Jeff Jacoby (“Inner angels vs. innate evil, ” Op-Ed, Jan. 2) would have us believe that the evil we do derives not from external conditions, but from bad character, which is up to us as individuals to keep in check. Don’t look to poverty, lack of education, poor nutrition, joblessness, child abuse, or extremist ideologies to explain terrorism and criminality. It’s all internal, beyond the reach of collective efforts to control.
This view ignores the biological and environmental causes of bad character and behavior that might be amenable to intervention, and it suggests that failures of self-control are strictly self-generated, owing nothing to one’s circumstances. For those who want to avoid responsibility for being their brother’s keeper, this conveniently places all the blame for “monstrous behavior” on an individual’s “free choice.”
Jacoby is right that self-control is essential to right action, but whether we have that capacity is a function of our formative and current conditions. These are legitimate targets of democratically enacted social policies designed to strengthen the better angels of our nature and limit the harm when self-control fails. We are in no position to go it alone.
The writer is director of the Center for Naturalism, and is also senior research associate at the Institute for Behavioral Health, Heller School for Social Policy and Management, Brandeis University. The opinions expressed are his own.