Moral Men And Immoral Societies

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2018-05-17 12:00:00 No comments

The other week I was reading A Stranger In My Own Country, the diary German author Hans Fallada kept while in prison during the last years of WWII. The mere act of keeping the diary put Fallada in great personal danger; reading it made one feel like you might well have been ambushed along with him if the turnkey walked into the cell at the wrong moment.

One thing Fallada makes clear in his own anecdotal way was how Naziism did not just impose evil on people, but that it took what evil was already there, waiting and unquestioned within them, and gave it an entirely new way to flourish in the world. The petty little tyrants who ran the backwater village where Fallada and his wife lived for a time were made into even greater tyrants when they were given brown shirts to wear -- and they pulled on those shirts and buttoned them with gusto, since such costumes gave those martinets a socially sanctioned excuse to do all the cruel things they were already inclined to do.

When I was in my late twenties, I experienced a great and grim depression that stemmed from the realization that there was no system of thought, no belief, no path of practice, no institution of order that could not in some way be pressed into such perverse service. The world seemed less like a laboratory of endless possibility and more like a factory where evil was turned out in every conceivable shape, size, and pattern. Everything, literally everything, was raw material for such an infernal workshop. There didn't seem to be any point in seeking a plan for bettering the world, because any such plan would inevitably fall into the hands of monsters in human skin.

The gloom I felt was compounded all the more by another insight: The very ordinariness of human life seemed a kind of original sin, the sin of not being extraordinary enough to recognize and resist evil. What hope did any of us have, when the overwhelming majority of us were nothing but meat for that particular meatgrinder? Why improve the world? You'd only make it worse. (That thought was, as some of you might recognize, a perversion of one of the insights in the Tao.)

It took me a while to climb out of that hole, or at the very least recognize such thinking was a hole and that other things did in fact exist outside of it.

The first thing I had to admit was that the ordinariness of people was neither sin or blessing, but simply a starting condition. If people by and large are not exceptionally virtuous, they are also by and large not exceptionally malicious either. Most of them fall somewhere in the middle, and they only bother with things larger than they are when something about themselves is directly involved.

There was recently a discussion (I can't find the link right now, sorry) about how most people do not have coherent political philosophies. They tend to believe bits of this and that rolled together, with the consistent thread between them being their particular point in time and space -- that is, their self-interests. Hence the way someone can appear, to someone with a more consciously coherent philosophy of the world, to embrace two contradictory views. To that person, they're not contradictory; the unifying factor, the thing that brings them both into harmony, is the person himself.

This is all a little orthogonal to the point I'm making, but the basic idea is that there isn't a larger program here, for good or ill, on the person's part. People can be pulled in either direction, and -- here's the key thing -- there is nothing inherently evil about making an intelligent appeal to their best interest as long as you don't use it as an excuse to substitute your own best interests with theirs.

The other thing I had to come to grips with was the corollary that arose from the previous condition, that the predominance of neutrality didn't imply the inevitably of being tempted into evil. It can feel like that, especially when you have so many preeminent examples from history -- see above -- to shape your perception.

Third was something else that took the longest of all to sink in, which was a re-evaluation of the idea of hope. In this case it was hope that people will tend to do more of the right thing than the wrong thing -- not because it's the right thing in the abstract, but because it's the right thing for them in the immediate moment (and how that can be a gateway towards showing them how the right thing in the abstract is also a good idea). My original thought about hope was more or less the man-on-the-street concept of it, that it was a crossing of the fingers and praying things will work out.

Then I encountered Václav Havel's notion of hope -- that it is not about everything "working out" in the long run, but about having faith in man's ability to make sense of things in the long run. Such a version of hope forces us to shift the focus away from ourselves a little, and towards the human continuum that we're part of whether or not we asked for it.

People want to hear that everything's gonna be OK. If not for them, then maybe for those around them; if not for those around them, then maybe for everyone, period. It is not bad, not wrong, not evil, not immoral, to want those things -- no, not even in the face of bad, wrong, evil, immoral things that seem so all-devouring that hope seems like heresy.

Tags: Hans Fallada morality philosophy sociology