Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Ethics and Justice. Part 4: Why do "Good" People do "Bad" Things?

I am less fascinated with the question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” than with the question, “Why do good people do bad things?” Bad things happen to good people because we live in a fallen, sinful world in which evil (or stupid) people can ruin your day or your life at will! But to say that only bad people do bad things is to have a simplistic, childlike view of the world. It is usually “good” or “normal” people who do bad things. Augustine said that the line separating good and evil runs through the heart of every human being.

We tend to see the things going on inside of a person (personality, motives, desires) as more important in regulating behavior than the forces outside of the person (context, situation, social pressures). We downplay the power of context and situation, while seeing ourselves and other people in altruistic terms. We think that people have an inner core that dictates and determines their actions (their “true self”). So we classify people in terms of “kinds” of people – “good people,” “bad people,” “strong people,” “weak people,” etc. But all these labels are erroneous. There aren't different “kinds” of people. There are simply people in different situations. Configure the situation a certain way and we can make some people look weak and others strong. Remember the Milgram “Nazi guard syndrome” experiments? This doesn’t mean that situations alone determine our behavior, but we tend to dramatically underestimate the power of context and situation. How many times have you heard someone say, “I would never do that!” This is precisely what sets us up for wrongdoing. We tend to overestimate the strength of our character. We see ourselves as a “kind” of person – a good father, a good husband. To see ourselves in this way is a mistake – a very costly one.

This principle applies to all moral issues - addiction, sexuality, spending, violence, and on and on. Situations have way more power than we think. Consequently, “good” people wander into situations that cause them to falter. Treat your own virtue with suspicion. Your strength can easily become your weakness. Don't believe your character alone is sufficient to carry you through. Trust me on this! The world is full of the ruined lives of those who said, “I don't know why or how I could have done that” (fill in the blank). “I’m not like that!” I am one of those fallen people who thought the strength of his own character could save him from falling over the precipice!

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