Have we stopped try­ing to make good peo­ple?

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary -

The most im­por­tant ques­tion any so­ci­ety must an­swer is: How will we make good peo­ple? That is the ques­tion JudeoChris­tian 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 pover­ty­causes-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 of­tused 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.

Den­nis Prager is a na­tion­ally syndicated colum­nist.

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