The Right Opinion

Have We Stopped Trying to Make Good People?

By Dennis Prager · Dec. 16, 2009

The most important question any society must answer is: How will we make good people?

That is the question Judeo-Christian 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 poverty-causes-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 oft-used 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.



Marcus said:


Wednesday, December 16, 2009 at 11:43 AM

MichaelSSEC said:

Once again, Mr Prager turns in a column that makes me want to jump up and CHEER. It's a measure of how indecent and amoral our society has become that a simple statement of fact -- that the good things the Left supposedly wants to do CANNOT be accomplished without good decent people to accomplish them -- can seem like a revelation. How can this have happened? The United States of America is the greatest accomplishment of Man, yet it's being systematically dismantled by people who loathe excellence itself. This MUST be opposed and defeated by all decent people everywhere.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009 at 1:34 PM

Garry said:

Excellent column. In the U.S. poverty and crime tend to be found in the same place, but it does not follow that poverty causes crime. In fact, I argue just the opposite, that crime causes poverty. Crime reduces real estate property values, makes people unable to maintain expensive possesions (who's foolish enough to build a nice house or park an expensive car in the "bad part of town"?), and reduces economic activity as people change their behavior to protect their lives and property from criminals. And where does the criminal mindset originate? From low morals, poor values, and lack of self-discipline. When you include the effect of a criminal mindset on the soul, you have a double effect of crime causing both economic and spiritual poverty.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009 at 6:41 PM

Mike said:

I believe that Mr. Prager's column rests on a flawed proposition that "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." While this may be true for Christianity, my understanding of Judaism is that we are created in the image of God and imbued with the God-like ability to choose good or evil, right or wrong. Our free will is an important and valuable Jewish concept.This is but one of the many reasons why more observant Jews tend to lean to the political right--because we want to live in a society that mirrors our faith--one that gives us the choices instead of placing mandates on us by our elected officials who seem to believe that they are the deciders of what is moral.If more Jews who believe in free will on the Sabbath would vote for candidates who also believe in individual responsibility and ability to decide for oneself, we wouldn't be in this current mess.

Monday, December 21, 2009 at 1:07 PM

Bill said:

Well written column. Some very good thoughts.

Sunday, December 27, 2009 at 11:14 PM

OKBecky in Ponca City, OK said:

Regarding Mike's comment:Perhaps because of the particular branch of Christianity I belong to (the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints), I do not look on people as "inherently" evil, just "naturally" evil. We are created in God's image and have the right to choose what we will think and do, but there is nothing in man's nature to make him be a good person. For example, a little child is not evil, but it also not naturally inclined to sacrifice for the good of others. He may share sometimes, or help around the house, but he's also just as likely to bite you if you don't give him what he wants.I think the problem we have today is a huge disconnect in popular philosophy: the idea that people have the right to do whatever they want to do, but no responsibility for the consequences, for the life their choices create. I think if people are going to improve the human condition, they must first recognize that people who are capable of choosing good are just as capable of choosing evil, and to place the responsibility for that choice where it belongs - on the individual, not society.

Monday, December 28, 2009 at 5:34 PM