Are Institutions Evil?
Animals: Tradition - Philosophy - Religion Article from


Stephen Kaufman, M.D., Christian Vegetarian Association (CVA)

Are Institutions Evil?

People who gain power, prestige, or wealth through their positions within institutions tend to defend those institutions, even when those institutions are harming other individuals. Yet, many institutions thrive with broad public support. Last week, I suggested that this might reflect how institutions help address our natural fear of death. Can any good derive from this fear?

In his book The Moral Equivalent of War, William James argued that people need to believe that their lives are meaningful. And, Ernest Becker, in The Denial of Death, maintained that believing that our lives are meaningful reduces humansí fear of death. Often, people derive meaning from communal involvement in warfare, in which they aim to defend their homeland or expand their nationís boundaries. Perhaps, James suggested, people can derive meaning by working together toward a common positive goal, such as eradicating disease, building temples or monuments in honor of their gods, or generating works of art.

Such positive efforts require institutions to organize and direct people toward a common goal. So, just as institutions can be vehicles for harm, they can also be vehicles for good. A problem remains: whether they are doing harm or good, institutional representatives will claim that the institution is doing good. How do we discern the truth? I will consider this next essay.

Go on to: Discerning Institutional Good from Evil
Return to: Reflection on the Lectionary, Table of Contents

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