Have you ever thought about how one performing an evil act evaluates his/her behaviour? Taking an extreme example, would Hitler have seen himself as an evildoer, his actions as evil? Do you think that he said to himself: I just want to do evil? It would seem, though, that he actually perceived what he was doing -- his views and behaviour -- as correct and proper. He really saw himself, as strange as this may seem, as doing "good."
This would appear to be the perception that most of the infamous evildoers in history had of themselves. They didn't think they were doing evil; waking up in the morning to wonder what evil they could do today. They all thought they were doing good. They were all, essentially, masters of self-deception.
The cases of such evildoers are, however, just the extreme cases of the problem of self-deception. This weakness in how we see ourselves actually affects all of us. We arrive at opinions and then often lock them in as absolutely correct, never questioning again whether we could possibly be wrong. We just simply see ourselves as right! We are then often taught, within certain presentations of ethics, that doubt is a problem -- so to question ourselves, to express doubt regarding our opinions, is deemed incorrect.
Is it any wonder why evil individuals see themselves as doing good? Once they have an opinion, they can argue that it is even wrong to question such an opinion so they must be good. The fact is that such inflexibility can also lock someone into defending generally positive opinions in a dangerously rigid manner.
What people hear when I demand of them to question themselves is that they should see themselves as being wrong.
In fact, it is actually an important factor in the proper development of ethical sensitivity to have doubt. As we strive to be correct, it is most necessary that we question ourselves, continuously place our views and attitudes under the microscope of self-investigation. Without this element of self-critique, self-deception and rigid acceptance of any self-perceived conclusion regarding one's behaviour becomes a strong possibility. The challenge to "I am right because I am right" must begin with the I -- the questioning I.
In many ways, this is one of the most difficult lessons to impart to someone. When I attempt to teach that it is important for individuals to question their own opinions, I often face the retort and challenging dismissal that I should thus be questioning myself. As I state that one should maintain an element of self-doubt and consider that he/she may be wrong, invariably, someone will counter that it is I who should follow my own lesson and consider the possibility that I am wrong. It is so difficult to teach the concept of self-questioning because, to avoid the lesson, often people will just throw the argument back at me: You're right one should question -- so question yourself.
What people hear when I demand of them to question themselves is that they should see themselves as being wrong. The comeback is thus that it is I who should be questioning myself, seeing myself as being wrong. The call to self-question is not a call, though, to see oneself as wrong but to simply be less sure -- because that opens the possibility of further insight and less rigidity -- with hopefully a movement away from the narrow air-space where evil can breed.
The complexity of having an opinion actually involves the reality that it can, and even must, exist with doubts and questions. Rarely is an answer black-and-white regardless of how much we may want it to be. The call to question, to doubt, thus does not mean that one foregoes the necessity of decisions. It is rather a call for the recognition of the complexity of reality -- and with this recognition the foregoing of problematic rigidity and the subsequent bar to necessary dialogue.
Having strong opinions is necessary to positively affect the world -- but that is only truly possible if such opinions also reflect the reality of the spectrum of thought. The valuable, strong opinion is not the one without any questions and/or doubts but the one which reflects this honest complexity of multi-dimensional reality and human limitation. It is the opinion predicated on the recognition of variance inherent in the full recognition of the range of values.
This lesson, even with all its difficulties, is a most important one within our present world. We are experiencing conflicts between individuals who passionately are driven by and espousing values. Both sides within a conflict believe that they are absolutely right -- and with reason for, within a vacuum, their value assertions can often be clearly stated without issue. They do have a point -- but it is not the only point. It is within the context of the true complexity of reality that this can be seen -- so our goal must be to demand this perception. As there is often mistrust of the other, this can only begin with the self. The call must thus be to question ourselves. The possibility of self-delusion must be seen as a real and morbid threat. From proper self-doubt, honest and workable solutions can emerge.
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