July 21, 2012

We are all good, we are all evil

The mass shooting Saturday morning in Aurora, CO has led to much commentary about the events, the perpetrator, and general commentary on the state of our nation.  Many of these writings are about the perpetrator, how someone with potential mental issues was able to purchase so many guns, and derision towards the deranged person(s) responsible.

I disagree with the idea that the perpetrator is an evil person, or different in most ways from the majority of our populace. Trying to separate people into groups of 'the good' and 'the bad' is a flawed premise and one that discards the truth of the complexity of all humans. Such groupings are simply convenient and make it easy to see tragedies like this as a rouge bad egg acting out. It is comforting to view such actions as aberrations that we can avoid by avoiding such persons or separating them from the rest of us in a jail or mental institution. This viewpoint ignores the ability that we all possess to do great good or great evil, and how close to the surface the desires to act in either way lie to the surface.

It is important to remember this dichotomy and a reminder of the need to consider ethics in our daily lives. Too often these topics are confined to the realm of spirituality and religion which is especially unfortunate given the decline of organized religion in Western societies over recent decades. I don't see the decline of adherence to traditional, organized religion as a problem in itself, but it is a problem if the moral principles and ethics lessons that are a part of many religions are not supplemented or replaced with teachings in ethics and morality on a rational basis that are missing nearly universally from our educational and cultural structures.

Indeed, even for those adhering to a religious tradition, ethics are often less a rational approach to thinking and living morally and more an idiosyncratic set of rules regarding particular areas of life.  To paraphrase Peter Singer:

Too often the word ethics conjures up an image of an older man in a cassock holding forth on the right or wrong of particular sexual preferences and acts.

Reading this description of much of Western traditional religious values (I'm Catholic and was raised Catholic) was so spot-on when I read it I was surprised I had never thought of it this way before.  Not to say that Catholicism, and other religions, don't have merits and redeeming qualities, but when I think of what areas of 'ethics' I most strongly identify Catholicism with the area of sex and sexual acts are easily at the top of the list.

My father-in-law has a saying; "People have the attention span of a gnat".  I have to agree with him, but don't see it as a necessarily bad thing.  As a consequence of our short memories and attention spans, we rely on societal norms and conventional wisdom to guide many of our actions and premises.  It is the rare soul among us that is able to change the broader conversations or the actions of many people with a speech or command. However, as a population our norms and mores are in constant flux - most of the changes taking place as do changes to our own bodies.  We don't notice them from day to day, but a snapshot taken a few years apart can show shocking changes that we scarcely noticed as they happened.

I typically write about the environment and direct my efforts to helping make the world a healthier place.  I don't see large changes in the world or even my small part of it as a result of my writing and truly believe that the majority of my efforts are for naught.  I write, and act, to change the world as part of a group working to push the societal needle towards a more sustainable future.

Like many Americans, I'm tired of bickering, pettiness, and triviality - whether in politics, our consumer culture, or TV programming.  We need to move the needle in our society towards a more rational, ethical culture.  Changes to gun laws, building more prisons, and having more security may avoid another movie theater or college campus mass shooting but humans are incredibly creative, clever creatures and we will always find new ways to destroy each other.  The only effective way to address actions like those that took place in Aurora is to help build a better, kinder, more rational place to live.  It won't be 100 per cent effective - nothing is ever guaranteed.  But we can all do our part to create a more ethical, happier, better place to live.

We don't need more apologies and sympathy for victims, we need more efforts to create a more intelligent, rational, ethical world.


  1. Replies
    1. Thank you Bria! I'm still working on my writing skills but hopefully my thoughts came through despite my challenges with words.

  2. A great perspective