The Self-Illusion of Good

10/28/2013 12:23 EDT | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST

Many recent news stories have made me think again of a seemingly problematic maxim in the Talmud which declares that: a person does not make himself/herself into an evil-doer. As a result of it, Jewish courts, historically, greatly limited the introduction of self-incriminating evidence into cases.

On the surface, confessions were simply not accepted as evidence or testimony. The adage, instead, demanded of the court to doubt any statement by a person that he/she did something evil. People -- as per this maxim -- do not act malevolently in their own eyes and, so, we should not believe them when they say they have done this evil. We must assume that such a statement is not really true.

On the surface, this principle, indeed, would seem strange. Practically, to protect the law and order of society, it would not appear wise to summarily reject a confession and thereby allow such a confessor to simply go back onto the streets and potentially commit a similar misdeed against another. As can be expected, this, in fact, was not the case.

Jewish courts were concerned with two matters in their application of justice. One was to protect society and, in this regard, this maxim was approached narrowly with self-confessions taken seriously. If there was reason to believe, because of an individual's confession, that this individual could harm another, the court would clearly consider these words. Law and order demanded it.

To be honest, the maxim does not actually state that we are not to believe a person's confession that he/she did a specific act. It states that people do not present themselves as having done evil. We may say that even if one confesses to having had committed a criminal act the person would still not present himself/herself as having done evil.

There will always be a reason, a justification, for the behaviour. In the pursuit of law and order, though, our primary concern is the destructive act; our goal is to protect society from such behaviour. That the person believed the behaviour to be justified is a secondary consideration. Even as we may feel, for example, empathy for a violent, mentally ill individual, we cannot allow this person on the streets.

It is in regard to the second concern of the Jewish courts that this maxim actually had its profound effect. Within this function, the role of the court is to define evil, clarify its nature and ensure that, in the presence of society, it meets its just consequence. In this regard, identifying the evil mindset of an individual is, indeed, of significance. Such a clear pronouncement of evil, though, would not be possible through a self-confession. Pursuant to this maxim, people always have reasons to justify their behaviour and, as such, the behaviour will always then be coloured by the person's own perception of justification. For a court to clearly declare evil, the evidence must also challenge any such justifiable reason. In this regard, it is not enough for the evidence to show that a criminal act was done; it must further clarify the evil of this behaviour.

Within the parameters of this maxim, a court, as such, could believe a self-confession in regard to an action -- and take the necessary steps to protect the law and order of the society. It is only the action that matters in this regard. In relationship to a person's self-declaration of evil, the court, however, hesitated. A confession does not contain such clarity of evil. If our only evidence in regard to the evil nature of a specific behaviour arises solely from the one who undertook this behaviour, our very understanding of evil could be compromised. To define evil, we have to see beyond any self-justifications. This is not to say, however, that any such explanations are inherently untrustworthy. It is, in fact, because such justifications can be correct that we must be vigilant in our descriptions of evil. As people have reasons for their own evil turns, it is often truly very difficult to define evil.

This may also be the reason for why the Jewish courts of history rarely carried out a death penalty, even though, from a summary reading of the Bible, one would think that such executions were common. There is even a viewpoint in the Talmud that declares that a court which executed once in 70 years is defined as a 'hanging court.' This, again, is not to say that the courts did not do what was necessary for law and order. The Talmud, in this case, is describing a judgement of evil -- and in that regard it truly was, and is, difficult for us to unearth true evil. It is not only a matter of conclusions. It concerns motivations and considerations -- and behind every act, no matter how objectively wrong, there is always the actor's belief that it was defensible.

If it is true, though, that one will always justify one's behaviour, do we not, as such, also have a real responsibility to truly question ourselves? If we cannot portray ourselves as evil-doers, should we also not similarly recognize a weakness in our ability, in general, to honestly see ourselves and read our motivations? This does not mean that we should not take stands but we should also recognize our limitations. In so many recent news stories I have, though, seen almost the opposite. People on either side of an issue express absolute surety. There is no self-questioning. This, further, leaves no room for discussion and compromise. If there is no chance that there is evil in my view, it must be that the other is clearly evil.

The Talmud indeed does state that one does not see oneself as evil. This further directs one to see others with some leniency. This, though, should also make an individual more self-critical than adamant, as it actually declares to us the limitations of our own subjectivity. Following the news these days, we, sadly, though, do not see such introspection -- and we all suffer for this.