Why do Good People do Bad Things?

by the Revd Canon Rosie Harper, Chaplain to the Bishop of Buckingham and Member of General Synod

Rosie Haarper


I came back from General Synod last week asking this question: Why do good people do bad things?  I’d met people from every wing of the Church who were unfailingly ‘nice’ They were polite to me even though I know from the responses to my last blog that some of them are convinced I am “Cruella de Vil” incarnate!

More than that; I know that most of the folk I disagree with are kind and honourable and hold their faith with far more confidence than mine.

More than that; when I describe the human pain and suffering that their attitudes and beliefs cause, they are genuinely empathetic. They are sorry about the pain and would not want to cause it.

And yet………for many the importance of their core beliefs are such they that supersede the moral imperative to treat everyone with equality and compassion.

This is where we are.  The empathy leads to multiple apologies. Apologies to gay people, apologies to trans people, apologies to survivors of abuse.

But nothing changes.

A striking example of this came from the very top this week. Having had so many hand-wringing ‘regretful acknowledgements of an offence or failure’ (Dictionary) about the way the church has treated it’s gay members, none-the-less the invitation to the next Lambeth Conference explicitly excluded the spouses of same-sex married couples.

Just one more example. Geoff Whaley who was suffering from MND and had chosen to go to Switzerland for an assisted death, explained what happened in a letter to Parliament: “But then, as I was saying my final goodbyes and preparing myself for the end, the final, biggest bomb dropped and I could no longer keep it together.

“This bomb was in fact an anonymous phone call to social services who informed the police of my plans to go to Switzerland. Within hours Ann and I were facing a criminal investigation. The thought that I might not make it to Switzerland, or that, if I did, Ann might be facing 14 years in jail for helping me, was almost too much to bear.”

This action of calling the police seems an unnaturally cruel and inhuman act. Why would anyone want to do that? Why do good people do bad things?

On BBC Radio 4 on Feb 26th there was a fascinating interview with Gwen Adshead on The Life Scientific. She is a forensic psychotherapist who works with violent offenders including 19 years working at Broadmoor. In her search to understand how these men could do such violent acts she worked with the moral philosopher Jonathan Glover to examine their moral reasoning.

The assumption has been that in murderers and violent criminals their moral reasoning was poor and in some way different from the rest of us. They discovered that almost always this wasn’t the case. Their moral reasoning, their capacity to understand good from bad was not actually different form most people’s. What made the difference was the ability to create a very powerful “justificatory narrative”, a story which you tell yourself which says it is alright to behave this way.

So, for example, someone whose early life was traumatised by the way their father was always going with prostitutes might well create a narrative in which the world would be a better place without any prostitutes and it was his role to bring that about. This man would know full well that killing was bad and caused suffering, but the power of his justificatory narrative was such that he felt it was alright to murder.

That of course is an extreme example, but it got me thinking. Is that what is going on when good people do bad and cruel things? Is there even an extra twist in religious circles because of the way we can attribute our justificatory narratives to God: “ I know you experience this as cruel and discriminatory, but the Bible/God clearly  says………..”

Some of these justificatory narratives can be massive. For example the story which has evolved in the Catholic Church that a Priest must be celibate.

Father Daniel O’Leary, a well-known writer, was diagnosed with cancer last June and died on 21 Jan this year. Shortly before his death he wrote a piece which was published posthumously in The Tablet, so as to be “free of fear and bitterness, and full of love and desire, as I step up for the final inspection.”

“I now believe, with all my heart, that compulsory celibacy is a kind of sin, an assault against God’s will and nature,” 

“I’m just pointing out that one of the fall-outs of mandatory celibate life is the violence it does to a priest’s humanity, and the wounds that it leaves on his ministry.”

In other words, the narrative around celibacy has justified a very cruel practice, which, if it is not your narrative looks totally counter to all normal moral reasoning.

At an individual level these narratives are rooted in very deep personal stuff. A little seven year old who is sent off to school with his much missed mummy’s words ringing in his ears  ‘watch out for those homos’ is going to find an anti -gay narrative much easier to buy into, even more so when it also puts him into a “special Christian club of true believers”.

The point is that we all construct these. We have very powerful drivers which sometimes trump our natural human, indeed humane responses.

It seems to me that this is why Jesus bypassed all the rules makers. Even rules made with the best of intentions can be used to terrorise people. When asked what it was all about he simply said ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself’ (Matthew 22:37).

So actually there is a very simple test we can apply to our own justificatory narratives. If you have got to qualify Jesus’ clear command to love your neighbour as yourself with the word ‘but’, then you need to go back to the drawing board.

I find this concept hugely helpful and challenging. What narratives have I constructed that allow me to behave badly to others?

It also helps me understand why people I see as good and decent people sometimes act in very cruel ways in the name of God.





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3 Responses to Why do Good People do Bad Things?

  1. Thomas W. Scott Golden says:

    Rosie, thank you for this very elucidating piece that cuts to the heart of so many of the paradoxes we see across society and in particular within the Church (institution) and among the ranks our Christian brothers and sisters. How often have we heard “oh i love my gay / lesbian brothers or sisters – I just can’t condone what they get up to” (in other words a variation on the old cliché “love the sinner, hate the sin” used to justify an uncompassionate stance towards LGBT+ people and their relationships.

    For too long now we in the LGBT+ Christian community have been asked to give those of our brothers and sisters in Christ who are of a fundamentalist outlook, time to come to terms with the idea that we too might also be made in God’s image with a God-given gift of loving people of our own gender and wanting to spend a life-time with them in relationships committed to each other in God’s sight. But, I ask, how long must we give them – they who still hold the balance of power in a patriarchal institution – to treat us as Christ himself commanded – just the same as they would like to be treated, with respect and on equal terms? I am now more than half way through my life and I can recall in the 1970s hearing mention of the debate raging in the UK among Anglican bishops. Being the ‘mother Church’ of our denomination – with a particularly close relationship to our own Church of Ireland given the historical links for many centuries – what happens in the CoE is of special interest to us for many reasons. The progress made with you in the CoE – or lack of as the case may be – is often indicative of how we here in Ireland will move on issues; so it is that I comment here on your contribution.

    Thus, I ask again, how long must we wait? I am sure that many of those alive at the time of debate raging on both sides of the Irish Sea who observed the discussions within the CoE in the early 70s have now gone to their eternal reward, without seeing the change for which they so desperately longed and worked. To think that in the 20th/21st Century, in a developed, western democracy and still the Church is refusing to contemplate change!

    How long ,O’Lord, how long?


  2. Brian Foster. says:

    I tend to adhere to the Roman Catholic doctrine that “ALL sexual activity must be open to conception”. If I look at nature I see that the “natural” order of things is for a female to mate with a male and produce offspring. For me, this is the ideal. Like much of my life I have fallen short of MY ideals. So I concentrate, not on sex – about which Jesus was somewhat dismissive – but on LOVE.


    • thoatswold says:

      Love is indeed central to the Christian life and message, and like you I try to make it the focus of my life. So I am puzzled as to why you start your comment with a rule (“ALL sexual activity must be open to conception”). You are, of course, entitled to hold any teaching you find convincing, although to me that particular rule seems arbitrary and unhelpful. But if Rosie is right, and I think she is, Love always takes priority over rules, especially rules that are used to terrorize people and impose an unbearable yoke.


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