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When Goodness Goes Bad

Belief in the goodness of man addicts people to change for change’s sake and causes social polarization.

Approximately a decade ago, I applied for a retail job. The application included questions such as, “Do you think people are: (a) basically good or (b) basically bad?” It also inquired whether I thought that, given the opportunity, (a) all people, (b) some people, or (c) very few people, would commit theft. I knew perfectly well the department store was relying on the fact that dishonest people tend to believe most people are dishonest. If I (acting upon the historic Christian claim that we humans are all sinners) clicked on “people are basically bad,” the application would declare that I was “not a good psychological fit” and the retail chain would not hire me, because they would have no way of knowing my theological beliefs would also prevent me from pocketing their merchandise whenever the supervisors weren’t looking. Their algorithm was not prepared to process an outlook that did not mesh with popular social psychology.

After all, what kind of misanthrope would judge human thoughts and actions against external, objective moral laws that make us all look like hopeless sinners? What misfit would declare that our own sins cause social ills? Surely such pessimism is best left to outcasts who spend their free time glaring at children and burning witches. Nowadays, the goodness of man is key to our entire social doctrine. After all, if people believe they are good and worthy, they will behave in good and worthy ways. If people trust that their neighbors are good people, they will treat them with respect and compassion. So, at least, goes the theory. Feel-good movies and social campaigns would have us believe that everyone (with the possible exception of Adolf Hitler) is essentially good, and that wrongdoing can be prevented by proper societal support for those in need.

This outlook sounds more generous than old-timey words about sin. Yet its fruit is oddly illiberal. It has contributed to a world in which each generation of Americans successively trusts others less, antiheroes have replaced heroes in both popular and high-brow entertainment, cynicism is mistaken for healthy skepticism, and government regulation continues to grow in spheres that were once left to individual judgment. Why? It is because belief in the goodness of man typically leads to addiction to change for change’s sake, and, ultimately, to social polarization.

The Eighteenth-Century Counterculture

The concept that humans are innately good and this goodness flows from human emotions rather than any particular beliefs, was a flourishing, counter-cultural image in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The “noble savage” was frequently used as a rhetorical device to scold civilized man for greed, blood-lust, and unhappiness. Thinkers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau attributed human corruption to civilization itself. Rather than improving the social structure, revolutionaries wanted to eliminate social structures. That was the age in which anarchists perpetuated terrorist acts because they thought all government should and could be abolished. Historian Jacques Barzun remarks, “The true anarchist is a gentle, trusting soul who argues for a world without government. . . . But in the [Eighteen] Nineties there were impatient anarchists, who wanted immediate results and relied on Alfred Nobel’s recent invention, dynamite, to gain their ends.” The hope of exchanging governance for utopia did not withstand the tragedies and disappointments of the twentieth century (including the disappointment of Bolshevism’s spectacular failure to provide the world with equality, peace, and happiness).

Even if people are truly good in the deep recesses of their hearts, they also write hideously cruel things in comboxes.

The thing is, those who view humanity with dogmatic optimism suffer cognitive dissonance, because even if people are truly good in the deep recesses of their hearts, they also write hideously cruel things in comboxes. They abuse children and behead journalists. An explanation for this paradox is necessary. The modern explanation goes like this: People do terrible things because they suffer from poverty, oppression, racism, repression, or ignorance. Enough faith and hard labor can change all these factors. Since humanity obviously has problems, it is equally obvious that it must be restructured (whether through modest means such as new public school curriculum, varying levels of wealth redistribution, or even eradicating sex and gender). Every right-minded citizen has a duty to cooperate in this noble task. To do otherwise is to demonstrate hate for the human race. Naturally, this approach tends to make its adherents susceptible to the claims of all types of reformers, and inclined to follow even ill-advised campaigns for “change.”

Social reformers in this strain cannot be sidetracked by questions about the truth or untruth of beliefs. After all, if man is good, his goodness will shine through a variety of religions and belief systems. Focusing on beliefs comes perilously close to finding evil in the heart of man and to reawakening an old-fashioned focus on individual responsibility that might lead to blaming the unfortunate instead of helping them, or to limiting the changes morally available to reformers. The claim that beliefs do not really matter is born of a conviction that they should not really matter—they should remain weak, inoffensive, and small enough to tuck into a closet. They ought only to be tolerated so long as they do not to interfere with the salvation of humankind.

Why We Hate History

Nor do such reformers appreciate the traditional style of celebrating national, moral, and cultural heroes and of focusing on positive things in history. After all, to laud George Washington without mentioning his ownership of slaves is a lost opportunity to point out the moral importance of social changes since his day. To praise Nathan Hale’s bold readiness to die for his country is to be inspired by the courage of a man of the past, instead of by a goal for the future. Nowadays, antiheroes like DreamWorks’ humorous character “Megamind” resonate more reliably with society. It illustrates popular values that Megamind was made a villain by childhood circumstances and cultural prejudice, but once he embraces faith in his own goodness, he becomes a hero and saves the day.

Once individuals have little in common, they are less likely to agree with each other’s choices, and it becomes increasingly difficult for them to trust each other.

Our society’s trust in social change makes it difficult to fully grasp the message of stories produced in an earlier era. In the penultimate scene of the enjoyable new film adaptation of the Les Miserables musical, the heroic character Jean Valjean is dying. Social inequity has robbed him of much of his life, yet that is not his focus. He sings instead of mercy, forgiveness, and love. As he is led offstage by previously deceased characters, they imply the concept of eternity, and the story suggests true justice and joy can be found in a realm apart from our own. Such an ending syncs with the original source material, but is unsatisfying to many moderns. Thus, in a jarring shift of focus, the death scene cuts to a parade of the young, revolutionary characters (who are also dead at this point in the story, but apparently, their revolution lives on). They sing of social justice. They wave banners and wear red neckerchiefs. Even this brief appeal to social change was not enough to satisfy the critics, who are accustomed to talking about old-fashioned values exclusively in tones of irony.

When we reject the importance of shared beliefs, and cast off common cultural heroes, little remains on which to build a stable society. Once individuals have little in common, they are less likely to agree with each other’s choices, and it becomes increasingly difficult for them to trust each other. In such a scenario, it becomes desirable to increase government oversight instead of relying on a fellow citizen’s judgment. Surely the recent conversation about the “criminalization of parenthood” can be traced to this. Even the authorities seem increasingly to function on the assumption that, instead of allowing situation-specific judgment calls among their own ranks, rules ought to be applied with blanket uniformity. Why else would a mother be charged with a misdemeanor for acquiescing to her eleven-year-old’s request to wait in the car while she ran into a store, even though no harm came to the child?

The Paradox of Polarization

It is a great irony that the doctrine of humanity’s goodness has led to as much polarization as any religious dogma. By its very nature, traditional religion is divisive enough to call some people “wrong.” Yet Christianity, for example, also emphasizes the commonality of humankind by calling all men sinners, declaring the same God loves them all, and insisting all require the same salvation. In contrast, those who trust in human goodness, and who heed the siren call of social change as a way of life, polarize culture in a different way. They naturally wish to persuade the world to think as they do, but they cannot regard their own approach as a belief system because belief systems imply solidity and stasis rather than change. In their minds, only their opponents act on belief. They act on knowledge.

If people are innately good, there is no comprehensible reason why the privileged would remain wrongheaded in the face of an opportunity to reform society.

Furthermore, they cannot respect those who disagree with them. The doctrine of original sin at least offers an explanation for why individuals would fall prey to wrong belief and bad behavior. If, however, people are innately good, there is no comprehensible reason why the privileged among them (those who are not victims of poverty, oppression, racism, repression, or ignorance) would remain wrongheaded in the face of an opportunity to reform society. Such people cannot be evil, and they are not oppressed, so they must be fools. I remember sitting on the train a few years ago and hearing a young woman complain, “I guess we won’t get gay marriage until all the stupid people [that is, the older generation] are dead.” Even though anyone can respect someone who is wrong, it is difficult to respect someone who is stupid. It becomes difficult to debate, vote, and work together as a democratic society when all we see in the arguments of our opponents is stupidity. It becomes ever more attractive to force and enforce social change through legislation and increased government.

Yet even though such reformers may have an agenda (as do we all), they are not conspiring monsters. They are not even idiots or would-be dictators. Instead, they are just as well-meaning and just as flawed as their conservative opponents. They have set out to make the world a better place, and often they are right that a given situation ought to change. Unfortunately, the results of their efforts do not seem to align with their goals. Perhaps this very fact could be attributed to the existence of original sin and its devastating impact on humanity.

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