Where Jacob Needleman Goes Wrong in “Why Can’t we be Good”

Jacob Needleman wrote “Why Can’t we be Good?” in 2007. I read it in 2017. He was a professor of mine at San Francisco State in the late 1970s. The only philosopher of religion at SFSU I took a few classes of his. Only a few. Despite a shared belief in the existence of God we disagreed about almost everything else. I see that this has not changed between then and 2007. Some of this disagreement figures in my formal review (for Amazon) of the book included below. Here in my philosophical commentary, I want to say more about it, and in particular some of that which stems from my personal experience with Jacob Needleman.

First to set some context. Needleman believes God exists. So far so good. In “Why Can’t we be Good?” he is a little vague about his concept of God vascilating between the transcent “Abrahamic God” of the world’s three major monotheisms, and something else, a “God in us”, a thread present in many religions (including the monotheisms) and emphasized in more recent movements characterized as “New Age”. I think Needleman believes that both views of God can be real at the same time which is fine by me, but in this book he is very unclear about distinguishing between the two concepts.

As is true of virtually all of today’s philosophers of religion and theologians terms like ‘person’, ‘spirit’, ‘soul’, and [less often] ‘mind’ can be used interchangeably. I am not concerned with these indistinctions here except to mention them because their blurring together does happen in this book. I am concerned rather with a problem specific to Needleman’s thought, something I came up against almost from the moment I met him and is very clearly stated in this book. One could even say it was the central point of the book. At root, the first and fundamental problem for me is that Needleman believes a genuine relationship with God (and recall he is vague about what or more precisely with whom such a relationship occurs) is a difficult achievement demanding, among other things, much study, perhaps years, and more than this, it requires the competent help of a guide, a genuinely enlightened person who can guide you through your studies. Needleman is quite clear that whatever else is necessary to successful achievement of that genuine connection, a guide, is also necessary.

How Needleman arrived at such a position I can only speculate. Having known him, my speculations might be very close to the mark. But whatever it was that brought him to this position (he does leave hints to it in the book), Needleman grew up into young adulthood and an advanced education in philosophy at a time in which the mystical and New Age ideas that fuel his viewpoint had gained a popularity in the culture of this time, something they still maintain today though far less frenetically. I think Needleman had the good fortune to seek his fortune in somewhat New Age philosophy at a time when this came to be much in demand.

In Needleman’s view, without the guide (and a guide is not the only requirement) we are literally incapable of a “genuine, deep, moral decision and action”. With the possible exception of moments of great crisis (that even this is a problem for the whole idea he just does not see) we have no real free will in the moral domain because we are all asleep, disconnected from the god within (and without). This is why we “cannot be good”. Everything we do (morally) we do out of habit or culture accretion. No moral decision really belongs to us. Needleman simply discounts what it is moral free will really represents. Not some phenomenon that requires study, but opportunity to improve the very connection Needleman asserts we don’t have by what we decide to do! Needleman does point out that one who seeks to strengthen the connection to spirit must be sincere about it, and that sincerity must lead to some action. That is all well and good except that for Needleman, any action we take that seems good is merely the outcome of our life’s moral accretions that do not by themselves get us to where we must be although such action is nevertheless (like sincerety and the guide) a necessary part of the process.

If Needleman discounts free will on the good side, he must also discount it on the bad and he does, declaring unhesitatingly that all evil in the world is the result of our disconnection from spirit. From deliberately sending tourists who ask for help in the wrong direction to ordering the construction of death camps and murdering entire communities, all of this merely a consequence of being unaware of our “true selves”. I find this notion both absurd and obscene. Needleman’s mistake also causes him to blur the distinction between error and evil. If I work in a chemical plant and accidentally open the wrong valve, perhaps I cause an explosion somewhere in the plant, a mistake, error. If on the other hand I freely open that same valve knowing it will cause that explosion, that act is not an error but evil! The difference is plain, but Needleman cannot get to it because he discounts moral free will in all but enlightened persons.

Needleman is correct about sincerity and doing something, that is acting to (freely) do the best good you can (even if it is only a small good) when a situation to do good presents itself and even if much of what you actually do is done out of habit or cultural accretion. Sincerity entails a willingness to try taking action when you can. When you do this, three things happen: (1) you become incrementally more sensitive to such opportunities for action, (2) acting becomes a little easier, and (3) your action becomes incrementally more adroit and fully free. You can call this progressive development “the working of the spirit” or just chalk it up to “practice makes perfect”. Either way, if you persist, eventually the process itself will awaken you. See my “Why Free Will”.

Notice that none of this is particularly intellectual. It is spiritual and not intellectual development. Needleman would be right to assert that the intellectual can support the spiritual. Once you are sincere and acting, study and guidance can reinforce the process, but they cannot be necessary to it.

“Why Can’t we be Good” Jacob Needleman 2007

In the interest of full disclosure, Jacob Needleman was a professor of mine at San Francisco State University where I did my philosophy MA in the late 1970s. I had a few classes from him and found we disagreed about almost everything. I will try not to get into all of that in this review, but some of it cannot, perhaps, be helped. I see the basis of our disagreements in 1979 are very much in evidence here in this book written in 2007.

In “Why Can’t we be Good?” Dr. Needleman takes stock of the evil in the world, much of it obviously the result of human behavior both now and for thousands of years past. He certainly notes that humans do also behave in what passes for goodness in their daily lives. Many of us love our children and do our best to raise them lovingly and there are instances of human action, tens of millions every day all over the world that pass for civil and often “beyond the requirements” of civil behavior. So why he asks are we not doing even better? Why does the world appear steeped in evil?

His argument is that we are not better because we have lost sight of what “real goodness” means because we have forgotten our fundamental connection to the spirit forces (God transcendent, God embodied in “our self” [often blurring these ideas]). He admits that sometimes, in crisis, we act on a “higher, genuine, moral level” but most of the time, the best we can do is merely acting our of reasonably good habits we’ve acquired from our culture, and just as often (perhaps more) we act in downright evil ways. His central claim is that we cannot find (re-discover) this connection by our-self. To re-acquire our consciousness of the fundamental connection demands a teacher, a guide, which always takes the form of some already enlightened person who can both point us to the various holy-literature (be they Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, etc) traditions where the connection is revealed but also help us to understand and interpret what exactly the traditions are trying to tell us. Without this guidance, we are, Needleman tells us, ultimately helpless. Putting it bluntly, we must study what it means to be good and appropriate these teachings into our inner being to even begin approaching genuine moral action.

If this all sounds a bit new agey “I can’t help the world without first helping myself” it is, but Needleman is more sophisticated than that. Besides a “teacher”, the student seeker must sincerely want this for him or herself. We are not in the realm of magic incantations that make us over in one fell swoop. Of course even the new age teachings also note this. What Needleman adds is his recognition that no matter how lacking we are in genuine morality, we must nevertheless try, that is act, in the world of our daily existence. We must act to do the “best we can” as we travel about our daily lives interacting with others however weak and habitual those actions might be. We must practice, not only in our studies, but in life. Only by these things, sincerity, study, and action, can we re-awaken our consciousness of the connection between ourselves and that relationship to the cosmos that results in genuinely deep, and not superficial, moral behavior.

But while Needleman is correct about the need for action, I do not believe he grasps its overriding significance. Because we (most of us) do not know who we really are our “moral free will” is minimal to non-existent. We are hemmed about by habits and cultural acquisitions, social accretions that render us incapable of genuinely free moral choices (except possibly in times of crisis). For Needleman this applies as much to evil as good. He twice quotes Socrates declaring “No man does evil intentionally”. All evil in the world (he says) stems from our disconnection (culturally induced) from the reality we are meant to know. Socrates (at least as quoted here) and Needleman fail to distinguish between error (the truly inevitable outcome of our limited perspective and cognitive abilities including all that we cannot know lying above our intellectual pay grade) and evil. The latter is precisely “error deliberately (that is freely) chosen”! It might be true that “no man does error intentionally”, but evil is evil because it is intentional!

The same must be true of “the good”. Certainly there is a continuum of moral choice from the trivial to the profound. But even our “good habits” were not always habits, we had to allow them to become habits at some time in our earlier life. The same holds for the accretions of our culture. Some of these are certainly harmful and others good. If, on balance, we have adopted (for ourselves) more good ones than bad, this too must be the result of genuinely moral choices all along the trajectory of our lives. The sincerity of the seeker, something Needleman notes is necessary for any sort of success, must already have been a freely made moral decision or it wouldn’t be “sincere”!

A better choice for a title for this book might have been “Why Can’t we be Better”, but that’s less dramatic and would put Needleman in the position of admitting that, provided we are sincere and we do the good that we are able to do now, we will grow incrementally better — practice makes perfect. A guide, should you be lucky enough to find a real one, can be helpful, but cannot be necessary. My applause here goes to Needleman’s emphasis on action, something he talks about more than either of the other two “necessities”, the guide and the sincerity of the seeker. Forty years ago I don’t remember this much recognition of the importance of acting, but then my memory certainly deceives me. In any case he has it here. Included in early chapters are some nice exercises people can actually do together that simulate “the ethical” in the “theater of the mind” as Needleman puts it. Easy to read, not technical. Will it help you along your “quest to be good”? Well it can’t hurt!

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