I have this theory that we seek dictators and “strongmen” when we can’t or won’t bear the weight and responsibility of free will and interconnectedness. We don’t want to own all of our decisions – especially the ones we thought were right but turned out to be wrong. When what we did contributed to an atrocity but we didn’t mean to. Zealotry (either political or religious) means being sure we’re not only right but righteous. We want reassurance that our decisions made in blind obedience or faithless fear were somehow justified. We want to believe we are good.
We don’t want to accept our frailty, our complicity. The fact that every human decision and institution is flawed and fraught with unintended consequences. And we all inflict pain on others. So we seek someone who will simplify our choices, take away the awful sense of impermanence and the burden of ethical examination of our actions.
Do we take in the child taken from her parents?
Are we willing to drive the bus she was taken in? Fly the plane?
Will we issue the permit for the jail to confine her?
Will we supply and erect the chain link fence for the box in which she sits?
Would we take her in if she were standing on our front steps?
Leaders make thousands upon thousands of big and small decisions – most of which don’t present moral quandaries. Even though in the allocation of resources someone may be advantaged over someone else, we aren’t specifically aware of the family that will go hungry because the breadwinner will be laid off because we awarded a contract to one vendor instead of another. A brutal war that continues because it is tied to our choice of one energy source or another bothers us but we don’t feel complicit when we fill up our cars. When we make the decision to release toxic substances because we can and it’s more immediately profitable, we’re not standing at the bedside of a lung cancer patient at M.D. Anderson. And we can tell ourselves – it’s a complex world. There are many reasons a family might go hungry, someone might get cancer, bomb a country.
It’s just that sometimes the decision is more sharply cast and moves closer and close to us. Until it’s right there on our doorstep.
Then we get to the heart of how we really make decisions …whether we have a moral code equal to the decisions we must make. When no matter what we do someone will be hurt … then what?