Nope, afraid not.
Let’s first define peace. For this purpose I’m going to define peace as the state in which no one is initiating physical violence against someone else. You can have your definition, but that’s what I’m going to base this piece on.
So, to gain this state we will have to know what causes people to initiate violence against someone else. I’ve heard over and over again in our society that violence is the result and action of bad people. We can separate bad people into two groups, those who were made bad by other’s violence and inherently bad people. Since we’re talking about a state where there is no initiation of violence we’ll set aside the first group. That leaves inherently bad people. If such a group exists, then there must be its opposite. That means we’ll also have to define “inherently good people.”
It’s not hard to imagine a separation of good people and bad people. We do it all the time. There are many definitions but, like pornography, we know goodness when we see it. A good person doesn’t go out of their way to hurt others. The more I think about it, the more there is a circle to the definition. We don’t believe inherently good people initiate violence and we define good people by that definition.
In his 2012 book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker lays out five psychological reasons for violence. They are: practical violence, dominance, revenge, sadism, and ideology. If they are all impossible for an inherently good person, we should have no problem. But are they?
Practical violence is pretty clear. I want some bread, you have bread. I’m an inherently good person. I choose not to push you down to get your bread. I choose not to initiate physical violence. Instead I ask you for some bread. If you tell me no, I go ask someone else.
Here’s another example. Let’s say I’m the president and I don’t like a dictator in another country. I can choose not to send assassins to kill him or her. Instead, I can try to help his people another way, or even mind my own business. We can easily accept an inherently good person would not seek to initiate practical violence only to achieve an end.
Dominance is also pretty clear. You have an opinion and I have an opinion. I believe mine and not yours. I’m also an inherently good person. I choose not to initiate physical violence to assert dominance of my opinion over yours. Instead I choose to talk. I accept that others may believe you over me as just a part of life and have no wish, need, or desire to hurt you to make that not happen.
Parenthetically, I grew up with a lot of inherently good people who refused to apply violence to their political positions. They disagreed, but in the end, respected each other enough to accept the right of the other person to their opinion. I don’t see as much of that today as I did when I was younger.
Sadism is beyond clear. We could never imagine an inherently good person achieving pleasure from the pain of others. It would just be wrong definitionally.
Now revenge causes us to pause. Can we not imagine a situation in which an inherently good person, because of extreme loss at the hands of another, lashes out in violence even when no violence was initiated against him? We often hear of crimes of passion when an otherwise mild mannered person initiates violence because someone is sleeping with their partner. But is such a person inherently good? We fall back on one of Pinker’s “better angels,” the moral sense. Our civilization has code that stretches back in time, and at least for the last 2000 years, has idealized responding to such acts with acceptance rather than violence. Our modern western ideas of an inherently good person imagines such person going to therapy or a support group, not going out and buying a gun.
Well then, there’s only one way left for an inherently good person to initiate violence, and that is ideology. Here, lies the “no” in my answer. In fact, ideology is such a strong motive for violence, it is not only possible for the inherently good person, it is almost entirely limited to people who think of themselves as inherently good.
Pinker described the motive force of ideology as “shared belief system, usually involving a vision of utopia, that justifies unlimited violence in pursuit of unlimited good.” History is awash with those. You can think of 5 in the next minute if you’ve been paying attention. There’s no need for me to start listing examples. In whatever examples you come up with, you aren’t going to find many in which the people who perpetrated them didn’t think of themselves as inherently good. Few humans can manage the cognitive dissonance of doing an evil act. They have to imagine the act is good.
The truth is, in all the time I’ve been exposed to people hurting each other, I’ve very rarely encountered a person who actually thought they were doing wrong. In the military, I met people who thought they were doing the country a greater good by doing a smaller wrong. In psychiatry, I met people who thought the torturing of their child was going to make their child stronger. In business, I met people who thought they could bend the rules that applied to others because their business was going to be better for people in the long run. In politics, I’ve seen the same thing. None of these people thought they were inherently bad. In fact, they all believed they were inherently good. That’s the only way they could do what they did.
The real reason inherently good people can’t find peace, is that there aren’t any inherently good people. We are all capable of evil acts. We can all commit atrocities. We can all do wrong. We may not want to do those things. We certainly don’t want to think it’s true that we could. We’d much rather think we were good people who just couldn’t do something like that. Mao, Stalin, Hitler, and all the rest thought they were good people too.
The thing that best keeps us from violence isn’t being inherently good. It’s understanding that we aren’t. Our best defense against evil acts towards others is to see ourselves as potential wrong doers. This, and only this, gives us the capacity to examine our motives and our planned actions. This lack of hubris, and only this, gives us the time to consider that we may not be right. In short, the only thing keeping us from becoming Hitler, is the fear that he is what we might become.
And seeing ourselves as inherently good, while comfortable, is how we fall from grace. When we tell ourselves that rules are for the masses, but we understand better than others and have a better purpose than others, so the rules don’t apply to us, we’re on a slippery slope. Be wary of a person who is never wrong, a person who cannot admit error. It is only that person who can think enough of himself to stab you in the back.
Howard Wetsman is an addiction psychiatrist living in New Orleans. He maintains a channel on YouTube where he has released his serial Ending Addiction. He is pursuing his goal of ending addiction by educating everyone about the genetics of addiction with this new venture GenEd Systems.