The following was written by Ben Shapiro, a conservative political commentator, after the London Bridge attack on June 3rd, 2017, in an article titled, “The Unbridgeable Gap Between Left And Right Over Human Evil.” What follows are my thoughts on the “unbridgeable gap.”
“The left believes that human beings are inherently good, and that only environment defines whether they will act in evil fashion. That’s why Sen. Bernie Sanders articulated in 2016 that global warming was the spur to terrorism; it’s why the Obama administration routinely suggested that poverty caused terrorism. External circumstances dictate the morality of individual actors. That’s also why the left argues we shouldn’t hold people responsible for their actions as a general rule; instead, we should reshape society.
The right believes that human beings are capable of evil on their own. That’s why they see the rise of radical Islam as more of a problem than global warming. Good people won’t kill each other because of global warming. They will if they begin to believe evil ideologies, or support those who do.”
No one person’s actions are dictated completely by his circumstance (environment), unless they are devoid wholly of principle, self-thought, and autonomy. It is possible that a person can be socialized/indoctrinated into such a state of compliant agreeableness – and indeed, there are people and ideologies that would do just this – but these people must be far and few in between. Similarly, no one person has an absolute and rigid sense of morality that is applicable to every circumstance that life has to offer. Such a person would be brittle and break if dealt an unexpected hand, for life is cruel and unpredictable. Morality and judgement, to an extent, must be mutable with circumstance (the environment). It is neither “only [the] environment,” nor an individual’s natural disposition for good and evil that dictate his actions. Both these things occupy space in shifting proportions inside a person, like sand in an hourglass.
For who is the king to judge the pauper’s plight? It is easy – and blessed – to live a life where one’s principles are never put to rigorous test. If you are rich, any man who robs you of your fortune – whether hard earned or inherited – is morally contemptible. If you are poor, and your wife and children are starving, you have done your familial duty by feeding them by any means necessary. The poor man must know that stealing is wrong – would he not feel the same way if stolen from? – but to him the morality of feeding his family must supersede that of taking what is not ‘rightfully’ his.
But why must he even take the moral high ground of stealing for the sake of others? Why not simply for himself, to survive? To live? Is not survival our most base instinct, undercutting any – if not all – sense of morality? How confidently would you consider right and wrong, good and evil, if presented with the choice of stealing or starving to death? Of killing or dying? Of salvation or eternal damnation? (If you hold faith with such things).
But be he king or pauper, an individual cannot be excused for his actions. It is insulting – downright debasing – to suggest anything or anyone else take responsibility for an individual’s actions, for responsibility is a cornerstone of being human. A lion will eat you not because she is evil, but because it is in her instincts to do so. We do not hold her responsible for her actions (not in the way we hold each other). A trained lion may not eat you, but it’s not because she has an understanding of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ or of personal responsibility and consequence (to the extent that we do). Of all species, humans alone can be held responsible for their actions, because we have the capacity to rise above, reason with, or altogether ignore our ‘instincts.’ Granted, this capacity is greater in some than in others. Some may argue that in certain cases the ‘ultimate’ reason behind a person’s action may lie with society, culture, history, dispositional deficiencies, upbringing, or other such ‘circumstances.’ But ‘reason’ does not equate to ‘responsibility.’ Ideas cannot be held responsible. Ideologies cannot be held responsible. Responsibility is the domain of humans; it is why we celebrate, respect, condemn, accuse, honour or disgrace one another. It is because we believe autonomous individuals knowingly and consciously make choices, and are aware of the consequences of these choices, which bring about certain expected desired or undesired results.
In this light, responsibility is the single most frightening and empowering thing about being human – to know that you alone are responsible for your actions. There are many things in life that cannot be dictated, circumstances included and the actions and attitudes of others. But you and you alone have power over your own actions and attitude. So steal if you must, but steal knowingly and responsibly; that is, own your character and your actions. Circumstances only serve to limit our choices. It is we who ultimately make the choice.
The gap between the left and the right is not as stark as Shapiro makes it to be, but he is perceptive in its nature and how it dictates the choices of either side. This gap isn’t unbridgeable either, once we acknowledge that it is not an “either, or” scenario, but “both.” Humans do not live in a vacuum; our circumstances affect, shape, and move us, but ultimately, we are responsible for ourselves and should make choices with honour and integrity.
As for radical Islam and “evil ideologies,” this topic is beyond the scope of this essay, and beyond the ability of many wiser and more learned than myself. Shutting down conversation about radical Islam — or any subject — is certainly no solution. There is fear on both sides of the issue, which greatly impedes progress. The left fears those who would use a platform to address radical Islam to instead persecute everyday-Muslims. The right won’t acknowledge those who would use a platform to address radical Islam to instead persecute everyday-Muslims, lest it undermine the whole platform. Politicians will play to whichever side they have the most sway with and whose fears they can utilize most effectively. Neither side speaks with honour, truth, or integrity, ideas best left to be explored in movies and comic books now, like mythical heroes of old, heard of and talked about but never seen.