What Makes People Good?

HawkgrrrlAsides, church, Culture, curiosity, families, fear, love, mercy, mormon, Mormons, questioning, religion, service, thought 21 Comments

An article in NewsweekAdventures in Good and Evil” made a few interesting points about why some people are good and some are evil.
The article pointed out a few generalizations:

  • In general, most people’s moral sense capitulates in the face of authority.
  • The roots of our moral sense—of honesty, altruism, compassion, generosity and sense of justice and fairness—are sunk deep in evolutionary history, as can be seen in our primate cousins, who are capable of remarkable acts of altruism.
  • People’s ethical decision making is strongly driven by gut emotions rather than by rational, analytic thought. We have gut feelings of what is right and what is wrong.

Some other observations based on research to date:

“We know that women tend to be more altruistic than men on average (nyah!), older people tend to be more altruistic than younger ones (sucks to be elderly), students are less altruistic than nonstudents (that was unexpected–I always donated plasma as a student, but mostly because I was broke!),” he says. “People with higher IQs tend to be more altruistic/cooperative (it’s true; we are!).” However, there is little or no correlation between altruism and standard personality traits such as shyness, agreeableness and openness to new experiences.

But these generalizations are limited and don’t explain why people fall at different ends of the spectrum or how to cultivate virtue as a society or raise children to be moral.

So, who tends to be more altruistic?

A specific cluster of emotional traits seem to go along with compassion. People who are emotionally secure, who view life’s problems as manageable and who feel safe and protected tend to show the greatest empathy for strangers and to act altruistically and compassionately. In contrast, people who are anxious about their own worth and competence, who avoid close relationships or are clingy in those they have tend to be less altruistic and less generous.

It seems that some church members and programs increase emotional security and self-reliance, while others may create fear and anxiousness. Maybe this is just personalities of individuals that come to the surface.

Both forgiveness and revenge have been useful human tactics through time for different reasons:

both forgiveness and revenge “solved critical evolutionary problems for our ancestors.” Forgiveness helps to preserve valuable relationships. Exacting revenge acts as a deterrent against attacks, cheating or freeloading. It also establishes the revenge taker as someone not to be crossed, preempting future attacks.

Maybe the following explains “Mormon Persecution Complex” to some extent:

When people can count on the rule of law to punish infractions, they are less prone to seek personal revenge. Conversely, when society lacks a mechanism to defend people’s rights, “parents teach their children to cultivate a tough reputation and not let anyone get away with messing with them,” McCullough says.
So, parents who are protectionist, isolationist, provincial and defensive about being Mormons are going to perpetuate these “persecution” sentiments. Some recent JS lessons seem designed to do the same. Perhaps a few members of the correlation committee are of that type.
What do you think?  How can we raise kids who are good?  Where do we do well as a church, and where could we improve?  How can we drive out the fear-mongering and teach our kids to feel safe in society?  Discuss.

Comments 21

  1. Great topic hawkgrrl!

    I want to give this more thought, but a one thing comes to mind –

    I agree with the first quote you share on which groups are more or less altruistic. As a college student, at times I have become insecure when confronted with the complexities of the world around me. This has generally led to a focus on self – which usually makes me less cognizant of others.

  2. I gave this some more thought during my break, and here are my answers to some of your questions –

    It is my personal opinion that Mormonism contains more straight-forward answers than most other Judeo-Christian faiths. The Plan of Salvation and the Atonement can help members find security because they come to know where they came from, where they are here, where they are going and how the Atonement is going to get them there.

    What could we do better? I think an increased focus on the Atonement (and Jesus Christ in general), and a decreased focus on priesthood authority and Church history will help our children find more security in the Gospel thus becoming more charitable and compassionate Saints.

  3. It seems that, at the root of it, one must decide whether to model one’s family as authoritarian (deferring to authority) or critical (questioning and seeking to understand; the terms are mine and inadequate). We as LDS tend to be strongly authoritarian with our concepts of stewardship and priesthood responsibility (that’s the word I hear more often these days than authority)—but that’s not universal, I know, and the Bloggernacle is rife with those who are critical (in the best sense of the word).

    Ultimately, any action that leverages power must be scrutinized intensely under the light of D&C 121. Only compassion for the person and absolute respect for their autonomy of choice (and the Spirit) can guide our actions and counsels. We have to reject any “us versus them” mentality (ubiquitous in politics), and recognize the nuances of arguments and positions. We act on principles (especially when inconvenient to ourselves), not on expedience.

    How does one pass this on to one’s children? Not sure yet. My ideal parenting role model is Atticus Finch, who I believe does an excellent job of inculcating these values.

  4. I was fortunate to have parents that loved each other, were each other’s best friends, made home a haven, and instilled self-worth. They never raised their voice at each other that I know of and rarely showed exasperation toward each other—in fact, when they did, it made me laugh because it was so out of character. I suspect their accomplishment was a combination of genetics, IQs, and strength from being active in the church. Certainly I’ve known many members of other churches who accomplish this too, so it would I would say that parents who devote time to a religion of their choice and spend time instilling self-worth to their children have success that mirrors what my parents did.

    I do think we have to guard our family time, or be creative with balancing it, belonging to a church with lay leadership. I also have a concern about members over-zealously terminating public school in favor of home school. There may be a very good reason to home school, but LDS kids who do go to public schools lose the strength they gather from LDS peers who are taken out. Home schooling in a home that the parents have trouble making a safe haven is also a worry.

  5. #4 – Rigel, it sounds like you had a pretty great, and relatively unusual, home life. Not surprisingly, the only real issue I would take with your comment is that you seem to imply that in order to instill good values and raise their children as good people, parents must “devote time to a religion of their choice.” I don’t know whether the omission of people who are not religious was intentional, but I have known many people who are not religious at all, and even that do not believe in god, who teach wonderful values to their children. On a personal level, I feel like I will be even better able to instill good values in my children now that I have divorced myself from religion. One reason for this is that I hold as one of my highest values the right and ability of each person to determine for him or herself what is right and wrong and how to live his or her life. I think with many religions, and I believe with the mormon church particularly, there is only so far you can go with such a value before you run up against the area where now you’re not properly teaching your children the truth. Elder Holland sums this problem up succinctly in his talk from a fairly recent conference talk where he talks about pitching our tents close to the campfire, or something to that effect.

  6. #4 “LDS kids who do go to public schools lose the strength they gather from LDS peers who are taken out.”

    I would add, as one who grew up in Florida, that LDS kids gain strength from being around kids who AREN’T LDS. That way, my parents were able to show me that you don’t have to be mormon to be a good person and that they were going to let me choose my own path. In that sense, I was able to choose what I wanted to do, and whether or not I felt Mormonism would help me be a good person. I learned early on that being ‘good’ was my choice, both in deciding what was ‘good’, and whether or not i would choose ‘good’.

  7. #6 – I agree wholeheartedly with this. This goes for LDS and non-LDS kids alike. All the kids I have ever known who were home schooled were at least somewhat sheltered and ill at ease around people who were very different from them. Of course this may not be true in all cases, but it seems to me that if the reason you’re home schooling your kids is to keep them away from unsavory people or beliefs, all you are doing is delaying the inevitable. Eventually they’re going to go out into the world, and there they will confront all the things and people you were trying to protect them from. I would think that children are better off being exposed to those things when they’re still very open to the teachings of their parents and are still reliant on them to help them interpret the things they experience as right or wrong, good or bad. When they’re older, they’re going to be more or less on their own to sort that stuff out. Many of the older kids I knew in high school who had just come out of home schooling seemed lost and often never really found a comfort level with their peers. I think there is a chicken-or-the-egg type argument to be had about whether the experiences of home schooled children are simply the results of being home schooled or more the result of being reared by the type of people who want to home school in the first place (again, just a generalization, I don’t mean offense).

  8. 5. brjones

    Your comments remind me of a conversation I recently had with a member of the Church. They felt a testimony of the Gospel was important in motivating us to make good decisions. I agree with that. Though I can’t help but question if we could be even better people for establishing our value system on a simple determination to do good.

  9. #8 – I can’t speak for anyone else but I know I feel this is the case. I’m sure many believers would disagree, but I think that internal motivation is always superior to external motivation. Now, to the extent that external forces may be used to spur and help sustain internal motivation, that’s great and people should do whatever helps motivate them. For me, though, being raised in the church, I always felt like the entire moral framework of right and wrong, including both beliefs and actions, was spelled out for me from the beginning. So when it came to what to believe or what to do in a given situation, it was really just a matter of checking the checklist. In that sense it was always a matter of not “what’s the right thing to do or think or feel” but only “did I do or think or feel the right thing as it’s been given to me?” That may seem ok, but the downside is that if your belief or your desire is not strong or sure, your motivation to do what’s right or even your ability to be sure of WHAT is right, are going to wane proportionately. On the other hand, when a person, through study, meditation, prayer and most importantly, experience, decides for him or herself what is right and wrong, i believe that person is far more likely to adhere to those principles than if those things are dictated to him or her, letter and verse. I think this is especially true when one is confronted with a distressing situation that may try their beliefs or tempt them to do a “wrong” behavior. This has certainly been my experience. I think being good because you’ve decided for yourself that it’s the right thing to do, is the same as being good for the sake of being good. In other words, good not because you believe god told you he’ll be mad if you’re not, but because it’s just the right thing to do.

  10. 9. brjones

    I agree completely. As one who has struggled and continues to struggle with my testimony, when my faith in the Church is compromised it has been a natural instinct to doubt my value system.

  11. Discovering for one’s self what is right and what is wrong is a priceless process. The church, despite its good intentions, can sometimes deprive people of that process, because the individual doesn’t bother sorting it out for herself. Instead, one relies on someone else (god and/or prophet and/or local leader and/or parent) to do their thinking for them. This can lead to many problems in the future. But at the same time, anyone with an influence over a child (parent, teacher, church figure), of course, should guide the child, so it is a very fine line. Obviously, no one thinks children should be left completely alone to decide for themselves their value system. At the same time, harm can be done by making too many decisions for the child. But one thing that should be stressed, in my opinion, is to encourage children to think for themselves instead of teaching too much detail, like, “this issue was clarified in GC in 1993 so we know how we should handle it.” But as I said, it is tricky. I simply hope we all would create environments that foster freedom of thought and choice, even if we feel we already know what is best. I like what JS said about teaching correct principles but letting them govern themselves. Sometimes I wonder if the church has gone too far astray from this concept.

    So, to answer hawgirl’s question, I would say whatever it is that makes people good, it needs to come from within that individual.

  12. Brjones, I was just thinking about whether I actually know anyone that was raised totally without religion. I don’t argue your point, but knowing someone like that has been rare in my life. Maybe I remember one classmate in med school who’s father was a cancer researcher. They had a great family and I don’t think they were religious, although to a degree, science was their religion.

    #6 I am writing from the mission field, so the fact that my kids will take strength from non-LDS peers was/should have been implied. Thanks for making that clear. I am glad that my daughter had one LDS classmate this year, who happens to be a well adjusted, gifted kid. I don’t know if it will happen again or not, but it was good for her to see one friend both at school and church. Gordon B Hinckley gave a YSA fireside at my state university institute while I was there, which was awesome btw, and encouraged us to stay there rather then leave for a church school. Befriending non-members was a primary reason.

  13. #12 – Actually I can’t think of any of my peers who was raised without religion, either. However, I do know a number of people who are currently raising children without religion, and each of these individuals and their children are wonderful and moral people. I guess you could argue that it won’t take or when they get older it will dissipate, but I don’t see any reason that would be the case. In any event, I think we certainly agree in principle, and honestly I don’t take offense that people who are strong believers do feel that religion is necessary, even though I disagree. Obviously if someone believes something is the word of god then I would expect them to think of it as a necessity.

  14. “internal motivation is always superior to external motivation” The problem with external motivation is that it is compliance, not commitment. When the source of authority is gone (either absent such as parents or faith that has disappeared) everything is thrown into question and all bets are off if the only “motivation” was external. That’s not a strong foundation for morality, and in fact, may be the opposite – a strong foundation for rebellion. Questioning builds decision-making skills and self-reliance.

    I was particularly intrigued by the idea that fear-mongering creates tribalism which creates bullying of others to protect the in-group (and isn’t that immoral behavior?). There are many examples of tribal law in the scriptures, and these are the ones we always look at and say “Was that really right? Did God really order that??”

  15. #5-“On a personal level, I feel like I will be even better able to instill good values in my children now that I have divorced myself from religion. One reason for this is that I hold as one of my highest values the right and ability of each person to determine for him or herself what is right and wrong and how to live his or her life.”

    I think it is important to remember that your experience with the LDS church has helped you become who you are today and come to the above conclusions. I think we can take our negative experiences in life and learn from them in positive ways. If you can see your exposure to the LDS church as a foundation for becoming who you are, maybe you can see it in a different light. Also, I don’t believe being religious or not religious is the driving force behind being able to instill good values in children. It has much more to do with the type of people that are raising the children, not whether they go to church on Sunday or not.

    In my experience with home-schooled children they have been very well adjusted and easily able to relate to others. They also have been ahead of the game in their education and able to focus on getting college credit in high school. I have not seen what you are describing and I have had quite a bit of exposure to home-schooled children. Also, not every child needs or wants a great social network of friends. As adults we know there are different levels of sociality. Some people like to be much more social than others and it doesn’t mean they are uncomfortable around people, they just may not prefer to be with them.

  16. re 15:

    Jen, this brings up a good point though. You say, “I think it is important to remember that your experience with the LDS church has helped you become who you are today and come to the above conclusions.” So, what if we were able to have these kinds of factors, but without all the spiritual underpinnings. Because it seems to me that if you can create these kinds of people regardless of if they end up believing or not believing, then this raises some questions about belief.

  17. AndrewS-

    I didn’t say that I agreed with his conclusions, but if brjones is happy with his life and has found peace, I was merely pointing out that his LDS foundation was a part of bringing him to this point.

    I personally believe that good people emerge from many different cultures, religions and lifestyles and this is because they desire that goodness and want it above all other things. I think belief helps good people to become better people and more like God, so for me it doesn’t raise questions about belief, it is just an added bonus to help them do the good they desire.

    I love the fact that we have our agency and get to choose who we want to be. Whether belief or non belief is a part of our life is a choice and I believe it will carry us to the next life and get us what we desire. Who could ask for more?

  18. “internal motivation is always superior to external motivation”

    I’m glad in retrospect that my dad used external motivation to get me to serve the widow he home taught. She didn’t come to church and I didn’t know her or want to know her (I was a teenager). Mowing her lawn on a hot Arizona summer day wasn’t something that I was internally motivated to do. Now once I got there and saw the lawn when it was done and spent some dad/son time, it wasn’t so bad.

    The tie in was that I was a home teacher and this was a stewardship that we had, coming out of Christian teachings to love one another. I’m curious Brjones how you will cultivate that sense of stewardship without religion. I’m not saying that it can’t be done, I’m just wondering what approach you might take. With stewardship of the Earth, one can see that we all benefit. With stewardship of the poor and needy, how do you give someone a sense of obligation to serve and develop an internal motivation to serve with objectives not based upon religion? It seems that if there is not religion, there is still a philosophy of some sort to be taught. Good stuff to ponder.

  19. #18 – It is a good question, but I think you partially answered it yourself. Who in our society are currently serving as the best stewards of the earth (or at least the most active)? It’s the liberal left, led by those heathenistic atheists from hollywood. They have decided, for whatever reason, that the earth needs to be cared for and preserved. Whatever their motivations, I think it’s safe to say they are not generally derived from religion, or at least what we commonly think of as religion. This is just an example, but it is useful. The point is, I don’t have to believe that god told me to love my neighbor for me to believe that I should love my neighbor. Or not steal or murder or covet or lie, etc. These are near-universal truths, and I think they are innate to our human makeup. You might see that as the light of christ, whereas I just see it as inherent human goodness. Either way, I don’t ever need to mention god or the scriptures to instill in my children the ways in which we and they are fortunate and how incumbent it is on them as human beings to share that fortune with other people. And to your point about external vs internal, I didn’t mean to imply that there is no place for external motivation. Obviously I externally motivate my children to do things every day. I just think a) it’s a temporary motivating factor; and b) the more important the issue is the more important it is that the individual feels strong internal motivation to do a certain behavior. With mowing the lawn or eating vegetables, the motivation is irrelevant, because only the act is ultimately important. When you’re talking about what beliefs to base your entire existence upon, I think internal motivation is critical.

  20. “I don’t have to believe that god told me to love my neighbor for me to believe that I should love my neighbor”

    It’s true, but this message is given more effectively if there is a vehicle to do it. Belonging to a church or a non-religious service organization would give a someone a calendar of activities–some service related–so there is something already planned. You can instill a sense of civic duty as you parent, but having your kids get that message from a number of other role models serves to reinforce it. I don’t know if I, personally, would have learned the importance of “sacrificing” one form of entertainment for a lukewarm committment of service without the concept of a higher power being somehow involved. Your quest intrigues me though, and I have no doubt it will be successful with an experience unique for your kids and of great value to them.

  21. Interesting that the focus of the comments has been what influences are needed for a young person to grow into a moral “good” human being, and that no one has taken a stab at how a person becomes evil. I have no profound thoughts on this, but I think even evil people are internally motivated to do something they believe in (which leads to things like Al Capone saying “I’ve been spending the best years of my life as a public benefactor”). Maybe they are more self-centered than others, yet I’m sure they also have their inner circle of people that they are altruistic towards.

    Some of the discussion has mentioned people being inherently moral, and we all seem to agree overall just what is “good” and what is “moral,” yet I’m more of the opinion that people are inherently self-centered and self protecting and that “good” behavior is what is safe and socially acceptable. That’s an overgeneralization, and I see examples all over of people doing really altruistic things out of a sincere belief, but the example of Hollywood elites leading the charge on stewardship strikes me as a perfect example of people doing “good” based on what is popular and socially acceptable (in L.A., not in the rural west).

    As to the role of religion, . . . I can only say that for me personally I would be more selfish than I already am if it were not for an honest belief in the LDS church. I would be much more inclined to just live for my own whims, adventures, and hedonistic pursuits. Having the framework that we are all God’s children and that I am part of building up God’s kingdom on the earth puts my own actions into an entirely different light than no religious framework. I don’t mean to imply that nonreligious people cannot have morals–my graduate advisor is nonreligious and yet has some very strong morals. But I think his life is based largely on the premise of doing what he wants, whereas in my own life I also wonder “what does God want me to do?” Sometimes it is in searching to the answer to that question that I do good things that are inconvenient to my own pursuits.

    As a homeschooling dad I won’t even start to defend my views on that topic! It’s interesting to hear other viewpoints on the matter, but I’ll just say homeschooling has been great for us overall. We live directly across the street from a public school, and we invite our children to attend if they want–but when the school bell is what wakes them up in the morning they aren’t too anxious 😉

    Thanks for the topic Hawkgrrrl!

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