Friday, April 27, 2007

The Lucifer Effect?

In the wake of the Virginia Tech shooting, much has been said about the mental illness of the shooter — about his medical condition. Curiously, very few have commented about his moral condition. Or, more germane perhaps, his spiritual condition. It is as though intelligent public discourse no longer dares speak of such things — after all, quaint notions about good and evil belong in the realm of the supernatural — which is another, more polite way of saying: the world of (ahem) religious superstition. The God delusion, to borrow Richard Dawkins' phrasing.

Alas, distraction from essentials is found everywhere. For example:

Dr. Philip Zimbardo, who in 1971 conducted the Stanford Prison Experiment, asserts in a blog interview about his new book that
People are not born evil, but rather with survival talents, and remarkable mental templates to be anything imaginable — just as infants readily learn to speak and understand any of a thousand languages in an instant in their development. We get a push from nature in various directions, such as being more inhibited or bold, but who we become is ultimately a complex process of cultural, historical, religious, economic and political experiences in familial and other institutional settings.

Most of us fail to appreciate the extent to which our behavior is under situational control, because we prefer to believe that is all is internally generated. We wander around cloaked in an illusion of vulnerability, mis-armed with an arrogance of free will and rationality.

Human free will and rationality are never perfected in this life — but they are no less real for being imperfect, and their reality makes us accountable for our actions.

Now, if I understand Zimbardo correctly, he leaves little or no room for something that once was familiar to everyone. Thus, his prescribed solution to our ills omits a crucial element:
... the very same situation that can inflame the “hostile imagination” in those who become perpetrators of evil can inspire the “heroic imagination” for the first time in any of us.

My concern is how to promote in our children this heroic imagination, to make them accept the mantle of being a hero-in-waiting for a situation that will come along sometime in their lives when others are following the paths toward evil or toward indifference, and instead, they elect to act on behalf of another person or group or ideal without thought of personal gain or even recognition.

I have to believe that by creating a generation of such ordinary heroes is our best defense against evil, whether on the battlefield, in prisons, or corporate headquarters.

The key factor he forgot to mention was — conscience. In a world besotted with what Pope Benedict XVI calls the tyranny of relativism, the proper formation of conscience is all too often neglected.

It has been said that the best gift we can give our children is roots — and wings. I pray that as parents we shall do this. And we do best when our stewardship of their formation is grounded in the holiness we are called to in everyday life. I may have more to say on this later, but for now I assert that those of us who are in a position to influence children should make a regular practice of examining our own consciences carefully, lest we fail to instill this habit in them.

The 'Lucifer effect' is never far away. The best 'vaccine' is a properly formed conscience.
Post a Comment