Wednesday, December 12, 2007
EVIL (Part 2)
In my post (and sermon) on evil, I said that evil is shallow. It’s banal. It is the failure to see the interconnectedness of all humanity. A lot of my reading material comes from Richard Beck’s "Experimental Theology” blog. He did a series called “Everyday Evil,” where he argues that all of us are capable of evil. Like with the Eichmann example, most of the evil in the world has been and still is committed by people just like us. Evil isn't a malevolent force with horns and a pitchfork, that randomly attacks people.
Excuse the psychobabble, but he talks about “fundamental attribution error” (FAE). This means that we tend to see the things going on inside of a person (personality, motives, desires) as more important in regulating behavior than the forces outside of the person (context, situation, social pressures). We downplay the power of context and situation, while seeing ourselves and other people in altruistic terms. We think that people have an inner core that dictates and determines their actions (their “true self”). So we classify people in terms of “kinds” of people - good people, bad people, strong people, weak people. But all these labels are examples of this error. There aren't different “kinds” of people. There are simply people in different situations. Configure the situation a certain way and we can make some people look weak and others strong. This doesn’t mean that situations alone determine our behavior. But we tend to dramatically underestimate the power of context and situation. How many times have you heard someone say, “I would never do that.” This is precisely what sets us up for evil. We tend to overestimate the strength of our character. We see ourselves as a “kind” of person – a good father, a good husband. To see ourselves in this way is a mistake – a potentially costly one. We can mismanage situations.
This principle applies to all moral issues - addiction, sexuality, spending, violence, time management and on and on. Situations have way more power than we think. Consequently, “good” people wander into situations that cause them to falter. Treat your virtue with suspicion. Your strength can easily become your weakness. Don't believe your character alone is sufficient to carry you through. Lots of “good” people who love their spouses have cheated on them. The history of evil is full of the ruined lives of those who said, “I don't know why or how I could have done . . . (fill in the blank). I’m not like that!”