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The spiritual goal of Self-Reg is to enable every child, teen and adult to sense a higher truth. Something above and beyond social mores. To know the difference between good and evil. To feel the momentous weight of morality for the wellbeing of our own and future generations. To hear the cries of a child before they stop crying completely because no one ever came to their aid. To be bound to care for the wellbeing of every member of the community, including the stranger. To abhor the possibility that anyone should go hungry or homeless or friendless.

I have grappled with Tanakh for as long as I can remember. Partly because I think it speaks to us in ways that no other literary work can rival. Partly because the Bible’s approach to preventing evil has proved to be totally ineffective. And in no small part because of the evil that has been perpetrated in the false name of the Bible.

I wrote last month how the concept of morality is grounded in the idea of hearing the voice of God:

To sense a higher truth, something above and beyond social mores. To know the difference between good and evil. To feel the momentous weight of morality for the wellbeing of our own and future generations. To hear the cries of a child before they stop crying completely because no one ever came to their aid. To be bound to care for the wellbeing of every member of the community, including the stranger. To abhor the possibility that anyone should go hungry or homeless or friendless.

I want to continue with this line of thought, but my goal today is not to shed further light on the origins or nature of morality. Rather, it is to reflect on our attitude towards those who do not hear this voice.

The latter issue was uppermost on the minds of the authors of Ketuvim. Judging from the Psalms, it doesn’t seem that very many at the time were listening. Psalmist after psalmist complains about the widespread corruption and moral decay of the day.

It’s always possible, of course, that the picture is distorted by a few disgruntled individuals who had gotten into some sort of trouble. But the same certainly can’t be said of the Prophets, who lay the blame squarely at the feet of the upper classes.[1]

But my interest here isn’t in plus ça change plus c’est la même chose. It is in what the psalmists had to say to those who, in their eyes, were deliberately breaching the Covenant.

Psalm 94 is an important case in point. The psalmist descries the rampancy of “the wicked who exult and crush the people, who slay the widow and murder the fatherless.”  He addresses them directly: “Take heed, you most brutish people/You fools, when will you become wise.”

There are variations on this couplet throughout the Ketuvim and Nevi’im, to the point where it reads as a formulaic figure of speech. One that needs to be broken down.

  • By “brutish” (resha’im) what is meant is that the “wicked” (ungodly, agitated, disquieted)  do not use the gift of reason with which all humans are blessed
  • The fool is someone who spurns advice and rejects wisdom, or who is influenced by the resha-im.[2]

The philosophical point here is that evil acts are both voluntary and intentional. Humans are born knowing the difference between good and evil. That was the upshot of the story of the Fall. Hence the resha’im (רְשָׁעִים) can hear the voice of God but choose to ignore it.

The Psalmist seeks to convince them to change their wicked ways. Indeed, the Psalm reads as an appeal to reason: one intended to persuade the wicked that “Evil will recoil upon them,” if not in this life, then in Sheol (שְׁאוֹל).  Not to mention the list of curses outlined at Deuteronomy 28.

Buried within this warning were the seeds for the argument to take a sinister turn. God instructs Ezekiel to save the souls of those Israelites who had gone astray. He tells Ezekiel that he must dissuade [the wicked] from their evil ways in order to save their life, that wicked person will die for their sin, and I will hold you accountable for their blood.  But if you do warn the wicked person and they do not turn from their wickedness or from their evil ways, they will die for their sin; but you will have saved yourself (Ezekiel 3).

It is not hard to see how this message could have gone so awry. If someone refuses to listen to reason, then you have no choice but to compel them to be rational (sic.)! Couple this with a reframing of resha’im so that it refers to any person or culture deemed to be “unenlightened.” Privileging rationality isn’t just ineffective, it is easily perverted. And when that happens, horror ensues.

But the part I want to focus on for today is the very first word in this passage: the idea that you can “dissuade the wicked from their evil ways.” Reason with them. Prove to them the grim fate that awaits. Remind them of the blessings enjoyed by those who choose goodness over evil (Deuteronomy 7).

We have been privileging rationality ever since. Trying desperately to change the mind of those who “call evil ‘good’ and good ‘evil’” (Isaiah 5). Make them realize that they are muddled or misled. Isaiah was as bewildered by this phenomenon as we are. How, he asks, can anyone “put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter.” All he can do is cry out “Woe to them,” much as we are still doing.

Before we get to “woe” we need to ask “Why.” Something that, quite remarkably, has never been done. Until now.

Recent advances in neurobiology enable us to make sense of the point that had flummoxed the psalmists. They could not understand why the resha’im were intent on harming themselves as much as society. But where the Psalmists rail against those who “put darkness for light and light for darkness,” neurobiology identifies homeostatic imbalance in the Gray Brain as the source of the problem.

These neurobiological advances tells us when and why we need to cease privileging rationality. Once we begin to understand the Why, we can change how we address the problem. The goal is to make rationality possible, not to presuppose it – not bemoan the fact that the “wicked are deaf to reason.”

The first step is to distinguish between describing someone as wicked and describing them as behaving in a wicked manner. In the former case, we assume that they have no choice in how they act; the wickedness is somehow stamped into their character (e.g., they are said to have low activity in the MAOA-L gene). In the case of the latter, we look at what is happening in the neuroaxis that would lead someone to act in a wicked way — i.e., that would blunt all prosocial feelings.

Just as we distinguish between misbehaviour and stress behaviour, so too we must distinguish between wickedness and non-rationality. Between knowingly harming others, and not knowing why one is acting in a way that is harmful to self and/or others. Between ignoring the needs of others and being in a state of dysteroception.

Dysteroception refers to when a subject does not register aversive sensations that are triggered by homeostatic imbalance in ancient survival systems. Hyperaroused SEEKING, RAGE, FEAR, PAIN, PANIC/GRIEF, LUST and DOMINANCE block CARE. There is a deficit in the neuropeptides that underpin calmness and empathy (oxytocin, vasopressin, serotonin, and endogenous opioids). Not only is the subject unaware of another’s state of mind; they aren’t even aware of their own.

If the recent advances in neurobiology have taught us anything, it is that being unable to hear is not at all the same thing as being foolish. That is, being in a state of dysteroception is not at all the same as refusing to listen.

That is not to deny that there are those who “choose wickedness” — who lie, cheat, and steal. Who manipulate others for their own devious ends. Who spread terror in the debased name of “righteousness.” Whatever it is that leads individuals or groups to commit atrocities, we are faced with a different issue when it comes to those whom the resha’im have led to “oppress each other, man against man, neighbour against neighbour” (Isaiah 3).

You cannot reason with true wickedness; only ensure that justice is served. But neither can you reason with non-rationality. Those who misbelieve what they have been told — over and over— find it more stressful to ask Why than to misbelieve.  Goebel’s first law of propaganda was: “Repeat a lie often enough and it becomes the truth.” But that is hardly a novel thought. David warns about this very point in Psalm 12.

How then do we aid those who have been sent into non-rationality? Not by trying to dissuade them, nor by threatening them with all sorts of dire consequences. Rather, we need to help them restore homeostatic balance. The return to rationality will (hopefully!) follow in its wake.

In Biblical terms, we are helping them to hear the voice of God. That is, to feel empathy and compassion, awe, reverence, joy, and love. Spurring them to fight for freedom, equality, and justice. Enabling them to rank the common good above egoistic desires.

By no means is the foregoing meant to be read as a reductionist argument. It is not saying that moral emotions are nothing more than biogenic amines. Rather, the point is that certain neurotransmitters and neuromodulators are what make the experience of moral emotions possible. Without this neurochemical substrate, the subject cannot begin to process what you are trying so hard to teach.

Once homeostasis is regained, moral emotions can develop. The Bible has long been the paradigm for the kinds of stories, poems, prayers, and proverbs that nurture moral growth. The rich literary tradition which, as Northrop Frye so masterfully delineated in The Great Code, was shaped by the Bible. Which inspires morality, but only in those who are inspirable.

I’ve introduced several terms in this blog that may be puzzling to some readers: Gray Brain, dysteroception, privileging rationality, non-rationality, misbelief, Primitive Emotion Circuits (CARE, SEEKING, RAGE, FEAR, PANIC/GRIEF, LUST, DOMINANCE). My goal at this year’s Self-Reg Summer Symposium (SRSS) is to explain each of these terms so that you can see how Self-Reg makes it possible for us to restore morality. Indeed, how Self-Reg is the vital step for a society bent on restoring its morality.

[1] The Lord enters into judgment
    against the elders and leaders of his people:
“It is you who have ruined my vineyard;
    the plunder from the poor is in your houses.
15 What do you mean by crushing my people
    and grinding the faces of the poor?”
declares the Lord, the Lord Almighty (Isaiah 3: 113-15)

[2] Fools “despise wisdom and instruction,” they “hate knowledge” (Proverb 1)

Watch Stuart’s on-demand webinar Wrestling with Evil which dives even deeper into the concepts shared in this blog. See his full on-demand webinar catalogue HERE.

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