Good People Who Do Bad Things


There is a wealth of new research about our increasing narcissism and the great divide between the good people we believe ourselves to be, and the irresponsible ways we behave. Most of us claim to care about the environment, but we continue to make choices that are environmentally destructive. And most of us say we object to child labour, the abuse and isolation of refugees and the building of cluster bombs but most of us also knowingly contribute to these atrocities. What happens in the gap between knowing what is right and acting on it? What drives us to continually let ourselves off the hook? 

Social and behavioural psychology research has lately focused on our inability to follow through on our ethical values and intentions, and on our increasing attention to our own satisfaction at the expense of others.

While we appear to value happiness more than ever before, there is no evidence that we are becoming happier, or that we are contributing to the increased happiness of others. The research is telling us that we know more than ever about the environment and the world’s most disadvantaged people. We also believe more strongly than ever that we are committed to making a difference, but when it comes to action, we mostly fail to look beyond our own interests. How can we understand this gap between intention and action? Are there underlying personal issues that we may be missing in our search to understand why we so often fail to meet our own standards?

Underlying most of our personal approaches to making ethical choices is a system of reward and punishment. If I do this I will be rewarded and if I don’t, I may face consequences I don’t like. Advertising, policy spruiking and public health campaigning rely heavily on this notion of the rewards of right action — and the punishments that await us if we fall off the wagon.

In framing ethical decisions as things we do to get a certain result, we have effectively separated ourselves from the rest of the world. By doing so, everything that is not me becomes a kind of object, and this in itself is unethical. I need to know that I’m taking a particular action because to cause you harm is to also harm myself. I have no rights that impinge on yours, and I deserve nothing that you do not. The cluster bombs I allow to enter your world will also explode for me.

When rewards and punishments stand in for ethics, they create a kind of autocratic system of checks and balances, all of them measured by some outside authority. So ethical decision-making becomes less about personal accountability and more about looking at our own behaviour in a manipulative way. What will making this decision get me? How will people see me if I do this?

Reward and punishment is a particularly narcissistic approach to making choices. It is based on seeing the world in one dimension. This is why it is so often used in the management of young children. They are genuinely in a stage of development where they see themselves as the centre of the world. Unfortunately they are also particularly vulnerable to our judgments, because they are so dependent upon us for their survival. They go for the rewards, wherever they are, because they cannot live without them.

This manipulation of free choice sets us up for anger and resentment. It is the very act of measuring ourselves up against others that is at the heart of the problem here. It encourages us to see each other as a collection of acts rather than as human beings. Measuring someone on a green scale is in many ways no different than giving them a "hot or not" rating. Ethics is never about a scoreboard. Our situations are always connected and each action we take affects everyone around us.

So how did we become so willing to accept this system of trade offs and external judgments? How can we give up our own ethical values with such ease? What set us up to treat ourselves, other people, creatures and the planet as objects? There was a time for each of us when what we needed, rather than what we deserved, was to be welcomed completely and received with wonder. Babies need to be able to do anything and to be completely accepted and loved. This is not only how we learn to value ourselves, but also how we learn to trust other people. It is how we learn that we are a part of the world rather than a creature who benefits or suffers at the hands of others.

Understandably, because so many of us were loved conditionally as babies, we can get stuck in narcissistic self-interest. We continue to want what we never got. We can become so overwhelmed by how things are for us, so flooded with our own difficulties, that it can be hard to take into account the impact of our behaviour on others. In other words, we act like babies. So when we are faced with hard and painful choices, we can only see ourselves and we become blind to our effect on other people. We start saying things like "It’s not fair!" and "I deserve better!"

Where this unbalanced self-interest really does damage, is in our sense of where we connect to the world and to other people. When we have been hurt, particularly as children, it can be too overwhelming to come to terms with the fact that we are all connected, and that what I do to you, I also do to myself. We want instead to believe in separation and protection and sometimes in perfection. We needed these beliefs to protect us in difficult childhoods, but as adults they allow us to wreak great destruction in the guise of meeting our own needs. It requires actual developmental maturity not to treat others and the environment as objects to be acknowledged or ignored; and many of us never make it to this maturity, or we make it at great cost to ourselves and to other people.

So we can imagine that we can buy something that causes harm, build bombs that will continue to kill for generations and ignore the suffering of others, because we are hurting, and because we are still young enough inside that we see ourselves as the deserved centre of the universe. You can suffer for me, I need this more than you do.

Unacknowledged needs and feelings, particularly anger, often come out in a disregard for our effect on other people and on the environment. When we feel ripped off, hurt, silenced and excluded, and we are not able to feel and to express this, we become dangerous to ourselves and to others. If we don’t really feel and acknowledge our hurts, and take action to support ourselves, other people around us are vulnerable to our disregard. The world is full of people suffering for the unacknowledged pain of others. Part of the solution is for us to truly grow up.


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