Why We Can’t Be Good?

Jacob Needleman’s book Why We Can’t Be Good? asks an important and troubling question. Needleman is a professor of philosophy at San Francisco State University and is the author of many books about timely subjects that have concerned the humanities for centuries. Unfortunately, my expectations were set a bit too high for this book as I was expecting a more analytical-historical approach. Instead, Needleman meanders from one anecdote to another, making outrageous claims on the basis of some bizarre religious beliefs that only he seems to understand.

In a nutshell the question at hand is answered by our lack of attention to ourselves. This isn’t as psychological as it sounds. Drawing from a wide range of traditions, Needleman makes the case that ignorance of our human nature is the primary cause of our moral failure, and ” the ethics of attention” are the first step in discovering what it is.

The book is not without its provocative insights. Needleman argues that reality is divided into moral categories; that there is no neutrality. Our lives are caught between good and bad forces that act upon us, and that by being aware of them we can find greater freedom from the bad, and more subservience to the good. Most of all we cannot do it alone. We need a community of people to “think together” with.

He develops a couple of mental tests that draw this out. One is to enter into a debate with another on an issue that is emotionally charged. The rules of engagement are simple. The first person makes their case. The second person must restate what the position is in such a way that is acceptable to the first person. The first person must agree to the representation before the second person can respond. The process is then reversed if the first person wishes to respond, and so on. Needleman describes an example of the exercise he tried with two students arguing for and against partial-birth abortion. The results were unlike anything the two Bay area college students had ever experienced. They had listened to each other, rather than hunkering down in their defenses and launching into attacks.

The second exercise is done in front of the TV. You watch a show that you enjoy immensely, one that you don’t want to miss. Half way through the program or close to the end, when things are at a climax, you turn the TV off. The point of the exercise is to show how your mind becomes attentive to things that do not ultimately matter. Anyone who has tried this will find that it is actually quite difficult. The impulses that constrain one from acting are oppressive. But if one succeeds, it is an eye-opening and rewarding experience that demonstrates that the will can be morally disciplined.

How does one succeed? Needleman suggests that we are capable of “watching ourselves” or monitoring how we are feeling and acting at certain moments of annoyance. The next time you are annoyed with someone, simply observe yourself being annoyed as if you were watching yourself from the outside. Do not trying to change from being annoyed to being at peace… just be conscious of what is happening. The strange experience splits the mind and gives attention not only to the cause of annoyance, but to the effect of it as well. In an important way this helps us see who we really are.

Who we really are, of course, is an important matter for Needleman. We act out of ourselves in the truest ways when we are in a crisis. The passing of a loved one usually brings the best out of us (but not always). When we are in pain or have suffered much we are much tenderer towards others whoever they may be. Our attention is fixed on what matters. Our true selves lay aside our false ones.

Yet Needleman dives into some strange ideas. His reverence for religion is admirable, but his pluralistic approach to it in the formation of his synthesis really respects none of them in the end. The driving theology in his worldview is that God is “the Self”—the true person within that sages like Socrates, Jesus, Marcus Aurelius, the Buddha, and various rabbis have tried to discover and understand. However, at least for Judaism and Christianity, this is the exact opposite conclusion—yes, there is a God, and no we are not him! It isn’t at all clear why he makes these assumptions, and they are so badly described I’m afraid no one could represent back to him what they are.

Though he portrays the problem of humanity well, especially with his brilliant analysis of the infamous Stanley Milgram experiment, he doesn’t give us much in the way of a coherent solution to it. I’m afraid I expected a little too much out of this book, and found myself skimming to the end wondering why this book can’t be good?


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