Morality Matters

How do people distinguish between good and evil? Is reason hardwired in the brain? How are moral beliefs ingrained? Long the province of philosphers, morality is increasingly an avenue of scientific inquiry.

Are We Good? Or Bad? Or Both?

Yes, there is hope for the human race

Several readers of my recent post, Mythbusters II:  We do NOT begin as blank slates, engaged in a lively discussion about whether or not human beings have a basic, unlimited capacity for goodness.  While acknowledging that we have various inborn strengths and weakness in many other areas, there was a suggestion that perhaps goodness is in its own category—are we blank slates when it comes to being good people?

One of the valuable aspects of being a psychoanalyst is that I get to know people in a very deep, intimate way.  I get to know the details of their lives, their thoughts, their feelings, their traumas, their successes, their failures.  And because I am most interested in how they experienced their experiences, I get to witness some of the most amazing and sometimes puzzling human dynamics.

There are people in the world (you might know some or even be one!) who had the most horrific childhoods—filled with abuse, neglect, confusion, and poverty of all kinds—and they seem to have emerged as strong, capable people who find the good in life and build on it.  By virtue of their innate make-up, they are oriented toward looking for what is good in their lives and making the most of it.  And while they are greatly impacted by the bad, they do not let it defeat them.  Despite the worst odds, such folks make lemonade out of lemons.

Then there are other people in the world (you know them, too) who had quite an advantaged start in life—an early environment that offered care, support, consistency, and opportunities—and they seem to have done so little good with it.  By virtue of their innate make-up, they are more oriented toward whatever is bad (even if there isn't much of it) and making the most of that.   At best, they can not appreciate and use the good that they are given and, at worst, they are determined to spoil it.  Despite the best odds, such folks make lemons out of lemonade.

There are, of course, many variations in-between these two extremes.  In fact, most of us find ourselves somewhere in-between.  There is a relative balance in most early environments between the good and the bad, just like there is a relative balance of good and bad in each person's hard-wired temperament.   But the data show that we do not start out in innocence.  We do not come into the world as blank slates, even when it comes to our capacity for goodness. 

For the plain truth is that we all have destructive capacities.  We all have some aversion to doing good and being good.  Even for the most optimistic and resilient character, it takes effort to engage in life in a productive way.  Sometimes, life seems to hurt more than it seems to help.  We wonder why we should even bother.  That mindset can fester.  Bitterness sets in.  Grievances and resentment deepen.  It becomes easy to justify a more selfish, greedy, entitled approach to life and to turn away from whatever impulses we might have for generosity, care, and kindness.  And there is an urge in all of us to be naughty, to fight, to punish, to spoil, to take our revenge.   

But I think that it is also clear that we all have an innate capacity for goodness—and this is the hope for the human race as well as the hope for each individual person in the journey of life.  Side by side with our destructive capacity is our constructive capacity—our capacity to do good and to be good, our impulses to love, to care, to help, to heal. 

The way to make the most of one's life is to harness this orientation toward goodness so that it has more and more influence over one's personality.  In the context of psychotherapy, we might even say that it is the aim of the psychoanalysis to strengthen each patient's good, constructive capacities so that they can be used productively to manage the destructive elements.  At the same time, it is essential to acknowledge and own the destructive capacities.  For it is only when there is a bridge between love and hate that humility, authentic guilt, and forgiveness can make way for healing and restoration. 

One of the main tasks of psychological life is to learn to take the good with the bad—in ourselves and in life in general—and to work toward growing ourselves so that, in the balance of things, our goodness leads the way.

 

Copyright 2011  Jennifer L. Kunst, Ph.D.

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Morality Matters