The Dark Side

We Unitarian Universalists have no canon (nor, as far as I know, do we have any cannons -- at least not functional ones). That is, we do not particularly privilege the 66 books of the Protestant Bible among sources of spiritual insight and wisdom. We recognize no authoritative list of scripture. We can't even stick with one hymnal for 20 years without needing a supplement.

Our canonlessness, more than our creedlessness, distinguishes Unitarian Universalists from the other traditions that flow from the Protestant Reformation. A number of other denominations also declare themselves noncreedal -- e.g., Baptists, Disciples of Christ, and Churches of Christ. But UUs are distinct among the heirs of the Reformation -- and, indeed, among the heirs of Abraham -- in abjuring canon.

This is not because we think we are all so intrinsically good that we can get along without the authority of a canon. Rather, just the opposite. We UUs know that political and personal self-serving agendas and a propensity to be self-deceived are never very far from the human heart -- including the hearts of those who establish canons. Our refusal to limit ourselves to a canon is not because Unitarian Universalists have a high opinion of human nature. Rather, we don't have a high enough opinion of human nature to trust anyone to limit our scripture to one unchangeable canon.

We are well aware that it's "dark in there" inside the human heart. In particular, we know that the heart is dark when it is closed. Therefore, our calling is to open our hearts to all the light of the world -- including all the wisdom writing of the world.

We become capable of harming or neglecting others for our own material gain when we do not connect in empathy with them. Empathetic connection, the thing that steers us from evil, is rooted in social emotions. From those roots in our emotions sprout moral principles. As is almost always the case, rational thought comes along after the fact, and its job is to codify and systematize what our emotions have already told us.

For almost all of us, the moral principles never get very far from the social emotions in which they are grounded. They are grounded in emotions that express to others in largely involuntary, hard-to-fake ways our social commitment and cooperative intent. The blush of embarrassment signals recognition of a breech in our relationship trust or expectation, and signals our apologetic readiness to repair the relationship. Smiles come in a wide variety of forms, but humans are pretty good at recognizing a sincere smile, and that type of smile is an all-purpose signal of cooperative intent. Laughter, and teasing, and a small spontaneous touch, as well as the involuntary displays we make when we are experiencing love, compassion, and awe connect us with others in the profoundest ways which humans can be connected.

That connection is our greatest good, and the means by which we are good.

Evolution wired us with social emotions and involuntary displays of them because it needed us to not have to think about it. The great and careful observer Charles Darwin over 150 years ago, noticed that “social or maternal instincts” – the impulse to care –
“are performed too instantaneously for reflection, or for pleasure or pain to be felt at the time.”
From those roots in our gut impulses for connection, we can and do form moral principles: reminders to ourselves not to lie, cheat, or steal, and to recognize obligations to help.

We aren’t more evil than we are because we were so powerfully built to be social animals caring about each other.

We aren’t less evil than we are, though, because:

(1) Our in-group desires for connection, acceptance, and respect sometimes lead us to disregard or abuse people in out-groups. This is where cognitive principles can guide us toward greater good. In those realms beyond the reach of built-in emotional response, the intellect's moral precepts are truly helpful.

We also aren’t less evil than we are because:

(2) We aren’t always skillful at staying in touch with the built-in roots of caring. Sometimes we need a little training in paying attention to those feelings and how to better satisfy them. After all, most of the subjects in the study of spending $20 reported beforehand that they believed that spending the money on themselves would make them happier.

We can get out of touch with, or never learn to be in touch with, the social emotions of connection that actually improve our happiness and well-being. Sometimes institutions deliberately undertake to train it out of us. For example, the army had to learn how to train out of soldiers their predisposition to care enough about other people not to shoot them. In the years after World War II, army colonel Slam Marshal interviewed hundreds of allied soldiers who fought in Europe and the Pacific.
“His interviews yielded an astonishing finding: Only 15 percent of World War II riflemen had fired at the enemy during combat. Often soldiers refused to fire at the enemy with superior officers barking commands nearby and bullets zipping past their heads.” (Dacher Keltner)
The army saw this as a problem, and they redirected their training in ways that obscured the connection between shooting and killing humans. Soldiers spent more time practicing shooting at nonhuman targets – trees, hills, cars, huts.
“The effects were dramatic. According to army estimates, 90 percent of soldiers in the Vietnam War fired at their enemies.” (52)
Besides such intentional training, our experiences, in myriad, less systematic ways can train out of us our connection to our social emotions. The dark side of the human heart is this capacity to be out of touch with itself and therefore out of touch with others.

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This is part 2 of 4 of "Why Not Evil?"
Next: Part 3: "Professor Singer Makes a Point"
Previous: Part 1: "Two Questions"

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