Time Magazine Cover Story: What Makes Humans Moral

Posted by Kendall Harmon

If the entire human species were a single individual, that person would long ago have been declared mad. The insanity would not lie in the anger and darkness of the human mind—though it can be a black and raging place indeed. And it certainly wouldn't lie in the transcendent goodness of that mind—one so sublime, we fold it into a larger "soul." The madness would lie instead in the fact that both of those qualities, the savage and the splendid, can exist in one creature, one person, often in one instant.

We're a species that is capable of almost dumbfounding kindness. We nurse one another, romance one another, weep for one another. Ever since science taught us how, we willingly tear the very organs from our bodies and give them to one another. And at the same time, we slaughter one another. The past 15 years of human history are the temporal equivalent of those subatomic particles that are created in accelerators and vanish in a trillionth of a second, but in that fleeting instant, we've visited untold horrors on ourselves—in Mogadishu, Rwanda, Chechnya, Darfur, Beslan, Baghdad, Pakistan, London, Madrid, Lebanon, Israel, New York City, Abu Ghraib, Oklahoma City, an Amish schoolhouse in Pennsylvania—all of the crimes committed by the highest, wisest, most principled species the planet has produced. That we're also the lowest, cruelest, most blood-drenched species is our shame—and our paradox.

Read it all.

Filed under: * Culture-WatchScience & Technology* TheologyEthics / Moral Theology

16 Comments
Posted November 27, 2007 at 12:02 pm [Printer Friendly] [Print w/ comments]



1. Timothy Fountain wrote:

all of the crimes committed by the highest, wisest, most principled species the planet has produced. That we’re also the lowest, cruelest, most blood-drenched species is our shame—and our paradox

Biblical anthropology - that we are made in the image of God but have marred that image by sin - remains the most coherent and realistic appraisal of what the article describes.

November 27, 1:19 pm | [comment link]
2. Steven in Falls Church wrote:

. . . we’ve visited untold horrors on ourselves—in Mogadishu, Rwanda, Chechnya, Darfur, Beslan, Baghdad, Pakistan, London, Madrid, Lebanon, Israel, New York City, Abu Ghraib, Oklahoma City, an Amish schoolhouse in Pennsylvania . . .

I love the moral equivalenace here.  So, a buch of sickos making prisoners dress up in panties and form nude pyramids has attained the same level of outrage and atrocity as genocide in Darfur, train bombings in London and Madrid, and the 9-11 attacks?

November 27, 1:29 pm | [comment link]
3. Timothy Fountain wrote:

Yeah, Steven, saw that, too.  I’m surprised they didn’t include “Watergate.”  Every notice the way some people intone that, like it was the equivalent of Auschwitz?
Still, I like the discussion opened by the article.  It certainly invites us to share the Christian worldview if we can hold our noses and step over some of the MSM stuff.

November 27, 1:34 pm | [comment link]
4. Timothy Fountain wrote:

OK, back on topic and then I will shut up:

For grossly imperfect creatures like us, morality may be the steepest of all developmental mountains. Our opposable thumbs and big brains gave us the tools to dominate the planet, but wisdom comes more slowly than physical hardware. We surely have a lot of killing and savagery ahead of us before we fully civilize ourselves. The hope—a realistic one, perhaps—is that the struggles still to come are fewer than those left behind.

The highlighted last line of the article is the “modernist myth” attacked by GTS prof. James Farwell in his book This is the Night .  The Biblical point of view rejects the idea that humanity is on a relentless course of improvement.  Farwell argues that “suffering” is a constant (in which liturgy, especially the Triduum, grounds the church).  He downplays, IMO, the causal power of sin - but I agree with him that the idea of steady human improvement is an absurd and ultimately dehumanizing myth.

November 27, 1:42 pm | [comment link]
5. Barrdu wrote:

I suspected before reading it that the article would be irrelevant to me given my understanding of the created order of things and the plague of sin in my life and the lives of all men and women.  No surprise, indeed it is.  What makes the article truly sad however is not its irrelevancy but rather that the author would lump the unfortunate conduct of some at Abu Ghraib with the genocide in Rwanda and elsewhere.  How sad we in the West still don’t seem to grasp the utter depravity rampant among people who set out to annihilate another people.  We rather refer to it for our own political purposes.

November 27, 1:45 pm | [comment link]
6. William P. Sulik wrote:

Steven and others note “Abu Ghraib”—while in no way comparable, I don’t have much of a problem with including it on the list.  At best, it was an instance of abuse and neglect by those soldiers who had been trained to act in accordance with the laws of war and the laws of the United States (which is why they were properly punished).  [In fact, I don’t think the punishments went far enough up the chain of command—I believe Janis Karpinski, the commanding officer at the prison, should have also been brought before a Court Martial].

However, having said that, I would probably include the Massacre of the Branch Davidians at Waco on the list long before Abu Ghraib. 

I also found it curious that they included “...an Amish schoolhouse in Pennsylvania…” as opposed to Virginia Tech (more recent/more deaths) or Columbine (more iconic/influential - see both the VT killings and the OKC bombing).

Sadly the list could go on and on and on: the Rape of Nanking; Mao;  Lhasa; Harkis; Pol Pot; Idi Amin; Mengistu; Hama; Jonestown; Al-Anfal Campaign; Halabja poison gas attack; Tiananmen; the Lord’s Army and the Congo today. [And that’s not even mentioning the two most notorious from the 20th Century - Hitler and Stalin.]

Anyway, what makes us moral? It’s the law which the Lord has written on all our hearts:

Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them.

—Romans 2:14-15 (New International Version)

November 27, 3:01 pm | [comment link]
7. Dave B wrote:

4. Timothy Fountain, I agree, we only need to realize that this century has been the bloodiest in man’s history, Hitler 12 million killed, Stalin over 20 million killed, Cambodia 2-3 million killed, China under Mao ? million killed.  Then consider the number in Ruwanda, Darfur, Bangladish,etc.  Where is this great moral progress this writer talks about?

November 27, 3:13 pm | [comment link]
8. Ross Gill wrote:

I think the reformed doctrine of ‘total depravity’ pretty much covers it.  Not that unredeemed humanity can’t perform deeds of love and mercy but there is nothing in human nature that hasn’t been touched by sin.  The image of God is still there, of course.  It is never completely erased in even the most depraved individual but it is unmistakeably warped, bent, and eroded.

November 27, 3:33 pm | [comment link]
9. RoyIII wrote:

The fact that man is fallen and can be saved only by Christ explains it all for me.  Too bad the author attempts a secular explanation.  There’s not one imo.

November 27, 4:01 pm | [comment link]
10. Chris Molter wrote:

Didn’t the Ba’ath regime use Abu Ghirab as a veritable house of horrors prior to the invasion?  I’m unsure if the author’s intent was to besmirch the US since it’s possible that he intended the Abu Ghirab reference to point towards Saddam’s cruelty towards his own countrymen.

November 27, 5:14 pm | [comment link]
11. William P. Sulik wrote:

#10 - Chris - I thought about that however it is doubtful given it has become shorthand for attacks on the U.S. and/or Bush Administration.* 

On the other hand, if the writer had mentioned the Al-Anfal Campaign
[ http://tinyurl.com/2nrzla ] in which the Ba’athists killed over 50,000 Kurds, it would be clear where blame was placed.

* My quick review of the top 50 news mentions on the Google News page shows all link in some way or another to the “torture” scandal and not to the Ba’athists abuses.  See http://tinyurl.com/2rs7od

November 27, 5:45 pm | [comment link]
12. Br. Michael wrote:

The article states:  “Take the phenomenon of Good Samaritan laws that require passersby to assist someone in peril.”  I don’t believe this it true.  Good Samaritan laws relieve people who assist others from some aspects of legal liability for assisting others, so that they won’t be sued by the person they are trying to assist. .  (Although often the protection is minimal.)  I am not aware of many laws that impose a duty to assist others (unless it’s part of your job such as police or firemen).

November 27, 5:59 pm | [comment link]
13. Hal wrote:

I’m all for well-written summations of research in fields other than my own, but reading this article leave me with a question: of what does the author dream?  Given the emphasis on neurologic explanations, is it a world in which we use drugs to make ourselves moral?  Given the emphasis in the conclusion on “wisdom” and vaguely humanistic slogans, is it a world in which we somehow learn enough to pull ourselves out of immorality?  (N.B, these two theories cannot hang together: if immorality is “hard-wired,” so to speak, then its hardly conquerable through ever-more-refined humanistic philosophy).  Either way, I think Timothy Fountain hits the nail on the head.  Nothing in this article provides even a glimmer of an explanation for human immorality as coherent as the Christian conception of our creation in the image of God, fall from grace, and the resulting effects of sin in our world, nor does it provide anything comparable to the hope we find in Jesus’ victory over sin.

November 27, 6:01 pm | [comment link]
14. Br. Michael wrote:

13, I don’t think that the article offers any hope.

November 27, 7:42 pm | [comment link]
15. taz wrote:

From whence does our morality come?  As Wordsworth put it:
...But trailing clouds of glory do we come from God who is our home.
The cynical existentialist looks at the brutality and callousness of the world and sees nothing more than the survival of the fittest.  Morality/ethics are useful only so far as it makes life more comfortanble. But those niceties are always expendable.
  The Humanist trusts that by our intellect we can supress those base instincts.  With that faith in humanity they set about attempting to construct a social order with the right set of rules to ensure goodness and justice.
  The Christian recognizes the baseness and cruelty of existence as manifestations of the brokenness of this world.  We also recognize that this brokeness is beyond our ability to heal alone.  But we have been shown the path to salvation by accepting Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior and surrendering ourselves to the transforming love of God.

November 27, 9:27 pm | [comment link]
16. RoyIII wrote:

Ask Moses about morality.  Didn’t he break the tablets in anger at his peoples’ idolitry and sin?

November 28, 9:46 am | [comment link]
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