On Sunday while listening to Tapestry on CBC Radio, I was struck by the notion that atrocities done to others arise from and absolutely rely on a sense of moral certainty. So said Bertrand Russell, and producer Frank Faulk begins the show with this idea that explains so much.
For instance, explains York University Professor of Moral Philosophy Susan Dimock, it tells us why in Canada's past native children were collected in residential schools and treated so badly. This was done not out of a monstrous desire to hurt and punish these children, but with a misguided sense of moral certainty that they must be reformed to the ways of church (and state) for their own good.
Humans commit atrocities only in seeking to ensure their own safety or to secure what they believe are the best interests of others who do not know what is good for them.
Economic or territorial ambitions, explains Professor Dimock, are insufficient causes for people to overcome their natural rapport and sympathy with others enough to allow them to commit atrocities. Those others must be dehumanized or demonized, and that takes moral certainty.
This idea has fascinating implications. For me personally, it reframes my own stance toward my longstanding lack of moral certainty. Far from marking me out as a wimpy waffler who refuses to commit fully to a single religion or set of principles, my openness and flexibility are positive traits.
The fact that I am unprepared to judge behaviour and people with a categorical certainty is a healthy indication that I make no hubristic claim of being in possession of the only truth. Anti-ismism. I support nothing that ends in ism. Ironically, I call myself an anti-ismist.