Are people basically good?
Ask most Jews if they believe that people are basically good and you are likely to get a positive response.
That is why if Jews are familiar
with anything from the diary of Anne Frank, the most widely read book to come out of the Holocaust, it is her comment that “in spite of everything I still believe that people are basically good at heart.”
Unfortunately — and I mean unfortunately with all my heart because I wish people were basically good — this teenage girl was wrong. She engaged in wishful thinking, as young people are often wont to do.
What we have here is an example — one of many — of Jews and Judaism differing. That is always unfortunate, but what is more unfortunate in this instance is that so many Jews think their belief that people are basically good is also Judaism’s.
It is far less problematic when Jews differ with basic Jewish beliefs and know they are differing from Judaism than when Jews differ with a basic Jewish value and regard their non-Jewish belief as Jewish.
The notion that people are basically good is a modern, post-Enlightenment one that is neither Jewish nor rational.
As regards Judaism, from the Torah through rabbinic Judaism, I am unaware of a single mainstream Jewish text that posits that people are basically good. The Torah cites God Himself as declaring that the “will of man’s heart is evil from his youth” (Genesis 8.21).
As regards reason, the empirical evidence against the belief that people are basically good is simply overwhelming.
Anyone with children knows how much time one has to spend teaching a child how to be a good person.
Anyone who is at all familiar with human history knows how universal evil has been — from human sacrifice to slavery to mass murder and torture.
And anyone familiar with evolutionary thought (see, for example, “The Selfish Gene” by Richard Dawkins, who is also a major advocate of atheism) knows that evolution’s emphasis on survival of the fittest hardly allowed the innately good organism (if there ever was one) to survive.
So, too, no body of wisdom literature in the East or West ever posited that people were basically good. The idea is a product of modern secular Western thought.
Well, then, if Judaism doesn’t teach it, and reason and human experience refute it, why do so many Jews believe that people are basically good?
Here are four reasons:
First, Jews who believe it are usually secular (or politically liberal Conservative or Reform Jews). And secular Jews, like most other secularists in the West, believe in the essential goodness of man, just as the secular Anne Frank did.
Second, most non-Orthodox Jews get their values from liberal and left-wing thought, rather than from the Torah. This is not an accusation, merely a description. Indeed, most Jews would agree with this and regard it as praiseworthy. And a basic liberal and leftist value is belief in humanity, beginning with a belief in the innate goodness of the human being. That is why, for example, liberal/leftist thought blames criminal violence on poverty or some other socioeconomic condition more than on human nature and the criminals’ lack of conscience and morals.
Third, people who do not believe in God almost have to believe in man. Life is just too dark if one cannot believe in either God or humanity. Most people who do not believe in God cannot face the bleakness that not having a belief in man would lead to. It is much easier for those who believe in God not to believe in humanity.
And fourth, most Jews are non-Christian rather than Jewish in their beliefs. For most Jews, this equation prevails: If Christians believe x, Jews believe not x. So, if Christians believe in original sin, Jews must believe in original goodness.
Jews (and non-Jews) who believe that people are basically good are remarkably creative at finding explanations for human evil — poverty, capitalism, economic inequality, poor parenting, low self-esteem, colonialism, racism, to name a few. They offer every explanation but one — that those who commit evil have allowed their nature to rule them rather than ruling their human nature.
The consequences of this belief are awful. By focusing on all these outside forces to explain evil, we can never put a stop to it. Because if you don’t know the cause of a problem, you can’t solve it.
Promoting goodness on earth begins with the recognition that everything possible has to be done to teach all individuals to control their nature, to develop their conscience and to believe they are morally accountable for their behavior to other humans and to a morally judging God.
That is what Judaism teaches. Not that people are basically good.
It is quite remarkable that after Auschwitz this needs to be said to any, let alone most, Jews.
Dennis Prager is a nationally syndicated radio talk-show host, columnist, author and public speaker. He can be heard in Los Angeles on KRLA (AM 870) weekdays 9 a.m. to noon. His Web site is dennisprager.com.