Tuesday, September 8, 2009

To hell with good intentions...

"It's the thought that counts."

"He/she meant well."

"He/she only wanted what's best for you/us/him."

I can't quite recall how many times I've heard these words uttered after someone or other has caused someone else some terrible grievance of some sort. In the past before I turned nigh completely to ruthless empiricism, I'd nod sagely in agreement. Now these words spark a twinge of irritation, mostly because of certain questions that did spring forth from a more liberated mind than before. Questions like:

So what? Hitler had good intentions, that is, he really thought he was doing the "right thing"...


Oh, so that makes it better, then?


So you're saying her intentions make her a good person, a saint, in fact, despite her contributing directly to the unnecessary suffering of untold thousands of hardcore poor Indians?

If you haven't guessed, that last one has to do with "Blessed" Theresa of Calcutta. If you're not aware why Bill Gates does more good for the world than Mother Theresa, I strongly recommend reading that link before carrying on.

So why? Why do people take comfort in mouthing these utterly inane words? Are they in denial and trying to justify the great wrong that has been done? Are they trying to see good where there is none? Do they identify with the perpetrator and see an awful mistake which they could just as easily have made, and thus are trying to scooch a little further up to the moral high ground in their own little minds?

A great many people live in the naive delusion that people are, by nature, good. That they want to do good. That deep down inside is a good person, who is kind and gentle and wants everyone to be happy. That overrated wordsmith who was too dense to be atheist, C S Lewis, called it Universal Morality. The ancient Chinese immortalised it in the opening lines of the 三字经 thusly:

人之初 (rén zhī chū) People at birth,
性本善 (xìng běn shàn) Are naturally good.
性相近 (xìng xiāng jìn) Their natures are similar,
習相遠 (xí xiāng yuǎn) Their habits make them different.

Like any popular delusion, it is seductive. Of course we want to believe we're good people surrounded by other good people! The especially thick-skinned may just keep telling themselves that "maybe somewhere deep down he had a good soul" as the judge passes sentence on some acquaintance who made a hobby of fashioning household objects out of human body parts.

We are not very far off from animals. Animals in the wild live by rules imposed upon them by nature and the vagaries of Fate. We built upon the rules of Nature and call it culture, law, social mores and norms, whatever floats your boat. They are fictions that, for the most part, bind us together into cohesive communities and generally help us get things done without worrying too much about getting stabbed in the back*. But, as Heath Ledger's Joker pointed out, they are fictions and they are so very fragile.

My readings into human nature have told me many things I wish I never knew, not least of which is what can be achieved in Rwanda with a mixture of overpopulation, in-group mentality and a lot of machetes. 800,000 people in 100 days. To try to imagine the scale of what happened there, to put yourself in their shoes, it just ruins the mind. But it happened. As did any number of atrocities inflicted by humans on humans in history that were simply too ugly and too numerous to mention in history textbooks in school. Where was the good soul then? Who turned around and said "No, I will not kill these people, because it's wrong"? How many died needlessly as men in suits and plastic smiles prattled over the distinction between "ethnic cleansing" and "genocide"?

In the face of such horrors, those who would speak of an innate goodness in the hearts of men look ridiculous, like a traffic policeman trying to give out speeding tickets at the Indy 500. But this is not to say we are all monsters waiting to be given the oppurtunity to inflict great suffering. What we are is what circumstances make of us. Our every action is the product of the confluence of disposition and situation. In all of us resides the capacity to be monsters or heroes. Most of us will be bemused bystanders. Or victims.

It is unconstructive to comfort oneself with foolish and naive assumptions of human nature. And yet, it takes a measure of strength and courage to cast aside our hubris and gaze unflinchingly at the animal inside, acknowledge it and conquer it. It takes intellectual honesty to question oneself constantly, guarding against hypocrisy, to doubt one's own righteousness and to remain vigilant against the insidious spectre of dehumanization. This is may not necessarily be pleasant or easy, but it has become important.


I think I'll save that for a later post. A furry friend of mine is hinting that he needs feeding by attempting to devour my ankle...

* Unless, of course, you happen to work in a merchant bank.

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