Philosopher Jacob Needleman asks in his latest book, ‘Why Can’t We Be Good?’

Part 1

Monday, April 9, 2007

|By David Ian Miller

SF Gate


We’ve got self-help programs, sensitivity training and easy access to the wisdom of all of the world’s greatest thinkers and spiritual traditions. We know exactly how to be rational, caring, honorable human beings — most of us, anyway. So why do we act in stupid, soul-hurting ways, fully aware that we’re being awful and always vowing to do better next time around?


Religious scholar and social philosopher Jacob Needleman addresses that quandary in his latest book, “Why Can’t We Be Good?” (Tarcher, 2007). Needleman digs deep into the writings of philosophers, religious leaders, scientists and psychologists to understand why we humans are so often seemingly incapable of doing the right thing. It’s a sobering subject, but Needleman’s book is far from a dull, accusing tome — his humor enlivens both the insights he shares and the exercises intended to strengthen one’s moral muscles.


Needleman is a professor of philosophy at San Francisco State University and the author of many books, including “The American Soul,” “The Wisdom of Love” and “Money and the Meaning of Life.” In this first part of a two-part interview, I talk with him about what he’s learned about good and evil during the 40 years he’s spent studying religion and philosophy. In part two, which will run next week, he speaks about his own faith and the people and ideas who have inspired him in his search for goodness.


The obvious answer is, “Read the book,” but can you give me a short synopsis? Why can’t we be good? Why do we do things that we know aren’t right?

This is one of the eternal questions of human life. We have a sense in ourselves of what’s right and wrong and we constantly, or, I should say, often betray it. This disconnect is an intrinsic part of the human condition, one that every religious and spiritual leader has tried to address and in some way repair. It’s as though there’s one part of us that knows one thing, and yet it’s another part of us that acts. And the two parts don’t speak to each other very well.


So there’s a part of us that wants to do the right thing, and then there’s another that just doesn’t give a damn?

Doesn’t care, doesn’t know and is overwhelmed by the selfish aspects — the fear, the anxiety, the resentments, the sensitivities that are part of what you call the ego.

It’s like we’re two people inhabiting one body, all of us, and there’s no real connection between those two halves. One part has a tendency toward the good — to what is noble, to what is related to the sacred, to what wishes to love — and the other part is in the service of desires that are socially conditioned into us by the illusion that just getting what we like or want will make us happy. Those two parts need to come into relationship with each other.


You write in the book that we know what is good, yet we do the opposite. But I’m wondering if we really do know what is good. Isn’t that part of the problem?

That’s a good point, and that’s what Socrates and many other great teachers have said. Personally, I think we do know what is good, but it’s in the deep part of ourselves that’s very deep down in us and is all covered over by self-deceptions. We don’t know it in a way that enables it to touch our feelings, our reactions, our muscles, our nerves.


Can you give me an example?

Just look at how we knowingly behave counterproductively. We say, “I know I shouldn’t smoke, but …” or “I know I shouldn’t eat all this stuff,” or whatever it is. Put the pastry in front of me, put the cigarette in front of me, and there I go.


People often explain this sort of behavior by saying: “Well, human beings. They’re just not rational.” Is that the problem?

We are rational, but we’re not always intelligent. How’s that for a paradox? You can think very cleverly or rationally about how to do something bad, but that is not the same thing as real intelligence. A thief, a murderer can be very rational, in the sense of plotting things out. But intelligence is when the part of ourselves that is the deep mind that we all potentially have really governs our life.


Do you think that part exists in all of us?

I think it does. It’s very covered over in many of us, but it’s there.


Where does that part come from? Is it something we’re born with? Is it something we’re taught?

I think it’s complex. It comes from our essence as human beings, and sometimes it also comes from our influence and environment, from education. And, in a sense, it comes from who knows where. It defines a human being that we have this potential, this power. We don’t have the awareness of it or the ability to articulate what it is, but down in our essential nature there is something called conscience, which is not necessarily just a socially conditioned ego.


Do you believe that human beings are basically good?

Yes, basically. We are built to be able to care and to love as part of our essential nature.


What is evil, then? Are some people evil?

Yeah, they sure are! And maybe all of us, relatively speaking, are sometimes evil.


How do those two things coexist, that we are basically good, and yet evil also exists?

There’s at least two kinds of evil. There’s the evil that just covers over the deep voice of conscience, and the whole society sometimes does that, free of charge, as it were. By the time we are 4, 5 or 6 years old, the voice of conscience becomes covered over, and we only hear it on special occasions when someone dies, or when we do something that we suddenly realize is against all that is good and right. Then the voice of conscience is heard, and it’s very clear and very painful.


The other kind of evil just comes from the ego, basically, when we’re identified with this picture of ourselves, of, say, our country or religion or ethnic group or social class, and we become so attached to these things that we build our identities around them. If somebody threatens that image we have of ourselves, we get frightened. And when man is frightened, he gets angry, and when he is angry, he often becomes violent.


Why did you decide to write this book now?

As a philosopher for many, many years, I’ve studied the great spiritual traditions of the world, and I’m convinced that they all converge — they have one and the same message down in their depths. And the books have to do with what light these spiritual truths can throw on the problems of our culture. It seems to me the burning question of the day is the question of ethics. And trying to care for each other and for the Earth, and anything else that’s good.


So it was a challenge to me: Can I really find something in what I’ve come to understand as the spiritual core of all the religions, that can really be realistically applied to this terrible question of ethics? And I found it in the most unexpected place — what I consider the beginning of a bridge between what we know down deep and how we act, and I found it in my classroom. And what’s what I write about in a large part of the book.


What, exactly, did you find?

I saw that what I’ve been trying to do is listen to my students and help them to listen to each other when they speak, especially when they disagree, and I found that the work of listening, of thinking together, is the beginning of morality. It’s a very practical step towards real ethics. It’s what I call in the book “a rehearsal for morality.”


You write that we need to listen to each other more — that’s part of what will help us find our own goodness and be good. What does listening have to do with being good?

Usually, people don’t really listen. They are just waiting for the other person to catch their breath so they can go in with their own point of view. If you really listen to someone, you will have to detach yourself from your own opinions, your own views, your own ego, in order to let the other person in, let their thought in. That’s not so easy. It’s not so obvious. Most people don’t do it.


It doesn’t mean you have to agree with the other person. You just have to separate from your own mind for a moment and let them in. And that separation is really the beginning of being free from your ego. Of course, it doesn’t last, and going through your life you become the same dang fool you always have been, but it’s the beginning of understanding that it is possible to separate from my own picture of myself, which is often governed by my opinions on things.


What about when people disagree strongly with each other? Does listening really help?

When two people disagree upon something — when they passionately disagree, say, about abortion, which I talk about in the book — if they try this exercise of listening and not responding until they can summarize what the other person has said to their satisfaction, it’s an amazing path. They may never agree, but they wind up regarding each other as human beings. They disagree with the other’s point of view, not with the person. And they don’t hate each other. In fact, sometimes they go away arm in arm.


You point out in the book that you’ve got a lot of people right now who either subscribe to moral relativism, on the one hand, or they have some sort of kind of absolutist, fundamentalist view of the world. How is it even possible to get those two sides to listen to each other?

It’s very difficult. I would say that’s the philosophical, spiritual crisis of our era. People no longer do it. They shout at each other. How to get free? It’s hard to do, but in a way, it’s easy, if you know what it serves. Just to take a moment sometimes and let yourself step back from your own thoughts. I tried this with my students, and this is powerful.


One student who tried it — most of them sort of resisted it — when she got angry with somebody at a dry-cleaning place, and she said: “Oh, this is what Professor Needleman said! I’m going to look at my anger, look at my annoyance and step back from it.” And she was amazed that she became two people, the person who was angry and the other person who was calmly looking at her anger. And then when that happened, the anger itself subsided. Now, what she said after trying that stunned me. She said: “I had no idea my mind could do that.” Are we raising a nation, a culture, of people who don’t know this fundamental power of the human mind to step back from itself, to just look at itself? That power is the source of the beginning of the freedom from the ego. But we don’t value that as a culture. We value it when people get very so-called committed and passionate and are ready to strangle the other person. Do you see what I’m saying?


That sounds like a Buddhist approach.

It’s not just Buddhism. If you look at the core of many spiritual traditions, you will find that practice being emphasized.


Having written this book, do you think you are better at being good than you used to be?

No. I would say I’m a beginner.


Why do you say that?

To be good, one has to intend what is good for the other, for one’s neighbor. That is very difficult to do in any pure way. The ego almost always sneaks in selfishly for personal gain and deflects the good that was intended. I would say I’m a beginner in the sense that I see more and more clearly the power of the ego to control our actions. But I also realize that seeing this, in and of itself, can detoxify the ego.



Philosopher Jacob Needleman asks in his latest book, ‘Why Can’t We Be Good?’

Part 2

April 16, 2007

|By David Ian Miller

SF Gate


This column continues a conversation I began last week with Jacob Needleman, a religious scholar and social philosopher whose latest book, “Why Can’t We Be Good?” (Tarcher, 2007), explores why people don’t always act in accordance with either common sense or their soul’s desires.


Needleman is a professor of philosophy at San Francisco State University and the author of many books, including “The American Soul,” “Lost Christianity” and “Money and the Meaning of Life.” He is able to glean fresh insights from classical philosophy and the teachings of the world’s spiritual traditions, and remind us — in new and interesting ways — of the simple truths embedded in this wisdom.


In the first part of this conversation, Needleman discussed what he’s learned about good and evil during the 40 years he’s spent studying religion and philosophy. In this column, he speaks about good people, science and technology’s effect on us and, ultimately, how to be good — or at least better.


Do you know anyone who you would describe as genuinely good?

I do. I have met several people in my lifetime. They are not famous.


Any interesting examples?

I can give you examples in terms of behavior. I mean, there are wonderful saints in the world. But I’ve seen people make sacrifices for the sake of others without anybody asking for any reward or any attention or anything. It’s hard to see because usually it’s invisible.


So for you, goodness has something to do with being selfless?

Being selfless, yeah, for a moment, anyway. I asked my class once, “Have you ever done something that cost you something just for the sake of another person without telling anybody about it?” Very few people had. But one or two people who had done this told me — and I have experienced that, too — that it produces a feeling of joy unlike anything else. This is something that the culture doesn’t teach: that pure giving is a joy unlike anything you do when you get.


Can we talk a bit about your personal faith? Do you follow a particular religion or spiritual tradition?

I have a practice, yes. It’s what you might call meditation and spiritual exercises, but I don’t talk too much about that explicitly.


Were you raised in a particular religion?

I was raised Jewish, but I was pretty allergic to my religion as I was growing up. Now I see that aversion to religion is much more about the fact that our churches and synagogues, in my humble opinion, have lost contact with the real depth of their teachings. People try to do ethics without realizing that it needs to be connected to deep philosophical, metaphysical and spiritual experience. People are trying to figure out ethics with just their minds or their reactions. And as a result, everybody criticizes everything.


Do you still consider yourself Jewish?

Yes. I also just as deeply respect Christian tradition and Buddhist tradition. I’ve spent 45 years studying the inner meaning of these great religions, and believe me, they all converge. If I could be a Christian, I’d be just as happy as if I could be a real Jew.


What do you mean by that last statement?

It takes work to be a Christian. You have to choose it. And you can’t choose it just once and forget about it. You have to choose it again and again, and it’s an inner struggle. It’s an inner struggle that the great mystics have put on paper.


Is that different from being a real Jew?

That’s the same thing with being a real Jew. A real Jew is not just someone who goes to the synagogue and follows the diet and says the words, but the real Jew is someone inwardly Jewish.


You have children. Did you raise them in a specific spiritual tradition?

We didn’t. We were confused about what to do about that because we ourselves were not faithful, in the sense of going to synagogue and that kind of thing. We hoped that they would have a sense of sacred somehow because that was we were seeking in our own lives. I think it’s very important for children. Whether they get that from religion, that’s another question.


It’s a difficult problem when you feel ambivalent about your own religion. How much of that do you pass on to your kids?

I don’t think you can fool them. If you don’t have a strong sense of commitment towards a religion, and you try to make them go to Sunday school, do all those things, they may do it or they may not, but right under the surface they are going to feel the lie.

I think the sense of the sacred sometimes for me was always connected to science and to the wonder of nature — the sky, the Earth and philosophical ideas — and that my parents did cultivate that in me, and I hope I have cultivated it in my children.


The Jewish scholar Hillel said, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor.” Every religion has its Golden Rule. But how do individuals follow this rule in a world where it sometimes seems like the good guys finish last?

You have to interpret the Golden Rule in a way that maybe isn’t too simplistic. I mean, if you’re in the jungle, it’s naive to think you are going to be nice to the tiger who is coming at you. You’ve got to get out of the way or knock him out, whatever is necessary to protect yourself. You have to live in the real world.


I think the Golden Rule has to be internalized. That means not to be devoured by your egoistic reactions when someone does something that annoys you. It sounds simple, but it takes years to put into practice.


It sounds like you’re saying that morality is for the few.

But there [have] to be many, many more of the few.


We have, more than ever, access to all the great philosophical and religious traditions that offer guidance on how to be good. Is it harder or easier to be good in today’s world?

I think it’s always been hard. Otherwise, why did the Buddha have to go to such trouble to transmit his teachings to the world? Why did Christ get up on the cross? Why did Moses lead people through the desert? Maybe each era has its own kind of obstacles, and our era has ours.


What are some of those?

One of them is a kind of a belief, not in science so much, but in scientism. That is the religion of science.

We know that our scientific progress and our technology [have] gotten way out in front of moral development. We are like little children sitting in a big powerful locomotive playing with the switches — we don’t know what the hell we are doing. I think our moral development, maybe our culture, has in some sense lagged behind our intellectual development.


Technology has given us the power to do good, but also to do much worse.

Yeah, and it amplifies our weaknesses to the point that the very Earth itself is in danger. People have always had this problem. But I do think our culture has distanced itself more than others from the sense of the sacred. And that’s dangerous. In the history of any religion, there’s the same question being asked. You’ll find the prophet Isaiah crying out to the people, Jeremiah crying out to the people, Christ, Buddha, they all had this question: “Why can’t you be good?’


Being good doesn’t mean being nice. It means being a real human being. Being capable of love. That is what the human being was meant for, in my opinion.


The Internet seems to bring out all the best and worst in people. You could find people who will go out of their way to help a stranger, and others who will take advantage of our trusting nature. Do you see the Internet as a potential contributor to good in the world?

I think it’s got its great side, just like every technology. But it’s also very self-deceptive. I mean, there is this kind of electronic communication that’s developing which is so far from being a real human interaction. People are thinking that they are really having relationships, and they don’t even know what it means to sit down in a room with a person and really talk and open one’s heart to each other. I think [the Internet] could be a great help to people, but there is so much self-deception in it that I don’t know if it’s going to help at all. The same with a lot of modern inventions. They usually create new problems with every problem they solve. Is e-mail a good thing? Sometimes I think it’s an invention of the devil.


As you were talking, my mind was wandering back to something we were discussing earlier — the problem of people not agreeing about what good is. There’s so much conflict in the world about that. For example, morality seems to be so different from one person to another. If we can’t agree on what it means to be good, then what hope is there?

The question is how to come in touch with the central nature of ourselves — our conscience. That does not differ from culture to culture, in my opinion.


The conscience of a devout Muslim is the same as a Hindu or an atheist scientist?

Yes. I would say so. I’ve known many people who were atheists or agnostic who have deep feelings of what’s right, and maybe their conscience is more accessible to them than others of us who call ourselves religious.


In our scientific age, maybe religious language is no longer the only valid guide to what is right or wrong, to morality. Maybe we need something that speaks in a more scientific language. So the studies of things like “What is mind?” “What is consciousness?” — these may actually lead us in a spiritual direction.


One last question: If you could ask people to do one thing in their quest to be good, what would that one thing be?

I would say to work at listening, at trying to let the other person in. You don’t have to agree with them, you don’t have to go to bed with them, you don’t have to do anything. Just to let their thought in. If people could start doing that, to master a little bit the art of simply speaking to each other, that would be the first step on the plank, I would say, the plank that leads to a bridge, that would lead to a new kind of morality.



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