Good or evil: Do we even have a choice?

There are those rare people we meet in life who seem to exude a glow of goodness. They radiate a gentle energy that makes everyone around them feel good. Then there are those whose souls seem permanently damaged, darkened by anger or hatred, irreversibly evil.

How do two members of the same species become so morally different? Can St. Francis of Assisi and Osama bin Laden really both be equally human?

According to a recent Time magazine article, the answer is yes.

It seems to be common sense that there is some greater social value in care for others. Particularly in times when we lived more in the midst of nature and its many threats, it stands to reason that close-knit tribes and families had to look out for each other or get eaten. After all, we’re not the fastest or fiercest animals on the planet, so an “everyone for themselves” attitude would be detrimental to long-term survival.

So how much of this survival-based moral code is innate in our genes, and how much is learned? It turns out that, much like spoken language, we’re born with a certain “moral grammar” that affords us the potential for empathy, kindness and concern for the well-being of others. However, just like someone who never experiences language in a social context, we do not develop our moral skills without learning both from modeling by others and through the consequences of our own actions.

By watching our peers, and through trial and error, we learn the social protocols of our community, and thus, we help ensure our place within the larger group. In return, we receive some of that same protection and care in return.

If our capacity for good is both inborn and nurtured, it stands to reason that both nature and nurture can play parts in those same systems going haywire. In some rare cases, humans are born without that so-called “moral grammar,” making it much harder, if not impossible, for them to learn by example or trial and error. In a broad sense, we call this sort of social detachment psychosis.

More often, a series of choices and/or experiences gradually lead to us veering off the moral tracks, turning increasingly inward, casting an ever-broader net of “otherness” over the world around us. Extreme cases of such divergence result in genocide, systemic neglect and countless loss of life. In the everyday world, it may result in us making a more selfish choice at the expense of others.

In the Time article, Jeffrey Kluger concludes that “merely being equipped with moral programming does not mean we practice moral behavior. Something still has to boot up that software and configure it properly, and that something is the community.” He notes that we generally cannot learn a sense of right and wrong that meshes with our culture unless it is taught in applied settings.

This means that the old “do what I say, not as I do” approach simply won’t stick. We can learn to some degree by being told about right and wrong, but in the end, it must be lived out. Ideally, parents, teachers and other peers throughout the community would all be consistent in their moral modeling, but we all know this is not the case. Some parents fall short; some teachers grow weary or apathetic; some ministers model greed and corruption even while preaching compassion from behind the pulpit.

Like individual humans, churches have a choice in the direction they take. Perhaps nearly as powerful as our capacity for good, however, is our ability to justify our own behavior.

Kluger suggests that the most powerful agent in our tendency to stray is in our potential to “other-ize” the world beyond our immediate environs. It worked for the Nazis, and we see it today. From government-sanctioned ideological warfare to neglect of entire continents under siege, as long as the group under attack seems somehow less than human, it’s a short journey to justify horrendous acts of evil, no matter who we are.

At its best, church provides not only the moral message but also the living example of kindness, compassion and righteousness. At its worst, as has been seen throughout recorded history, church is the one drawing the lines of other-ness, sanctioning everything from rape to murder as part of the “greater good.”

We have been given the tools we need, but only we can decide how and when to use them.

Christian Piatt is the author of “MySpace to Sacred Space” and “Lost: A Search for Meaning.” For more information, visit http://www.christianpiatt.com.

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