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.

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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"

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