When Fighting Evil Creates More Evil

Hydra Snakes

I find it fascinating that, sometimes, the very people who oppose a particular form of darkness do so with the same exact evil they profess to oppose. When terrorists murder innocent people in America, the government rightfully denounces the actions but then responds with invasion and exponentially more murder of innocents. Many self-identified “conservatives” rejoice, turn a blind eye to their government’s injustices and don’t see their double standard. Perhaps they view people from other cultures as less human. Or perhaps their unfettered commitment to authority, flag and uniform blinds them from being able to have eyes to see that the intentional killing of innocents is murder – whether the killing is done instantly by bombs or slowly by sanctions. This is true no matter who “started it”. Tragically, each evil perpetuates exponentially more evils on each side of the conflict.

There are also many so-called “liberals” who rightfully perceive the historical injustices perpetrated towards particular people (e.g. women, African Americans) as evil but then have the exact same level of intolerance for people from other groups (European descendents, males, southerners, Christians). I recently heard an interview where a corporate executive rightfully pointed out that she didn’t believe it right to judge or exclude others from societal functions because of their genitals or skin pigment but then went on to berate “white men” and encouraged women to keep lists of their male coworkers who have crossed them in any way so that they could fire them when they became the boss. Sound like a double standard? When you flip the roles, it’s obviously wrong but, according to “liberal” mental gymnastics, it’s not racism or sexism if the groups that they are criticizing are part of the powerful elite.

Let’s pick this distortion apart. First of all, it’s not true that southerners and Christians are the powerful elite and yet it’s perfectly acceptable, according to today’s “liberals” to be prejudiced towards them. A coworker of mine constantly denounces racism (even going so far as to perceive racism where it doesn’t exist) but then he constantly makes fun of “rednecks” and Christians. I overheard him and some other coworkers sympathize with the Europeans who drove the Christians out of their land hundreds of years ago. Notice they were siding with the persecutors, not the targets of bigotry. I thought liberals were supposed to be tolerant. I thought liberals were supposed to be a voice for the weak and oppressed.

Secondly, the victim/oppressor worldview teaches that victim groups are the good guys and that those in authority are the bad guys. If this perspective is consistently applied, as Orwell points out in Animal Farm, then once the oppressed get into power then they will become the very evil they were fighting against. So perhaps the problem with power isn’t rooted in superficialities like genitals and skin pigment; perhaps the problem with power has to do with its breadth and application. This is a principle that many classical liberals were better at discerning. I struggle to find this consistent perspective with today’s “liberals”. 

Also, group identity politics is a horrendous way to view the world. It perpetuates hatred, division, bigotry, bitterness, violence, revenge, close-mindedness and hypocrisy. During Utah’s last election cycle I was lectured by several “liberals” about how disproportionately white and male the positions of power are, particularly in congress. I responded, perhaps wrongfully by joining their group identity games, by pointing out that it’s possible that these positions were mostly filled by men due largely to the fact that power attracts megalomaniacs and megalomaniacs tend to be mostly men. I may have received some brownie points for dissing on men but they continued to insist that the reason for disproportionate representation was due to systemic sexism and racism. Distinctions of correlation and causality are lost on people infected with confirmation bias.

Just after these conversations, their “principles” (if you can call them that) were put to the test.  An African American congresswoman in their district was challenged by a white, Christian male and guess who these “liberals” voted for? If they consistently applied the “principles” that they espoused then you would reasonably guess that they voted for the African American woman but you would be wrong. They voted for the “white, Christian male”. Why? That “white, Christian male” was also a “liberal”. The African American woman was not. In other words, many of today’s “liberals” don’t care about the things they outwardly profess as much as they do about their underlying ideology and crusade for power. As Malcom X pointed out decades ago, and as I’ve consistently observed from experience, minorities are just meat-shields for “liberal’s” quests for power: 

“The white liberal aren’t white people who are for independence, who are moral and ethical in their thinking. They are just a faction of white people that are jockeying for power…The liberal elements of whites are those who have perfected the art of selling themselves to the Negro as a friend of the Negro. Getting sympathy of the Negro, getting the allegiance of the Negro, and getting the mind of the Negro. Then the Negro sides with the white liberal, and the white liberal use the Negro against the white conservative. So that anything that the Negro does is never for his own good, never for his own advancement, never for his own progress, he’s only a pawn in the hands of the white liberal. The worst enemy that the Negro have is this white man that runs around here drooling at the mouth professing to love Negros, and calling himself a liberal, and it is following these white liberals that has perpetuated problems that Negros have.” 

An open-minded, self-identified “liberal” friend once asked me about my views on race since I am not white but also not “liberal” (by today’s standards). I’ll paraphrase here what I told him.

I believe it is a fallacy to paint everyone within a group with a broad-brush based on some limited experiences we’ve had or heard of from others. It’s a sin of ignorance. It hurts the accused. Willful ignorance is an even greater sin. Prejudice coupled with hate is the worst form of bigotry. Prejudism is perpetuated when we pit group against group. I believe in being tolerant of all individuals and loving them no matter what. We can’t overcome these painful hurdles of prejudice with more prejudice. We can’t create justice with more injustice. We can’t spread light with darkness. 

Seeing others as individuals rather than groups will help unite rather than divide, a principle that Daryl Davis enacted and that Social Psychologist Jonathan Haidt discovered while researching the effectiveness (or rather ineffectiveness) of diversity training, sensitivity training and other forced inclusivity models. When all we can see is our differences, we grow further apart. 

I agree with Dr Martin Luther King Jr when he famously said: “I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” Today, many are only applying this important principle in particular instances that serve their political ends but completely ignore and act the opposite way when it doesn’t serve their political purposes. 

Some pick at scabs, unaware or not caring that these wounds will never heal with that approach. Many converts to ignorance, prejudice and hate can be gained by merely magnifying people’s focus on a few atrocities (real or not) perpetrated by an extreme minority. Scapegoats are a convenient shortcut to getting our way. Some socialist Germans took this dishonest approach towards some “undesirables” in the 1930s-1940s and were very effective at propagating the basest of human instincts of almost their entire country in the process. Today’s socialists are playing the same dishonest, group-identity games. Through much of today’s movies, media, government and academia, they magnify the horrific words and actions of a few to make it seem commonplace and then slap toxic labels on anyone who they view as their enemies as “racist”, “sexist”, “misogynist”, “homophobe”, etc. They purge their enemies of their voices and livelihoods by merely accusing them of these toxic things. They distort the contexts of the accused’ comments or they dig up something wrong about that person’s past and shine a focal beam on it for the world to see. Or they make things up. Lying is ok; the ends justify the means. “Let us do evil that good may come.” The point is that the “ruling class is evil” so using any means necessary is justified to eliminate them and anyone who looks like them. Many buy into this seemingly righteous crusade. But, as Nietzsche put it,

“Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.”

Victim vs Victor Mentality

muhammad ali knocked down

In an attempt to help individuals solve their own problems and be happier, good friends, parents and psychologists will try to help those who blame their problems and suffering on external factors (aka external locus of control) strive to take responsibility and control of what they can within their own lives (aka internal locus of control). Victim mentality, a form of external locus of control, has permeated much of our culture. It’s fruits are sour. They include dependency, helplessness, unfulfilled potential, regret, anger and unhappiness. This innately human problem is progressively becoming worse through its broader acceptance in the forms of party blaming, parent scapegoating, identity politics and an obsession with an equal-outcome form of equality.

Even though victim mentality can be identified all throughout the history of mankind, the appeal of not taking responsibility of one’s own life and placing blame on others is at the philosophical core of marxism and its various flavors (including national socialism). As the psychologist Jordan Peterson concisely put it – “Leftist politics always depends on identifying a victim and an evil oppressor who is responsible for that victim’s suffering.” It’s no wonder that nations who embrace this attitude deteriorate into helpless, angry, intolerant, bitter doles who see violence as justified means for their envious ends. If the only lense by which you see the world is through the lense of a constant victim/oppressor struggle then you’ll amplify the miniscule, make up the non-existent or you’ll miss out on some important perspectives and opportunities. Regardless, victim mentality has no place amongst anyone wishing to live after the manner of happiness.

As extremely imperfect people living in a fallen world, we are desperately in need of help. God’s grace, available through His atonement, provides the greatest hope for redemption from life’s suffering, if we do our part. We must be doers of the word and not hearers only. Victim mentality is a barrier to God’s grace.

The Book of Mormon contains a history of the Nephites and Lamanites, the descendents of an Israelite family who left Jerusalem to settle the American continent around 600 BC. The Nephites, decedents of Nephi, are constantly driven and harassed by his brothers’ posterity – the Lamanites (descendants of Laman & Lemuel). These Lamanites perpetuated the damning traditions of their fathers by:

“Believing that they were driven out of the land of Jerusalem because of the iniquities of their fathers, and that they were wronged in the wilderness by their brethren, and they were also wronged while crossing the sea; And again, that they were wronged while in the land of their first inheritance, after they had crossed the sea…And again, they were wroth with [Nephi] when they had arrived in the promised land, because they said that he had taken the ruling of the people out of their hands; and they sought to kill him. And again, they were wroth with him because he departed into the wilderness as the Lord had commanded him, and took the records which were engraven on the plates of brass, for they said that he robbed them.” (Mosiah 10:12-16)

Contrast this Lamanite victim mentality to Nephi. He never aggressed against his brothers, never acted violently against them, quickly forgave them when they repeatedly made fun of him, complained against him, tied him up and beat him almost to death. When God had a task for them, Nephi’s response was affirmative. Even after multiple failed attempts to accomplish tasks, he still had faith and pushed forward. Even though Laman and Lemuel experienced miracles, they would find ways to perceive their condition through the lens of victimhood. As was often the case with the Lamanites, victim mentality leads people to be idle and justify their idleness due to the perceived injustice of others.

Scapegoating and mercy are incompatible. Those who hold the olive branch aren’t quick to blame their plight on others. Those who prefer the sword (justice) over the olive branch are prone to see their condition as a result of some injustice. Not coincidentally, it was the Nephites mental shift from the olive branch to the sword that resulted in their destruction. Victim mentality in individuals does the same thing.

Another great depiction of victim mentality can be found in the 2006 movie, Rocky Balboa. After Rocky’s son finished complaining to him about how hard his life was and blaming others for his problems, Rocky responded with a sharp, yet empowering mental course correction:

“Let me tell you something you already know. The world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows. It’s a very mean and nasty place and I don’t care how tough you are it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it. You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain’t about how hard ya hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done! Now if you know what you’re worth then go out and get what you’re worth. But ya gotta be willing to take the hits, and not pointing fingers saying you ain’t where you wanna be because of him, or her, or anybody! Cowards do that and that ain’t you! You’re better than that!”

Holocaust survivor, author and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl experienced and witnessed some of the most tragic suffering that mankind has ever seen. After years of persecution, imprisonment, forced labor, starvation, infectious disease, forced family separation and murder – millions of people were vanquished – his parents, his brother and his wife being among them. Frankl was one of the few prisoners to survive the horrors of Auschwitz. In his classic book, Man’s Search For Meaning, he contrasted the opposing perspectives of the prisoners who kept purpose in their lives and those who were hopeless victims of their conditions. The factor that made the difference, as Rocky articulated, is determined by choice: “Forces beyond your control can take away everything you possess except one thing, your freedom to choose how you will respond to the situation.” In Steven Covey’s 7 Habits for Highly Effective People, he reiterated the same point – “I am not a product of my circumstances. I am a product of my decisions.”

The first truth of Buddhism, that Life is Suffering, is an inevitable fact of life. From the moment we are born to the moment we die – pain, loss, injustice and all manner of hardships will cause us to experience suffering. The manner in which we perceive and choose to respond to suffering determines whether we have, what some term – victim mentality or victor mentality.

  • After failure, victims say “It’s not my fault.” Victors say “I’ll do better next time.”
  • When victims find themselves in a dire situation, they expect others to save them from hardship, regardless of whether they have exerted any effort to help themselves first. Victors exhaust all of their conceivable options before petitioning for help but they don’t feel entitled to it.
  • Victims are obsessed with fairness and believe that if someone has more than they do then it’s at their expense. Victors don’t compare their circumstances with others.
  • Victims envy the success and well being of others. Victors are genuinely happy for the success and well being of others, even for those who aren’t popular.
  • Victims don’t recognize their blessings. Victors gratefully count their blessings.
  • Victims covet. Victors are content.
  • Victims dwell excessively on the source of their pain. Victors attempt to overcome their hardship by focusing on a better future.
  • Victims keep picking at their emotional scabs. Victors seek healing.
  • The difference between a reason and an excuse is attitude. Victims give excuses. Rather than try to accomplish something hard, their initial reaction is to look for ways to get out of doing them. Victors prioritize their goals and will look for ways to accomplish the most essential ones.
  • When someone else is experiencing hardship, victims act as enablers and convince them that they are a victim from external factors. Victors help that person to internally overcome their problems.
  • Victims don’t recognize their mistakes. Victors seek to recognize their mistakes and fix them.
  • When victims experience loss, they dwell on it. Victors move forward to the future.
  • When victims receive correction they get angry and try justifying why they’re not in the wrong. Victors respond to correction with gratitude. They are able to dispassionately filter out destructive criticism and take to heart constructive criticism.
  • Victims complain about the hard things they’re asked to do. Victors say, “I will go and do.” (1 Ne 3:7)
  • Victims are acted upon. Victors act. (2 Nephi 2:14)
  • Victims take no responsibility for their lives. Victors are agents unto themselves, are anxiously engaged in a good cause and do many things of their own free will. (D&C 58:26-29)
  • Victims allow their emotions to rule them. Victors attempt to rule their emotions.
  • Victims sound the alarm about their hardships. Victors only raise their hardships in an attempt to overcome them or when helping others learn how to overcome theirs.
  • Victims “keep score” in relationships by comparing their contributions to others’. Victors expect little from others.
  • Victims constantly believe others owe them something. Victors recognize themselves as an essential source of their own success.
  • Victims confuse permissive enablement for loving empathy. Victors love the sinner but hate the sin.
  • Victims wait. Victors do.
  • Victims damn their own progress. Victors seek to be better.
  • Victims perpetuate misery in themselves and others. Victors spread hope and light.

Recognizing the difference between victim and victor mentality is not an excuse to ignore the source of one’s suffering. People have experienced true injustices. People are experiencing internal struggles we’ll never comprehend. It’s important to acknowledge the weight and cause of people’s suffering. When appropriate boundaries can be established, they should be sought for. Along the same lines, shame and guilt shouldn’t be attached to grief. We all suffer. Being harsh on ourselves or others who are experiencing pain stifles healing. As is often the case, healing requires time and time requires patience and understanding. Recognizing this is important else we are tempted to bury our problems or kick others while they’re down. The important choice to make is at the crossroads of suffering. Accepting that healing requires time isn’t an excuse to wallow in self-pity. Rather, we ought to choose to move forward with an olive branch extended outward and its healing effects applied inward. The choice is ours.

After berrading his son for seeing himself as a victim, Rocky expressed the reason for his reproach which can serve as an additional example for how we can help ourselves and others overcome life’s crosses – “I’m always gonna love you no matter what. No matter what happens… But until you start believin in yourself, you ain’t gonna have a life.” 

 

Victim

Victor

Spiteful Loving
Judging Uncritical / Tolerant
Complaining Grateful
Dependent Responsible
Blaming Accountable
Entitled Self Reliant
Comparing Content
Helpless Self Empowered
Idle / Unproductive Active / Engaged
Constrained Free
Bitter / Resentful Forgiving
Quits Endures
Fearful Courageous
Scarcity Mentality Abundant Mentality
Enable Empower

 

Cleaning Our Lenses

LensesImagine that each of us are born with a complete set of virtue-lenses, paradigms by which we’re capable of viewing the world in its proper light. Some of these lenses enable us to see life through perspectives such as (but not limited to) love, justice, freedom and order. Each of these lenses are undeveloped at first. Through time, experience and choices, some of these lenses develop or degrade. A young child may quickly switch from the lens of justice when a toy of theirs is taken, to the lens of love and forgiveness a moment later. A young adult may develop a keen perspective for freedom while their authorities are attempting to administer and maintain order.

Each virtue-lens enables us to decipher truth from error but if any of them are clouded then our virtues can become varying degrees of vices. Much like the lesson from the parable – The Blind Men and The Elephant, an incomplete witness of what is true can lead to faulty conclusions. By matching the columns (clouded lenses) with their respective rows (clean lenses), the following table depicts examples of some vices that we might gravitate towards if one paradigm is clear but another isn’t.

Love (clouded) Justice (clouded) Freedom (clouded) Order/Authority (clouded)
Love (clean) – – –

Dupe who stays with abuser

Millennial “tolerance”

Authoritarian Parent

Socialism

Hippy
Justice (clean) Pharisee: “The law commands that such should be stoned” (John 8:5) – – –

Robbing Peter to pay Paul (aka “social justice”)

(NOTE: Freedom is a boundary of justice but many don’t recognize it)

Revenge

Vigilante

Freedom (clean) Sociopath

Greed

Thief – – –

Libertine

Line cutters

Order/Authority (clean) Inspector Javert (Les Mis) Adolf Eichmann

Milgram Experiment

Fascism

All forms of statism

– – –
Definition of Terms

Love – compassionate caring for the wellbeing of others.

Justice – moral rightness determined by universal (aka “natural”) laws. (malum in se)

Freedom – ability for someone to act according to their free will, unrestrained by others.

Order/Authority – manmade rules aimed towards organizing human to human conduct. (malum prohibitum)

Virtue-blind-spots can be catastrophic to our spiritual journey. Each of us are inclined towards certain virtues but not others. For example, freedom and order seem to be diametrically opposed ideals and so very few people take their opposing view seriously. In his short book, The Enoch Letters, Neil A. Maxwell pointed out that among the righteous, “liberty does not rob order, and order does not mock liberty.” Understanding how our inclinations towards certain virtues can result in the negligence of others helps us to avoid traps we are likely to fall into. It guides our development in a well-rounded, balanced direction.

Approaching disagreements with the understanding that the other person is probably partly right is more likely to open minds and hearts than approaching disagreements with the assumption that the other person is absolutely wrong. Most people have good intentions and valuable perspectives; it’s often the completeness of those perspectives that determine the degree to which they’re correct or not. When our love and justice lenses are clean, we can love the sinner and hate the sin. When our love, justice and freedom lenses are clean we will voluntarily help the needy. When our freedom, justice and order/authority lenses are clean we will want to respect the freedom of others insomuch as they are doing no direct harm to anyone else.

Just like it’s necessary for someone who is visually impaired to wear corrective lenses to see where they’re going physically, it’s even more imperative that we keep each of our virtue-lenses clean so that we can see where we’re eternally headed. Taking a holistic approach to our progression will mean that we will seek improvement in all virtues of life and we will recognize the risks of focusing on some virtues at the expense of others.

Obeying Authority and the Rule of Thirds

soldier shooting civiliansHalf a century ago Adolf Eichmann was captured and taken from Argentina to an Israeli civilian court to answer for crimes against humanity and the Jewish people. Several decades earlier, Eichmann was a German Nazi lieutenant colonel tasked with the responsibility of managing much of the logistics of the Holocaust. During Eichmann’s cross-examination the prosecution asked him if he considered himself guilty of the murder of millions of people. Eichmann’s defense—that he was just “following orders” and that he “never did anything, great or small, without obtaining in advance express instructions from Adolf Hitler or any of (his) superiors.” His defense was rejected; he was found guilty and hanged the following year.

Inspired by the Eichmann trial, Stanley Milgram, a Social Psychology professor at Yale, performed an experiment aimed at answering the question: “Could it be that Eichmann and his million accomplices in the Holocaust were just following orders? Could we call them all accomplices?” In Milgram’s own words the experiment went as follows:

“A simple procedure is devised for studying obedience. A person comes to the laboratory and, in the context of a learning experiment, is told to give increasingly severe shocks to another person (who is actually an actor). The purpose of the experiment is to see how far a subject will proceed before refusing to comply with the experimenter’s instructions.”

The experiment was originally performed on 40 test subjects. Each one of them was told by Milgram (the authority in the room) to ask questions and administer shocks by increments of 15 volts to the person in the other room whenever that person answered a question incorrectly. This was to persist until the voltage reached the full 450 volts. The person in the other room, who was not really getting shocked, acted as though each shock was getting increasingly worse by screaming, complaining about his “heart condition”, and then after the 300 volt administration he went silent. Many of the test subjects, assuming that they were really inflicting pain or possible death on the man in the other room, felt bad and asked to quit the experiment. Milgram’s scripted response was that he took personal responsibility for whatever happened and that he required them to continue until the experiment was completed.

Of the 40 test subjects 26 administered the full 450 volt shock. That is a 65 percent compliance rate. After the experiment was published some astonished psychologists presumed that the experiment was done incorrectly so they tried their own variations and found almost identical results. Variations of the experiment have been conducted across time and cultures to see if the results would change. The compliance rate averages around two thirds.

It appears it is generally in our nature to obey an immoral command when that command is administered by an apparent authority figure. But should that relieve us of accountability? If you or I were in the shoes of Eichmann, Milgram’s test subjects, or acting as agents of some other despot we would probably tell ourselves that we would disobey. “I am different. I would act morally. I would not be acted upon.” we tell ourselves. But would we? Let us hope so- for our own sakes and for the sakes of others. Edmund Burk is oft-quoted as saying, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” It appears that evil also needs mindless agents willing to obey orders. Let us be neither the complacent good nor compliant to evil.

Looking at Milgram’s experiment alone might offer us little hope as to how we would likely behave if commanded to execute an undesirable action but an experiment performed by Indiana University psychology professor Steven Sherman suggests that “education can strengthen the power of conscience over authority” when we consciously decide ahead of time to do so. Interestingly, the experiment showed that consciously making that decision ahead of time dropped the compliance rate from 2/3 to 1/3.

While I am not a social psychologist nor do I have sufficient evidence to back up this theory- there does appear to be some proof, in my mind, to submit a theory of obeying authority and the rule of thirds. That is that there is a breaking point at which, for better or for worse, a group is broken up into three factions for a particular cause- the obedient, the neutral, and the defiant.

In a 2009 Rasmussen poll—31% of Texas voters said that their country had the right to secede from the union and form their own independent country. Similarly, a 2012 HuffPost/YouGov poll given to 1000 adult Americans across the country found that “29 percent said states should be allowed to secede if a majority of their residents supported secession, while 38 percent said they should not, and a third weren’t sure.”

Following the War for American Independence, British General James Robertson, in his testimony before a committee on the conduct of the war, estimated that the American population during the war was one-third for the cause of American independence, one-third neutral, and one-third loyalists.

John Adams similarly wrote in a letter to Thomas Jefferson on Nov 12, 1813 concerning the Continental Congress that “To draw the characters of them all would require a volume, and would now be considered as a caricature-print; one-third tories, another whigs, and the rest mongrels.”

In response to the former Delaware Continental Congressman Thomas McKean who believed that “the great mass of the people were zealous in the cause of America” Adams wrote in Aug 31, 1813 that:

“Upon the whole, if we allow two thirds of the people to have been with us in the revolution, is not the allowance ample? Are not the two thirds of the nation now with the administration? Divided we ever have been, and ever must be. Two thirds always had and will have more difficulty to struggle with the one third than with all our foreign enemies.”

Upon reflection Mckean agreed.

Referring to the French Revolution in an 1815 letter to Massachusetts Senator James Lloyd, John Adams estimated that the Americans were generally one third “averse” to the revolution, one third for the revolution out of “a hatred of the English”, and the “middle third” that were, as Adams put it “the soundest part of the nation” and “averse to war”.

Finally, the war of wars which has existed since before the beginning of man on Earth—The War in Heaven, as it is known amongst latter-day saints, repeats a similar social psychology statistic. One-third of God’s spirits rejected the appointment of Christ as their savior, were cast down to Earth, and became devils. As the Bible Dictionary points out:

“Although one-third of the spirits became devils, the remaining two-thirds were not all equally valiant, there being every degree of devotion to Christ and the Father among them.”

Could it be that of the two-thirds who accepted the appointment of Christ that half of them were fence-sitters? I truly don’t know but that’s what I might guess.

So if all of these examples teach us anything it might be these: 1) choose the right regardless of who your authority is and 2) be prepared to have anywhere from a third to two-thirds obey a different authority than you—whether that authority is natural law or man’s law. To conclude his findings Professor Sherman wrote:

“When you look before you leap or predict behavior before you behave, the leaping and the behavior are likely to be altered; and indications are that the behavior will become more socially desirable and morally acceptable.” (Sherman, On the Self-Erasing Nature of Errors of Prediction, p 220, 1980)

It’s time to ask ourselves- “What would I do…?”

Principled Pragmatism

Principle SifterWhen faced with an idea or choice one of the first questions most people ask themselves is- “Is this practical?” but few back up and ask, “Is this even right?” The first question deals with pragmatism (or with what works) while the second question deals with principle (or a fundamental truth, a foundation on which to base all other reasoning and behavior). If we ignore principle and merely look at what will “work”, we often fall victims to silly, expensive, addictive, and/or dangerous ideas and behaviors. We suffer the consequences of our ignorance and moral decadence. We would be better off if we filtered ideas and choices through principle first, practicality second. If an idea doesn’t pass the first test then there is no sense in even contemplating how to execute it. If it does pass the first test then we can contemplate the practicalities of execution. This is principled pragmatism.

The term principled pragmatism is actually a redundancy since true principles are indeed pragmatic. It isn’t always obvious (in fact many times it is paradoxical) but when we base our decisions and convictions on truth- it always works out in the end.

Isaiah Messianically wrote:

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8-9).

For many sincere individuals, experience and revelation have proven that the Lord’s ways are higher and more practical than ours. Though we may be tempted to believe that our “pragmatism” is more expedient than principle the Lord also taught “lean not unto your own understanding” (Proverbs 3:5), “yield to the persuasions of men no more” (D&C 5:21), and “keep all my commandments” (D&C 43:35). It’s been wisely said that, “When someone bases his life on principle, 99 percent of his decisions are already made.” Having made these decisions based on gospel principles beforehand helps alleviate the temptations to make bad decisions when those choices arise.

The pseudo-pragmatism that many subscribe to might be best termed shortsightedness. The pseudo-pragmatist looks at what works here and now but since he failed to consider the principle, there will likely be unintended and/or unforeseen negative consequences eventually—whether in this life or the next.

Look at excessive debt as an example. A father of four on a $40,000/year income who goes into debt for a $70,000 BMW was being a pseudo-pragmatist. He saw something he wanted, asked himself how he could get it, and he went out and executed that plan. If only he had stopped to ask the questions- “Is this even right? Am I being responsible? What risk am I putting my self and family at?” But because of his “pragmatism” he did what “worked” and got what he wanted. Eventually his bills will come due. Hunger, loss of freedom/opportunities, embarrassment, marital issues, and/or bankruptcy will likely afflict him and his family.

Unnecessary spending applies to individuals the same way it applies to families (unaffordable vacations), businesses (lavish executive dinners/bonuses), governments (bailouts, imperialism, welfarism, etc) and other institutions. When spending exceeds revenue (debt, inflation, and taxes) government agents hardly ever consider serious spending cuts (a responsible direction) but instead look for ways to raise revenue (enslave). It seems as though much of the things being considered by agents of government are pseudo-pragmatic. Some could make a strong case that taxes are a form of pseudo-pragmatism since it is using force to take someone else’s property. But what correct principle is thievery or legal plunder being based on? A long list could be compiled of things we do through government that defy principle but are done because it’s “practical”. A few might include:

  • Unwarranted searches/seizures and spying on innocent civilians to prevent crime
  • Pre-emptive war because striking them first gives us the advantage
  • Total War- destroying the moral, lives, and property of innocent people in order to “win” war
  • Economic sanctions because causing a nation’s civilians to suffer usually causes their government to bend our way
  • Torture- using pain, or disfigurement apparently gets our enemies to talk
  • Protectionist regulations and licensure which favors one sector over others because it raises power/gain for government and gets rid of competition for certain industries
  • Bailing out big banks and businesses because it would be economic disaster otherwise
  • Welfarism (robbing Peter to pay Paul) because people will suffer/die if we don’t redistribute the wealth
  • Enforcing social justice because certain groups of people with less opportunities deserve more- even if it’s at the expense of the right and control of property for individuals
  • Inflating the currency because it’s a good way to reduce the national debt and pay for warfare and welfare
  • Maintaining the American Empire because we want to enjoy our standard of living and we don’t want any “bad guys” to become a world superpower

Look at each of these things and notice how immoral and shortsighted they are. Also notice that fear is at the root of all of them. Many excuse or attempt to justify these things because they don’t see any other “practical” alternatives. Though choosing the right may not have immediate/obvious results Joseph F. Smith taught us:

“That through [Christ’s] atonement, and by obedience to the principles of the gospel, mankind might be saved (D&C 138:4).”

Unprincipled pragmatism is a form of focusing on ends at the expense of means. As explained here, worthy ends do not justify immoral means. Paul had to debunk the false idea attributed to him— “Let us do evil that good may come” (Romans 3:8). Elder F. Burton Howard also taught:

“The war in heaven was essentially about the means by which the plan of salvation would be implemented. It forever established the principle that even for the greatest of all ends, eternal life, the means are critical. It should be obvious to all thinking Latter-day Saints that the wrong means can never attain that objective.” (Repentance)

So does something being “practical” automatically make it right? Do the principles “Thou shalt not steal, lie, or murder” take a back seat to Machiavellian statism because fear and aggression seem to work better than love and persuasion? Lest someone assume that this is condoning anarchism then please read the story of King Benjamin (Mosiah 2:14). Did he, an agent of the people, rule by fear and aggression or did he serve by love and persuasion? Government can exist in a proper frame when its role is based on correct principles—not pseudo-pragmatic ones. Our lives can also exist to their fullest extent and maximum happiness when they are based on correct principles.

“Once they are driven off the high ground of principle, so many people then settle for being “practical.” But immorality is so impractical! Provisional morality always emerges once people desert a basic truth. Such individuals are forever falling back trying to develop substitute rationales, drawing new lines beyond which they vow they will not be driven, only to abandon these also under the pressure of growing evils…

Moral uncertainty always leads to behavioral absurdity. Prescriptions which are value-free always prove to be so costly. Unprincipled pragmatism is like advising someone who is hopelessly mired in quicksand not to struggle—so that he will merely sink more slowly!” –Neal A Maxwell (The Stern but Sweet Seventh Commandment)