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What Drives Some People to Do Horrific Things and Others to Be Good?

We are born not with a propensity for good or for evil, but with needs we want to fulfill and with a profound sensitivity to having our efforts to meet our needs thwarted.

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Cross-posted from Tikkun Daily.

Seriously, don’t you wonder if anything can be written about good and evil that hasn’t already been said many times over? I did, too, until I encountered Nonviolent Communication while I was in graduate school pursuing a doctoral degree in sociology. I wasn’t studying good and evil, at least I didn’t think I was. I had no idea, at the time, that my interest in the relationship between reason and emotion was intertwined with the deepest and most perennial questions of human nature, hence with matters of good and evil which I had set aside for years.

I never liked the Medieval belief that human beings are innately evil, bad, or sinful, because I intuitively couldn’t fathom why and how nature would give rise to sinful creatures. I also didn’t ever find more satisfaction in the modern notions of “evil” such as the “selfish gene” evolutionary theory or the Freudian notions of an innate aggressive drive. Proponents of all such theories are hard-pressed to explain acts of true kindness, especially in the face of potential consequences, such as those who saved Jews during the Holocaust at risk to their own lives.

Like most people who balk at theories of sin, the only alternative I could come up with was to imagine human beings as being innately good. That, too, didn’t fit the reality I saw. As a Jew growing up in Israel, the Holocaust was simply too vivid a memory, presenting too much evidence to the contrary to dismiss. I was left with too many unanswered questions whichever way I looked at the issues.

When I first encountered Nonviolent Communication (NVC), I had no idea that a notion as simple and basic as human needs could finally address, at least to my satisfaction, the fundamental questions of human nature. Because of the name, I thought I was learning a communication process. I now know that placing human needs at the center of all theory is a simple act that radically questions our notions of human nature.

Like David Brooks, in his recent NYT article  When the Good Do Bad, I am not comfortable with the notion of there being some specific evil people who stand apart from the rest of us who are fundamentally good, allowing us to feel pure. I agree with Brooks that if mass murderers like Robert Bales are often remembered by their previous neighbors or friends as kind, normal, nice people, then the picture ought to be more complex. I don’t, however, see him as offering a complex solution. Reversing the assumption of goodness into the assumption of evil by suggesting that “we’re natural born killers” leaves the big question equally challenging. Even if “the real question is not what makes people kill but what prevents them from doing so,” the question still needs to be answered — why do some people kill and others don’t. His answers, if I understand them correctly, fall into the very approach to evil that he deplores. To say that people who commit massacres often live with “forward panic,” or that serial killers “are often charming, but have a high opinion of themselves that is not shared by the wider world,” amounts, once again, to defining unique character traits or flaws that set them apart from those who don’t kill in some fundamental way that cannot be explained. I find his prescription, inviting Robert Bales and the rest of us to a process of “struggling daily to strengthen the good and resist the evil, [by] policing the small transgressions to prevent larger ones,” even more problematic.

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