by Troy Chapman
(published September 03)
I recently ran an ethics class here at the prison. It’s always amazed me that “corrections” philosophy in this country completely overlooks teaching morality as a way to reduce crime. It’s as if we think virtue just “happens” or doesn’t happen and there’s no connection between goodness and what people have been taught.
We talked about this in the final session — about where goodness and evil come from. I asked how many people could name more than five plants or animals that share the prison yard with us. One guy pulled it off, but most of us had never even wondered about it. I pointed out that there was a time when any eight-year-old could have named most of the plants and animals in a 50-mile radius — and told you their uses and habits as well. Then our culture stopped passing this knowledge on to new generations and now it’s lost to virtually all but specialists.
In the same way we’ve stopped passing on basic sacred knowledge (not that we’ve ever done it very effectively, but it’s worse now than ever). Is it any mystery then that toxic thinking and behavior has increased?
I asked the men to write a short essay about their impressions of this eight-week class. One man who had obviously struggled with the language and concepts of the class nonetheless took meticulous notes and put these together in a detailed play-by-play description of the course. He couldn’t read very well but he worked his way though the essay (we read them aloud) pointing out all the things that were important to him. He was hungry to learn anything that would make him a better person.
Another man said, “The most important thing I learned is that everything is connected to everything else, even when we can’t see the connection.”
All the men were sincerely committed to learning about ethics, living better lives, and contributing something of value to the world — indeed they were excited by the possibility that they could.
I couldn’t help but wonder what effect we could have on crime if the prison invested even a small percentage of its vast resources into encouraging this possibility. But that would demand a shift in our thinking. Building people up is based on the assumption that people who do toxic things are spiritually underdeveloped. If this is true the only sane thing to do is help them develop.
Our present approach is built on a different assumption — that people who do toxic things are malicious and “evil.” The only logical thing to do in this case is to tear them down. They’re enemies and the more we can weaken our enemies the better.
In prison I’ve learned again and again that even the most toxic people have a place within themselves where they long for goodness, and when we validate this part of people they begin to grow like a starved plant when it suddenly gets water and light.
I’ve learned that the little bits of sacred knowledge that many of us have, but consider “unimportant” — like the idea that all things are connected — can be radical and life-changing to people who’ve not yet been introduced to them. Instead of looking for some “grand plan” to change the world (and often feeling paralyzed) I should remember to simply keep planting seeds — those little dusty, unpromising looking things that produce roses and oak trees.
This is where goodness comes from — it’s grown. But in order to plant it we have to have some measure of faith in the soil, the seed itself, and ultimately, the mysterious process that brings life forth in the most desolate of places.
Here’s my essay for the class:
“The most important stuff of this class has happened outside the ‘official’ agenda: meeting you guys, talking about stuff that’s important and that often gets overlooked in our culture, thinking about how we can contribute to wellness and sanity on the planet.
“Someone once said the job of philosophers is to question answers, not to answer questions. We’ve questioned many answers here. I hope we’ll go on doing so, both those we’ve arrived at on our own and those we’ve inherited from culture. Ethics should never be a mere academic interest. It’s the stuff of life and many of our ways of being aren’t serving us very well in these times.
“We need conscious questioners, people willing to take up the task of at least thinking about, and possibly after that contributing to, the creation of the kind of world we all want to live in.
“Remember all wisdom begins with love and goodwill because we cannot truly know anything we don’t love. Ethics, ultimately is virtue — the art of being a beneficial presence on earth.