of us has been endowed by a higher power with unalienable rights and that governments are instituted to secure these rights. The current corporatist American system is based on the idea that each of us is a human resource that the leaders can create rules for us based on their collective wisdom. These two ideas are not only different but in conflict with each other. This is the key conflict of the culture war. A good person in one system is evil in the other. Too many people withdraw from the debate and do what they, subjectively, think is right.

  • USMCSniper

    Philosphy is not subordinated to the handmaiden of theology anymore than astronomy is subordinated to the handmaoden of astrology. Do not look to any religion for mora;l values as all have a long record of evil atrocities against mankind.

    Ethics as a branch of philosophy, is a code of values to rationally guide man’s choices and actions, is an objective, metaphysical necessity for a man’s survival. A proper ethics gives practical guidance to help people think and direct their lives. Ethics aids a man in defining and attaining his values, goals, and happiness. A man needs ethics because he requires values to survive. The telos of ethics is a person’s own survival and happiness. The realm of ethics includes those matters that are potentially under a man’s control. A man’s uncoerced volition is necessary to have an objective theory of morality. He can discover values only through a volitional process of reason.

    Rational moral principles guide us toward values and are essential for achieving moral integrity, character, and happiness. Living by rational principles tends to make principled thought and actions habitual. When we habitually act on sound moral principles we develop virtues and incorporate our moral orientation into our character. All virtues are connected to the objective requirements of man’s survival and flourishing. Moral principles are needed because the standard of survival and flourishing is too abstract. To act in a concrete situation, a man needs to have some basic view of what he is acting for and how he should act. Because actions are subsumed under principles, it is imperative to adopt and automatize good principles. Acting on principles cultivates corresponding virtues which, in turn, leads to value attainment, flourishing, and happiness.

    A person uses his free will to determine his focus and how logical to be. Though the employment of his free will, a man forms and selects the principles that underlie his actions. Focusing one’s mind, staying in focus, thinking, and critically assessing one’s principles includes introspection to identify and assess the principles that one has automatized.

    A man who thinks in principles makes himself aware of the best means of attaining his ends in the full context of his life. Moral principles are true in a delimited context. Recognizing the moral context of a situation precedes one’s chosen actions in that situation. A man should not evade relevant knowledge nor drop context when he acts. Moral principles are absolute within the context in which they are defined and applied. Of course, some cases will fall outside the context in which they are defined and applicable. It is therefore essential for a person to validate his principles and to understand the contexts that give rise to these principles.

    Thinking is needed in order to understand the facts of a situation and to apply appropriate principles to the circumstances. For example, honesty, as a principle, states that it is immoral to misrepresent the truth in a context in which a person’s goal is to obtain values from others. It follows that in a different context in which a person is attempting to use deceit or force in order to gain values from an individual, it is appropriate for the wronged individual to select self-defense as his appropriate principle instead of honesty. The context is different from one calling for honesty on his part.

    Honesty is an essential principle because the proper end of a man’s actions is his own objective flourishing. The moral appropriateness of honesty is grounded in metaphysics. A person must focus on what reality requires if he is to attain his ends. A person should tell the relevant truth. What the relevant truth is depends on the type of relationship a person has with the individual with whom he is dealing.

    In Rand’s biocentric ethics moral behavior is judged in relation to achieving specific ends with the final end being an individual’s life or flourishing. The act of deciding necessitates the investigation of how an action pertains to what is best for one’s own life. This is not done in a duty-based ethic that is limited to precepts and rules. In a duty-oriented ethical system rules or duties are placed between a person and reality. In a biocentric ethics what is moral is the understood and the chosen rather than the imposed and the obeyed. Principles are valuable ethical concepts that do not require imperatives or obligations as their justification.

    Altruist moralities hold that morality is painful and difficult and involves ideas such as self-abnegation and self-sacrifice. Contrariwise, an egoist morality, such as the one found in Objectivism, maintains that morality is natural, attractive, and enjoyable. Of course, there is work involved in staying in focus, acquiring knowledge, formulating moral principles, and applying them in the appropriate contexts. Morality is demanding but it is also indispensable and rewarding. Remember, the purpose of morality is to enjoy life, flourish, and be happy.

  • roadlawyer

    Instead of contentiously debating what is “good” and what is “evil”, why don't we simply utilize what Christ told us was our duty here on earth – Love God with everything we are and love one another. That seems simple enough once you realize that “loving” one another doesn't equate to giving everyone everything they could possibly want. God gives us what we need according to his wants and once we realize that to live in His will is, in fact, “good”, we won't need to search for silly definitions from the Right or the Left.

  • Ken S

    Excellent article, which points to society's need to rouse from its comatose state in the tangled web of relativism, and realize that there are absolutes. Morality is impossible otherwise. These absoloutes are indeed the Judeo-Christian bedrock upon which our nation was founded. The founders knew and expressed that we could not long survive without them.

  • bmw50

    Ahh, how do we determine what is moral, what is good, what is virtuous? God's word; the Ten Commandments and Jesus' expansion of them.
    Man cannot and should not attempt to set the rules for mankind; they must be higher and better than man. Rules must be perfect even though man is not and the only source for perfect rules is our Creator. Read what Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Jefferson and Washington say about the link between freedom and virtue and the importance of religion in establishing virtue. brushfires-of-freedom.com is a good site to read their comments.
    Dennis did a great job making a critical point of the problem we are facing in this country.

  • 080

    I recommend the movie entitled “Groundhog Day”. It is not a new film and seems to have passed unremarked. It addresses the plroblem of turnjing up one's nose at American culture. The good people are there. One ignores them at a price.

  • trickyblain

    Prager is, as always, a simpleton trying to dress himself up as a sort of profound intellectual. And he's terrible at it. The Enlightenment spawned the notion that humankind is inherently good? Right. Thomas Hobbes was an optimist about life being “nasty, brutish, and short” in the natural state. John Locke thought (rightfully) that the best political system is derived when it is based on individual self-interest, and that individual self-interest serves the common good through widespread wealth. These folks were not much for the goodness of human nature.

    How is the US an amalgamation of Jewish and Christian cultures, let alone the only nation that is so? I didn't get time off for Chanukah last week. What US cities have Jewish names? Who was our last Jewish president? It's no more an amalgamation of Jewish and Christian than it is an amalgamation of Christian and Buddhist.

    Poverty does not cause crime. But the vast majority of criminals happen to live in poor communities.

    Prager's blustering stupidity is best illustrated by his insinuation that “conservatives” are more likely to fight bullies and sit next to overweight children in school cafeterias. That somehow, parents' political beliefs instill righteous behavior in their children. If that's the case, why was George W Bush an insufferable asshole to others when in school? Why was Al Gore considered a good guy? On the flip side, why were John Kerry and Bill Clinton seen as jerks?

    Prager talks about individuals and responsibility, then turns it around and goes all groupthink (conservatives = good, pure, moral Liberals = hedonistic radicals). It's a common logical fallacy that permeates all of his work.

    Good people come from good, caring backgrounds that are grounded in reality. The come from liberal parents, conservative parents, Jewish parents, Christian parents and agnostic parents. One group does not have a monopoly “good people.”

  • LindaRivera

    Judeo-Christian America and indeed, Western civilization, is based on the Bible and G-D's unchanging Laws.

    Hostility to Christianity has existed in the American public school system for many years. Islam is the big favorite of elites, and is being aggressively promoted to school children, sometimes without parental knowledge and against the will of U.S. parents. Indoctrination of America's children into the military, totalitarian 'religion' of Islam must stop!

    FOX NEWS RADIO

    Second Graders Sing About Allah?
    14 December 2009

    A battle over religion is brewing in central Indiana after a public school wanted second graders to sing a song declaring, “Allah is God.” The phrase was removed just before the performance after a national conservative group launched a protest.

    The principal of Lantern Road Elementary School in Fishers, IN, said they were trying to teach inclusiveness through their holiday production. It included references to Christmas, Hanukkah, Ramadan, Las Posadas and Kwanzaa. However, no other deity, other than Allah, was referenced in the show.

    “It went off…without a hitch,” Danielle Thompson told the Indianapolis Star. “Several families thought it was a nice program.”

    But others did not – especially David Hogan. His daughter came home with a copy of the lyrics just days before the production. Hogan, a Christian, told the American Family Association, a conservative advocacy group, that he was deeply concerned to learn that his daughter had been singing, “Allah is God.”

    Here’s what the children were assigned to sing:

    “Allah is God, we recall at dawn,
    Praying ‘til night during Ramadan
    At this joyful time we pray happiness for you,
    Allah be with you all your life through.”

    But when it came time to perform the “Christian” part of Christmas, children were assigned to say:

    “I didn’t know there was a little boy at the manger. What child is this?
    I’m not sure if there was a little boy or not.
    Then why did you paint one on your nativity window?
    I just thought if there was a little boy, I’d like to know exactly what he (sic) say.

    Micah Clark, executive director of the Indiana AFA, launched an Internet protest once he heard about the allegations. “What surprised me here is that we’ve had a secular scrubbing of Christmas for so long and the school apparently didn’t see the problem with kids singing to Allah,” he told FOX News Radio. “You won’t even mention Jesus and you’re going to force my child to sing about Allah?
    http://www.foxnewsradio.com/2009/12/14/public-s

  • trickyblain

    Excellent response!

  • http://timeforthorns.wordpress.com/ Tish

    A large part of the problem is that only half of us even want to make good people.

  • goddad

    In most of your examples, they don't fall under questions of evil. Would you feel better if tea party protesters were called evil. Or, how about the climate scientists opposing global warming as a done deal. Are they evil? Are people who want to protect unborn children evil.
    Maybe, you would have the government control all aspects of your life. Determining when to use energy, what kind of food you can eat. who gets to use health care, and how much to pay for it, what kind of car you can drive. Don't forget the flat screen tvs that you can't have.
    I don't mind having Muslims living next to me. But I might have a problem if they cut my neighbors head off. Yea. I believe that my values might draw the line at that and call it evil.
    Do you think that maybe you might make a value judgement about that?

  • goddad

    Hey Brimp,
    I know this is difficult to understand. But, maybe when you grow up some day you will be able to make a judgement that has some values involved.
    Good luck on that.

  • goddad

    You are trying to compare a bible of ancient history with present day understanding. Yes, the bible has many bad things in it. But the main thing you have to believe is that the major values that were accented things that all of mankind needed to be able to value each other with. Each religious group has its own interpretation. But I suggest before you base your opinion on conjecture based on public opinion, you might want to do some actual research and find some facts of your own.
    Just a thought

  • goddad

    Hey Trickybain,
    Guess what. Chanukah is not a religious holiday. There is no need to take off unless you want to fool your boss. You are all talk and all crap.

  • trickyblain

    It is a Jewish holiday- festival of lights and miraculous candles and
    temples. I guess Passover isn't religious either.

  • goddad

    A Jewish holiday in that you light candles at sunset, say a couple of prayers and celebrate at night. Yes, it is observed, but you don't necessarily need to miss work for it.

  • trickyblain

    All I am saying is that Jewish culture is not a major part of the
    American mainstream – as prager suggests. The very term “judeo-
    christian” is nonsensical to me — very recently contrived after
    millenia of percecution and conflict.

    This is not to disrespect Judaism nor christianity – I live in a half-
    Jewish household.

  • goddad

    You are right, in that Jewish culture isn't mainstream. But you are being cynical if you don't believe the large influence, Jewish values have had on American society. That is not to say that other religions haven't. Yes we are secular by culture. That is what makes us the freest country in the world.
    The term “judeo-christian” has been around for a long time, but just recently revised due to the erosion of our society, which can't be denied.
    There has been so much disrespect for the laws and principles that are the foundation of our country, which was pretty good for about 200 years. A lot of those laws were based on the founding fathers of this country who had “judeo-christian” values as the foundation.
    You have to consider that Washington, Jefferson, etc. did not have tv's, cars, or even toilets back then. Life changes and so things need to change. But some principles have to stay the same for our own sake and survival.

  • brimp

    There are differences between Protestants, Catholics, and Jews. 100 years ago the majority (Protestant) used their power to diminish Catholics and Jews. With the rise of the secular religions of socialism and humanism, the differences between the Protestants, Catholics, and Jews have been deemphasized with the creation of the super tribe of Judeo-Christians. The collectivists have made a pact with Islam to fight their rival Judeo-Christian tribe. The main difference between these super tribes are that the collectivists believe that they can punish non-believers here on earth for their heresy while the Judeo-Christians, in general, will let the Creator assign punishments after you die.

  • Richard

    Good people are people who behave in such a way as to enhance the soul of others and do not damage the soul of others.

    Now what is important is that the final arbitrator of whether a person's soul is enhanced or damaged is the person whose soul is being affected. The recipient is the judge not the giver. Why this is important is history has shown much cruelty by people who believe they know what is right and then impose it often very cruelly and with much force on others. (Inquisition, Stalin, Iran, Mao ….)

    This changes the debate to what do we as individuals have to do to enhance peoples' souls and not damage them. It's about giving and not just taking. It's about respect and not putting down. It's about freedom and not control.