Kathleen Damewood Korb
Unitarian Universalist Congregation of GreaterNaples
The other day I received a communication announcing a new Christian congregation inNaples. I didn’t keep it, and I can’t tell you the name of it, but it was not what you would ordinarily expect from such a communication. Those mailings are usually from conservative Evangelicals. This one emphasized its acceptance of diversity, of women, of gays, even of interpretations of what Christianity was. But what really got my attention was its use of the phrase “Inherent worth and dignity”. That phrase has been in the bylaws of our association since before there was an association, and has always created a good deal of discussion and even disagreement, as well as sometimes justifying our acceptance of destructive behavior on the basis of the offender’s “inherent worth”. I suspect that it is used in many other places than in our Association bylaws or the public relations documents of this new church, and I suspect as well that it creates the same sort of controversy wherever it’s found. What is usually intended by it, I think, is both very simple and very true. People are to be considered as having the same value whatever their ethnic or national origin, religion, skin color, eye shape, sex or sexual identity. We cannot just dismiss people because they are different from us. That’s the “us” that are deciding what is same and what is different, of course, and that’s different depending on where you’re standing.
That interpretation should be, I think, true for all of us. What causes the occasional arguments is a further interpretation that people are good by their very nature. One of our few internationally known theologians who died not long ago at the age of 101 inAustin,TX, Charles Hartshorne, a famous process theologian, would get livid with fury at the notion. “Inherent worth and dignity, indeed!” he would mutter as he entered theAustinsanctuary where the words were displayed. I need to tell you that I did not witness this myself. I got the story from his minister who is a very truthful man. What made him so angry was what he perceived as a refusal to admit and deal with the problem of human evil.
There is a recurring romantic tendency in human thought, most clearly articulated by Jean Jacques Rousseau, and being heard again today, often among environmentalists, that if something is natural it is good. Rousseau wrote of the “noble savage”, arguing that people are born good and only warped from that natural goodness by the distortions of civilization. Today just to say something is natural is to assume automatically that it is at least safe, but more likely good. Vendors of various consumer goods, but particularly foods and medicines, emphasize their “natural” quality. When I get the chance I remind people that snake venom, poison ivy and the flu virus are also natural. Nevertheless, we really want to believe, and some manage to achieve it, that people are born naturally good.
Classical humanism, the humanism of the first Humanist Manifesto, made several problematic errors. It may be that its too optimistic notion of human nature was the worst one. It continues when people when asked will say that they think that everyone is born good. I am no more immune than others to the essential adorableness of babies, but they cannot be called good (or bad, for that matter) in any meaningful sense. A good baby is one with a placid temperament who learns early to sleep through the night, takes its food well and is not susceptible to colic. This is not a moral statement. Every human being is born with the potential both for good and evil and most of us remain mixtures of them all our lives. There are few true saints, but most of us do manage to follow the dictates of conscience much of the time. We want to believe in essential human goodness, but sometimes when we look at the selfishness and greed that abound, the cruelty and vindictiveness that we evidence, the violence and revenge to which we are prone, it is hard to continue to believe.
Bill Schulz, president of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, out of his experience when he was president of the American chapter of Amnesty International, pointed to torture as the thing that makes us question whether humans have any humanity at all. The pleasure of causing pain is an idea that fills us with revulsion, yet it may lurk within us all. Small children are often cruel to animals, and if the bullying which is rife at certain times in children’s development and continues sometimes into adulthood is not a kind of torture I don’t know what else it can be called. War elicits atrocities from people who at home are perfectly kind family members and citizens, and it cannot be denied that they take pleasure in the pain they cause.
Dick Cheney’s recentapologiacontinued the justification for torture that began to be mooted in dealing with terrorists. One of the most appalling things members of our government have done has been to condone and arrange for torture of terrorists. It was argued that torture can be justified in the attempt to get information. It can never be justified, but it has been shown again and again that torture is never a source of reliable information. The person being tortured will say anything — anything at all — to make the torture stop. Such extorted information is entirely unreliable. And think of the torturers! Surely it was imagined that good human beings could do this act for good consequences and not have it on their souls. In some ways I think that would be even worse — to without passion cause continuing agony to another human being. George Bernard Shaw once wrote, “Never strike a child except in anger, or he will never forgive you.” That sounds paradoxical, but I think it’s true, and it would apply, I believe, to the idea of cold-blooded, instrumental torture. It doesn’t make the hideous torture from anger or ignorance or innate cruelty any less horrible, but it is far more inhuman.
I have recently seen a defense of the four marines engaged in desecrating the dead bodies of their enemies that was shown on the internet. The defense was, “So what? They’ve done much worse to us. Where’s the outcry?” Perhaps. But that has always been an excuse for bad behavior that I find as bad as the behavior itself. We are not and cannot be held responsible for another’s evil, but we can and must be for our own, and though I am not personally involved in it, those who were were representing me. It is always deeply distressing to realize that we are no better than the next person, but at least we can hold ourselves accountable for it.
Evil done by human beings is human. It is a part of the kind of animal we are and lurks within each human soul. It is the natural — and as it becomes twisted and distorted as it often does, the unnatural — consequence of our instinctive need to survive. It is based on fear. In order to make ourselves feel secure we have to be in control, to have no one more powerful than we able to make life and death decisions for us. We need to have enough to eat and clothes and shelter to make our surroundings safe. It is the underlying fear of want or loss of control that makes us violent, greedy and even cruel. It is why violent crime is most often seen among the poor and the ignorant. That is where fear abounds. That neither justifies nor excuses it, but it will still be there without justification or excuse.
It is not the whole story. It can be plausibly argued that human goodness is also an evolutionary trait. Since we are safer, more likely to survive within groups, we have developed traits that enable us to live together in kindness. I believe that true altruism is a product of that sort of evolution. The act that puts our own lives in danger to rescue another is an instinctive reaction. It’s also sometimes foolish as when several people set out in a boat to rescue one and all are drowned — foolish, undoubtedly, but also heroic. I believe, though, that human goodness is more than the instinctive drive for species survival, that moral agency is more than the quest for survival of the species beyond the survival of the individual. We cannot call an animal good or evil in any kind of moral sense, as we cannot hold a baby morally responsible. If our own sense of justice, of pity and compassion, of generosity and kindness, are simply survival characteristics, we cannot truly speak of goodness or evil in men and women either. Without moral accountability goodness and evil are irrelevant. A good character may be appreciated as safer to be around than a bad one, but it is no more to be admired.
I think, though, that this reductionism is unjustified. Goodness is learned — can be learned — as evil is not. The technology of evil can be learned, of course, such as more sophisticated ways to kill or maim or rob or destroy, but the motivation to do evil is as natural as hunger, An infant is entirely self-absorbed. The first cry for fairness is only for fairness for oneself. Children’s cruelty is unconscious because there is simply no awareness that others may feel pain or sorrow. Generosity, pity and compassion are all learned emotions. The conscience develops through teaching. In some few people it does not. Sociopaths and psychopaths, people who revel in hatred and bigotry, tyranny and torture, stand outside of humanity. Although I believe in the possibility of redemption I have learned that there are some people who cannot be redeemed. There are those who must, at least through DNA testing, be defined as human who are not fully human, who have no conscience, no mercy, no love, who find joy in the sufferings of others, and who cannot and will not change. Can we speak of their inherent worth and dignity? I, at least, cannot, but neither can I speak of them as fully human. Those who are fully human, who cause pain to others for what they consider good reasons, not like the surgeon for the good of the sufferer but for themselves, and realize and perhaps even rejoice in that pain are doing evil. Do we, without their experiencing redemption, speak of their worth and dignity? To me, as to Hartshorne, it’s hard to do — perhaps even wrong.