Moral Judgment and Some Lessons of Evolution

It is no easy thing to fully commit to an ongoing process of dedication to reality at all costs (Scott Peck's definition of mental health). Such a commitment entails determination to drop the attachments that distort perception and to see things exactly as they are. With that dedication to wholeness comes gratitude and humility -- the salve (thence, salv-ation) for healing the wound cutting through every human heart: the wound of separation created by our judgments of good and evil.

Certainly, we cannot ignore actions that harm, whether through intent or negligence. We have to respond when harm is occurring. The best we can do is respond with “mindfulness concerning the ways we ourselves and those around us dehumanize others, perpetuate evil by categorizing others as less than human” (M. K. Morn). We cannot stand for spiritual wholeness while demonizing those who lack realization of that wholeness.

We must celebrate and be aware: celebrate the whole of creation, and be aware of the constantly surrounding beauty and love. In this way, we cultivate gratitude and humility. We must do this. Whatever else we may do to respond to that which would negate celebration and awareness, we must also do this: celebrate the whole of creation, and be aware of the constantly surrounding beauty and awe.

Fellow baby-boomer Gregory Maguire, also grew up annually watching the Wizard of Oz. As he grew out of the moral black-and-white into the complexity of Technicolor, he began to wonder if the Wicked Witch of the West could be so easily dismissed as simply evil, end of story. His novel, Wicked, re-imagines the back story. In his novel, the girl who will grow up to be called the Wicked Witch of the West is named Elphaba. She is born green, apparently because of a potion given to her mother by her mother’s lover. She goes away to a boarding school, where she is roommates with Glinda, who will end up as the good witch of the north. Elphaba and Glinda don’t like each other at first, but eventually become friends.

Maguire’s novel asks us to reflect on where we are still drawing those lines of separation. The issue of evil arises wherever we draw lines – wherever we take a part of ourselves that we don’t like and project it upon some other, in an attempt to deny that it is inside us.

So where are the lines we still draw?

We try not to draw lines based on gender, skin color, ethnicity. We try to avoid drawing lines based on sexual or affectional orientation or gender identity. Most of us try not to draw lines of judgment based on accent, or not speaking English at all.

By and large we are a bit more willing to draw lines of judgment that divide animals into the human and the nonhuman.

If I mention evolutionary continuity, most of us, at least, will be in agreement, yet we haven’t always quite fully bought in to that continuity. For instance, just about a week ago I was reading a musing about the mechanism that “explains the leap from the great apes to humankind.” It seems an innocent, and even interesting thing to muse about. But wait a minute. What is the question assuming? In fact, there is no “leap”. Humans are not separated from great apes, humans simply are one of the great apes.

Evolution is a not a story of progress, it’s simply a story of branching. The common ancestor of humans and chimps was 7 million years ago. The common ancestor of humans and gorillas was 10 million years. So, yes, this means that we are closer to the chimps than we are to the gorillas, but notice this: it also means that the chimps are exactly as far away from the gorillas as humans are from gorillas. It’s not a picture of progress – gorillas, then chimps, then us – it’s merely a story of branching.

And the question of what separates humans from the other great apes is only answerable in exactly the same sort of way that one would go about answering what separates the chimps from the nonchimp great apes, what separates the gorillas from the nongorilla great apes, and what separates the orangutans from the nonorangutan great apes. There are branches, but no leaps.

We can say humans have evolved differently, but we have no basis for saying they evolved “more” than many other species.

* * *
This is part 3 of 4 of "Wicked"
Next: Part 4: "Let It Be a Dance"
Previous: Part 2: "Drawing the Line"
Beginning: Part 1: "Wonderful Wizards and Wicked Witches"


Drawing the Line

We act as though there were a clear line between the wicked witches and the wonderful wizards -- the evil people and the virtuous people. Maybe the moral judgment is itself the source of evil. Any attempt to draw a line, to separate the good people from the wicked people – with ourselves, naturally, on the good side – is a kind of delusion. To perpetuate that delusion, we become capable of perpetrating the very things that we are inclined to call evil when other people do them. Whether the emphasis is on our own wonderfulness or on other peoples’ relative wickedness, the delusion is making that separation.

Nothing is as wicked as the conviction that we aren’t wicked. The Nazis were convinced they were the pure and the good. From that certainty followed the holocaust. The U.S., encouraged by its role in defeating Nazi evil to imagine itself as virtuous beyond question, proceeded, right about the time I was first watching "The Wizard of Oz" on a color TV, to commit the My Lai massacre in Viet Nam.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn said:
"If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?"
It is the beginning of wisdom, and perhaps the end of it as well, to recognize that there is no evil out there in the world that isn’t also inside us. The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. Destroying evil – no matter how well-founded our judgment of evil is – destroys a part of ourselves. It is driven by the urge to separate, to divide. In that very separation and division we recapitulate the evil we hope to avoid.

Embrace the demons, bring them into wholeness, and they lose the context that lets them make such mischief. There’s nothing our demons enjoy more than a good fight. Nothing confuses them more than our embrace.

If we seek a liberal theology of theodicy – the problem of evil – then an understanding of sociopathy, however accurate and compelling, is incomplete. We must also name the tendency to unmindfulness to which all flesh (and spirit) is heir – the tendency to draw lines, to separate, to forget that the line between good and evil, between wonderful and wicked, indeed cuts through every heart.

Scott Peck's book on evil, People of the Lie: The Hope for Healing Human Evil (1983), illustrates the line-drawing tendency of those Peck calls "evil." The the opposite of "evil," says Peck, is "mental health," defined as:
“an ongoing process of dedication to reality at all costs.”
Mental (and spiritual) health is a commitment to cutting off the roots of delusion. The reality to which to be dedicated, the truth to keep ever before us, is that we are interconnected. The "evil" (as Peck calls them) obscure from themselves, in one way or another, a clear view of reality. We all do that, to some extent.

As I read the case studies that Scott Peck presented, I noticed that the people he called "evil" were low on two connected and overlapping measures of relating to other people. They lacked, one, sincere gratitude, and, two, any clear sense of personal responsibility. When things went well, the patients Peck described seemed to believe they did it all themselves. When things went awry, it was always someone else’s fault. It seems they saw themselves as Wonderful Wizards and others as potential or actual Wicked Witches. They drew lines of separation rather than of interconnection and shared needs.

* * *
This is Part 2 of 4 of "Wicked."
Next: Part 3: "Moral Judgment and Some Lessons of Evolution"
Previous: Part 1: "Wonderful Wizards and Wicked Witches"


Wonderful Wizards and Wicked Witches

Are you as wonderful as the Wonderful Wizard of Oz, or as wicked as the Wicked Witch of the West? Neither? Both? Wonderfully wicked and wickedly wonderful?

In the current-running musical, “Wicked,” the Wizard of Oz character explains his position, illustrating one way that humans are vulnerable to sliding down a path toward wickedness without quite knowing that we’re doing it – believing, in fact, that we remain, all the while, “wonderful.” The wizard sings:
I never asked for this or planned it in advance.
I was merely blown here by the winds of chance.
I never saw myself as a Solomon or Socrates.
I knew who I was, one of your dime-a-dozen mediocrates.
Then suddenly I'm here, respected, worshiped even,
Just because the folks in Oz needed someone to believe in.
Does it surprise you I got hooked and all too soon?
What can I say? I got carried away, and not just by balloon.
Wonderful: they called me wonderful.
So I said, wonderful, if you insist,
I will be wonderful,
and they said wonderful.
Believe me it's hard to resist
'cuz it feels wonderful.
They think I'm wonderful.
Hey, look who's wonderful: this corn-fed hick!
Who said it might be keen
To build a town of green
And a wonderful road of yellow brick!
We believe all sorts of things that aren't true.
We call it history!
A man's called a traitor, or liberator.
A rich man's a thief, or philanthropist.
Is one a crusader, or ruthless invader?
It's all in the label which is able to persist.
There are precious few at ease
with moral ambiguities
so we act as though they don't exist.
They call me wonderful
so I am.
In fact, it's so much who I am, it's part of my name!
The baby boom generation, which includes me, grew up on the Wizard of Oz movie – the 1939 MGM film starring Judy Garland. Starting in 1959, the year I was born, “The Wizard of Oz” was on TV once and only once every year for nearly thirty years. The annual telecast was a big occasion in many households, including mine.

It was always on a Sunday evening. The popcorn would be popped, and hot cocoa made with milk heated on the stovetop, and the whole family gathered around. Every year. Year after year through my childhood and into my young adulthood.

Twenty minutes into the film, it switches from the black-and-white of the Kansas scenes to the dazzling Technicolor of Oz. I was nine-years-old before our family got a color TV set. Before that, we were watching on a black-and-white set anyway, so the switch to color didn’t happen for us.

The film got into our consciousness:
"Somewhere over the rainbow."
"Follow the yellow-brick road."
"And your little dog, too."
"Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain."

To this day, if you happen to list any three things where the items have two syllables, two syllables, and then one syllable, I’m going to have a strong impulse to chime, “oh, my.” Paper and pencils and pen – oh, my. Apples and raisins and grapes – oh, my. In my youngest years, it was a genuinely frightening movie. Dorothy in the dark woods worried about lions and tigers and bears, and my heart really did gasp along with her: "oh, my!"

Flying monkeys, and mean, powerful witches. The film so effectively penetrated the deepest insecurities of childhood -- and then reassured them – I think that’s why we were as excited to watch it for the 10th time as we were for the first or second.

As we boomers grew into adulthood, we had stored away some of film’s really good lessons. There’s no place like home. And you always have the power to go there. What you think you lack, you don’t lack at all. You’ve had the power all along to go where you wanted to go. It’s your shoes, which is to say, right where you’re standing, you’re home. We forget that. Come back to right here, right where you stand right now, in the shoes you’re now wearing, and you’re home.

That was a level of metaphor beyond the grasp of literal-minded childhood. Still, year after year we heard Dorothy wake up to the realization:
“If I ever go looking for my heart's desire again, I won't look any further than my own back yard. Because if it isn't there, I never really lost it to begin with.”
That slowly sunk in. What you want is right there with you. You can never lose it.

As we grew, my generation began ourselves to move out of the black-and-white moral simplicity of good and bad into a Technicolor world of moral ambiguity.

It didn’t occur to me as a child to wonder what would make person wicked, or evil? Or what makes people judge other people wicked? Or that maybe the fact that somebody is judging someone else to be wicked, bad, evil says more about the person passing the judgment that it does about the object of their disapproval. As the wizard sings in the musical, "Wicked,"
"There are precious few at ease with moral ambiguities, so we act as though they don’t exist.”
We act as though there were a clear line between the wicked people and the wonderful people, the evil people and the virtuous people. Maybe the pretense of moral clarity is itself the source of evil.

* * *
This is part 1 of 4 of "Wicked."
Next: Part 2: "Drawing the Line"


Newsletter Column 2013 Nov

Covenant and Democracy

The themes for November are Covenant and Democracy. These are the themes at the center of our way of being together.

Covenant. While we acknowledge and respect faith traditions in which members connect and bind themselves together through a shared creed, we are also clear that this is not the Unitarian Universalist way. We are a people of covenant, not creed, and it is covenant rather than creed by which we are connected and bound together. The content of the covenant is expressed in various ways, one of the most prominent of which is our seven principles: “We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote...”

Our principles don’t declare that we believe any particular doctrine or creed – we just covenant to affirm and promote these ideals. The seven principles, however, are fairly recent in our history: they were produced in the mid-1980s. Before the seven principles, we had other ways to articulate our covenant. And if CUC adopts a mission statement then that, too, will be a covenant. Ultimately, however, the idea of covenant goes beyond any words that we might choose to express it. Beyond one or another articulation, there is simply a covenant to walk together.

While “covenant” has a legal meaning in some contexts (as for instance, in property law, where it refers to conditions tied to the use of land), in our faith tradition, covenant is not a legal term. A covenant is not a contract. In a contract, if one side breaks the contract, the other side doesn’t have to continue to keep its side of the bargain. A covenant, however, is a promise that continues to hold, howsoever often broken. No matter how many times you or I fail to support one another in the ways we have promised to do so, the covenant continues to exist, calling us back to repair the relations damaged, to honor anew what has been dishonored, to recommit to walking together in a relationship made sacred by our promised intention that it be so.

Democracy. Our fifth principle is “the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.” We do our best to respect the rights of conscience for those who may be outvoted. Still, the fact remains that sometimes opinions are divided and only one of them will prevail. The great spiritual lesson of democracy is humility. We’re all sometimes outvoted, and the system depends upon our ability to let go of our attachment to our own opinions enough to allow the majority-supported policy to go forward. Here there are (at least) two dangerous temptations to avoid:

First, don’t try to undermine the policy because you’re so sure it’s wrong. Remember that you might be the one who’s wrong. If you truly can’t take that possibility seriously, then console yourself with the thought that allowing the majority to make this mistake will be the best way for them to learn their error.

Second, don’t assume that, just because the majority has outvoted you, you “haven’t been heard” and are “excluded.” Neither being heard nor being included requires that a majority agree with you.

These are tough lessons, and wherever too many of the citizens are too deficient in that humility, democracy falters. Churches and other voluntary associations are the essential workshops where we learn the democratic skills. When a populace loses interest in showing up to hash out decisions at church committees, or PTA, civic club, or party chapter meetings, the strength of its democratic virtues (listening to others, accommodating diverse viewpoints, understanding how good people may disagree, etc.) wanes . . .

With predictable results.



The Bitter, the Sweet, and the Challenge

by Steven Dunn
Just when it has seemed I couldn’t bear one more friend
waking with a tumor, one more maniac
with a perfect reason, often a sweetness has come
and changed nothing in the world
except the way I stumbled through it, for a while lost
in the ignorance of loving
someone or something, the world shrunk to mouth-size,
hand-size, and never seeming small.
I acknowledge there is no sweetness that doesn’t leave a stain,
no sweetness that’s ever sufficiently sweet ....
Tonight a friend called to say his lover was killed in a car
he was driving. His voice was low
and guttural, he repeated what he needed to repeat, and I repeated
the one or two words we have for such grief
until we were speaking only in tones. Often a sweetness comes
as if on loan, stays just long enough
to make sense of what it means to be alive, then returns to its dark
source. As for me, I don’t care
where it’s been, or what bitter road it’s traveled
to come so far, to taste so good.
Sometimes evil is sweet like sugar. Sometimes it is bitter – like the history of the development of the sugar industry.

If you’ve been following a certain TV show called “Breaking Bad,” then you, too, have been thinking about the nature of evil, as represented by the character Walter White, the high school chemistry teacher who used his expertise to go into the business of concocting methamphetamine. It’s a “Mr. Chips becomes Scarface” story. Through the five seasons and 62 episodes of the show, we saw Walter slide further and further into evil: lying, manipulating, and murdering his way to wealth in the illegal drug business. We repeatedly saw Walt justify his actions as being “for the family.” At the end, it all came tumbling down around him.

In the final episode, Walter, after hiding out in seclusion in a New Hampshire cabin for a few months reflecting on what he’d done, has his last meeting with his estranged wife. Walt at last acknowledges, “I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it. And I was really -- I was alive."

Ah, the sweetness of doing what we’re good at, and what brings us alive. Ah, the bitterness of disconnection, for no one else matters to Walt.

For those who aren’t sociopathic, bitterness and sweetness intertwine the same, yet different. The capacity to love, to care about others, brings such pain. And somehow, also, opens a door through which comes a holy sweetness.

And for those who are . . .

* * *

In addition to the genetic primary sociopaths, there is another group of people, the secondary sociopaths, whose genes don't them sociopathic but do make them vulnerable to sociopathy. Whether they become sociopathic or not depends on their environment. Environmental cues and risk factors can, in effect, increase the carrying capacity of the 'cheater' niche. When that niche grows, some who might have, in a different environment, learned empathy, instead become into sociopathic ‘phenocopies’ or ‘mimics.’

Secondary sociopaths call for a different approach from primary sociopaths. Addressing primary sociopathy calls for finding appropriate jobs and increasing the risk of illegal activities. Addressing secondary sociopathy calls for reducing the carrying capacity of the “cheater” niche. For secondary sociopaths:
“The appropriate social response is to implement programs which reduce social stratification, anonymity, and competition, intervene in high-risk settings with specialized parent education and support; and increase the availability of rewarding, prosocial opportunities for at-risk youth.” (Linda Mealey)
In other words, we need justice, we need community, we need cooperation-fostering frameworks, we need education, and fair opportunity. That’s how to reduce the carrying capacity for those sociopathic phenocopies.

We are not helpless before some deeply paradoxical mystery called “the problem of evil.” There are good evolutionary reasons that our genome produces a small percentage of us born without the capacity for empathy, more attracted to excitement and less attracted to usual rewards. Finding a productive place for them is a solvable problem.

There are social reasons why a few others slip into sociopathic strategies. When an environment offers a lot of people extensive training in not caring about others, sometimes that training is going to take. Building a society of justice, fair opportunity, and cooperative accountability is also a solvable problem.

I don’t believe there is a “problem of evil” in the traditional sense of a logical conundrum. What there is, is a “challenge of evil.” That challenge can be met.

* * *
This is part 4 of 4 of "Evil & Sociopathy"
Previous: Part 3: "Carrying Capacity for Walter White"
Beginning: Part 1: "'Evil' = Thought Stopper"


Carrying Capacity for Walter White

In human evolutionary history, it turns out that about 2 percent of us will find noncooperation a viable strategy. These are the people who "cheat" on the social contract. Around 2 percent is what research indicates is the equilibrium point, i.e., the carrying capacity of the “cheater” niche in our social ecology. If the number of cheaters falls to much less than 2 percent, then the rest of us get very trusting and na├»ve, and we become a population ripe for con men to running roughshod over our trusting ways. In such a context, being a noncooperator has a high pay-off, which breeds more noncooperators. As the number of noncooperators goes up, the rest of us become increasingly aware of the threat. We put up our guard; we put energy into protecting ourselves from scams, and catching and prosecuting criminals. Then the benefit-to-risk balance doesn't favor noncooperation so much, and the number drops again. It settles into an equilibrium. Across millions of years of human evolution, there has tended toward an equilibrium at around 2 percent of the population noncooperating – that is, being sociopaths.

The human genome produces, at a 2 percent rate, people genetically unable to empathize. It does so because that's the equilibrium rate at which sociopathy is a successful strategy for staying alive and having offspring.

These 2 percent are the “primary" sociopaths. They can feel the basic emotions – such as anger, fear, sadness, disgust, surprise, joy, acceptance, and anticipation – but cannot feel what are called the social emotions. They don’t experience love, or guilt, or shame, or remorse.

In addition to these primary sociopaths, there is another group of people, the secondary sociopaths, whose genes make them nearly sociopathic. Whether they become sociopathic or not depends on their environment.

We could call sociopaths "evil" – implying that there’s an imperative to destroy them. But once we understand sociopathy, we can see alternatives.

For primary sociopaths, as part of the genetic package that equips them to occupy the niche in our world that they do, along with an inability to have the “social emotions that normally contribute to behavioral motivation and inhibition,” they also are “high on novelty-seeking, low on harm-avoidance, and low on reward-dependence.” They’re thrill-seekers – looking for high levels of physiological arousal – perhaps because that’s the only way to feel alive in a reality where they can’t pick up on anybody’s feelings but their own. You put all that together, and you can see where the Charles Mansons and the Jeffrey Dahmers come from.

The fictional Walter White from the TV series "Breaking Bad" fits the pattern. He breaks bad because it was thrilling to make methamphetamine and vie for survival against law enforcement on the one hand and crime bosses and gang leaders on the other. He breaks bad because he doesn’t have the social emotions to counterbalance the allure of the thrill.

Primary sociopaths can’t empathize, but they can reason. They can calculate their own self-interest – sometimes brilliantly. Suggests sociologist Linda Mealey:
"The appropriate social response is to modify the criminal justice system in ways that increase the costs of antisocial behavior, while simultaneously creating alternatives to crime which could satisfy the psychopysiological arousal needs.”
RE: "increase the costs of antisocial behavior," remember that research indicates that increasing the probability of being caught is the primary deterrent. Increasing the severity of the punishment itself does almost nothing.

RE: "alternatives to crime which could satisfy the psychophysiological arousal needs," we’re talking about finding these people appropriate jobs.

Sociopaths don’t empathize, but they often get quite good at pretending to, so they can make good novelists, screenplay writers, talk-show hosts, and disk jockeys. Sociopaths also seek high levels of excitement, so they can make good stunt men, explorers, race-car drivers, and sky-diving exhibitionists.

Let’s find a way to use the gifts they have, instead of just calling them evil, which doesn’t help us. Find a productive use for them, and they won’t have to use destructive outlets.

Walter White needed something more exciting than being a high school teacher moonlighting at a car wash. In a more ideal society, we’d find productive ways to channel the arousal-seeking and the brilliance of our Walter Whites – not out of compassion for them, which we might or might not feel – but for our own sake.

* * *
This is part 3 of 4 of "Evil & Sociopathy"
Next: Part 4: "The Bitter, the Sweet, and the Challenge"
Previous: Part 2: "Evil and Must Be Destroyed"
Beginning: Part 1: "'Evil' = Thought Stopper"


Evil and Must Be Destroyed

If something is evil, it is not to be understood. It is only to be destroyed. In fact, the word “evil,” and the phrase “must be destroyed” go together. “It is evil and must be destroyed,” was once the stuff of children’s cartoon dialog. In the 1989 film, Steel Magnolias, Ouiser (Shirley Maclaine) rebukes her friend Clairee (Olympia Dukakis), and tells her,
“you are evil and must be destroyed.”
It was a funny line. Since then a lot of things have been designated as “evil and must be destroyed.”

Interested in the popular culture’s tendency to link the concept evil with an imperative to destroy, I turned to my trusty internet search engine, and typed in the phrase “evil and must be destroyed.”

I read the claim that 40% of the population believes that liberals are evil and must be destroyed. On a Star Wars blog, I read that the Sith are evil and must be destroyed. On historyexplained.org, we read that the United States has historically, in effect, insisted that dictators are evil and must be destroyed.

Evil and must be destroyed?

Cincinnati, the font Papyrus, bacon-wrapped jalapeno thingies, sweet popcorn, the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, the handvac, the mainstream media, Newt Gingrich, Lady Gaga, dogs, cats, wasps, inheritance, derivatives, emulators, cartels, college football’s Bowl Champion Series, and everyone who isn’t part of Glenn Beck’s army of God have all been publically declared, by someone, “evil and must be destroyed.”

“Evil” and “must be destroyed” seem to be pretty tightly connected in the popular mind.

I prefer: evil and must be understood.

The better we understand what’s really going on, the better we can respond more effectively than a blind urge to destroy.

Evil – or what often gets called evil – takes social forms, as when whole groups reinforce each other in a mob mentality capable of genocide. Evil also takes anti-social form – as in individual sociopathy. That’s the form "The Liberal Pulpit" will explore in this "Evil & Sociopathy" series.

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the standard reference work in the mental health field, sociopathy is a pervasive pattern of disregard for and violation of the rights of others as indicated by any three or more of the following seven:
  1. failure to conform to social norms with respect to lawful behaviors as indicated by repeatedly performing acts that are grounds for arrest;
  2. deceitfulness, as indicated by repeated lying, use of aliases, or conning others for personal profit or pleasure;
  3. impulsivity or failure to plan ahead;
  4. irritability and aggressiveness, as indicated by repeated physical fights or assaults;
  5. reckless disregard for safety of self or others;
  6. consistent irresponsibility, as indicated by repeated failure to sustain steady work or honor financial obligations;
  7. lack of remorse, as indicated by being indifferent to or rationalizing having hurt, mistreated, or stolen from another.
Why are there sociopaths? It might be a kind of genetic defect, like Tay-Sachs or Fragile X syndrome. But those have a specific mutated chromosome. Sociopathy is different. It’s an evolutionary strategy. There's a niche for the sociopath in the ecology of human society. Building and maintaining the networks of human society takes a lot of cooperation and coordination, and that, in turn, takes a lot of empathetic skill. Once you have a majority of people maintaining a society, there's space for a "free rider" to hop on. That's the sociopath's niche.

Cooperation is a difficult business. In being cooperative, we are at risk of being taken advantage of, suckered, conned, exploited. Yet proto-humans and humans have been slowly developing ways to provide us with the protections we need in order to safely cooperate. Setting up a police force and a legal system establishes outside enforcement that allows us to make contracts with some reassurance that we aren’t being suckered: there’s a system to enforce compliance. As our cooperation grew more extensive and elaborate, we inevitably created space for the free riders, the "cheaters on the social contract." In human evolutionary history, it turns out that about 2 percent of us will find noncooperation a viable strategy for staying alive and producing offspring.

* * *
This is part 2 of 4 of "Evil & Sociopathy"
Next: Part 3: "Carrying Capacity of Walter White"
Previous: Part 1: "'Evil' = Thought Stopper"


Newsletter Column 2013 Oct


Is there really such a thing as evil? Certainly, there is such a thing as harm. People do sometimes do harm to others. And there are such things as oppression and, more generally, injustice. If we have the concepts sociopathy, negligence, malicious intent, damage, oppression, and injustice, do we really also need a concept named “evil”?

The argument for dropping “evil” out of our conceptual repertoire – the way that 18th-century scientists dropped “phlogiston” from their conceptual repertoire – would include taking note of the harm the concept does. “Evil” masquerades as an explanation. By calling something evil, we cast the illusion of having explained it and thereby undermine calls for real explanation. Moreover, labeling a person or institution “evil” strongly suggests that the only feasible response is to destroy it. Usually, a more nuanced response will work better.

So maybe we would do well to drop the concept “evil.” This would change nothing about the world’s myriad and deep suffering, but it would compel us to invoke different – and probably more helpful – concepts for thinking about that suffering.


On the other hand, when I recall what I know of Dachau and Treblinka, when I remember the photographs taken in the early years of the 20th-century of the smiling white faces and apparent party atmosphere at lynchings, I doubt whether any term but “evil” can intimate the moral horror I feel. When I feel that revulsion and grope to understand it, I remind myself to look into my own heart. There is no evil out there that isn’t also inside me. There is no human greed, fear, or obliviousness of which I do not also share a measure. For me, then, the quest to understand evil begins with Alexandr Solzhenitsyn’s observation:
"If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?"
Good question, Alex. Let us begin there.


"Evil" = Thought Stopper

What is evil? What are we saying when we call something "evil"?

In Minnesota there is an invasive plant called “buckthorn.” The year that LoraKim and lived in Minnesota, we met a man who devoted himself to curtailing buckthorn. “Buckthorn is evil,” he said. He looked like he meant it.

Evil has been a regularly invoked concept in US foreign policy. Ronald Reagan called the Soviet Union the Evil Empire. In 2002, then-President Bush named Iran, Iraq, and North Korea an “Axis of Evil.” Remember that? Andrew Marlatt was prompted to write a satirical news piece:
“Bitter after being snubbed for membership in the ‘Axis of Evil,’ Libya, China, and Syria today announced they had formed the 'Axis of Just as Evil,' which they said would be way eviler than that stupid Iran-Iraq-North Korea axis. Elsewhere, peer-conscious nations rushed to gain triumvirate status in what became a game of geopolitical chairs. Cuba, Sudan, and Serbia said they had formed the Axis of Somewhat Evil, forcing Somalia to join with Uganda and Myanmar in the Axis of Occasionally Evil, while Bulgaria, Indonesia and Russia established the Axis of Not So Much Evil Really As Just Generally Disagreeable. Canada, Mexico, and Australia formed the Axis of Nations That Are Actually Quite Nice But Secretly Have Nasty Thoughts About" the US.
In traditional theology, the problem of evil is one of the thorniest issues. If God made everything, didn’t God make evil, too – and if so, why? She gave us free will – but she’s omniscient, so she knows how we’ll use our free will. So why did she make us that way? After all, there are a lot of different ways to be good. We'd still have free will if we used it only to choose among various ways of being good. We could all have free will without anybody being evil, right?

"Theodicy" is the field of theology that aims to justify God’s ways to man, that is, address the problem of evil, the cognitive conundrum of the existence of evil given an omnibenevolent, omniscient, and omnipotent God. We religious liberals don’t fret much about those logical paradoxes. We do, in our own way, wrestle with what evil is, and why. The challenge to offer some accounting of evil -- is an issue for everyone. The phenomenal popularity of the TV show “Breaking Bad” has prompted a lot of people to renewed reflection on what it means to break bad, and what causes a person to do it.

So what is evil?

Let's look at the way the concept is invoked. A dozen years ago, when terrorists flew hijacked 747s into the World Trade Center, we heard “evil” invoked a lot, though not very thoughtfully. I was working as a hospital chaplain in North Carolina in 2001. The morning after the 9-11 attacks, the hospital’s five chaplains and our supervisor gathered.

I said I wished I understood better what might lead someone to fly an airplane into a building.

One of my colleagues asked, “You do believe in evil don’t you?”

I stammered, “sure,” but the truth is I don’t know whether I do or not.

I do notice that the word, the concept, “evil” is often a thought-stopper. I see it used to stop thought. We say something’s evil, and we’re off the hook to look into the matter any more deeply. "It’s evil – what more do you need to know? End of story." End of thinking.

Sometimes people cause harm to other people. Sometimes we do so in truly horrible ways. Why do we do it? Do we do it because some – or maybe all – of us are evil? That answer stops further inquiry.

If we call some one "evil," we have dismissed that person. We’ve given ourselves something that feels like an explanation. It actually explains nothing at all, but because we have the illusion of explanation, it can serve to stop us from digging further into the matter. In fact, any further exploration of the matter can be met with outright hostility: "you’re not justifying what they do are you? They’re evil, end of story, nothing further to understand!"

"Evil" has become a word we use when we have become afraid of understanding. When we hate something so much that we become afraid that if we understood it, we wouldn’t be able to hate it anymore, then we call it "evil." Calling it evil is a strategy designed to prevent understanding, so that the hatred we covet will not be threatened. If something is evil, it is not to be understood. It is only to be destroyed.

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This is part 1 of 4 of "Evil & Sociopathy"
Next: Part 2: "Evil and Must Be Destroyed"


Lessons of the Wolfpack

Your gifts are uniquely yours, and who you truly are behind the various masks isn’t determined by your parents, or your teachers, or your friends. It’s not up to other people who you are. At the same time, you are called to manifest yourself in a social context – to bring your gifts to the benefit of others.

Some nonhuman species illustrate how unique individual gifts are used for the benefit of the group. Marc Bekoff asked:
“Did David Greybeard, the chimpanzee who Jane Goodall notably was the first to observe using a tool, have any idea of who he was? Do elephants, dolphins, cats, magpies, mice, salmon, ants or bees know who they are?” (LiveScience, 2013 Sep 19)
Maybe nonhuman animals do know who they are. Maybe they even know it better than we humans do.

Wolves, for instance, like our primate ancestors, evolved to live in packs. Yes, there is the occasional lone wolf, but a wolf is at a severe survival disadvantage without its pack. A single wolf doesn’t have all the gifts to survive. Eventually, lone wolves die or rejoin a pack.

Individual wolves bring different gifts to the pack. There is an alpha pair. These are the ones who produce puppies and lead the pack, but not always. Any motivated wolf can lead, and pack activity can be based on the impulses of several pack members. The lead wolves depend on what other pack members are doing, the varying gifts of their packmates. While one wolf may lead an attack to defend its territory or protect the pups, other wolves will pull back off a useless fight with bears. Instead of judging them cowardly, let’s say evolution needed a wolfpack's members to exhibit a range of attack readiness vs. prudent withdrawal. Other wolves have exceptional senses of smell to find the prey, but are not swift of foot. Others are swift and can bring down prey but may never be the ones to produce young.

You see, gifts in social animals were not meant to work alone, but in a complex array that ensures pack survival. Typically one pair has the pups, and the whole pack helps raise them. Each is father, mother, and parent, bringing what gifts they can to increase the chances the young will flourish. By keeping the young alive, the pack preserves the species. By preserving the species, the pack preserves the health of a whole ecosystem.

This is what we are here to do – use our gifts for ourselves, our community, and the earth. Then we know who we are. Then we become who we are. And though we don’t choose our gifts (they choose us), what we can choose is to bring out who we are to bless the world.

As my favorite verse from the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas says:
“If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.”
Bring it forth and choose to bless the world.

I conclude with this poem by Rev. Rebecca Parker:
Your gifts whatever you discover them to be
can be used to bless or curse the world.
The mind's power,
The strength of the hands,
The reaches of the heart,
the gift of speaking, listening, imagining, seeing, waiting
Any of these can serve to feed the hungry,
bind up wounds,
welcome the stranger,
praise what is sacred,
do the work of justice
or offer love.
Any of these can draw down the prison door
hoard bread,
abandon the poor,
obscure what is holy,
comply with injustice
or withhold love.
You must answer this question:
What will you do with your gifts?
Choose to bless the world.
The choice to bless the world
Can take you into solitude
To search for the sources
Of power and grace
Native wisdom, healing, and liberation
More the choice will draw you into community
The endeavor shared
The heritage passed on
The companionship of struggle
The importance of keeping faith
The life of ritual and praise
The comfort of human friendship
The company of earth
Its chorus of life
Welcoming you
None of us alone can save the world
Together – that is another possibility, waiting

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This is part 5 of 5 of "Vocation: Who Are You?"
Previous: Part 4: "Joining Self and Service"
Beginning: Part 1: "Proverbial Vision"


The TV Interview

Taped on Tuesday October 16, to air on Sunday Oct 27 at 5:00p on Verizon channel 45 and Cablevision channel 76.

Or watch the show at your convenience on the internet. Click on the image above, or CLICK HERE.


Joining Self and Service

Who are you? Master Linji says that who you are is the awakened one. It’s just that sometimes we forget that. This very day, what could possibly be lacking? “Anyone who has this insight will be a person who has nothing to do,” says Linji. He's saying, it isn’t about your doing, it’s about your being. He’s not saying to cease all activity. But let your activity flow from who you are rather than from what you want to be different.

Vocation comes from the word voice, that is, the voice of calling that calls us to offer who we are, not in order to achieve this or that, but simply in order to express who we are in the world. We don’t choose who we are, we discover it. Then we can choose to nurture it or choose to fight it.

Repression is not a good idea. On the other hand, nurturing isn’t simple indulgence either. There’s a discipline involved.

Frederick Buechner, in a slim book called Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC (1973) gets to the letter "V," and writes about "vocation," God’s calling. We might think of it as the call of our true selves, as opposed to the calls of the various other competing voices we carry around in our heads. Buechner writes:
"Vocation. It comes from the Latin vocare, to call, and means the work a person is called to by God. There are all different kinds of voices calling you to all different kinds of work, and the problem is to find out which is the voice of God rather than of Society, say, or the Superego, or Self-Interest. By and large a good rule for finding out is this. The kind of work God usually calls you to is the kind of work (a) that you need most to do and (b) that the world most needs to have done.

If you really get a kick out of your work, you’ve presumably met requirement (a), but if your work is writing TV deodorant commercials, the chances are you’ve missed requirement (b). On the other hand, if your work is being a doctor in a leper colony, you have probably met requirement (b), but if most of the time you’re bored and depressed by it, the chances are you have not only bypassed (a) but probably aren’t helping your patients much either.

Neither the hair shirt not the soft berth will do. The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”
Vocation is beyond what we do for a paycheck. It’s the real work of bringing who we are – the fonts of our own deep gladness – to engage our world – to meet the world’s deep hunger. Your being is a unique gift to the world – which is to say, you bring unique gifts. Finding out who you are may take some exploration of what your gifts are – your skills, talents, abilities. Adds Parker Palmer:
“Our deepest calling is to grow into our own authentic selfhood, whether or not it conforms to some image of who we ought to be."
As we do so, we will not only find the joy that every human being seeks – we will also find our path of authentic service in the world. True vocation joins self and service, as Frederick Buechner indicates when he says vocation is that “place where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.”

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This is part 4 of 5 of "Vocation: Who Are You?"
Next: Part 5: "Lessons of the Wolfpack"
Previous: Part 3: "Blessed Be. Who Are You?"
Beginning: Part 1: "Proverbial Vision"


Blessed Be. Who Are You?

Who am I? Ever since I was a kid it has seemed a very strange thing to be me, whatever that was. Could I have had different parents? Or would that have been a different kid, not me at all, born to different parents? And if I would still be me, even if born to different parents, then doesn't that make every kid, born to any parents whatsoever, me? That's the kind of thing I wondered about as a kid. Did you? Or was that you wondering it when I was wondering it?

I read recently a column by Cognitive Ethologist Marc Bekoff on whether nonhuman animals know who they are. He begins:
“Did David Greybeard, the chimpanzee who Jane Goodall notably was the first to observe using a tool, have any idea of who he was? Do elephants, dolphins, cats, magpies, mice, salmon, ants or bees know who they are?” (LiveScience, 2013 Sep 19)
I read this, and I’m thinking: Heck, do I know who I am? Maybe elephants and magpies have one up on me.

There's a little exercise you can do -- I've done this. It takes two people. You sit facing each other, looking into each other's faces. Person A simply asks, "Who are you?" For five minutes, whatever Person B says, Person A responds the same way: a phrase of acceptance, and then a repeat of the question. "Blessed be. Who are you?"

Here’s how my turn began:

“Who are you?”

"I'm Meredith Garmon."

"Blessed be. Who are you?"

"I'm the minister at the Community Unitarian Church."

"Blessed be. Who are you?"

"I'm the first born child of Gerald and Lucille."

"Blessed be. Who are you?"

"The father of Morgen and John, and more-or-less of Yency."

"Blessed be. Who are you?"

And so on and on. After five minutes, stop, switch places, with Person B asking "Who are you?" and Person A answering. Try this with somebody. It does something to you. I can't tell you what. There's no substitute for the experience itself. But a kind of insight that can't be put in words begins to emerge as you see the inadequacy of one word after another to identify who you are.

I was doing this exercise and reached a point at which I had exhausted everything I could think of about my family or job, my passions, my hobbies, my commitments, my hopes, fears, abilities, disabilities, gifts, shadows. And each time my partner had said: "Blessed be. Who are you?"

Finally I said, "Exactly right."

Who am I? "Who am I?" is who I am. I am the question itself. I am a walking, continuous, "who am I?" And that felt like a good insight -- for about two seconds.

Then my partner patiently said, "Blessed be. Who are you?"

Then I said: "I don't know." It felt freeing to have no conception to stick to -- no word or phrase or definition to package me -- the liberation of not knowing -- for just a moment.

Then, again, "Blessed be, Who are you?"

And so on, and on.

Try it sometime. Find another person. Take 10 minutes – 5 minutes for each of you. You’ll be interested to see what you find coming up.

* * *
This is part 3 of 5 of "Vocation: Who Are You?"
Next: Part 4: "Joining Self and Service"
Previous: Part 2: "Linji Speaks: Nothing To Do"
Beginning: Part 1: "Proverbial Vision"


Linji Speaks: Nothing To Do

Linji Yixuan (ca 812? - 867), a.k.a. Rinzai Gigen, as he is called in Japanese, was a Chinese Chan master.

We don't know much about what he taught, but he was the founder of a line of Chan (Zen) that revered him. Two hundred and fifty years after his death, the disciples of the disciples of the disciples of Linji's disciples created the Linji Yu Lu (The Record of Linji). The book thus reflects the Chan teachings of the Linji school at the beginning of the Song dynasty.

Presumably some of the flavor and style of Linji himself is preserved. Linji's reputation is of an iconoclastic teacher who lead students to awakening with sudden shouts and hitting his students. According the The Record of Linji:

Addressing the assembly, Linji said:

Once there is beholding of reality as it truly is, birth and death can no longer touch you. At that point, whether you stay or go, you do so as a free person. You do not need to go in search of the transcendent, but the transcendent will seek you out.

Because you do not have self-confidence, you are always preoccupied, in a hurry to run after myriad kind of objects outside yourselves, and then you are turned around in circles by these objects and lose all your freedom. If you are able to put an end to the thinking that chases after external objects, you will see that there is no difference between you yourselves and our teacher, the Buddha. Do you want to know who our teacher, the Buddha, is? The Buddha is you yourselves who are before me, listening to me teach the Dharma.

The practitioner who does not have enough self-confidence will always direct his attention to what is external and wander around looking for something. Even if he does find something, that object is just a beautiful form of writing and words. It is not the living mind of the master.

My friends, as far as the insight of this mountain monk goes, there is no difference between you and Shakyamuni Buddha. This very day – the venue of all your varied daily activities – what could possibly be lacking? Is there any moment when the six miraculous beams of light do not shine out? Anyone who has that insight will be a person who has nothing to do throughout his life. If you want to walk, you walk. If you want to sit, you sit – that is, you wade through the day in a bold and unconstrained manner. There is not a single moment of hoping for the fruit of Buddhahood. (ch. 11)
Who are you? Master Linji says you are the awakened one.

It’s just that sometimes we forget that.

This very day, what could possibly be lacking? “Anyone who has this insight will be a person who has nothing to do.” Linji is saying, it isn’t about your doing. It’s about your being. He’s not saying to cease all activity. But let your activity flow from who you are rather than from . . . from what? What’s the alternative about which Linji and countless other spiritual guides and wisdom writers have sought to caution us?

What can sometimes happen is that we’re caught up in our unhappiness with the way things are. We can be driven by a desire for ourselves and our world to be different. We’re driven by the energy of rejection.

Suppose instead, you are at peace with yourself, who you are, your world, and your action flows instead from a grounding in acceptance: accepting what is, even as you engage with it to change it.

* * *
This is part 2 of 5 of "Vocation: Who Are You?"
Next: Part 3: "Blessed Be. Who Are You?"
Beginning: Part 1: "Proverbial Vision"


Proverbial Vision

Vision is the September theme. There are many stories that would seem to illustrate the follies of limited vision.

In 1859, Edwin Drake tried to enlist well drillers for a project to drill for oil. They said, “Drill for oil? You mean drill into the ground and try and find oil? You’re crazy.”

In 1876, a Western Union internal memo declared: “This 'telephone' has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us."

In 1899, Charles H. Duell resigned from his post as Commissioner of the US Patent Office because, he said, "Everything that can be invented has been invented."

In the 1920s, certain investors declined urgings to invest in radio. They said, "The wireless music box has no imaginable commercial value. Who would pay for a message sent to nobody in particular?"

In the 1950s, supposedly, the head of IBM refused a proposal to explore making copy machines. "I don't know what use any one could find for a machine that would make copies of documents. It certainly couldn't be a feasible business by itself."

It’s fun to hold up these tales as great examples of failure of vision.

Well maybe.

The point to make about vision is not, as the above examples might seem to imply, Dare to think Big.

After all, f you had said that the Ford Edsel, the Sony Betamax, or Apple’s Newton would never take off, you’d have been right. The dot.com bubble that burst in 2000, the housing market collapse that began in 2007, the big bank failures, and various other economic consequences of over-reaching are all negative consequences of thinking too big.

Sometimes we think too big, and sometimes we don’t think big enough. That’s life.

So when we think about vision, there’s a different angle to take. It’s not about knowing what will pan out and what won’t. It's not about daring to be bold versus being wise enough to be cautious. It’s about knowing who you are.
“Where there is no vision, the people perish,” 
says the Book of Proverbs.

As I mentioned last week, the next clause gives it a spin I wasn’t expecting.
“But he that keepeth the law, happy is he.” (KJV)
We usually think of “vision” as meaning a big-picture goal for the future.” But here “vision” is the opposite of something called, “keeping the law” That’s the King James Version.

The New Revised Standard Version is:
“Where there is no prophecy the people cast off restraint. But happy are those that keep the law.”
The New Living Translation is:
"When people do not accept divine guidance, they run wild. But whoever obeys the law is joyful."
The New International Version is:
“Where there is no revelation, people cast off restraint. But blessed is the one who heeds wisdom’s instruction."
For “Proverbs,” what goes by the name of vision is also known as prophecy, divine guidance, revelation. It’s what makes us able to keep the law, which is to say, heed wisdom’s instruction.

To say it less metaphorically, I’d say “vision” is, indeed, about seeing. It’s about seeing who we truly are. When we don’t know who we are, we are undefined, and scattered. That’s how I read “casting off restraint,” “running wild.” It’s the dissolute, dissipated life of not being true to ourselves: jumping from persona to persona without the anchor of a core vision of who we are. That’s no kind of life. It is, indeed, to perish.

By contrast, to keep the law, as I read it, is to keep your own law: to be true to the vision of yourself. It is to heed wisdom’s instruction, recognizing that the best wisdom is in yourself.

It’s there, though we don’t always listen to it. Do we know who we are? Do we listen to our deepest selves?

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This is Part 1 of 5 of "Vocation: Who Are You?"
Next: Part 2: "Linji Speaks: Nothing To Do"