Human Goodness

By Matthieu Ricard on May 17, 2012

In his inspiring book ‟La bonté humaine” (The human goodness), recently published in France, Jacques Lecomte quotes a text by Mordecai Paldiel, who was Chair of the Righteous Among the Nations, Israel. Paldiel argues that it is the basic goodness, present in all of us, which is the key that opens our understanding of the behavior of those who risked their lives to save their fellow men. For Paldiel, the actions of the rescuers show that altruism is an ‟innate human predisposition” Here is an except of his word:

‟The more I delve into the deeds of the Righteous among the Nations, the greater my doubts about the validity of the current tendency to magnify those deeds to unreasonable proportions. We are somehow determined to view these benefactors as heroes: hence the search for underlying motives. The Righteous persons, however, consider themselves as anything but heroes, and regard their behaviour during the Holocaust as quite normal. How to resolve this enigma?

For centuries we have undergone a brain-washing process by philosophers who emphasized man's despicable character, highlighting his egotistic and evil disposition at the expense of his other attributes. Wittingly or not, together with Hobbes and Freud, we accept the proposition that man is essentially an aggressive being, bent on destruction, involved principally with himself, and only marginally interested in the needs of others.
Hence we are bewildered, perhaps even irritated, by the display of goodness in others. There is something in their deeds which we find threatening to our conviction that human behaviour is basically flawed.
Goodness leaves us gasping, for we refuse to recognize it as a natural human attribute. So off we go on a long search for some hidden motivation, some extraordinary explanation, for such peculiar behaviour. […]

In searching for an explanation of the motivations of the Righteous among the Nations, are we not really saying: what was wrong with them? Are we not, in a deeper sense, implying that their behaviour was something other than normal?

Is it possible that we are creating a problem where there ought not be one? Is acting benevolently and altruistically such an outlandish and unusual type of behaviour, supposedly at odds with man's inherent character, as to justify a meticulous search for explanations?  […]

The explanations advanced by the Righteous honorees suggest that the second possibility is closer to the truth. ‟I only did what was quite natural,” say some. ‟It would have been unnatural for me to act otherwise,” say others.  […]

The conclusion to be drawn from these innocent avowals of goodness may be that instead of searching for hidden clues to behaviour considered at odds with our self-righteous justification of our egoistic behaviour, it would perhaps be wiser to reflect, through the Righteous, on the attribute of altruism hidden in ourselves. Instead of attempting to distance ourselves politely from them while at the same time lauding their deeds, would it not be better to rediscover the altruistic potential within us? That occasionally helping one another, even at great discomfort, is part and parcel of our human nature, of our behavioural patterns. […]
Let us not search for mysterious explanations of goodness in others, but rather rediscover the mystery of goodness in ourselves.

Paldiel M. (8 october 1989). Is goodness a mystery?, Jerusalem Post.