In the world it is called tolerance, but in hell it is called despair. The sin that believes in nothing, cares for nothing, seeks to know nothing, enjoys nothing, finds purpose in nothing, lives for nothing but remains alive because there is nothing which it would die for. --Dorothy Sayers

We have placed too much hope in political and social reforms, only to find that we were being deprived of our most precious possession: our spiritual life. In the East it is destroyed by the machinations of the ruling part; in the West commercial interests suffocate it. This is the real crisis. The split in the world into East and West is less terrible than the similarity of the disease plaguing its main sections. --Alexandr Solzhenitsyn




The Role of Meaning, Purpose, and Spirituality in Institutional Good and Evil


Dorothy Sayers and Alexandr Solzhenitsyn are concerned with a disease plaguing the world: that of despair and lack of spirituality. Is this lack of a sense of a meaningful, purposeful, and spiritual life at the core of institutional evil? Would imbuing people's lives with meaning, purpose, and spirituality be enough to eliminate or at least combat institutional evil? Do these qualities have a role to play in institutional good?

Certainly a strong case could be made that conventional contemporary life is not as meaningful, purposeful and spiritual as it could be. Especially in the West much of the average businessman's or corporate employee's life is taken up by work and education (which is often merely pursued in preparation for work). It is not common for either of these activities to be viewed as spiritual, purposeful (in the larger sense of the word), or even very meaningful.

Of course there is some meaning and purpose (in the lesser, goal-oriented sense of the word) to one's work and schooling. Education will help the prospective businessman to get a job, and a job will help him and his company make money, and allow him to retire. Perhaps it will also help him to put his children through school. In between birth and death he hopes to be comfortable and entertained, and for his children he hopes even greater comfort and security.

However, this kind of existence has been, not without some justification, accused of being vapid and meaningless (especially when compared to lives dedicated to the higher calling of religious worship and service). Even secular social service could be argued to be more meaningful than a life lived in pursuit of mere self-gratification.

Certainly it can't be disputed that a life of religious worship and service is more spiritual than one which is not. But what is the standard by which one pursuit is judged to be more meaningful than another? This seems to require a value judgment to be made. Selfish pursuits are weighed against selfless pursuits and found wanting. Service for the sake of the self is judged to be less worthy than service for the sake of another, or for the society's sake. In a utilitarian fashion the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. In the moral sense an act is, by definition, more meaningful if it is more moral. Therefore the more selfless act would be considered more meaningful.

However, it is not merely a moral valuation which makes the selfless pursuit more meaningful than the selfish one. Fulfillment figures in to it too. Some people find selfish pursuits empty and limiting. If they then find selfless pursuits more fulfilling then this sense of fulfillment may contribute to their sense of meaningfulness of their action.

Purpose, in the larger sense, is closely related to meaningfulness in the moral sense. An act performed for a higher purpose is usually done for the sake of something considered to be above and beyond the self (often a deity, ethical system, or society). It is obvious, then, that selfish acts could not be purposeful, in the larger sense of the word.

Be that as it may, is the typical Western businessman's style of life more than merely selfish? Does it contribute to institutional evil? Institutional evil, as that morally undesirable effect seen in the context of a corporation, government, or other bureaucracy, though hidden among the many is nevertheless perpetrated by individuals. As such it is subject to individual motivations. If those motives are selfish, if it is the self that is given primacy, then perhaps a callousness towards the ordeals and sufferings of others could manifest. The suffering of others is generally viewed as morally undesirable. Therefore it does appear that selfishness could contribute to institutional evil.

For an example one need only look at petty, bean counting bureaucrat, concerned only with his own welfare (the security of his job) callously authorizing the use of sweatshop labor to boost company profits. Guards have abused prisoners merely because they have considered it their job to do so. Virtually any evil act committed in an institutional context and for the sake of job security would qualify as a relevant example.

Now, would eliminating meaninglessness, purposelessness, and infusing people's lives with spirituality necessarily solve or even contribute towards a solution to the problem of institutional evil?

In fact history is rife with examples of societies holding high ideals, even spiritual ones, and living meaningful, purposeful lives and yet participating in what is commonly viewed today as institutional evil. It may even be argued that it was, to some extent, these very ideals that enabled the perpetrators to carry out many of the greatest atrocities in human history.

The Inquisition and the Crusades, the Axis powers during WWII, Pol Pot's Cambodia, the USSR, and the arguably the Neoconservative movement in contemporary America have all had many individuals who believed in lofty ideals, lived purposeful and meaningful lives, and yet participated in acts of institutional evil. Since the case of the Neoconservatives in America is rather controversial and since Pol Pot's Cambodia and the USSR may be susceptible to Solzhenitsyn's criticism of lack of a spiritual life, I will focus here solely on the uncontroversial examples of the Inquisition, Crusades and Axis.

The Inquisition and Crusades are probably the best examples, since it is obvious that many of their participants were religious and arguably quite spiritual. They viewed themselves as doing the work of their Lord in torturing and slaughtering countless heretics and heathens (acts that are widely considered to be evil today). Yet neither their religious sentiments nor the higher purpose they felt called to prevented these acts. On the contrary, it is arguably their very religion and purpose that spurned them on to commit those acts in the first place. Therefore neither religion nor purpose, in the larger sense, are a panacea against institutional evil.

Though religion did not play as obvious a role in the Fascist movements during WWII as in the Crusades and Inquisition, it is not altogether divorced from or blameless in these 20th Century manifestations of institutional evil. Both Fascist Germany and obviously Fascist Italy were overwhelmingly Christian nations, who's population participated in countless well known atrocities. There is some evidence that the Vatican may even have known about the Holocaust and yet refrained from acting against or condemn it. State Shintoism and Emperor Worship played a significant role in Japanese nationalism leading up to and during WWII, where again a number of atrocities were committed.

In fact the mere compatibility of religion and war or violence throughout history puts a lie to the idea that spirituality provides sufficient protection against institutional evil. Meaning and purpose also played a large role in the lives of the people of WWII Germany, Italy and Japan. So here too none of these qualities on their own can forestall institutional evil.

Now what of institutional good? Does a sense of meaning, purpose and spirituality have a role to play in promoting institutional good? Certainly these qualities are not incompatible with institutional good, as is evidenced by the many charitable organizations which have a higher good as their aim and often are religious in nature. However, are these qualities necessary for institutional good to manifest at all?

The existence of secular charities is proof enough that spirituality is not necessary for the existence of institutional good. But what of meaning and purpose? Is it possible to have institutional good without meaning and purpose?

While it is possible to view working at a charity as just another job, motivated by selfishness and lacking any sense of higher purpose or meaning, doesn't the very existence of the charitable organization itself imply an origin in which higher purpose or meaning played a role? Not necessarily, as the charity may have been formed for selfish purposes, such as a tax write-off, as part of a public relations campaign, or even fraud. Finally, even dubiously motivated charities or manifestly evil organizations such as the Nazi party may incidentally perform some good, proving more proof that institutional good may be achieved without a sense of higher purpose or meaning.

In summary, it does seem that a lack of meaning, purpose or spirituality plays some role in institutional evil. However, neither a sense of meaning, purpose, or spirituality is sufficient in and of themselves to combat institutional evil nor to foster institutional good. While these qualities are not necessarily incompatible with these laudable ends we have seen examples of these them being used for quite contrary purposes. We have also seen that institutional good can exist without the presence of any of these qualities. This is not to say that meaning, purpose or spirituality couldn't be part of a solution to institutional evil or foster institutional good. Clearly they can and they have. But we should be conscious of their possible excesses and limitations so that they can be avoided in the future.

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