Better Angels, Worse Demons – My Guest Post at Al Stefanelli’s Blog

Posted by on October 3, 2012 in Featured, Thoughts | 1 comment

Image: Weeping Angel from BBC’s Doctor Who

Humanism, to me, means doing whatever is possible to better the lives of all of humanity, as a species and inhabitants of this planet, and as individuals in whatever situation life finds them. This includes creating and sustaining an environment for humans to thrive in, and the condemnation of anything that may be harmful to another individual. Of course, evaluating situations involving the lives, cultures and situations of others is never as cut-and-dry as this description of humanism may make it sound. There is invariably a degree of subjectivity involved in any right/wrong judgement, from the foods that we eat all the way up to the (almost universal) socially unacceptable acts such as assault, rape and murder.

Why do we judge certain actions as “good” over others we label as “evil”? How can we, with complete certainty, condemn actions such as the willful but random killing of a person during a home-invasion by a stranger as “evil”, and yet say something such as the public killing of Sadam Hussein is virtuous or “good”? The subjectivity of such situations come from cultural backgrounds, religion, and the society at large, and varies from person to person, village to village, country to country, and so on. This is precisely why topics such as morality and “good and evil” are so difficult to quantify effectively.

In the case of a random act of violence, many people would agree that this is an unjustified attack, that the victim deserved none of what happened to him, and in the case of Sadam Hussein, that he deserved his public execution due to the actions he had carried out during his life as a dictator. The context of the act of violence is all-important in cases where we have to decide what is right and what is wrong.

I recently took it upon myself to re-watch the entirety of the David Lynch 80’s TV series “Twin Peaks”, from start to finish and in order (spoiler ahead!). For those who are unfamiliar with “Twin Peaks”, it’s the story of the mysterious murder of a young girl named Laura Palmer in the small northern Washington town of Twin Peaks. It is a surreal journey, in true David Lynch style, where certain aspects of the story and the townspeople need to be taken at face value, because if you ask “why” too much you, run the risk of destroying the illusory suspension of disbelief. Without spoiling the plot completely (though this will come close), the murderer was revealed to be not the human hand, but a spirit or demon named “Bob”. This spirit, according to the storyline, has lived for millennia praying upon the weak and unfortunate for the fun of it, and all the while inhabiting a “human host”, in this case Laura Palmer’s father, Leland Palmer. In a later episode, after we’ve discovered Laura’s killer was actually her father, the protagonist Agent Cooper is offering words of condolence to Mrs Palmer, who now had the agonising task of burying her husband next to the relatively new grave of her daughter. In this process, Cooper explained to her that it was not in fact Leland that had killed Laura, but Bob, the supernatural and homicidal spirit inhabiting his body. This redirecting of the blame from Leland seemed to calm Mrs Palmer enough to be able to face the funeral with dignity.

This struck a chord with me. It reminded me of how throughout history humanity has blamed the wrongdoings of mankind on some kind of supernatural source. There are numerous examples from the innocuous (such as masturbation, being blamed on “evil spirits”) to the downright abhorrent (the atrocities of Stalin blamed on his “godlessness”), and how this seems to make it easier for people to accept the actions or shortcomings of others, or even of themselves.

Read the rest of this post at Al Stefanelli’s Blog “A Voice For Reason In An Unreasonable World” >>

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1 Comment

  1. Increasingly I’m seeing the language we’ve inherited to argue over morality and value judgments (the good vs evil paradigm, for example) is as antiquated and wrongheaded and misleading as the rest of monotheism’s teachings about history, the natural world, and our unique place in it.
    The way we’ve learned to rationalize about historical moral dilemmas (implying two alternatives, therefore “sides”) seems a decidedly black-and-white narrative for our adult minds to be internalizing as we face this overwhelmingly grayish 21st century.
    It seems we smart primates *do* have a unique approach to ethics –at least kind of, by trying to outdo our ancestors– despite this increasingly blurry line we’re discovering between humans and non-humans. Although all that uniqueness is turning out only to extend as far as the uniqueness of our brains.

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