Nations often act in selfish and destructive ways. But goodness by groups, small and large, does exist. In the case of nations, goodness often comes from mixed motives, as in the case of the Marshall Plan that rebuilt Europe, but also was aimed at preventing the spread of Communism. At other times, as in Somalia – where intervention to help reduce starvation ended in violence and confusion – seemingly altruistic motives come to bad ends. The work of the Quakers in the abolition of slavery, and the village of LaChambon in France saving thousands of Jews during the Holocaust, illustrate goodness born of humane values and altruism.
What is the role of psychology in relation to goodness and evil? One obvious role is to study the influences that lead to great or persistent acts of harm or benefit. We can study the psychological processes, such as anger, hostility, the devaluation of groups of people, empathy or its absence, and a feeling of responsibility for others’ welfare, that make a person act in destructive or caring ways. We can study the characteristics of persons, cultures, social/political systems and existing conditions that make either destructive or benevolent behavior likely. What are these processes and characteristics and how do they evolve?
Cultures and social systems influence not only group behavior but also shape individual psychology. Until not long ago, children were seen in many Western cultures as inherently willful. It was thought that to become good people, their will must be broken early, using severe punishment to do so. Such practices enhance the potential for both individual and group violence.
I will briefly discuss role of psychological science in a few specific domains of “good and evil”: child rearing; the origins of genocide; and healing and reconciliation.
Raising Caring, Not Violent, Children
On the basis of my own research on child rearing and the research of many others, and my own experiences with the application of research, I believe that we know a great deal about raising caring and nonaggressive children. Affection and nurturance that help fulfill a child’s important needs; guidance that is both firm and responsive to the child, democratic and non- punitive, based on values that are explained to children; and leading children to actually engage in behavior that benefits others are among the important elements.
So are positive peer relations. In our recent work in evaluating children’s perception of their lives in school, from second grade to high school, we found, as have others, that even in good schools some children are the object of negative behavior, of bullying by others. Other children are excluded. Both groups report that they experience fewer positive emotions and more negative emotions in school. Bystanders, peers and teachers mostly remain passive. When they act, children who receive some protection feel better. So do the active bystanders themselves.
Psychologists ought to move, at this point, from piecemeal studies to holistic interventions, carefully evaluated, that aim to foster the development of caring, helpful and nonaggressive children. Doing so requires working not only with children but also with adults, since it is adults who have to provide affection, nurturance and guidance.
Intervention can center on creating caring schools, with communities that include every child and promote positive peer relations