I stumbled across a New York Times article two days ago that I read with mild interest. It was a brief description of the role of moral disengagement in prison staff members, especially those who worked on death row: it chronicled an ongoing line of research at Stanford, in which the conclusion was that the closer the staff was to the execution process, the higher their levels of justification (moral, social, and economic), and the greater their denial of any personal responsibility.
I hadn’t given much thought to the topic, but I was meditating this morning and later, on my way to work, I realized how the article related to a central Buddhist tenet. It’s not a particularly brilliant insight, but I appreciated the connection nonetheless. It’s merely that a deep engagement in life – that remaining as aware as possible in and of each moment – is the path toward compassion, and thus toward a more ethical and a more moral life. It’s awareness (and a commitment to staying aware), and not reason, that provides the clearest path toward skillful behavior.
I am not denigrating reason and rational argument by any means; rather, I was just struck by the power of justification – and the depth of their belief – and how essential this was to allowing them to do the work they do. I’m doubtful that many of them could be argued out of their actions, but I’d be very curious to see what effect meditation would have.