Is humanity, taken as a whole, good or bad? To my mind, this is a nonsense question. It cannot be answered as an either/or proposition. It’s like asking if life itself is good or bad. These two questions—and many others besides—can only be proposed as both/and, then followed up by stating under what circumstances and to what degree each term applies.
We all know of good people in the world: open, honest, unassuming souls, ready to help others, respecting the norms of their culture, and otherwise minding their own business. We know of bad people, too: narrow, conniving, battered souls, always looking out for themselves, defiant of any norms or values, and ever ready to catch others in a trap. And we know people who are a mix of both qualities: trying to be good but with occasional lapses, generally bad but sometimes engaging in acts of kindness, or at least personal tenderness.1
None of us has x-ray vision into the souls of other men and women, and generally we can know a saint or a villain only after that person has acted—because everyone lies at times, with big fabrications and with small untruths, told out of shame, modesty, or vanity. Since this is the case, it is only prudent to offer everyone you meet a measure of courtesy, provisional respect, and the trust that they may have good intentions until they prove otherwise. This is not just good manners but a recommendation for good health: paranoia drains the soul and keeps you from sleeping well at night. What you’ll gain in a positive outlook and a life free of confrontation will more than make up for whatever momentary hurts, stolen goods, and lost opportunities you might occasionally suffer at the hands of the villains you meet.
All of this is preamble, I think, to the larger question of how people in a group of whatever size should be ruled, governed, or led upon some mutual venture. The choice seems to be—and here again it’s a question of both/and, under what circumstances, and to what degree—whether you want to give a lot of specific orders and write a great number of rules detailing all possible situations and potential crimes, or you want to evoke and demonstrate a set of values that will guide the individual behaviors of your citizens or followers.
Frank Herbert had the flavor of this in the Dune novels, with Duke Leto’s training of his son Paul: “Give as few orders as possible. Once you’ve given orders on a subject, you must always give orders on that subject.” In other words, it’s easier to lead by example and through the transmission of values than by giving specific instructions. This approach trusts in the intelligence and good will of your followers.2
Still, rules are sometimes necessary. Even “men of good will” need to know the local speed limits and approved parking spaces so as not to harm or inconvenience others; learn the guidelines about socially acceptable limits to choices like public exposure and personal practices; and have the norms regarding economic transactions, business practices, and other public acts spelled out, in case there’s any dispute. But rules should represent those limits beyond which mere personal choice becomes a public infraction that the local populace will not tolerate. This is why most laws incorporate sanctions and penalties: These rules are just too serious to be left up to gentle reminders from well-intentioned passersby and public shaming in the town square.
Orders are necessary, too, especially in emergencies and under special circumstance that the local magistrate, governor, or previously selected group leader could not anticipate and whose outcome he or she cannot predict. When catastrophe looms and chaos descends, when the peculiarities of the situation transcend the rules and regulations established to guide people in normal times, then everyone involved looks to a leader—whether formally elected, newly appointed, or naturally emerging—to tell them what to do, what to expect, and how to survive.
But, as Duke Leto reminds us, orders given merely for the sake of establishing one’s authority can quickly become burdensome. Worse, they can destroy personal initiative and hinder the creativity and responsiveness of subordinates and supporters who might be better informed or closer to the problem than the leader him- or herself. Besides, a leader who is always giving orders misses the opportunity to be pleasantly surprised by the native genius of his or her followers, or to encounter areas of failure or lack of direction that can be used as “teachable moments.”
The leader’s actions and directions in those moments, added to his or her thoughts expressed in speeches, private conversations which are meant to become public knowledge, and published writings, as well as the examples given through his or her own behavior, become the basis for values taught, learned, and transmitted. If the leader has gained the respect—and that’s another whole discussion!—of his or her subordinates, supporters, and followers, then they will watch and listen closely to see what actions are now appropriate, what behaviors will be rewarded—if only with a smile or a kind word—and what activities will receive the leader’s censure and punishment.
Of rules, orders, and values, the values that a member of the group or the public learns and adopts are the strongest governor of present and future actions.
It’s one thing to give a child the rule “Don’t hit your sister.” Spoken with sufficient parental sternness, this rule can keep a boy from physically abusing her with his fists. Yet he still might taunt her cruelly, damage her toys, or fail to protect her from bullies. But the value “We take care of each other as a family,” once learned—and seen demonstrated by and between his loving parents—will guide the boy correctly through all future situations.
Similarly, it’s one thing to post warnings and impose harsh fines against littering. That might keep people from dropping candy wrappers and soda bottles on the ground—at least where someone else might see and call them out, especially with a police officer or park ranger nearby. Yet the littering rule does nothing to prevent vandalism or theft of public property. But the value “We take pride in maintaining public spaces,” once transmitted and accepted, will preserve the parks and plazas, and keep the lawns and roadsides clear of trash.
Rules can be gamed: People can think of a hundred exceptions and a thousand excuses. Orders can be ignored: Subordinates can insist they misunderstood the subject or the context, or claim they never heard them in the first place. But values, once accepted as a personal guide and interpreted into a belief system, work at all times and in all circumstances. A person has to wiggle pretty hard on a point of logic to subvert the dictates of conscience or to explain a failure to act in terms that sit well with his or her soul. Values become part of the person and guide behavior.
At least, that’s the way it works with good and even halfway-good people. However, for the scoffers and those who think their own will and desires are superior to any situation involving “other people,” such imparted and evoked values may never work as guides to belief and action. But then, such people don’t do too well with strict rules and direct orders, either.
Rules and orders will work well enough if you’re in a hurry or operating in shifting times or under dubious conditions. But for long-term effect, a leader, a government, or a society should work to instill values and make supporters and citizens self-compliant. That’s what civilizations do.
1. In the same way, life as a whole for most of humanity, and in the instance of a single person’s existence, can be both good and bad. Some have lives filled with poverty and physical misery, but they still experience moments of sweetness and love. Some have lives of ease and pleasure, but they still experience boredom and depression. It’s like the light and the dark. If there were never night or any shadows, how would you know the quality of light? And if it was always night, with never a gleam of daylight, how would you know the depth and texture of darkness? Pain and terror exist to remind us of the sweetness of peace and calm.
2. For more, see Writing a Good Commandment from June 4, 2011.