Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Good and Evil

Some years ago I was on an airplane and sat next to a person who was a life coach of some kind. I think we could all use a bit of help in leading better lives, so I was keen to find out what kind of approaches she used. I don’t remember exactly what I was struggling with myself at that time, but I asked this life coach how she helped people think through ethical dilemmas, situations where it was difficult to see which action was best.

This life coach said that she really didn’t think there was any such thing as an ethical dilemma. A good person would just know in their heart what the right thing to do would be. If a person doesn’t know right from wrong, then coaching isn’t going to help them anyway.

I was completely shocked by this answer. The idea that some people just inherently know the right thing to do where other people don’t… the idea that in the real world there is generally a choice between a right thing versus a wrong thing, rather than a choice where every option available has negative aspects… these ideas strike me as so utterly simplistic! And this woman was a life coach! These were the ideas she was encouraging in her clients. I have to admit, I let her know that I thought her approach to ethics was na├»ve to the point of being delusory and destructive. We did not disembark that flight with warm friendly feelings!

This idea, that people can be divided neatly into good people and not-good people, clearly has well established roots in American culture. It has roots in Calvin’s theology and the Puritans, the folks who came over on the Mayflower. This idea seems to be alive and well today. I hear strong echoes of it when I hear gun advocates contrasting law-abiding citizens versus criminals.

Recognizing the Puritan roots of today’s political conflicts certainly doesn’t solve any problems. John Calvin was no fool. I suspect one difficulty is that his theology was too subtle for most of his followers, so what we’re stuck with is a crude distortion. Perhaps some kind of return to Calvin, learning to dig deeper into his ideas, could be a way to help folks out of their simplistic Manichean trap. Anyway, I hope that a more accurate diagnosis of the problem can help lead us into a healthier way of living.