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Sunday, June 17, 2012

Malignant and Benign Certitude

What importance do you place on setting goals and achieving them? Are you accountable? (Serendipity Bible 10th Anniversary Edition, page 683).

Did the fascists set goals and achieve some of them? Were they, in a sense, accountable? While the answer is obviously that they were and did, somehow we feel an undertow of unease. Likewise, gangs and organized crime can set goals and be accountable within certain set illegal and unethical parameters.

Setting goals implies some measure of certitude. Certitude is oft times dangerous and has been the source of much cruelty and fanaticism whether in business, politics, or religion. The undeniable fact that it can appear in religion is especially troublesome for a basic tenet of the faithful is that only God is omniscient. Even while asserting that human knowledge is inherently limited and flawed in comparison to that of God's, it is not unusual for the faithful to assume severely dogmatic, rigid, and self-righteous stances.

The dilemma that confronts humanity is that certitude while extremely dangerous is also extremely necessary. Say there is a child in a burning building. While the wise and judicious stand aside in the shadows wringing their hands wondering whether to take decisive action to save the child, the hero with assurance and certitude (and not too much thought) dashes in and retrieves the child from the flames. Because of this bias for action, typically we prefer political candidates and other would-be leaders to have some measure of certitude—to be self-confident and assured; someone capable of strong action and not hobbled by too much thought. But I have carefully chosen my illustration by using a benevolent doer with a compassionate and empathetic nature. Humanity is not always so fortunate in identifying those within whom to entrust action and power. Within the right hands the view that "the ends justify the means" is benign. Within cynical hands the view is pernicious and vicious. Certitude when combined with cynicism and circular justification is perhaps the most destructive and poisonous mindset that undercuts human progress. Then goal setting and accountability become structures that mock genuine helpfulness.

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