You have to teach people to be good (and we aren’t doing it)

“What if I told you that even the worst neighborhood in America could be made completely safe?”

This is from a speech by the character played by Samuel L. Jackson in the movie “Robocop”. I haven’t seen the movie, but presumably the meaning of his pitch is that Robocop is such an efficient fighting machine, and so indestructible, that it can stop or deter any crime. Thus the criminals are on the run or afraid to act, and the neighborhood is “safe”.

This made me think of the line by T.S. Eliot about men who dream of “systems so perfect that no one will need to be good.” You don’t have to teach people to be good (so they think), you just have to use the force of law to prevent them from stealing or committing violence.

All of this resonated with me in the wake of the Santa Barbara killing spree, my first reaction to which was, “We’re just not teaching people to be good any more.”

When we, as a society, want to modify or moderate behavior, the normal way seems to be through an advertising campaign, something along the lines of “Smoking Isn’t Cool” or “Just Say No to Drugs”. We aren’t taught that there is anything inherently bad about being bad. On the contrary, we feel like the government just doesn’t want us to smoke or do drugs because it costs the government money to incarcerate us or rehab us or treat us when we get sick. In other words, the government or big interest groups with money to pay for advertising, are trying to manipulate our behavior for one reason or another. But whatever the reason, it’s not because good and evil really exist and we really are obligated, in any objective way, to do the one and avoid the other.

We reinforce this when we teach kids not to judge the behavior of others. Of course as Christians we’re not supposed to judge the hearts and motives of others. But we are supposed to call bad behavior bad behavior, otherwise how can we teach our kids what bad behavior is?

Further, we teach kids that being good means following your conscience. This, again, is true: You must always follow your conscience. But what kids are taught nowadays is that your conscience is not based on any objective, external source, but is whatever you think it ought to be, for whatever reason you choose. Most people, fortunately, feel like being good most of the time. They instinctively feel that violence is bad, and feel like they want to be good and think of themselves as good people, and so they refrain from violence most of the time.

But every so often, someone decides he no longer wants to feel like a good person. He now feels like a bad person, and doesn’t care whether others think he is bad, because after all it’s the truth. Why be phony about it? Once he’s reached this point, what foundation, what premises does he now possess to argue himself out of committing evil? Especially when the evil contemplated feels no worse than the evil he is already suffering, and when it feels like it will be so satisfying?

People are losing the ability to reason their way into doing good and avoiding evil (let alone resisting to the point of shedding blood), since we have undermined the premises upon which any such argument must be based.

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2 thoughts on “You have to teach people to be good (and we aren’t doing it)

  1. I appreciate your post. And I agree with you. Religiously informed values are driven out of the public square. I’m not suggesting that folks should go back to church……but that’s what I’m saying. American society has stopped taking church and gospel seriously (of course, this happened decades ago). We are simply reaping the fruit of our divorce from principles.

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  2. An excellent post, Agellius. You get to the heart of the matter. May I add that I understand “conscience” to be an intellectual faculty for applying general moral principles to a specific situation. But many people take “follow your conscience” to mean “do whatever you please, irrespective of moral principles and right reason.” God bless!

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