Almost 30 years ago, Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote When Bad Things Happen to Good People, a powerful book that propelled him to national and international renown. Though we have differed on some important theological matters, many of the book’s insights have been indispensible to me in understanding God and suffering.
Today we need another book that uses the words of Rabbi Kushner’s classic work, but addresses an entirely different issue: When Good People Do Bad Things.
We need such a book because of the disheartening fact that much, perhaps even most, evil does not emanate from the bad parts of human nature but from the good parts.
Most evil is not committed as a result of unbridled lust or greed. And the sadistic monster who revels in inflicting excruciating pain on other people is relatively rare.
Good intentions cause most of the world’s great evils.
Take Communism, for example. The greatest mass-murdering ideology in history, the greatest destroyer of elementary human rights, was an ideology supported by many people who believed in moral progress and human equality. It took Stalin’s peace pact with Hitler to awaken many Western leftists to how evil Communism was. And still, vast numbers of Westerners went on to support Stalin, or Mao, or Ho, or Castro, or Che, or all of them. Were all these Westerners bad people, i.e., people who reveled in the suffering of others? Of course not.
Were all the Koreans who supported Kim Il-Sung bad people? Were all the Russians who wept at Stalin’s funeral lovers of torture and mass murder? Of course not.
For that matter, most Germans who voted for Hitler and the Nazis were not voting for gas chambers. More than a few of them were preoccupied with reviving Germany. Contrary to what many people understandably but erroneously believe, Hitler actually played down his anti-Semitism in order to win Germans’ votes.
What is the major lesson to be learned from all this?
The major lesson is already noted, but I will restate it in the words of another rabbi who influenced me, the late Rabbi Wolfe Kelman, head of the Conservative rabbinate for many years. In my late 20s I sought advice from him, and I have never forgotten this piece of wisdom: “Dennis,” he said, “I pretty much have my bad inclination [‘yetzer hara’ was the well-known Hebrew term he used] under control; it’s my good inclination [‘yetzer hatov’] that always gets me into trouble.”
When it comes to personal relations and even more so to formulating social policy, intending to do good is largely worthless. Given how much evil has emanated from human idealism, the heart is an awful guide to doing good.
In order to do good personally, and in order to support social policies that do good, what humans need even more than a good heart (as beneficial as that can be) is wisdom.