Sunday, June 29, 2008

Casting Out Evil

Social work has hijacked my brain. It opened the car door, pushed me into the passenger seat, and tore off down the highway. It took me by force, taking me places I'd never been before.

One remarkable thing about social work is that it has taught me new ways to answer questions:

Q: Is it ever a good idea to drink a forty of beer before 9am?
A: Yes, if you're drinking the beer instead of a pint of whiskey before 9am.
Q: Is it ever okay to spend half your monthly income smoking crack?
A: Yes, if you used the other half to pay your rent for the first time rather than smoking all your money away like last month.
Q: Is it ever good to panhandle, illegally tamper with parking meters, and sell bootlegged porn on the streets?
A: Yes, if it means you aren't prostituting anymore.

The most important thing that I have learned from doing social work is that so much depends on context. If someone has smoked crack for the last 30 years and has spent that whole time alternating between jail and the streets, that impacts the very core of the individual. When people have little or no income, don't have a bed of their own, are addicted to drugs, and live in a community that values self-preservation over honesty and responsibility, it doesn't make sense to demand that they adhere to middle-class norms and expectations. Under circumstances like these, "good decisions" must be understood as decisions that are small movements in the right direction.

Now, that's just an extreme example, but the general principle applies to all of us. It doesn't matter whether we're from the streets of Skid Row or the mansions of Beverly Hills or anywhere in betweenfor any sort of useful value judgment to be made about us, our backgrounds and circumstances must be taken into consideration.

Before I go any further, I need to be clear. I am only talking about useful moral judgments. Since I can't make claims about moral absolutes with any certainty, I won't even try. Absolute Good may or may not exist, but there's nothing I can do about it either way. Absolute Evil may or may not be out there, but I can't do anything about that one either. So, I just want to focus on useful moral judgmentslike when parents, pastors or mentors provide moral guidance.

All too often, it seems that the "right thing to do" is horrendously unclear. It is exceedingly difficult to nail down a set of moral principles that always point us in the right direction. Growing up we are taught that lying is wrong, but many of us have been in situations where we can protect innocent people from harm if we tell a little fib. Should moral judgments about lying be based on the liar's intentions, or is it wrong in every situation?

And then there are issues like drinking alcohol. Some people consider drinking to be wrong all together, while others have no problem with it. Is drinking okay as long as you don't get too drunk? If so, how drunk is too drunk? Or is the problem really the bad decisions that intoxication facilitates? In that case, is it okay to get blitzed in your living room while watching TV but not okay to get tipsy in a bar where you might end up making out with a stranger? If there are so many different opinions and so many different circumstances to be taken into account, how can we ever decide what is right?

Although people cannot seem to agree on what is absolutely good and what is absolutely evil, it seems to me that we can probably come to a consensus on what is better and what is worse. We can probably agree that it is generally better to be truthful rather than deceitful, even if we can't agree on what is best in every circumstance. Likewise, we can probably agree that it is generally better to drink less rather than more, even if we can't agree on an exact rule about alcohol.

Not only are absolute good and absolute evil hard to nail down, they aren't particularly useful most of the time. Being compared to the standard of absolute good can intimidating. On the other hand, being compared to absolute evil can feel horribly condemning. I've met plenty of people who have made conscious decisions to resign to bad choices because they think: "Since I'm already a bad person, why should I even bother trying?" Although a few people may be motivated by being called evil, for most people it is simply a turn-offthey'll just go talk to someone else who doesn't seem to hate them.

Too often, good and evil aren't viewed as two extremesthey are viewed as the only options. People get the impression that if they aren't perfectly good, then that means they are completely evil. Since it is impossible to be perfectly good, then we'll always end up in the evil category. So where's the motivation to try to be better?

In reality, I believe that there is a continuum between the two extremes. No person is entirely good and no person is entirely evil, so when we're counseling someone about moral choices, the goal is to help them become better than they are right now. And we have to be realisticwe can't expect people who have spent their whole lives being deceitful to become entirely honest by tomorrow. Choosing the lesser of two evils is a step in the right direction, even if the decision is still an evil one.

When we discuss our decisions only in terms of good and evil, we leave out the possibilities in between. People aren't good at being good, and if we only have the two categories to choose from, we'll always turn out to be evil. And that isn't particularly encouraging. If our goal is truly to help people become better, then our vocabulary needs to allow us to be something other than just evil.

Since our goal is to become better, we need to have some concept of good as our point of reference. Good should be important because it is the direction we are heading, not because it is a tool we use to measure people with. It's usefulness lies in its ability to guide us in the direction we want to go.

On the other hand, the usefulness of evil is essentially that it is the opposite of good. No one is absolutely evil and it isn't a goal that we reach for, so it isn't very valuable to us most of the time. More than that, it is a concept that can be hurtful, discouraging, and repelling. If goal is to help people become better, slapping them in the face with their evilness isn't very helpful.

Morality should be about making better lives, and becomingbetter people—not about condemning people to the category of evil. Although we need both absolute good and absolute evil as end points for our continuum, our focus should be on continuing movement in the right direction. Regardless of how evil our starting point may be, our concern is with gradually becoming. In our personal discussions about morality, the word "evil," with all it's connotative baggage, is not useful.

If our goal is truly to help people move toward good, there is no place for condemnation. In our personal discussions about morality, we need to cast "evil" our of our vocabularies and focus on a more constructive dialog about making better decisions.

None of us will ever be perfectly good, but that does not mean we should point fingers at each others' evilness. If we are truly focusing on becoming better, we need to leave our condemnations behind and spend our energy taking small steps in the right direction.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

The Problem of Perception

Recently, I've been reading The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. The stated purpose of the book is to turn every reader into an atheist, so it is certainly making for an interesting read. While I'm not particularly convinced by any of his arguments so far (they keep devolving into rhetoric), they have brought up an interesting dilemma for me to chew on--the problem of perception.

In the book, Dawkins suggests that religion should be held to the same high standards as science. Religion, he believes, should be investigated as thoroughly and critically as any other discipline, rather than being given a get-out-of-jail-free card as is often the case. Dawkins harps on religion's inferiority to science, often sloughing it off as "superstition." While I have no intention of engaging Dawkins on this issue, I will use it as a jumping-off point. That distinction between science and superstition, which may be very clear to him, does not seem clear at all to me. I'm not sure that separating the two as qualitatively different is possible.

I think the main difference between science and superstition is the data that support them. Science is based on objective facts, precise experimentation, and logical reasoning. In science, everything is tested, retested, interpreted, retested again, reinterpreted, and then retested a few more times. Scientific facts are experimentally proven and create an ever-more exact picture of our universe. Superstition, however, is based on subjective experience and patchwork attempts to explain our lives. Superstitious truths are believed without evidence and in spite of any contradictions. There is a clear-cut difference between science and superstition, right?

I'm not so sure. Science is not always as "hard" as it's made out to be. Just because something is called "scientific" that doesn't mean that it is true. By it's very nature, science is based on observations and estimates. In order to test something, it must be observable (or else we wouldn't see anything to test) and it must be measurable (or else it wouldn't be much of a test at all).

Observation itself creates problems--observing a phenomenon means that we are interacting with it and potentially interfering with it. By watching something, we run the risk of somehow influencing its outcome. This "observer effect" can be minimized, but as long as we are observing something we are basically getting in the way. Measurement is also a problem because it is impossible to be exact. For example, if I hold my hand at arms-length and measure my thumbnail with a ruler, I see that my thumbnail is 1/2 inch wide. If I take a closer look, it turns out that it is actually 5/8 inch wide. But if I were able to examine it under microscope with a more precise ruler, it may actually turn out to be 37/64 inch wide. The farther you zoom in, the more precisely you can measure (assuming you have a tool that is exact enough). But there are limits to how close we can get. At some point, every measurement becomes an approximation.

What all of that means is that we are limited by the fact that we cannot know anything perfectly, absolutely, and without interference. To some extent we are always guessing. We are perpetually bound by our perception. Granted, the degree of our uncertainty varies depending on the subject. We can be more precisely certain about the interactions of atoms in a combustion reaction than we can be about the nature of God--but we still cannot know everything about either one.

I guess what this all boils down to is subjectivity. Because we observe and interpret the world around us, everything is warped by the lens of our perception. Once something passes through that lens and into our minds, there is no way for us to verify with certainty what it is like on the outside. In our human experience, everything is tainted by our finitude. There really is no way to tell the difference between "empirical" science and "fairytale" superstition.

So even if there is a qualitative difference between science and superstition, as far as we are concerned, they are one in the same.