It is said that when you only have a hammer, the world becomes a nail. Since my post on Sophie’s Fallacy, I have been thinking a lot about control. My brother Patrick has raised important questions about dignity, which has set me off on related issues. While driving to Lambertville this afternoon, I happened to listen to the Radiolab podcast called Oops! Just as the Radiolab podcast on Things raised questions about impermanence, this podcast was rich with material related to the questions about control that are on my mind. I will be addressing these questions in subsequent posts. In the meantime, I recommend that you listen to the podcast. It’s fascinating in its own right.
An example of the kinds of questions that arose along the stream of questioning is the following: what is the relation between desire for control (or what the Buddhist might call “clinging”) and compassion for others? The many unintended consequences of well-intentioned actions presented in the podcast might make you think that Moliere is correct:
Et c’est une folie, à nulle autre, seconde,
De vouloir se mêler de corriger le monde.
Le Misanthrope I, 1, v. 157-158
Roughly translated as “It’s the height of folly to want to get involved in fixing the evils of this world.”
I don’t agree that we should give up on trying to make things better for others, but in the last century how many millions were killed in the name of creating a more perfect society? The Great Leap Forward may have had the unintended consequence of starving more than 10 million people to death, but the Cultural Revolution destroyed millions more in a deliberate effort to mold a new kind of human being. It’s not only leftists who’ve perpetrated evil in the name of making the world better. Hitler and his followers killed millions on their crusade. Speaking of crusades reminds us that these crimes in the name of good are committed by theists as well as atheists. Look at what Franco did in Spain. Today we’re experiencing a kind of blowback to the Crusades in the form of the crimes committed in the name of building a better world in an Islamic State.
As you will hear when you listen to Oops!, some unintended consequences can be humorous, some can be deadly, but some might even create new solutions. As I just mentioned, some intended consequences may improve the world in eyes of some, but are achieved through inflicting horrible evils on others. Neither is an excuse for doing nothing to help others.