A signal feature of civilization is the eternal—and eternally frustrating—quest to distinguish right from wrong. Standards of behavior have changed dramatically over time, and our search for moral clarity has led humanity in many different directions. Guidelines for a good life have come from many religions, cults, monarchs, autocrats, academics, poets, entertainers, politicians, authors, and relatively ordinary individuals—each offering their own visions for organizing our governmental, social, and individual lives. What all have in common is that they have tapped into our deeply felt human desire to embrace principles that elevate our intentions and actions above those whom we deem our enemies or inferiors.
Moreover, we have always needed those to whom we look for moral or ethical leadership to possess—or at least be able to plausibly fake—a purity of individual character that can inspire us to follow their example and teachings. The truth of the matter is almost beside the point. John F. Kennedy may have spent his adult life running around with his zipper hanging open, but he spoke well, dressed sharply, and could pilot a sailboat with his photogenic family smiling by his side.
It obviously helped JFK that the press was happily complicit in hiding his peccadilloes from public view, but their willingness to do so was a function of their starry-eyed admiration for his easy charm. He seemed to fit their vision of what a moral and inspiring leader should be, so they were content to engage in some willful blindness in the pursuit of what they perceived to be a greater good. Those on the inside will always shield a personally compromised leader if they believe his or her purpose is pure—and their own power and prerogatives are protected in the bargain.
Finally, it is beneficial to have the right enemies if you are to offer compelling moral leadership to the masses. Having a great and good vision is important, but it is much easier for your followers or potential followers to offer their support if you can offer an apocalyptic alternative that will occur if your teachings are not followed. Many centuries ago the Catholic Church was able to exercise domination over Europe because failure to obey meant Satan would arise and your immortal soul would be damned to hell fire for eternity. Today the conviction that the Earth will spiral into unthinkable environmental catastrophe in only 12 years if draconian measures are not immediately taken to remake our daily lives and entire economic structure is driving the fervor of some for eating insects, living in yurts, and using composting toilets—the enemy is our species and its crimes against our planet.
The obvious problem with seeking guidance and leadership in the quest for moral clarity is that heroes are not always clearly heroic and villains sometimes not overtly villainous. It would be helpful if the enemies of humanity were legally required to live in secret lairs inside active volcanoes (evil assistant optional) or daily dress in black leather embossed with swastikas, but we have learned the hard way that truly terrible people can be superficially quite charming and engaging. Conversely, some of the most heroic people in our history have been bland, awkward, or confrontational.
Worse yet, it is extraordinarily difficult (if not impossible) to know for certain whether a given individual or action will in the long term serve the interests of good, evil—or perhaps both. For example, the scientists who created the atom bomb toward the end of World War II helped to end the actual combat more quickly; however, it was also the case that hundreds of thousands of people died horribly as a result and a nightmarish era of nuclear anxiety and paranoia warped world politics for many decades to come. Were these scientists heroes, villains, or dupes? We are still arguing the point, and the final answer eludes us to this very day. Right and wrong are often maddeningly complex concepts with innumerable twists and turns.
Nonetheless, we are surprisingly comfortable with condemning the beliefs and actions of others with sometimes startling viciousness, and our inability to recognize the limitations inherent in our perspectives is an impediment to productive dialogue. In addition, our predilection for rhetorical overkill and fallacious linkages—I just today read of a Presidential candidate equating being pro-life with racism and anti-Semitism—renders all involved less heroic despite their intense beliefs in the merits of their causes or ideas.
Although we have spent the past several decades insisting that our feelings are more important than hard, verifiable facts, relegating our emotions to the margins of our conversations might be the only way out of the quandary we find ourselves in today. It would, of course, be foolish to forget that facts can be readily manipulated and twisted by those with a partisan purpose, but cool-headed inquiry based on data is less fraught with difficulties than determining who is the most angry, offended, or appalled by a given proposal or viewpoint.
Some are now convinced that logic is an oppressive tool of patriarchy and racism (Don’t believe me? Look it up!). However, it could be reasonably argued screeching at one another until our eardrums burst is an oppressively stupid method of resolving our disagreements that leads only to unending discord and misery.
Numbers are not hateful. Although some would certainly disagree, your bathroom scale is not discriminating against you when you check your weight in the morning. Standardized test scores might be influenced by a family’s social-economic status, but that is not a reason for discontinuing the use them as one basic measure of K-12 academic outcomes. Our spiraling national debt has many causes, but it cannot simply be dismissed as an irrelevant annoyance when contemplating governmental programs that will cost tens of trillions of dollars.
Determining who—and what—is right is never simple. It is possible to believe with all your heart and soul in an individual or idea and still end up being in the wrong. However, arguing by attacking and government by grievance are the dead end roads of representative democracy. Unless we change our style and methods of discussion and resolution very soon, it is all too easy to imagine an America that is irretrievably Balkanized by passion divorced from reason—a dystopia born of our self-righteous rage.