You might think some saints and criminals are basically good or bad.
• Mother Teresa devoted her life to the care and service of the poor.
• Zacarias Moussaoui participated in the 9/11 terrorist conspiracy which resulted in the death of 2,996 people, and at least $10 billion in damage.
• Nelson Mandela was a South African anti-apartheid politician and philanthropist who inspired reconciliation and peace
• Al Capone – a ruthless gangster leader – was responsible for planning many acts of violence including the machine-gunning a rival racketeering gang in Chicago.
There are plenty of others who have done notably good or wicked things. Examples are those awarded with war medals for bravely risking their lives for others, serial killers, campaigners for human rights, war criminals, founders of charities serving the poor, sex abusers, whistle-blowers against corruption/malpractice and exploitative people traffickers.
Even if they have some other sides to their character, you may think such people are basically good or bad – full of selfless love or just plain rotten inside.
Natural causes of conduct of criminals
Are such individuals born the way they are? Should we give merit to nature or blame it for their condition? There is some genetic evidence to support the latter view in relation to the behaviour of criminals. Two genes – monoamine oxidase A (dubbed the “warrior gene”) and CDH13 – are both said to be tied to a higher likelihood of violent crime. Research into temperament has discovered that criminals often have high impulsivity, a sensation-seeking trait, aggression and low empathy.
Environmental causes of conduct of criminals
Others argue if you improve the environment of any individual then you can change the person. According to this view if people had not suffered maltreatment as children, come from homes with marital discord, or lacked parental supervision, then perhaps they would have been upstanding citizens. Also had they not had the social and economic disadvantages associated with a high frequency of changing jobs, unemployment and living in places of dense population, then again perhaps they would have been less likely to become criminals.
Legal view of criminals conduct
Our courts assume that we each carry responsibility for our actions and thus are either guilty or not guilty as charged. In other words regardless of their natural disposition and environmental experiences, even bad people can tell right from wrong (unless they are suffering from some serious disorder which prevents them from so-doing) and thus should be held culpable for their personal choices. This way of thinking implies people are neither born so bad nor conditioned to behave so badly that they cannot obey the law.
Mindfulness and our view of criminals
Similarly, the idea that we have responsibility and inner freedom to transcend our natural disposition and social conditioning is central to the spiritual and religious understanding. Religions teach we all have the potential to be inwardly transformed – find self-realisation, achieve enlightenment, become liberated, be saved.
Along with such beliefs is a common religious assumption: that it is a mistake to identify oneself with one’s impulses, urges and desires. They are merely states of mind, distinct from oneself.
So when you view saints and criminals, do you label them as good or bad by identifying them each with their feelings of say love or hate, or do you assume that they are only temporally influenced by humility or egoism?
Our view of ourselves
Likewise, when you see yourself, do you identify with the feelings and thoughts that come and go? ‘You may say yes of course I do. Why shouldn’t I suppose that my own consciousness is not part of myself? They are my feelings aren’t they? My thoughts. My desires.”
Yet one spiritual writer put it this way:
“We say ‘I am angry.’ But you are not angry; you just have angry feelings. You may say, ‘I am depressed.’ No, you are not depressed; you have feelings of depression” (Thomas Keating, Founder of the Centering Prayer movement)
This is very similar to the Buddhist view regarding attachment. Those who advocate mindfulness meditation advocate non-attachment which is the belief that one’s thoughts and feelings are not essential to one’s self but are merely phenomena to be observed. It is identifying with such thoughts and feelings that is said to cause suffering.
Swedenborg is known as someone who made an inward journey of discovery, writing up his numerous mystical experiences in meticulous detail. He reports that whilst he was in an altered state of consciousness, he would see and hear spirits of dead people who were associated with him. These he discovered to be the normally unconscious source of his thoughts and feelings.
He wrote that within his mind he had seen and heard certain spirits and felt the anxieties that well up from them. He observed the increase and decrease of anxiety as they drew near and moved away.
He very often experienced being raised up so to speak into the company of good spirits; but if he were to be let go of, even very slightly, he would be exposed to an inflow from bad spirits whose illusory ideas and selfish impulses would flood his consciousness.
So the question arises, if your good and bad thoughts come from outside of yourself, can you ever be said to be a fundamentally good or bad person?
Swedenborg’s answer is to do with his concept of ruling love.
We all are inwardly making personal choices turning towards either higher or lower spirits although we are not conscious of their presence with us. Turning towards the thoughts and feelings of the higher spirits we strengthen their presence within. But turning to the lower ones, we form bad habits of thought such as impure fantasies, self-serving priorities or spiteful attitudes.
If we are not careful we begin to own lower ways of thinking which can then start to dominate our motivation. We are slowly forming a type of self-centred attitude that takes priority over higher hopes, wishes and sentiments. Criminal intent thus may become the reigning desire which is the character one gradually forms for oneself.
Copyright 2015 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author Heart, Head & Hands (https://spiritualquestions.org.uk/2012/10/heart-head-hands-ebook/)