Matrix: Reloaded Explained
The essay
Selected reader comments

Matrix: Revolutions Explained
The essay
Selected reader comments

But is it Bad?

12 Feb, 2008 | Dave

Resisting authority or violating norms may be exhilarating, even productive. But when is it wrong? When do you cross the line from ignoring the rules to engaging in evil?

I'm inclined to think of disobedience not as just one thing, but rather as something more along a continuum. At one end of this line is civil disobedience, an act that defies the law of the land because the law is believed to be unjust. We find a broad spectrum of people there from Ghandi and Harriet Tubman to the unknowns who hid Jews during WWII or defied the draft during the Viet Nam era. To conscientiously object to injustice may be disobedience, but most of us would consider it virtuous, even courageous.

At the other end of this line, and taking up a range of space, there exists deliberate and premeditated violations of human dignity and those things we consider inalienable rights ... whether protected by law or understood by most thinking people to be proper and good. This would include such things as stealing from your next door neighbor, lying under oath, and bringing guns to high school with you. Our value systems may judge some of these violations to be worse than others. But what they all have in common is the harm and suffering they bring to those who are violated.

Then somewhere in the middle of this spectrum lies a host of actions that are not quite benign, but neither are they things we enforce all that intensely. This includes many of our expectations, social conventions, "acceptable" appearances, and all manner of preferences expressed by people in charge of things. Disobedience here generally comes under the heading of "It's easier to ask for forgiveness than for permission."

So what all of this tells me is that disobedience in and of itself is not intrinsically good or evil. There's something else involved that tells us how to judge the act. At times, disobedience becomes an element we take into consideration along with other data to make our evaluation of a situation. Breaking a fancy knickknack could evoke quite different responses depending on whether it was brushed by accident, or we picked it up because we were told not to, or we were using it for a paperweight and things happened that we did not intend. If that is the case, then not only is the impact or end result of an action taken into consideration, but also the intent or internal process of the actor. In fact, hiding intent is often reason enough for us to lie about our actions. If I can get you to believe that I didn't know the rules, or didn't mean to do whatever it is that you are upset about, then you will be less prone to vengeance, disciplinary steps, or whatever. Why? Because you judge the act to be less of a violation.

But there is yet another piece to all this. What about those things we would do if we could? When we have recovered from the idiot driver who nearly ran us off the road, what sort of things do we wish we could do, if we only had a batmobile or some other means at our disposal for cleaning up the gene pool? Are there such things as "evil" intentions, whether or not they are carried out? My personal bias is to agree with Dallas Willard, who says that a thief is not just someone who steals something, but also someone who would steal a thing if he could. That's precisely what Jesus was referring to when he said that someone who fantasizes about a woman (my paraphrase) has already committed adultery with her "in his heart." Because what we consent to doing tells us at least as much about our character as what we actually do. A person who would consent to evil may well comply with what is right to do, but that does not mean there is no room for redemption. Consenting to what is wrong is evil in and of itself. Committing the evil only compounds the problem, it does not create it.