The Problem of Ethical Dualism

4:09 pm | Uncategorized

Ethical dualism is the practice of attributing evil exclusively to a particular group or class of people, while ignoring one’s own capacity for evil or even considering one’s own actions to be good. The result is an “Us” verses “Them” view that polarizes people groups and classes into extremes so that mutual understanding becomes difficult or impossible. This results in a demonization of “them” - exaggerating the evils committed by the illusive “them” and seeing “them” as less than human.

Some of the common groups of people or classes that have been the targets of ethical dualism are the nobility, clergy, the bourgeoisie, Jews, or the corporate elite. It is a common human reaction to problems of injustice to associate injustice with the group or class of people that either caused or is perceived to have caused the injustice. Any time social polarizations occur, such as the current divide between “liberals” and “conservatives”, ethical dualisms tend to arise and stifle dialogue.

Who has this tendency toward this “us” versus “them” ethical dualism? Everyone. Without exception, all humans are universally given to thinking highly of themselves, and are capable of extreme anger towards people that they perceive have treated them unjustly. Human beings have a strong sense of the need for justice, but this desire for justice is easily distorted into viewing certain people as those who habitually cause injustice and evil against those who are good and virtuous - assuming that “we” are always the good and virtuous. It is the human sin of pride that causes people to ignore the evil they commit against others, while simultaneously exaggerating the alleged evil others commit against them.

Ethical dualisms are escapable in Christian theology. The key is an understanding of Original Sin on the one hand and the Imago Dei on the other. Because of the Christian doctrine of Original Sin, Christians should recognize that sin is not the exclusive domain of a particular group or class of people. Human sin affects all people equally, including “us.” As Solzhenitsyn put it, “the line between good and evil cuts through every human heart.” Every human has sin, and the one who thinks himself to be without evil or sin, as if he were some kind of super-man who transcends the categories of good and evil, is living in a sinful self delusion. Christians should be humbled by the recognition of sin in their own lives.

On the other hand, “they” are never completely evil either. No matter what evil may be attributed to “them”, “they” are also made in the imago of God - the Imago Dei. Sin has corrupted the image of God in “them” in precisely the same way it has in “us”. The critical point comes in realizing that no person or people group is categorically beyond hope of redemption. Instead of seeing “them” as enemies, Christians should be convicted and seek ways to reconcile and make peace.

With the recent release of the movie “The End of the Spear” I am reminded of the plight of the Waodani tribe. Generations of brutal killings had caused warring tribes to be locked into blood feuds. When missionary women were finally able to take part in the life of the tribe, they asked why the men of the tribe speared people in the other tribes. The response was classic of ethical dualism - they laughed and said yes we spear them, but they are really bad people. When the tribe began to realize that spearing people was wrong, they stopped the cycle of bloodshed transforming the Waodani permanently for the better. If the missionaries had not come, it is likely that the Waodani would have died off being unable to sustain a surviveable population.

Related pages and links:

Jordan Cooper: US vs. THEM

JollyBlogger: How Much Depravity and How Much It Applies

Charles Krauthammer: No-Respect Politics

Robert Koons: A Conservative Primer



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