Are People Basically Good?

Dennis Prager writes:

If my mail is any indication, I suspect I aroused considerably more anger among Jews by arguing that man is not basically good (and that the belief in man’s innate goodness is neither rational nor Jewish) than I would have had I argued that there is no God.

If my suspicion is true, it supports my contention that many Jews have substituted faith in humanity for faith in God. Otherwise, why all the anger? Only one letter actually argues that people are basically good. The rest raise unrelated issues or just attack me. (To read the letters referred to here, see Page 4.)

Let’s begin with Michael Tolkin, a self-described “socialist liberal.”

Reading Mr. Tolkin’s comments, one would think I had defamed the universally loved Anne Frank. Yet all I did was differ with one line in Anne Frank’s diary because it is the most frequently cited example of the belief among Jews that people are basically good.

Yet, Mr. Tolkin describes my respectful philosophical difference with one line in Anne Frank’s diary this way: I have “lectured to” Anne Frank, I have “robbed her particular soul of her particular experience,” I have “thrown [her] into the ash heap generalization of ‘young people,’ ” I have caused Mr. Tolkin to “want to scream at this desecration,” and I have engaged in “robbing” and “erasing” Anne Frank’s name because I referred to her as a “teenage girl.”

After excoriating me for differing with Anne Frank, Mr. Tolkin proceeds to the issue itself. He writes that in spite of all of Anne Frank’s suffering, “she believed in goodness.” But belief in goodness was not the subject of my column, nor of the Anne Frank remark I quoted. The subject of my column (and Anne Frank’s comment) was belief in man being basically good. It’s tough to see how Mr. Tolkin missed that. In any event, I passionately believe in goodness. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t have written my article, because I believe that we can only increase goodness in the world if we first acknowledge how morally flawed human nature is.

Mr. Tolkin counters my argument that Anne Frank engaged in wishful thinking with this: “She didn’t engage in ‘wishful thinking,’ she engaged in the hardest work of all, finding good where there’s no reason for anything but bitterness. This is the real meaning of the Jewish admonition to choose life.”

Now, every normal human being wants to find good wherever possible. That is not the same, however, as claiming that people are basically good. I don’t understand why this distinction eludes Mr. Tolkin. It is, in fact, quite possible to find good wherever one can and at the same time understand that people are not basically good. I do it every day.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
This entry was posted in Dennis Prager, Michael Tolkin and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.