Sunday, July 22, 2012

The Knowledge of Good and Evil

Speaking in reaction to the July 20 Colorado movie theatre shooting, President Obama tried to find words to express what such a tragedy means for all of us:

"Even as we learn how this happened and who's responsible, we may never understand what leads anybody to terrorize their fellow human beings like this," Obama said. "Such violence, such evil is senseless. It's beyond reason.”

In that last sentence, the reference is unclear.  Are the understanding of such actions beyond the capability of reason, or are the acts themselves beyond reason?  If the shooter had more carefully reasoned during the formulation of his plan, he would not have so acted "beyond reason." I think however that our capability to understand the event can be well within the bounds of reason. In many such events, the perpetrator is seeking justice for a series of real and imaginary injustices that have been endured.

The clear answer to this lies in the content of the shooters memory. However, does he still retain the intellectual capacity to relate the full content of his memory? And even if he does, can he be trusted to honestly convey the events that led to the reasons for his actions? In this respect, we are at the mercy of each other. We are all capable of lying to one another and because of the shooters actions, we should perhaps not trust him in this regard. And so for this reason, we might conclude that “We may never know...”

However, we do not need the detailed content of his memory; we can ascertain the general content instead. And for that we can examine the content of our own memories and we can speak in general terms as to the content of the memory of almost any man or woman.

We have all experienced injustices. The toddler experiences this when he sees a sibling favored. We experience this in grade school when a teacher's pet is favored. We have an innate sense of equality with one another and favoritism, without reason, is naturally seen as an injustice. For most of us, these little slights are ignored and we press on in life. After all, one might lose a contest of a flipping of a coin, but there are many coins ahead to flip in life.

For some though, it is a different story. The flipping of a coin is never fair. Have you ever witnessed someone being bullied? Have you ever known a classmate who was a universal source of scorn within the social order of the classroom? Have you witnessed or heard of these events where abuse was heaped for no other reason than the random circumstances of the object person's birth and upbringing. Examine your own conscience and place it in the consciousness of the scorned individual and honestly imagine the experiencing of such events. Perhaps your thoughts might go like this, when you wake up in the morning for another day of school and look into the mirror.

  • You can see that you are not as beautiful as those who are favored in your school. 
  • You can see that your family is poor and uneducated. 
  • You can see that your clothes are old and worn. 
  • You know that you will be bullied once again today, by virtually everyone in your school. 
  • You can see that you can end your own life and you have read that many people in your circumstances do indeed take such a final act. 
  • You can see that you can instead endure the pain for as long as you can and hope for something better. 
  • You can get used to the fact that every word you utter will be met with derision and laughter. 
  • You can get used to the fact that the system of justice in your society permits these torments. 
  • You have no friends, there is nobody to whom you can speak of these things. 
  • You have sense of justice derived from the same rational observation of the universe visible to one and all:  we are all born equal to one another, whether or not God exists. 
  • Although you see the equality of human birth, it is apparent that society and its systems of justice do not uphold this truth in the case of you.

Now, imagine many years passing by and the improvement hoped for did not occur.  Although  blatant physical bullying does not occur so often as an adult, you are still not included in the social invitations. You still have no friends. You are not one of those who are favored in the university classroom.  You cannot find employment in anything other than menial jobs. Add to this, for good measure, some very unpleasant memories from childhood; perhaps you were abused to the point where you felt that the sum of the value of your life was not more than that of a trash can or a toilet. Eventually, you find yourself wishing that you had never been born and suicide becomes more attractive, no longer at the dusk, but at the dawn of each new day.

For many like you, who have endured far less than you, suicide is the sad resolution. But, you, before you take that act, you think of justice, that there should be justice in the world.

If God exists, he is not just, you think, because he created a world where a child would have to endure a life like yours.

If God does not exist, the world is not just, you think, because it did not afford you a mechanism to request, with full dignity and right and respect, an injunction against those who were tormenting you.

For twenty four years the Colorado theater shooter lived as his brothers keeper. We do not know the extent of any abuse he might suffered as a child. We can know that those who endure such things wish there was a mechanism to clear their memories of such events. They have the bitter taste of the knowledge of the evil to which man is capable of descent. they would prefer death than to have to speak of the events.  We do not know the quantity of injustices he endured while growing up.

But we can know that his act, as are all such attacks,  a final attempt to bring justice to the world. Did he, as others who act like this, conceive of a world conspired against him, a world where he was doomed to failure and derision in the eyes of his society stemming from the circumstances of his birth and childhood, over which he had no control, and extending into his adult life where his fellow students now remark that nobody knew the young man, that he had no friends at all?

Society then, for these past twenty four years, left this young man behind. There was nobody to carefully bring him forward.  The child retreated into silence and darkness.  We have to find a way to bring them forward.

In either form of universe, created or evolved, good and evil have the same definitions. Although expressed in different words in each one of us as toddlers and as infants, before we can speak or understand the language spoken by our family, we all discover the same question that is at the heart of all moral choices:

Am I my brother's keeper?

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