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Philosophy professor asks 'Why Can't We Be Good?'

March 26, 2007

Image of the front cover of Needleman's book "Why Can't We Be Good?"Human accomplishments and charitable endeavors have advanced throughout history, but ethics and morals have not. This is proven time and time again by the most vicious crimes, betrayals, political scandals, wars and bigotries. "Why can't we be good?" philosophy Professor Jacob Needleman asks in his new book of the same name.

"Even though we know what is good, how come we do the opposite?" Needleman said. "It is a question that has haunted human beings, and me, for a long time."

He explores why humans continue to make bad choices, including simple discourteous acts such as drivers cutting off other drivers.

Needleman, a nationally recognized scholar who has taught at SF State since 1962, said he found the answer to this societal moral dilemma while observing his SF State students, who helped him discover the value of listening to others.

"One of the most pronounced things in our society is that people don't listen to each other," he said. "What I've learned in my class is we have to step back from our own opinions. We can't go in with knives pulled and guns drawn just waiting to retort with our own opinions.

"Instead, receive another's thought without thinking whether it's right or wrong," Needleman added. "People might not end up agreeing, but they receive the message and understand each other as human beings. … Stepping back from my ego is morality."

Needleman does an ages-old exercise in his classes in which two people with disparate views face each other and debate back and forth. The main rule: After one speaks, the other cannot respond with his or her point of view until repeating the essentials of what the first person has said, to the first person's satisfaction.

Alexis Vincent, who earned her bachelor's degree in philosophy from SF State in 2005, found value in not just this exercise, but every aspect of the five classes she took with Needleman.

"Compassion breeds inner guidance," Vincent said. "When you can put yourself in another's moccasins for a mile, individualization becomes less blunt."

Photo of Jacob NeedlemanIn "Why Can't We Be Good?" (Tarcher/Penguin, Feb. 2007), Needleman analyzes stories from ancient Jewish and Christian texts, principles of Buddhism, and the philosophy of Socrates, Plato and second century Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius. He also revisits classroom discussions on ethics and hot-button topics such as abortion and euthanasia.

"[Needleman's] lively prose, storytelling skills and lucid insights draw us into an animated conversation with a brilliant teacher," a Publisher's Weekly reviewer writes.

In his research for the book, Needleman discovered profound elements of historical wisdom he had previously overlooked, even though he has taught these subjects for 45 years. He was stunned by the subtlety and "ethical power" of the Jewish book of the Talmud. Socrates' dealings with people opened Needleman's eyes to problems of the human psyche while hinting at a missing element that would elevate humans to their highest moral capabilities.

Needleman, whose 12 previous books include "The American Soul" and "Money and the Meaning of Life," acknowledges that listening skills alone will not solve one's ethical issues; the solution involves a great deal of sustained effort. He believes listening is the first step toward a more ethical life.

"[Listening] might not immediately affect your actions, but it makes you think about them," he said. "Thinking together is a work of love."

-- Matt Itelson
Photos: Needleman by John Oliver; book cover courtesy of Tarcher/Penguin


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Last modified March 26, 2007 by University Communications