If I’m asked to name the biggest problems facing the world today, my answer is “arrogance and greed.” People tend to shrug at that answer. I understand. These things are just aspects of human nature, and seemingly intractable. When they’re asking this question, they’re thinking of objective conditions such as war, environmental degradation, poverty, and so forth. I don’t expect the mass of humanity to undergo a spiritual transformation. But I do think that in order for problems to be solved, there has to be a change in the social ethos—that which is generally considered desirable in our social attitudes and behavior. Arrogance and greed won’t disappear, but there needs to be a general recognition that these traits are destructive and inappropriate for the conduct of social institutions and government. Instead, they are either tacitly accepted as “the way things are,” or in the case of capitalist economics and right-wing ideology, actively encouraged.
The opposites of arrogance and greed are humility and compassion. Both tend to be ridiculed nowadays, at least in the political arena. They are associated with a sort of airy and unrealistic idealism that is practically unworkable. Politicians of all stripes tend to adhere to self-interest as a guiding principle. This has the effect of enslaving us to short-term goals. It may be ultimately in our self-interest to solve the environmental crisis, for instance, but this kind of self-interest implies a wider conception of “self” that is outside the orthodox view.
Humility involves the simple realization that we are limited and mortal creatures; that we don’t know everything, and therefore must adopt uncertainty and open-mindedness as guiding attitudes if we are to succeed in governing ourselves well. Nothing could be more opposed to the way nations have conducted themselves until now. In the last sixty years, we have possessed nuclear weapons, for instance. These weapons are capable of incinerating millions of people in a matter of minutes. Yet governments have persisted in the illusion that human beings can possess such godlike powers indefinitely; that our wisdom and abilities can be trusted in such a matter. Nothing in the history of humankind confirms this as valid. Arrogance alone, the refusal to practice humility, justifies it.
In daily political life, arrogance is rampant. Politicians and their owners operate from a stance of close-mindedness and certainty, based on their ideologies. You might think that religion would encourage humble attitudes, but the religious groups that have wielded the greatest power have also demonstrated the most unbridled arrogance. Fundamentalists who trust that their sacred book (and their own narrow understanding of that book) is beyond criticism, give themselves permission to be absolutely right about anything they think. The notion of human beings humbling themselves before the wisdom of a higher power has proven ineffective. The zealots, armed with their infallible book, presume to speak for God. They think God needs their help. The self-righteousness of dogma poisons the social atmosphere, while the zealot accuses everyone who disagrees with him while failing to examine his own limitations.
Arrogance has reached a stage in which facts no longer stand in the way. Our political discourse is clogged with pundits and demagogues who make reckless claims and accusations every day, statements that have no basis in reality, but are born wholly from the ideological certainty of the closed-minded bigot.
Compassion in its political form involves the simple realization that all human beings are connected; that there is such a thing as the common welfare. Governments operating from such an ethical standard would seek to foster the basic health and well-being of the community, and not simply be the tools of private gain. On the international level, there has to be an effort at cooperation and the empowerment of all people and countries. Such is the stated purpose of the United Nations, undermined as it is by the hegemony of the richest countries. Mike Huckabee, who calls himself a Christian, recently said that we should cut the UN loose and let it float away into the East River. For such people, there is no value in listening to any other points of view (arrogance) or aiding anyone outside of our nation or tribe (greed).
Even if President Obama had the wisdom of a Martin Luther King, which he doesn’t, it would be impossible for one politician to transform the ethical culture which keeps us bound to narrow and self-defeating behavior. It is up to those people who have realized the inescapable necessity to practice humility and passion to continually express their values publicly, while denouncing arrogance and greed as wrong and destructive. It’s not enough to attack certain persons, as if the problem were simply that the wrong people were in charge. It’s not enough to express positive values without calling out the negative ones, or vice versa. Arrogance and greed have to be named for what they are, over and over, and their opposites affirmed as necessary, over and over. If only one half of this action is performed, there is no choice presented. It hardly needs to be said that humility and compassion need to be practiced to the best of our ability as well, otherwise our insistence on their value is empty posturing.
This is not to deny the necessity for taking practical steps to solve problems. But as long as the sociopolitical ethos is based on arrogance and greed, the practical solutions will be stopgap measures that only gain us a little time, while narrow self-interest labors continually to negate them. Compassion, which recognizes the connection of all life, is actually a form of self-interest, but one in which a long-term and universal sense of self, namely a sense of community, takes precedence over the short-sighted self-interest of “us versus them.” When anti-environmentalists, for instance, ridicule efforts to save a species of bird or fish, they simply fail to see that the extinction of a species ends up damaging our chances of survival. They seem to think it’s just some disinterested love of the animals, unconnected to our own interests as human beings. An awakening of a general ethos of connectedness would gradually obviate this point of view in public policy.
It’s a measure of how cynical and degraded our social conceptions have become that the ideas I’ve presented here probably seem impossible to many readers. The influence of life-affirming values is slow, and often escapes wide notice. But culture does change, and as the conditions around us become more threatening, we are seeing more and more people rejecting the suicidal values that are driving us towards a cliff. Necessity, I believe, is forcing us to access values that have always been within us, both as individuals and communities. But in order for humility and compassion to become more consciously valued as a social ideal, and not just a private belief, we need a third virtue: courage.