Two Questions

Two questions:

1. Why aren’t we more evil than we are?


2.Why aren’t we less evil than we are?

Why do we harm and neglect others for our own gain – and, given that we do, why don’t we do it more? When I say “gain” in this context, I mean, material gain, the things money can buy, the stuff that economists measure, that economic activity is made of. I mean the sort of “interests” you have that your lawyer could help you protect. We pretty much know that this sort of "gain" really isn’t what's important. Connecting with others in relationships of care is our true good, the source both of being good and of being happy.

Yes, we do need a little bit of money, a basic minimum of material welfare. Conditions of absolute deprivation do affect quality of life.
“For those in the middle classes and above, however, the association between money and happiness is weak or nonexistent. Researchers have now asked millions of people the simple question: 'How satisfied are you with your life right now?' It is not personal wealth, the strength of the stock market, inflation, or fluctuations in interest rates that cause the ebb and flow in our personal well-being. This same literature reveals time and time again that what makes us happy is the quality of our romantic bonds, the health of our families, the time we spend with good friends, the connections we feel to communities.” (Dacher Keltner 13)
The Reverend Nadia Bolz-Weber
We pretty much know this. We might not, however, be aware of recent studies confirming how far this goes. Sonja Lyubomirsky’s research has found that engaging in five acts of kindness a week – donating blood, buying a friend a sundae, giving money to someone in need – elevates personal well-being in lasting ways. Other studies find that spending twenty dollars on someone else, or giving it to charity, leads to greater boosts in happiness than spending that money on oneself. We are built to be good – to seek empathetic connections with others through which we manifest kindness and come into joy.

We also have a dark side. I want to be clear about this. Sometimes people think that Unitarian Universalists believe that human nature is all sunny and golden. For instance, let me tell you a story about where I encountered that impression of Unitarian Unviersalists.

I went to the Festival of Homiletics. A year and a half ago, I was there. The Festival of Homiletics is an annual thing, and in 2012 May, it was in Atlanta. My parents live in the Atlanta area, so I drove up from Florida, got in a visit with the parents, and went to the Festival of Homiletics. (“Homiletics” is an SAT vocabulary level 98 word. I didn’t know what it meant either until I went to seminary. Homiletics is “the study and practice of preaching; the branch of theology that deals with sermons and homilies.”) The Festival draws over 1200 pastors a year, almost all of them from mainline Protestant denominations. The year I went, there were eight Unitarian Universalist ministers, including myself. For four-and-a-half days we heard preaching, and talks about preaching.

One of the talks I heard was from the Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber – a Lutheran minister in what is called the “emergent church” movement. She was young, and hip, and tattooed and pierced. She was not wearing a clerical collar, but a colorful, flowing, layered top and blue jeans. "This is cool," I thought. "I mean, this stretches my conception of a Lutheran minister."

She told us about her path to ministry. She said that as a young adult she’d been a hard-drinking ne'er-do-well. Then she cleaned up and went looking for a spiritual home. She tried out the Unitarian Universalist Church, where, she said, they don’t see how deeply flawed we are. "It's dark in there," she said tapping her chest over her heart. She shook her head and quipped:
"Unitarians are so cute. They have this high, high view of human goodness. It's like they never read the paper."
Now wait a minute.

In fact, Unitarian Universalists read the papers more than average. We know what’s going on out there, and we know people aren’t always filled with kindness and compassion. We have a pretty clear sense of human capacity for evil. Just ask a typical UU how much she trusts the board of Monsanto to do what's best for their workers, their consumers, or the planet. While some of us do sympathize with that particular corporation, it's very common among us to see evil, even in places where other people might not. Moreover, we typically are not shy in opining about wrong-doing.

We don't doubt the human capacity to harm others for our own "gain." But why do we do it as much as we do? And what keeps us from doing it even more?

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This is Part 1 of 4 of "Why Not Evil?"
Next: Part 2: "The Dark Side"

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