Bad Actions, Good Reasons

What makes a “bad” person bad?


Let’s identify two different types of “bad” people:

1) Those recognized by nearly everyone as deviant.

2) Those whom we personally consider abhorrent, but others may not.

In the first case, we are dealing with someone who has broken some universally agreed upon set of mores. S/he has performed some act that has either transgressed the law or, at the very least, violated good taste. S/he is clearly working with a set of values that is not consistent with those that the rest of us hold universal and dear.

In the second case, the “offender”is offensive to some, but not all. S/he expresses opinions, or displays behavior, that are acceptable to part of the population, but are repugnant to others. S/he is “bad” to those who differ ideologically, but may in fact be good to those who adhere to a similar belief or value system.

In either case, whether universally condemned, or censured only by some, the “bad” person has acted in a way, either wittingly or unwittingly, that has earned him/her a negative opinion in the eyes of others.

Is it then the opinion of others that makes a “bad” person bad? And if so, what if, as in our second case, there are varying opinions about the person — how can we then determine whether s/he is truly bad or not?

Of course, we are dealing with judgment, not fact. And while there must be some objective criteria by which we can evaluate members of our society in order to maintain order and decorum, there remain subjective valuations that each of us make on a daily basis to form our opinions and inform our decisions.

But what if we can rejigger some of that evaluative process? What if we can break down our assessment into tiers that examine not just the behavior or action, but also the reason or value that motivated the behavior? In such a case, we may come to the same conclusion that the outcome was objectionable, but we may simultaneously be surprised to find that the motive was not so foreign or egregious.

Consider, for example, any act, or any person, that you find repugnant. Why did the person do that, or why does s/he continually act in such an ugly way?

The simplest response, i.e. the one requiring the least effort, is that the act, or the actor, is evil. ‘I would never do such a thing,’ we might declare, ‘and the one who did is of a different ilk from me and others who I resemble and respect.‘

But if we approach the question with a bit more rigor and intellectual honesty, experts suggest that we will find that we can almost always trace the behavior to essential human needs or desires that are not so different from our own.

“I don’t think any human being does anything except for good reasons,” psychologist Marshall Rosenberg wrote in his book Seek Peace in A World of Conflict. “And what are those good reasons? To meet a need. Everything we do is in the service of needs.”

Rosenberg engaged in conflict resolution on an international stage, working in some of the world’s most conflicted regions and making significant progress where many before him failed. The “good reasons” that he identifies do not justify the behavior or imply anything “good” about the results. What is good about the reasons is that they are understandable and relatable in their universality. They are reasonable desires and needs that we all share. They offer us a glimpse into our common humanity, and accustom us to seek and recognize what is familiar within one another, rather than focusing on the things that alienate us and make us so glaringly different.

In our first case, regarding those who we might call social deviants, leaving sociopathy aside, it is possible to identify certain basic needs in even the most criminal behavior. In violence, psychologists have recognized fear and a desire for control. In theft, there my be a need for financial stability, or sometimes for respect and social acceptance. In abuse, there is often a history of victimization that leads the perpetrator to similar wrongdoing in order to regain some of the power that was robbed from him/her, or to perversely experience some of the innocence that s/he lost.

All of these emotional needs have been corrupted and disfigured, leading to action that is illicit and unacceptable. But the identification of the humanity that underlies the transgression enables us to experience compassion for the the offender. Perhaps even more importantly, it may allow the offender him/herself to realize a path forward in which s/he is not always doomed to be the deviant and and to repeat his/her past misdeeds.

If we can apply Rosenberg’s “good reason” approach even to those in our first category, how much moreso does is apply to those in our second category, those who are no less unlawful or depraved than we are, but with whom we ideologically disagree.

The sad state of discourse in the United States today is fraught with the assumption of bad motives. When we disagree, we attribute our discrepancy of opinion to a disparity of values. We fail to do the work of painstakingly tracing each others’ perspectives back to their roots in common needs and concerns, and therefore we fail to recognize the humanity that we share, and fail to exploit the promise that exists when we listen to each other and forge our way together.

People act “badly” all the time, whether by objective societal standards, or in contradistinction to the particular views we hold of what is right and just. If we can train ourselves to detect the “good reasons” behind bad actions, then we will not only curtail the fierce animosity that is driving us ever further away form one another, but we will engender more open and transparent dialogue and find that our goals and interests are not nearly as diverse as we had assumed.

Marc Erlbaum is the founder of Common Party, a non-political social movement that is working to bring our country back together in these divisive times through the celebration of our overwhelming commonality. To learn more, visit

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