Tuesday, August 6, 2013

The Inherent Worth and Dignity of Selfishness

What is sin?  Where does sin come from?  Will we ever be able to totally eliminate sin and evil from the world?   Do bad people have inherent worth and dignity?
Let’s fast forward to the 23rd century and hop aboard the Starship Enterprise.  In an episode called “The Enemy Within” in The Original Series, a transporter malfunction splits Captain Kirk into two parts, his bad side and his good side.  We see the bad Kirk, pupils dilated, prowling about the Enterprise, grabbing whatever he wants. And he wants it now.  He forces the doctor to give him a bottle of medicinal brandy and gulps it down. Then he wants a pretty female officer so he assaults her.  He fights with all who try to subdue him.  This Kirk is totally selfish.
As we’ve all noticed, there are people everywhere who sometimes are like the bad Kirk, in that they do what they want regardless of other people. They range from the merely annoying like my neighbor who has a noisy heat pump under my bedroom window to downright dangerous like sociopathic killers.  Not to mention political despots like Hitler.   In The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker calls predation, dominance, revenge, and sadism our inner demons, which make us act like the bad Kirk.
It’s difficult to reconcile our observation that there are bad people whose inner demons take over with our Unitarian Universalist principle of the inherent worth and dignity of every person.  One deceased member of our congregation used to say he didn’t believe a person as bad as Hitler had any inherent worth and dignity.  Another congregant says people like Hitler have used up their quota of inherent worth and dignity.  Which leaves some people, the bad ones, without inherent worth and dignity and seems contrary to our first principle.
However, there is an idea that reconciles the Unitarian Universalist principle of the inherent worth and dignity of every person and our observation there are bad people everywhere. That’s the idea that our selfishness is a necessary part of who we are, although it’s essential to keep it in check.
Back to the 23rd century and the Enterprise.  As we observed, the bad Kirk is selfishness personified.  Spock, always the rationalist as is his nature, says, “What makes one man an exceptional leader?  We see indications that it's his negative side which makes him strong, that his evil side, controlled and disciplined, is vital to his strength.”  Elsewhere on the ship, the good Captain Kirk shows signs of weakness.   He loses his ability to give orders and commands.  He no longer has the power of decision. The good Kirk says, “Somehow, in being duplicated, I have lost my strength of will.  Decisions are becoming more and more difficult.”
Then Spock speaks directly to the good Kirk, “Your negative side removed from you,
the power of command begins to elude you.”
So we see just as Kirk’s bad side made him a strong leader, we all need some selfishness to make a difference in the world.  We can do it constructively by starting a business, courting a partner, working for a cause, writing a memoir that will inspire others.
If, like the bad Kirk, we  focus only on ourselves and separate ourselves from the community, we’re acting like sociopaths who cannot manage their will to selfishness.   That’s what I define as sin. Obviously, some acts are more wrong than others.  Catholics, I think, make a useful distinction between serious mortal sins that affect others in a big way and petty venial sins.
In the 23rd century, Spock muses,  “We have here an unusual opportunity to appraise the human mind, or to examine, in Earth terms, the roles of good and evil in a man – his negative  side, which you call hostility, lust, violence, and his positive side, which Earth people express as compassion, love, tenderness.”  Spock continues: “Being split in two halves is no theory with me.  I have a human half and an alien half at war with each other. I survive because my intelligence wins, makes them live together.”  Spock reinterprets Steven Pinker’s list of our four better angels:  empathy, self-control, morality, and reason.
As the 23rd century Star Trek allegory concludes, the transporter gets fixed, Kirk’s two halves are reunited, and Captain Kirk is able to make the decisions necessary to rescue the crew members stranded on a frozen planet.  Watching the show, 20th and 21st century viewers learn about the benefits and drawbacks of selfishness.  
  Now we can answer the questions we posed:   Where does sin come from?   Sin, I propose, comes from the selfishness we all have, and which is essential to our functioning.  Will we ever be able to totally eliminate sin and evil from the world?  Probably not, because we can’t eliminate all selfishness without disastrous consequences.   Do bad people have the inherent worth and dignity of every person?  Yes, but they haven’t used their reason to balance their selfish and compassionate selves.
Meanwhile, what do we do with sinners? Marilyn Sewall, minister emerita from First Unitarian, Portland, believes that we need to remove or sequester bad people for the sake of the larger community.  She states, “Tolerance of harmful behavior is not consistent with our principles, for it is in violation of the law of love and healthy respect for the larger community.”   Prisons accomplish this function.
How does the Star Trek allegory relate to our own lives?  Selfishness dwells within each of us and since we can’t function without it, it must have inherent worth and dignity.  We have to be sure to keep selfishness in its place and use it for the service of the good.  We can’t let our selfishness dominate.  Remember,  our reason allows us to keep a correct balance between selfishness and weakness.
As the great Rabbi Hillel, who died about the time Jesus was born, said, "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, then what am I?"

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