I recently watched the movie Blue Like Jazz. I greatly enjoyed the book; Donald Miller is a fantastic writer and really knows how to get real and personal, and isn’t afraid to show himself, and ultimately humanity, the way it really is. Watching the movie has led me to ponder further what the state of humanity is; are we inherently flawed, or are we overall pretty good, and capable of eventually achieving perfection? If we are capable of perfection, what would it even look like?
To be sure, humanity as a whole has evolved materially. Even the poor are better off materially in developed countries than the rich were two hundred years ago. Things that were once considered luxuries like indoor plumbing, electric lights, refrigeration, air conditioning, or automobiles are now considered staples, and are generally readily available. But is that what perfection looks like, ever improving circumstances and material goods? What about the human heart? What about it’s motives?
There seems to be a divide between progressive and individualistic thought that sometimes it seems no bridge can span. Progressives look at circumstances and seem to be more willing to let the ends justify the means. Progressives have the best of intentions (at least, according to their own morality), and see that as moral justification for their actions and ideas. They see how power and authority could be used positively, in their view, and that’s why they seek it out actively.
Individualists on the other hand are ever wary of authority and the various ways it’s power can be abused. I think it represents an underlying understanding that people are capable of great evil, and to give someone with that capacity authority over another is not only immoral, but a recipe for disaster. I need not invoke the names of some of the totalitarian regimes of the past.
But why is there this disconnect? How can something so fundamental be so disagreed upon? Are we inherently good, or aren’t we? The answer to this question has phenomenal ripples effects into the rest of our thinking. It completely shapes our sense of morality; if we’re inherently good, then our circumstances really are the problem, aren’t they? After all, I can’t be the problem if I’m good, so the problem must lie elsewhere. That’s not to say that people don’t make bad choices, of course, but overall, according to this view, people are fundamentally good.
To flip the coin over, if people are inherently flawed, then it’s a very different picture. Circumstances aren’t the problem, we are. Of course, as an individualist, I think this view has much merit. I think the enlightenment thinkers and classical liberals understood this as well; Lord Acton wrote, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.” So from an individualist perspective, the human heart doesn’t preclude moral actions, but the tendency for error or corruption is always there.
When I see all the ways that power gets abused, I can’t help but to wonder whether any authority structure is inherently flawed, because you will always be placing one potentially corruptible person over another. Of course, that fits right in line with the rest of my thinking; if we’re inherently flawed, why should anything we create not be as well?
In the movie, the main character starts out as an assistant to a youth pastor in his church. Eventually it is revealed that the youth pastor is having an adulterous affair with the main character’s mother, who we later find out is pregnant. This causes him much turmoil as he sees just how deeply he has been betrayed, not just by his mother and youth pastor, but by the church structure as a whole.
I liked that part of the movie, because that’s how people really act. We screw up all the time, we hurt people, we lie, cheat, steal, and then do it all over again to cover it up. When we get together and form a government, we do the same things, only this time everything has been magnified exponentially. Given that those are our actions, why would we seek to have others rule over us? What really is the net gain there? Because it’s easier than running our own life? Isn’t that just another flaw of the human heart?
We humans have been on this earth a long time, and while we’ve improved our overall circumstances, our hearts haven’t changed. And that is why authority must be questioned, and power restrained.