Commentaries on Our Times

Commentaries on Our Times: An Inner Quality Perspective

This section addresses current issues during the 2020’s from the perspective of the inner quality. Its purpose is to explore the practical application of the ethical standards of the inner quality to contemporary issues of concern to society. The subjects chosen and the discussions are my own, as I seek to learn how best to utilize the integrative power of the higher mind in a pragmatic way.

Commentaries on American Democracy

Subjects addressed in these commentaries include legitimate and illegal demonstrations within a democracy and how each ought to be handled, how balance can be maintained between equality and uniqueness in society through the principle of fairness, how to counter internal threats to democracy due to human weaknesses, and how the power and influence of special interest groups can be managed through checks and balances.

Revolutions within a Democracy

During much of 2020, there were demonstrations and riots across many parts of the U.S. Initially, these began as protests against police brutality towards Afro-Americans and perceived racial discrimination. Within a short time, the peaceful demonstrations became a cover for rioting, looting, destruction of public and private property, and targeted attacks against law enforcement. Soon thereafter, these general acts of lawlessness were used to further the agenda of rebellion against the country itself and its constitutionally defined institutions.

Viewed from the perspective of the inner quality, these activities — while often occurring simultaneously on the streets — need to be handled differently. The right of peaceful protests, for example, is a long-established and accepted outlet for expressions of frustration over the social status quo. The inner quality standard of ethics has no qualms about this type of demonstration.

The rioting, destruction of property, looting of businesses, and attacks on law enforcement are criminal activities with no justification whatsoever from the perspective of the inner quality. Excuses based on poverty, unemployment, lack of opportunity, etc. ought not to be used as justification for these types of activities. Like all criminal acts, perpetrators of these crimes need to be subject to the laws established to guarantee the safety of citizens, the protection of their property, and the orderly functioning of society.

Acts of rebellion against the state move from being criminal in nature to revolutionary, in that their aim is the overthrow of the country’s political system and government. From the perspective of the inner quality, these revolutionary activities — which often are accompanied by violence and hence fall within the definition of crimes — ought also to be classified as actions by non-state actors.

There are many types of non-state actors. Some are truly worthwhile such as groups trying to alleviate humanitarian crises. Some non-state actors are international criminal syndicates such as drug cartels, whose criminal activities are trans-national in nature. Still other non-state actors exists for revolutionary purposes, often with an ideological goal in mind such as the overthrow of democracies and the establishment of totalitarian regimes.

From the perspective of the inner quality, humanitarian-based non-state actors are legitimate and ought to be supported. Criminal syndicates ought to be prosecuted and their activities stopped through cooperative, international law enforcement agencies. Revolutionary movements can either be legitimate or criminal, depending upon their ideological purposes.

In international politics, there is the observation that one man’s revolutionary is another man’s patriot. That is because revolutionary movements are generally ideological: democracies have their favored revolutionaries and communists have theirs. From the perspective of the inner quality, the key issue is whether a certain group’s revolutionary activities and ideology are morally supportive or destructive of the soul’s purpose on earth.

The philosophy of the inner quality is based on the premise that the purpose of the soul being born on earth is to learn how properly to use free will — that is, how to make decisions aligned with the character of goodness given by the Creator to the individual soul. Democracies such as the U.S. are imperfect; however, they give their citizens much more freedom to make decisions than do communist systems of government. This contrast, for example, could easily be seen in the Chinese Communist Party’s imposition of its new security laws in Hong Kong in 2020, which previously had enjoyed a relatively high level of individual freedom of choice.

In the case of revolutionaries participating in the U.S. riots of 2020, their distinguishing ideology was anti-democratic, anti-U.S. government, anti-American constitution, and anti-those agencies and personnel given the responsibility to protect the nation, its institutions, and its public buildings and other infrastructure. The ultimate ideological goal of most of these revolutionaries appeared to be Marxism, socialism, communism, or anarchy. In their use of violence to undermine the U.S. government, the revolutionaries were not only anti-American but also against the free will choice of the souls of the majority of American citizens.

Because these revolutionary groups were and are destructive of individual liberty and the freely chosen, democratic system of the U.S. government, these groups are dangerous to society as a whole. Those who use criminal methods to advance their goal need to be arrested and prosecuted within the U.S. system of justice. All U.S. law enforcement agencies — tribal, local, state, and federal — ought to cooperate to bring these individuals to justice in a timely and legal manner before further damage to American society is done.

Racial Equality and Fairness

A long-standing controversy in American society is how to deal with racial inequality and unfairness towards Afro-Americans and other minority ethnic groups. There are many reasons for this inequality and unfairness: the biases held by individuals and groups against those thought to be outsiders, a particular culture’s predominance in a given society and the tendency to believe one’s own way of life is superior to that of others, the historical record of a society and interactions between various ethnic groups, the sense of superiority that comes when one’s race or class dominates important political and economic sectors of society, the characteristics of society itself such as a strong sense of class differences or egalitarianism, and the perceived threat on the part of an ethnic group towards other groups.

It is important to remember that racial inequality and unfairness exists not only in the U.S but in almost all countries and societies of the world. Racial inequality and unfairness are part of imperfect human nature. From the inner quality perspective, racial inequality and unfairness, along with injustice, prejudice, hatred, jealousy, rage, violence, addiction, criminality, manipulation, dishonesty, and a thousand other perversions of the goodness of God — all need to be brought under control in society and gradually eliminated through education, training, and cultural refinement. Nearly all political theory over the ages have had as their goal the improvement of the character of man and his society.

The inner quality philosophy assumes that God created the human soul and that He made each soul’s character slightly different to reflect the infinite variations of His goodness. Thus, human souls are equal in that they are all sons and daughters of God; however, they are unique in the sense of their individual characteristics and capabilities. Human society, therefore, ought to reflect and respect both the equality and uniqueness of all people.

How to achieve this balance of equality and uniqueness has thus far eluded humanity’s political institutions because of the imperfections of mankind itself. Government has the responsibility to protect society and its citizens. To protect society from its self-destructive tendencies, all governments must use a combination of coercion and encouragement to move its citizens towards a more fair and just society.

From the inner quality perspective, the best standard government can use in developing policy and strategy in maintaining a proper social balance is fairness. To be just, fairness must have standards that are applicable to all citizens. For example, everyone ought to have the opportunity to become a professional athlete. However, to succeed in joining a team requires that individuals meet certain standards of excellence. A similar approach ought to be expected for people who want to become CEOs, accountants, professors, government officials, or any other profession.

Appropriate standards are vital in ensuring that fairness and justice characterize society. Government and social policy should ensure that everyone is equal in having both opportunity and in being evaluated on the basis of common standards for specific professions. To be abundantly fair and just, government and society should make every possible effort to provide training to those who wish to be successful in some field of endeavor. In this way, equality of opportunity and fairness in achieving personal goals can be reconciled and made to work for the benefit of society and its individual members.

The Greatest Threat to Democracies

The greatest threat to democracies often comes from their own citizens — more specifically, from people’s weaknesses as human beings, especially their selfishness and tendencies not to unite together, even for good causes, except under exceptional circumstances.

Because of its diffusion of power, a democracy requires a common commitment from all citizens on basic rules governing society and its various institutions. As long as this commitment exists, there is a foundation of popular support for the country; and its governing system can accommodate wide variations in policy preferences, personal competition for power, and special interest groups.

Over the course of human history, there have been dozens of different types of government, each one of which has failed over short or long periods of time because of human weaknesses. These weaknesses are legion and exist in virtually every category of human endeavor. Almost all governments try to control, eliminate, or replace the negative characteristics of their citizens, but all have been unsuccessful in this effort.

At the same time that governments have been unable permanently to improve the character of their citizens on a social scale, individuals have shown that they can become better people. The key to the success of individual improvement is self-transformation, wherein the individual’s negative characteristics are replaced by positive characteristics of goodness and goodwill. In most cases of self-transformation, there have been spiritual forces of change at work.

Because people have souls, and therefore a spiritual side to their nature as well as a bodily material side, nearly everyone has a direct connection (albeit sometimes tenuous) to God through the spark of goodness residing within the soul. If an individual wishes to improve his or her outer character, a self-transformation is possible when the person begins to identify with the character of his or her soul. There are hundreds of recorded cases of such transformation in people throughout history.

While the individual can dramatically improve his or her own character, it has thus far seemed impossible for all members of a society, culture, or civilization to improve their character at the same time. This has several implications for democratic forms of government.

First, it is highly unlikely that an ideal democratic government or society can be built, because ideal systems of government must emerge from ideal societies — which are nonexistent. Second, due to the imperfections of their society, every democratic government is subject to constant change. Third, government efforts to encourage the improvement of individuals in a democracy are likely to succeed, because individuals have a soul of goodness which can be awakened to effect personal change for the better.

From a public policy perspective, therefore, if a democratic government is to last for an extended period of time, it needs to balance the needs of various interest groups while at the same time to encourage individual self-improvement and exhort all citizens to work together to achieve great things for the common good.

The Balancing of Interest Groups

One of the greatest strengths of the American form of government is the elaborate system of checks and balances designed to ensure that no single interest group, or coalition of similar groups, can for an extended period of time dominate public policy. That system enables the U.S. democracy to survive in an environment of citizen imperfection, a high degree of personal freedom, and broad public participation in government and the making of policy.

From the perspective of the inner quality, the use of political institutions to balance conflicting human weaknesses is a pragmatic solution to the challenge of governance in the modern age. The range of freedom enjoyed by American citizens gives them ample opportunity to learn the proper use of free will in both a material and spiritual sense. The governance mechanisms creating a balance between competing interest groups provide a degree of stability and flexibility that enables even a diverse society such as the U.S. to function relatively well.

In an ideal world — if such a thing is even possible — people would all be good and everyone would be willing to compromise in order to accommodate the legitimate needs of all. In such a world, several forms of ideal government might exist, depending upon the character of a given society and culture.

In an imperfect world — such as exists today — people are both good as well as bad and often they are not willing to compromise with others. Yet, people are social creatures by nature; they form societies and societies require some form of government. Given human weaknesses, governments must be willing to use force to ensure that society functions well enough to survive. In the past, authoritarian forms of government have been able to control their societies. However, in the modern age of independent thinking and increased complexity, authoritarian governments have largely been replaced by governments supported by popular consent rather than by force of arms. And of the various forms of popular government, democracies such as found in the U.S. seem to be the most effective. Not ideal, not perfect, but effective under most circumstances.

At the same time, democracies have an intrinsic vulnerability in that the personal freedom they give to citizens easily results in the formation of special interest groups. These groups openly compete for power, wealth, influence, and other social goods of which there is a limited supply. In their struggle to acquire these social goods, interest groups — if allowed free rein — can undermine the cohesion of the state itself. It is essential, therefore, that democracies have ways to limit the ability of special interest groups to dominate society. If government fails to do so, a violent reaction might be triggered from others in society who feel they are being cheated out of their share of the social goods.

Each democratic government needs to create its own mechanisms to control special interest groups, based on society’s unique characteristics. The system developed by the founding fathers of the U.S. is built upon an elaborate, interlocking chain of decision making which includes checks and balances between federal, state, and local jurisdictions; between executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government; and between the people and their elected representatives in government. The rights, responsibilities, and duties of each participant in the nation’s decision making processes are carefully defined in a broad sense while maintaining some flexibility for needed change over time. The preservation and use of this system of checks and balances have proven to be vital to the longevity of the nation since its founding more than two centuries ago.

Freedom and Equality in American Democracy

One of the historic accomplishments of the United States has been the development of a working democracy based on the two principles of individual freedom and social equality. Both of these virtues have long been viewed as ideals towards which individuals, society, and government should strive in order to improve the quality of human life.

The challenge with incorporating these two virtues into a single political system is that there is something of a contradiction between them that requires a careful balancing to preserve opportunity, progress, and stability in society as a whole. If personal freedom is unbridled, then people can run amok if they so choose. If the highest social value is equality, then excellence becomes a thing to be avoided in the search for sameness.

In truth, freedom must always have its constraints to preserve stability, and equality is an impossible goal because it is nowhere to be found in man or in nature. If properly understood, however, these two great virtues can be balanced in ways that greatly serve the needs of both society and the individual. Finding this balance is one of the major aspirations of democracies, past and present.

Arnold Toynbee in his monumental Study of History noted that civilizations almost always become successful because a small minority of highly creative, insightful, and energetic individuals lead their communities in a positive direction. The contributions of these individuals can span the entire spectrum of human activity, but collectively they build the foundations on which communities and cultures can mature into outstanding civilizations spanning many, many generations.

In a democratic form of government, if equality is stressed too much as a social goal, then this creative minority finds it difficult to flourish and make its contributions. If equality is pursued as the sole highest virtue, then a leveling of social status and attainment is inevitably forced on the very people society needs to be outstanding. The danger, then, with social equality is universal mediocrity.

What the creative minority needs in order to do its essential work is a high degree of freedom in personal and professional life. However, too much freedom tends to erode social norms and can lead to social grossness and instability, since people neither know nor respect any boundaries to their behavior. The principle of equality counterbalances this rogue behavior, because equality works to stabilize society in order to preserve common rights and privileges, such as fairness, justice, security, and opportunity for all.

The challenge for the United States and other democracies in the 21st century is how to preserve the balance between freedom and equality in an age of rapid change in the ways people live. Values are changing, technology is changing, the climate and earth itself are changing. Rather than being integrative factors contributing to social stability, the virtues of freedom and equality are being separated from each other in the minds of many who prefer a narrower vision of democracy rather than the broader view which seeks to be more inclusive and tolerate of other points of view.

There are many factors which have contributed to the great power status of the United States in this century. However, one of the most important has been the ability of the American people to be inclusive rather than exclusive in their definition of American democracy and what it means to be a proper citizen. If this inclusive definition cannot be preserved, then the leadership potential of the United States as a force of good in this world will be greatly diminished, to the detriment of us all.

Tocqueville and Democracy in America

One of the most insightful analyses of the strengths and weaknesses of American democracy was written by Alexis de Tocqueville in 1835 in his study, Democracy in America. [Note that the summary of Tocqueville’s main points found herein are from the chapter on “Alexis de Tocqueville” in Leo Strauss and Joseph Cropsey, eds., History of Political Philosophy, 3rd ed., University of Chicago Press, 1987.] I have found Tocqueville’s observations to be relevant in many respects to the state of democracy in the United States today.

Tocqueville’s purpose in writing Democracy in America was to examine how equality could influence the social, economic, and political institutions of a country such as the United States. Equality is reflected in the fundamental principle of democracy that all men are created equal. Tocqueville contrasted this condition of equality with traditional aristocracy, where clear distinctions existed between various classes and equality for all men did not meaningfully exist at all.

In America, as Tocqueville observed, equality was epitomized in an exceptionally strong sense of individuality, in which each individual perceived himself as existing independently within a close circle of family and friends. With all of its strengths, this condition inevitably creates a fundamental problem for democratic government, because individualism easily evolves into selfishness, a lack of concern for the general well being of society, mediocrity, and even a desire for a soft form of authoritarianism to secure one’s personal comfort. To Tocqueville, the only solution to this inherent problem of individuality was to find a place within democracy for public virtues such as liberty, excellence, and the pursuit of greatness.

The key to bringing these public virtues into a democratic society, Tocqueville believed, was to inculcate the legitimacy of improving the material well being of all citizens, while also convincing the people to devote part of themselves to higher pursuits of benefit to society and the nation. When this balance is found and maintained, then the pursuit of equality can result in raising both individuals and the nation to levels of greatness. If a proper balance cannot be sustained, then the pursuit of equality can result in reducing everyone to their lowest common denominator.

In an ironic twist, if this proper balance cannot be found, then the sense of needing equality can lead citizens to believe that only a strong centralized government can be powerful enough to control the fierce competition existing between individuals seeking to secure for themselves a sufficient portion of the scarce resources available.

Facilitating this tendency towards centralized government is the propensity within a democracy for the emergence of a tyranny of the majority over the minority. Convinced that the mind of the collective many is superior to the individual intellect, the majority tends to insist that they not only have the right to rule but also the right to control the thoughts and opinions of the minority,

Tocqueville examined the infrastructure of American democracy to see how the Founding Fathers sought to use the institutions of governance to ensure that the principle of equality did not undermine liberty but rather allowed the flowering of greatness to emerge in the United States. To Tocqueville, the institutions of governance that were especially useful in constraining the tyranny of the majority were local self-government, separation of church and state, a free press, indirect elections, an independent judiciary, and the encouragement of associations comprised of special interest groups which tended to balance each other.

The key to resolving the problem of democracy in America was to manage self-interest. Learning to balance selfish interests with a concern for a larger group primarily took place at the local level, where it was natural for people to interact constructively with others for the greater good. For Tocqueville, these interactions generated over time a sense of public morality and patriotism which countered extreme individualism, thus making democracy and its principle of equality work in a practical way at the national level.