Can a man who has done bad become good?

I thought about posting this months ago. In light of Senator Kennedy’s death, I post it now. Originally I started this in IMHO, but I guess it is better suited for GD. I didn’t originally start it here as I’m not going to be debating. (Mods, if you think I should have put it in IMHO, my apologies and please move it.)

Two examples: Mr. Kennedy was involved in the death of a young woman many years ago. We don’t know the details beyond what we were told, but it seems like he might have done a very bad thing. Perhaps not, because we lack proof. But for the sake of the discussion, if he did do a very bad thing, can he still have become a good man? Can one change? Is one the same man he was 40 years ago?

Example two - the one that troubles me personally. I know a man who was good and kind to me, more importantly, kind to my father while Dad was dieing. He was a goofy man, but I always thought he had a good heart and mostly I liked him. Last year about this time I found out that he molested his step daughters in their youth.

I cannot reconcile in my mind the good kind man that I met, a man who went out of his way to spend time with a lonely dieing man, and the man who could commit that kind of evil. Thankfully, due to circumstances, I will likely never see him again, because I do not know how I would interact with him.

Maybe just one more. Michael Vick used to fight dogs. He’s done his time and says he is rehabilitated. He did some bad things.

So, debate, philosophy, opinion, what have you. Can a man who once did evil become a good man? If a bad man becomes a good man, do we forgive the debt? Many will say, forgive, but don’t forget. But often I find that when we say don’t forget, what we end up doing is a form of continued punishment. We bring it up over and over, so that the man must continue to pay. Should he always have to pay - even if he has become a good man?

I am very much on the fence on this. On the one hand it seems like people who have become good should get a second chance. On the other, I have a very hard time letting go of evil. It seems like the victims end up paying all of their lives, shouldn’t the perp? (A year almost exactly has past since I learned about my friend, and it still really bothers me. I might have an easier time with this if my emotions about this event weren’t so strong.)

I apologize, I am interested in hearing opinions and debate, but I don’t promise to take part, as I am a poor debater and more importantly, I’m just not sure how I feel. Please note that it isn’t about Mr. Kennedy, or Mr. Vick, or even my the man I know, they were just examples.

I understand what you’re saying.

Let me first say that I know for direct experience that people can change in significant ways. I know this because of the ways I have been able to change. These changing were significant and were neither simple nor easy, but I am proud to have managed them.

My husband has also changed, perhaps even more significantly. Since that’s his business, I will ask him to come in and post.

The second point I would like to mention is that I try to stay away from the idea that a person is “good” or “bad”. No matter how hard we might try, we cannot avoid making mistakes, sometimes hurting others, or doing something “bad”. I have learned, instead of asking myself is this situation/choice/relationship good or bad, to ask myself, “is this working”? So I no longer need to convince myself a person is “bad” to give myself permission to avoid a relationship that is not working.

Having said all of that, I would also have a hard time being around this person after learning of his past (the man who abused those children). I wouldn’t stop appreciating what he did for my father, but I would be uncomfortable enough with my own feelings about him to probably not want to be around him.

I notice that the OP entwines the concepts of good/bad acts with good/bad people.

Good people do bad things. Bad people may sometimes do good things. But one act does not describe a whole person, usually.

As far as changing, rehabilitating, etc.: yes. It can and does happen. Read The Autobiography of Malcolm X, for one.

One would certainly hope so, otherwise one would be forced to conclude there are no good people.

We are all defined by our actions, but most of us never do anything SO good or SO bad that single action should define us. Of course, everyone has different thresholds of “unforgivable”, but that only defines who *we *see as “good” or “bad”. Hell, I just went to a high school reunion and found people who are convinced that the guy who picked on them in 9th grade is irredeemably “bad”.

People can change for the worse or the better. Mostly they don’t, though. Mostly they stumble around this life, doing some good things and some bad things and a whole bunch of indifferent things. All you can do is look at the actions, consider the motives, and do the math.

The whole concept of good and evil, although near and dear to the USA, is IMHO faulty.
There are certain psychological traits and circumstances that predispose someone to deeds that hurt others.
Some of those traits are more or less fundamental to someone’s personality, like a very low IQ, (so people don’t think through their actions), a sociopathic lack of empathy, narcissism and egotism, personality disorders, and lack of impulse control (I want! And I want it NOW!!). Such personality traits are remarkably constant throughout one’s life. They don’t change.

And then there are neutral traits that can, under some circumstances, lead to hurtful acts. Like the tendency to give in to peer pressure, and surrender one’s own conscience to group thinking. You can see how such a trait may keep one person on the straight and narrow, and may lead others to do awful “Befehl is Befelh” stuff. Or alcoholism. Or fanatical idealism.
Such traits are also rather constant, but the circumstances play a much, much greater role. A person aware of this may alter his circumstances so that with a do-able amount of willpower, he is not likely to stray again. Think recovering alcoholics, who know that they should not go clubbing, or have alcohol in their home.

And then there are the faulty assumptions and ideas, and the crimes that take place because the perp was young and “just wasn’t thinking” There, the hope of recovery is much greater. A man can be raised with a feelign of entitlement towards women or other races (or animals, as we all have). It you can show such a man that his assumptions are wrong, and that women and blacks have the same feelings as he has, he is quite likely to reform his ways and not hurt them ever again. In fact, such reform has taken place on a massive scale in the past 60 years, so that should tell you how likely it is.

In the case of Ted Kennedy, of which I don’t know much, I assume that his past crime was mainly due to fleeting circumstances. The sense of entitlement he was raised with, and the example of his peers may have lead him to believe it was okay to have hookers/playgirls on the side for casual sex. Stupidity and impulse control may have led him to drunken driving, and getting in the accident that killed the girl. He could have given in to peer pressure (of his family) and fear for his career and reputation to want to hide the accident, or the girl. All that can be ascribed to stupidity, a huge sense of entitlement (not strange for a Kennedy), alcohole, and a certain weakness of character.
I don’t know if he felt remorse for the girl. If he didn’t, that is a bad sign. But otherwise, as a psychologist I wouldn’t say that there Ted Kennedy was evil, and that is is possible for him to have learnt from his mistakes and become a beter man.

Sure. You don’t even have to become a good man to do good things, or an evil man to do evil things.

People are complex.

Kennedy, for instance, sponsored legislation that was intended to help women and the downtrodden at the same time that he was drinking himself silly and throwing himself onto waitresses. Strom Thurmond was a strident segregationist at the same time he faithfully supported his child by a black mistress. Al Gore works against global warming while simultaneously creating a CO[sup]2[/sup] footprint the size of a small village’s.

“He’s good” vs. “he’s bad” is cartoon thinking.


As others have said, bad man/good man is different than bad action/good action.

What sort of actions did someone do, how premeditated and understandable where they, and what did they do afterward?

You drive drunk and kill someone. It wasn’t your intention to kill someone, but the person is dead. Does intent matter? I think so. Was the risk obvious? I think so now, but it’s possible it wasn’t always seen that way.

Molesting little girls on the other hand, has the intention of, you know, molesting little girls. You can’t accidentally molest little girls. You can still regret it, though (especially if you get caught). You can still try to make up for the action.

Past acts can’t be undone, but mistakes aren’t the same thing as deliberate actions, and neither are accidents.

Agreed. Good people make mistakes and learn from them, hopefully without hurting anybody else in ways that can’t be patched.

Even completely crazy monsters (see here), while evil and miswired, sometimes do what they do thinking that they’re doing their victims a favor. They “just” haven’t quite understood what favor means. And often they do good things because, even if they don’t really comprehend why, they know those behaviours are rewarded (compliments, gifts, money, sex). It’s a completely selfish reason, but that’s because they’re completely selfish gits: most people aren’t.

The best of men is only a man at best.

This was what I was coming in here to post, too. Ted Kennedy did a bad thing but it was out of carelessness, not out of intent to hurt. It’s still a huge mistake, but I don’t think it makes him a horrible person deep down the same way I would see a man who molests a child. You can’t just take a wrong turn and molest a child. It can be a mistake in the sense that it was wrong, but not in the sense that you had good intentions, no matter what you tell yourself.

Pedophilia is more like a disease, than a sign of sociopathy. Naturally, this person is capable of acting like a friendly, good-hearted man, except when he’s in the presence of children. It’s akin to a compulsive bank robber who acts like a decent individual, as long as he never comes near a bank. But in either case, the sick person has damaged people or property, and should be permanently separated from his source of obsession (ie. life in prison) – so whether we define such a person as “evil” or not is rather moot.

As pertains to Ted Kennedy, yes he made a mistake (HUGE mistake) and he received only a slap on the wrist as punishment. However, his “crime” was an accident, albeit one caused by gross negligence. One could argue that his positive actions since Chappaquiddick proves that a good person can make a mistake, and learn from his mistakes. Besides, Ted Kennedy did not “get away clean”, as many presume – the Chappaquiddick incident haunted his career for the rest of his life, and continues to do so after his death.

Dunno if I agree with all your examples, but your point is solid.

“There’s so much good in the worst of us,
And so much bad in the best of us,
That it ill behooves the most of us
To stand and judge the rest of us.”

That about say it, Shodan?

I disagree with you about that. I think it’s more likely that there are pedophiles in the world who never do and never would do anything to hurt a child because they are capable of empathy. Then there’s the other sort.

I think a lot of pedophiles also fool themselves into thinking what they’re doing isn’t really hurting the kid. Like if they don’t have sex with the child but “just” fondle or grope or whatever. It’s still molestation but maybe they tell themselves it’s innocent.

This is a good point. In fact, in most cases where humans cause harm or pain to others, some kind of minimization, rationalization, or justification has to used to help the perpetrator deflect guilt/shame.

Another point -

People sometimes talk about a child “repressing” memories of abuse. Not many mention that perps also sometimes surpress memories of abusing others. This is another coping mechanism.

Too late to edit to add this:

The coping mechanisms and self-foolery examples listed above serve, in part, to protect the self-image of the abuser. That’s part of the result of having the mindset that an incident of bad behavior makes a man “bad”. One major barrier to change in a person is an inability to admit (to himself, even) his behavior and the consequences of his behavior. So, if a man thinks “wife beaters are monsters”, for example, how can he face his own behavior, if it is abusive of his wife?

An illustration of this is what I have seen in recovery programs. If someone comes in with the attitude that alcoholics are just bad (weak-willed, lazy, selfish, etc.), that person is going to have a much harder time being honest with him- or herself, and admitting that he or she is an alcoholic.

I am one of the few who feel kind of sorry for them. They have drives that they know are wrong in society. They know the danger and I am sure they know the harm they can cause to a kid or an altarboy. Yet that is how they are wired. There is no place for them in society. It must be a terrifying life.

There are no bad people. Only people, who sometimes do good things, and sometimes do bad things, and sometimes do bad things they think are good, and sometimes do good things they think are bad.

As writer Éric-Emmanuel Schmitt wrote in his postface to The Alternative Hypothesis (a dual biography of Hitler, one historical, and the other uchronist where Hitler gets his diploma from the Vienna School of Arts, and becomes a tormented painter instead of a dictator), “I can’t ignore or dismiss Hitler, because he’s my neighbour. He’s not a monster, he is like me. He could have been me. And I could have been him.”

Kennedy paid dearly for that mistake; many believe that it cost him any chance of the Presidency.

I’m a firm believer in redemption . . . but I also believe that redemption has to be relevant to the original action. I’d be much more forgiving of Kennedy if he had devoted a large portion of his career toward eradicating drunk driving.

Oh, I feel terribly sorry for someone with that orientation if they never act on it.