You Can't Force Someone to be a Good Person

in philosophy •  5 months ago


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Wouldn't it be nice if we could just point a weapon at people, wave that magic wand so-to-speak, and suddenly they turn into good people? There are a lot of lofty ideals floating around in people's minds about what it means to have a civilized society. Are people charitable enough? Are they kind to each other in spite of their differences? Is everyone getting their needs met? A common fallacy that I see being put forth... well it's more that it's felt, because if people really thought about it they wouldn't think it any more, the idea that you can force people to do things that will fix these problems in society. It will make everyone into good people if we just force them to act a certain way.

The concept of punishment feeds into this sort of thinking, as do social welfare programs. The idea is that if we force people to respect each others' property, we won't have any more crime. If we force people to give money to each other, we won't have any more poverty. As we've seen with socialist government programs and punitive criminal 'justice' systems, the problems often get worse when we try to force people to behave in a certain way. I mean, just look at the economic disasters of the former communist regimes of the 20th century or modern-day socialist Venezuela. Then look at the results of the wars on poverty, terror and drugs in recent decades here in the United States of America. I can't imagine how things could get worse results given the stated end-goals of each program.

My theory about why this is the case has to do with the nature of humans themselves. You see, we're not robots that can be programmed, nor are we animals that can be trained to simply do exactly what they're told. The reason being is because most of us are born with an intellect that gives us the capacity for consciousness and therefore critical thought. If a given behavior can be construed as going against our self-interest, we're going to use our intellectual capacity and we're not going to do those behaviors. No amount of coercion can change that about human beings. At the minimum, we're clever, self-interested conscious beings, and we act accordingly.

This brings me to the Objectivist philosophy of Ayn Rand. Rand asserted that human beings are self-interested, and that all of our drives are derived from this self-interest. Even things like love and altruism can be distilled down to long-term self-interest. If we invest in this partner or this neighbor of ours now, over the long term they will potentially repay us in an unforeseen way and increase our chances of survival at the minimum or prosperity at the maximum. It's a little bit of an oversimplification and maybe a bit distasteful in our culture to look at it this way, but it's impossible to avoid it as a universal truth. The more ways you look at it, the more you realize that it's just how it is.

So if we're to acknowledge this, that we're self-interested beings and we have children that we'd like to raise up into the world behaving civilly towards their fellow neighbors, if not punishment or coercion to get them to behave this way, how are we to influence them? We reason with them, that's how. We convince our children that it's actually beneficial to them to be kind to their neighbors. It's in their best interests to be loving towards their family and friends. It's mutually beneficial for people to respect each others' property (including their bodies). We then reinforce these truths by modeling the behaviors and showing them how well it works. These are the seeds that must be planted so that they turn into adults who treat each other well without being forced to.

People will behave how they perceive is in their best interests, regardless of what we try to force them to do. Force, therefore, will only result in avoidance types of behavior. People will avoid the negative stimuli, but they won't suddenly become good people by doing so. They'll just become minimally viable members of society if we're lucky, but probably not even that given the impossible task of setting up a system that would effectively manage the spectrum of responses a given policy would incentivize people to do. The necessary ingredient in every person's mind in order to make them a good person, is instead the idea that it benefits us all to treat each other well, respect each others' property and to avoid violence and coercion to get what we want. Teaching our children about this and modeling it for them are the only ways, in my opinion, to ensure that the lives of people continue to be of improving quality.

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