Brilliant and Bad

In two different books I’m currently reading, I came across the perplexing challenge of the intellectual brilliance of Nazi era Germany combined with its unspeakable moral badness. How does it happen that a nation has both some of the most renown universities, and concentration camps? How can an Eichmann be both so cultured and so complicit in the death of thousands upon thousands of Jews? How can a country known for the excellence of its science turn to diabolical research on human subjects and scientific efficiency in exterminating a people?

I work in the world of higher education where the spoken or unspoken assumption is that education will make us better, more morally discriminating people. There is an assumption that knowledge invariably leads to progress, meaning improvements that enhance our lives and our societies.  I have friends who are working on cures for cancer, designing more reliable jet engines, safer automobiles, and pursuing more just social relationships. There is an element of truth in these assumptions that is undeniable.

Yet I think a danger in all of this is the denial of something yet more basic: that each and every one of us are capable of unspeakable evil.  We want to believe we are basically good. The danger is when individuals and groups become so convinced of the moral rectitude of their causes that they become blind to the evil of their actions. This can happen in all kinds of settings ranging from families to churches, to universities and even governments. More dangerous yet is when a broad swath of “enlightened” society is so convinced of its cause that it turns a blind eye to evil, perhaps accompanied by clever euphemisms where terms like “removal” are substituted for “extermination” or “purification” for “genocide”.

On the one hand, universities can be highly ethical places because of their research ideals. Institutional Review Boards carefully screen research for the consequences to humans or other live subjects, peer review scrutinizes the quality and repeatability of research, and various university regulations prevent invidious forms of discrimination and harassment. Yet I also am concerned that the very moral rectitude in these processes can blind universities to the potential of participating in unspeakable evil in other ways:

  • in the ethical scrutiny of research a blind eye may be cast toward the known potential uses of such research.
  • in the assumption that there is a technological fix for every technological problem, we turn a blind eye to the fact that this could likely create new problems requiring further fixes.
  • rhetoric may be used to divert attention from the true nature of a discussion. For example an expression of moral conviction may be labeled “bigotry” or “narrow-minded” or “puritanical” if it does not conform to prevailing norms. Categorical ad hominem attacks are made on the character of individuals apart from any considered discussion of their moral contention.
  • equally, the incitement of outrage is used to suppress unpopular views apart from any consideration of the cogency of those views. Examples of this include various commencement and other speakers who are “disinvited” because some view they’ve expressed or position they’ve taken was displeasing to some group within the university.

Most thoughtful people looking at the Holocaust respond by saying, “never again”. Yet I believe that the kind of moral rectitude that is blind to the potential toward evil  in some of these examples suggests that evils like the Holocaust could happen here. Whenever rhetoric and outrage clothed in ethical justification is used as a form of powerful suppression of an “other” with whom we disagree, we practice the same kinds of tactics of power used in Nazi Germany. When we assume that we will always use our science benignly we risk becoming sorcerers apprentices who may come to regret what we have unleashed upon the world.

I can hear some of my church friends saying “yeah baby” at this point. I would say to them (and myself) that we are equally in danger of cloaking in moral rectitude political power and political alliances that abuse others. What is striking to me about Nazi Germany is that most of the churches, along with most in universities went along with Hitler. What I wonder is whether the complicity with Hitler arose from the fact that on a smaller scale, both had basically been playing similar power games that Hitler perfected into a brutal art.

What can save us from being brilliant and bad? I wonder if a beginning is acknowledging that this is in fact the human condition. I’m given to understand that the checks and balances in our system of government arose from this assumption, to protect from any one entity so accumulating power to suppress the other, recognizing the basic human propensity to do so. What checks and balances do we need in our life, whether in the church or the university? One might be that of always being answerable to others. Another might be to refuse turning someone who opposes your ideas into a morally inferior demon to be disposed of in one way or another. Yet a third might be to question whether more technology and an increasingly technologized world can always answer the problems of our finiteness and capacity to do ill. Perhaps above all, we need the grace of God, if we believe a gracious God exists.

Do you think that the danger of being brilliant and bad is a real one for individuals and institutions? What do you think can save us from this danger?

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