This is part 1 of a 2-part post. The second half is here.
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There is a famous quotation that most people seem to love, which I dislike. In fact, I find it quite worrisome, because of how quickly even reasonable people seem to jump behind it.
I am a staunch defender of ideas, and people’s rights to express them, even if I disagree. I don’t think ideas themselves can be harmful; any harm comes only from the actions they inspire. For example, I do not believe in laws against ‘hate’ speech; but I do support laws against deliberately inciting violence. It isn’t the speech that’s dangerous, it’s the actions. As far as I’m concerned, when a hateful person is allowed to speak his mind, he only reveals himself as petty and foolish. I think that’s a good thing. Let idiocy shine a light on itself, that’s what I say. If you tape its mouth shut, we might not recognize it.
But there is one idea, encapsulated in a well-loved quotation, that I think is at the root of every institution of war and genocide. Of course it does not always lead to those dark places, but it contains a fallacy that can delude even a good-hearted person into committing atrocities. And I want to expose its insanity.
The quote is:
“All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
Supposedly it was Irish statesman Edmund Burke who said it first, but it’s been championed ever since by all sorts of characters, from famous civil rights figures, to so-called ‘pro-life’ terrorists. The troublesome idea within is the modern conception of good and evil.
The assumption, of course, is that whoever is saying it is one of the fabled ‘good guys.’ But anyone can assume that about themselves. And if they do, they can rationalize anything. In any war, everyone thinks they’re the good guys. Terrorists think they’re fighting evil.
“Oh, but they’re wrong! They think they’re good, but they’re mistaken.”
That’s probably what they say about you, too.
What I’m getting at is that it always comes down to a difference in opinion. Some opinions may seem way out to lunch to you, but it’s all relative. Your view is just as ‘out-to-lunch’ as someone else’s is to you.
To some people, it is unequivocally wrong to eat meat. It’s murder. To others, it is certainly not. In my culture, people are divided, but most are probably reasonable enough to accommodate the differing values of other people. Even a vehement vegetarian will still sit down graciously with her friends and family while they devour animal carcasses. She understands that not everyone is on the same page, belief-wise, but that doesn’t make them any less human. It doesn’t make them troubled, lost souls. It just makes them different.
When reasonable, receptive people discuss a moral issue, they soon realize there will be no resolution. You can dissect it with logic, quote great philosophers, bicker to the death, but no clear, objective answer will emerge. It always boils down to a question of personal values, and values differ from person to person.
Often we feel comfortable that we’re on the ‘good’ side because almost everyone around us will back us up. But so what? The percentage of the populace that agrees with you can change as quickly as the crowd changes. In a different neighborhood, a different country, suddenly you’re the bad apple! Let’s all confront an inconvenient fact: morality is indeed 100% subjective. Right and wrong are just what’s popular.
Morality is simply the attitude we adopt towards people whom we personally dislike. – Oscar Wilde
But surely some acts are immoral, without question!
I say no, there are no objectively immoral acts. Emotions and personal values are always the determinants of our moral assessments, and those two factors are never exactly the same between two people — or even between two different times in the same person’s life. Beliefs are always personal, and differ even amongst members of the same flock. Perhaps there are some things almost all humans value (such as the sanctity of life, or the safety of children,) and we’ll find our beliefs match those of the vast majority, but that is still only a function of popularity. It still does not create a sturdy moral ‘base line’ from which we all make the same measurements.
Right here is where we reach an impasse, for many. Buckle up, this is where gets rocky.
Why do we think in terms of good and evil?
Some say there is indeed a sturdy moral baseline: their religion.
For a very significant percentage of the population, good and evil are defined in scripture. And that’s the bottom line. Anyone so unlucky as to be a deviant in this regard, is simply in the wrong, and hopefully they will change their mind and thus, be saved. There are a lot of different faiths, so choose wisely.
Religion is tricky to talk about because it is so dear to people, and I understand that. Because of the emotional investment people have in their beliefs, it is often very difficult to discuss it effectively; nobody wants to listen because their very basis for life and existence is being examined, so little communication actually occurs. I don’t ask anyone to agree with me, just to keep an open heart and be honest with yourself about what makes sense to you.
When we talk about morality, what we’re really talking about is judging other people. Right?
It appears to me that morality, as we know it today, was not supposed to be a part of the teachings of the great religions. When I read the Bible (for example) the principles I encounter over and over again are non-judgment, love, respect for others, forgiveness, charity, and tolerance. These teachings are common to virtually every religion.
So how did judging others get all tied up into religious teachings whose pillar principles are non-judgment and unconditional love? It seems to me that all these religions began as just very wise instructions for life, yet now they’ve become some bizarre, quasi-political, pseudo-magical set of rules. I don’t think it was meant to be that way, and I’ll explain what I think happened. The reasons for it get a bit ugly.
How spirituality got hijacked
Morality, as we know it, is a political invention. And politics has mangled religion into something it was never supposed to be.
Historically, churches always have had lot of political influence. Particularly in the middle ages, western societies were ruled by religious institutions. They had financial and cultural control over nations. We know that wherever there exists concentrated political power, corruption is inevitable; this is just an unfortunate (but undeniable) characteristic of human nature. Even men of the cloth (women weren’t allowed for some reason) were subject to the temptation of power and riches. Inevitably, senior church leaders began to abuse their influence in order to control populations, accumulate wealth, and enforce their own personal beliefs, without regard to the spirit of their teachings.
Surely not everyone was behind this abuse, but when it comes to medieval politics, those who were willing to cut throats and crush resistance found it easier to come out on top that those who were unwilling to be forceful. Any conscientious or unsupportive people were silenced, either by exile, threat of torture or execution.
In order to leverage this political influence, the spiritual message these institutions preached had to be altered. The message of forgiveness and love could not be taken seriously while the populace watched them torture and murder their enemies. They needed to conceal the disparity between their practice and their preachings, so rather than change what they did, they changed the message. Sermons began to characterize God as judgmental, vengeful, even hateful. The message changed from “follow the scriptures, and you will learn a better and more loving way to live” to “do what we say, or we’ll hurt you.”
It sounds far-fetched, that such a complete and audacious turnaround could be effected by a handful of corrupt officials, but I believe this is what happened. It is necessary to understand the far-reaching power these medieval bureaucracies were able to exert. There was no democracy, no recourse for the public; the Church was the accountability. Keep in mind that all the commoners knew about the teachings was what the Church told them. Most were illiterate, and any scripture they did get their hands on was supplied by theocratic institutions, edited as they saw fit. There was no media, no internet, no freedom of speech. It was forbidden to discuss other interpretations of scripture or to disparage the church. They covered all their bases. They chose vengeful, controlling words to reproduce in scriptures, so that they could back up their cruelty with what was presented as divine law.
The irony is that the original teachings were obviously meant to prevent people from becoming driven by lust for power, yet the political structures of the time allowed for thorough corruption. The Spanish Inquisition and the Crusades are the two most atrocious examples of the profuse, large-scale madness caused by the abuse of religious teachings.
The most insidious misrepresentation of the spiritual tradition is still evident today. The word ‘sin’ appears frequently in the Bible, and centuries ago, its meaning was deliberately warped.
Today ‘sin’ is interpreted as ‘the violation of a moral rule.’ But that is not what it used to mean.
“…in the biblical Hebrew, the generic word for sin is het. It means to err, to miss the mark. It does not mean to do evil.”
Sin just meant to make a mistake. To do something dumb, or counterproductive. Not ‘to be bad.’
The word sin soon came to be cast around like a dagger. Even today, ‘sins’ are abhorrent, their performers despicable, unworthy, loathsome. Somewhere along the line, some not-so-nice people introduced hatred into religious doctrine, and this is how they did it. This new definition of sin became their weapon of choice, and moral judgments were the ammunition.
Unfortunately, contemporary incarnations of major religions have inherited their structure and methodology from their corrupt historical counterparts, including the new, bastardized definition of sin, and the judgment and spite that comes with it. This does not mean love and compassion are absent from modern religious teaching, I’m not saying that at all. But the surviving trend of disdain as a part of religion certainly confuses things at best, and takes everything over at worst (see Westboro Baptist Church.)
Morality is the erroneous belief that there is some objective basis for assessing an action’s (and its actor’s) intrinsic worth, beyond shared values, and that looking down on people for their mistakes or transgressions is the right thing to do. Its purpose has always been to devalue other people. To estrange, to divide, to dehumanize. Moral judgment is only a way of putting other people unquestionably beneath you, with a sense of justification afforded by the state, the church, or society at large. Once we’ve passed a moral judgment on a person, any manner of disdain, or even cruelty, can be rationalized.
Whenever someone speaks up about the rights of prisoners, for example, the majority rolls their eyes and questions why they have any rights at all. The implicit presumption is that anyone in jail is worth less than anyone out of jail, if not completely disposable. Whether they’re in there for armed robbery, or for smoking a joint, most people will look at someone in that telltale orange jumpsuit and size them up as scum, without a second thought.
Sadly, this presumption of high ground is normal. Most people probably put others beneath them in this way all the time. Despite their good intentions, most of today’s religions teach this habit. And that’s unfortunate (not to say religion is the only source of moral haughtiness, only that its atrocious past is likely the primary reason for its commonality today.) There are some brilliant and wonderful messages in Christianity, for example, but its track record of judgment and condescension has driven many people away from the church, and consequently away from the wisdom and power of the central message. And that’s a real shame.
This is part 1 of a 2-part post. The second half is here.
Tower of London photo by AberCJ
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