Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Even Astronauts are People

by Tibor R. Machan

No, I am not at all gleeful about Astronaut Lisa Nowak's indictment for attempted murder. But I do consider it instructive that someone from an elite group of men and women can apparently turn out to be quite vicious. It shouldn't need to be said but, sadly, it does. On one Los Angeles radio station, for example, a commentator intoned with great indignation about the event, lambasting Nowak not for what she is supposed to have done but for doing it while an Astronaut with NASA. How dare someone with such a prestigious outfit turn out to do bad things, maybe even end up a bad person?

I wish I could have replied to this ignorant exclamation right on the spot, just in case some listeners didn't appreciate its full implications. Are certain groups of human beings supposed to immune to evil, lack the freedom of will to do the wrong thing? Surely that is a hopelessly delusional idea, embrace by the likes of those who believe in the innate goodness of certain groups of people.

We have so many examples of the supposedly elite going bad; we have Aristotle teaching that the hypothetically best regime governed by the best among us will not work because the best rulers often turn into despots; and we have ourselves to check out so as to confirm that anyone is capable of going bad. Not that anyone must go bad—the idea of innate evil is as insidious as the idea of innate goodness. What makes the human species distinctive is precisely that anyone can become either good or bad or hover somewhere in between, in mediocrity.

Of course there is a long tradition of some folks managing to pull off the ruse that they are a special breed and those who aren't of their ilk, just aren't up to snuff. This has served thousands of those in the upper echelons of society very nicely for thousands of years. But it was and continues to be nothing more than a ruse. We are all capable of turning out to do things right or to do thing wrong or, as is often the case, do a bit of this and a bit of that throughout our lives.

The belief that suggests that NASA folks are a special breed and that Lisa Nowak is thus some freak lends credence to one of the most insidious aspects of social thought. It goes hand in hand with the many varieties of tribalism, whereby Germans are superior to Jews, Muslims to Christians, white folks to black ones, men to women—or vice versa, you name it. And it is responsible for a huge amount of the misery that we find throughout human history.

Instead, the best understanding of human nature suggests that keeping on the straight and narrow is a matter of constant vigilance, of shaping and keeping in good shape one's moral character, of never stopping the monitoring process whereby one conducts oneself virtuously instead of viciously. The temptation to become lax in this task can lead to disaster, and indeed most of the avoidable disasters in human history have been due to such negligence and the subsequent efforts to cover it up.

So the lesson from astronaut Nowak's story may well turn out to be important not only for her and some of the folks in her life but for all those who are tempted to believe that going into some line of work, some profession, or some calling will spare one the trouble of having to work at being a decent human being. There is no formula for achieving that apart from one's own relentless, full focus on what it takes to live one's individual life as best as one can. While there can be some practices that will make this come about at greater ease than without them, even then constant vigilance is unavoidable since the future can always pose unexpected challenges, temptations, obstacles and diversions.

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