On Crazy Institutions
many Americans, I have been troubled by the grievous misalignment of
our institutions and our ideals—including many of our religious
institutions (see Rethinking Religion: Beyond Scientism, Theism and Philosophic Doubt,
Cascadia Publishing House, 2011). So, when an academic ex-colleague of
mine asked me to come up with criteria for what some social scientific
writers have referred to as a "crazy" (institutional) system, I
I had no
idea that my attempt to identify institutional or system "craziness" in
a fundamental way would lead from social science to matters of the
spirit—to issues of incarnation, sin and the notion that religious
institutions might support institutional sanity by virtue of their
standpoint on life (not their doctrines). What follows is a journey
from the secular to the religious conducted by a religiously concerned
For me a "crazy" system is a
system turned against itself. The main criterion of a crazy system lies
in the incompatibility between its incentive structure (that which
motivates people) and the ends on the basis of which the institution is
defined or specifically justified.
So a journalistic institution, such as the New York Times or Washington Post,
has its justifying end in the presentation of relevant, important
information and sound opinion. But I have heard students and adult
professionals repeatedly describe the end of newspaper work as
"increasing circulation" or "selling newspapers"—thus reducing the end
of journalism to the end of a newsstand.
newspaper goes crazy when it falsifies or exaggerates or omits relevant
and important truths—which it tends to do when, as competition grows,
sales (a necessary) means becomes its end. (Think of engineers that
"have to" design big SUV’s—crazy in a time of global warming, crowded
roads, and little or no off-road activity.)
journalistic work is conducted in a structure whose justifying end is
no longer the end that earns the name of journalism, the journalist is
turned not only against journalism but also against his/her ideal
self—provoking guilt and the aggressive production of self-justifying
B.S: "there’s no such thing as objectivity," "newspapers are a
Such situations instance the famous
"fallacy of the commons." Action tuned to individual advantage, to
concrete specifics (status, admiration, deferential behavior, money,
power, love, goods, land) has little time for the goodness or the
rightness of an institution’s actions. As the means for action eclipse
action’s justifying ends, systems and persons (commons and commoner)
lose hope of personal and institutional integrity.
and institutional craziness share the same structure. Just as the
activities of institutions (journalism, law, history, science) have
their own defining and justifying ends, so human—as distinct from
animal—activity has its unique and justifying end. For the unique
capability of human activity is the ability to see what is true and
thus do what is good and right.
The ability to seek and realize
this end justifies whatever rights we claim and obligations we have
with respect to other living things. It is why we are not simply
"mammals" or "organisms." The end of acting for that which in truth
ought be done is what defines the "human" as against the "animal" and
the "person" as against the "creature" or "thing."
personal craziness the incentive structure is tied to the pursuit of
concrete particulars—factual conditions of one sort or another. The
child, for example, is curious about the world, is open to the true,
the good, the beautiful, but schools in time turn the child from
worldly exploration and inquiry to "grades" and (later) to the cash
value of "doing well."
The "American Dream" too often makes an end
of "wealth." Survival, power, security, acceptance—which can be means
to right thought and action—become ends in themselves, thereby reducing
uniquely human ends to the ends of animals (as journalism’s end became
that of the newsstand).
problems are unresolved ( "craziness" or "neurosis") the mind is
incentivized to treat the solving of past problems as current ends,
losing sight of what is needed in current situations. Ironically, the
development of one’s identity—while essential and unavoidable—poses by
its very solidity a standing problem for our unique human end since the
pursuit of what is true, right, or good will sometimes challenge what
we suppose—and thus ask us to be in some way different from what we are.
The Synergy of Craziness
craziness and personal craziness are interwoven and mutually
reinforcing. Consider sports. Institutionally, sports are "big
business"—as much a focus of "research" universities as elementary and
secondary schools. Individuals can absorb incentives from these
institutions. Celebrity coaches teach that "winning isn’t the thing,
it’s the only thing." Ask someone the aim of sports and they’ll say,
But propose they play
basketball against a sick or physically impaired opponent and they will
demur. Underneath, not entirely lost, is the knowledge that sport is an
ideal competitive experience—a physical and mental test of achievement.
Winning (like the rules) is but a means to that end.
in our culture, the means has become the end, so in "sports,"
successful fouling is a skill, a weak opponent is a gift and, together,
schools and players seek in each other an actor whose only aim is wins.
Incarnation and Sin
object or situation that ought to be a certain way is an ideal end—an
end not yet become a fact. The good or right that we imagine must be
realized through actual (concrete) thoughts and arrangements. Seldom
remarked, however, is that the movement from the ideal we have in mind
to the means of its realization is a movement from one kind of world to
Institutions and persons represent the
conversion of a non-physical vision of the good into a specific
physical form. How mind does this cannot, in my view, be explained
(over-simply: science can’t explain why a thing is good or right). The
transformation of what ought to be into physical fact—is incarnation.
The process is one of embodiment, but as it is the embodiment of an
ideal form or state, it is the embodiment of spirit, if "spirit" has
any meaning more serious than either ghostliness or vivacity. Incarnation is a natural miracle—a uniquely religious fact.
animals cannot do this, the transformation of the physical world in
accordance with the normative or good (the divine) may usefully speak
to the question, What is the meaning of (human) life?
Still, what I have argued is that the good or the spirit, once bodied, once made concrete, is
to "the ills of the flesh." The problem for institutions as for
individuals is how rightly to incarnate non-physical ends. In a sense
our psychological identities and institutional rules are idols, and the
problem is to keep them from falling into idolatry. Consider how the
means of "the free-market" is treated as an end (rather than "the
common good") or how often one’s ethnicity or nation is an end (more
than one’s humanity).
The independence of fact
from ideal brings the risk of embodiments ruling over what is right.
For me, this ever-present danger is the most basic, defensible meaning
of "original sin" or the "weakness of the flesh."
rules and incentives of institutions court idolatry when they become
disconnected from reflection on their relation to the good. As the
world changes, the meaning and effect of embodied life changes
(self-reliance in an agricultural America couldn’t have the same form
in industrial America). The means for achieving the good must be
continually subject to critical reflection.
this is a matter of maintaining continuous interaction between
institutional adaptations and higher education, journalism and
democratic processes, it is also a matter, in my view, of bring our
identities and social arrangements into the sphere of religious
For religious institutions are
unique in asking us to reflect on our lives in the light of our
eventual deaths. They are the goads to ultimate seriousness. Religion
brings each of us to the question, What is the meaning of my life?—What
difference has it made that I lived?
non-believer, the struggle over fixed, specific doctrines smacks of
means-end reversal. Surely, the end is to cleave to the meaning of
being human. If so, perhaps various doctrinal formulations are but
means aimed at achieving it. In any case, the standpoint of
religion—the spirit of the retreat—must be brought to institutions and
to persons if sane institutions are our goal.
Soffin, Doylestown, Pennsylvania, numbers among his interests
philosophy, religion, filmmaking, writing, and music ranging from
classical through jazz and international sounds. Soffin is author of
the new book Rethinking Religion: Beyond Scientism, Theism, and Philosophic Doubt (Cascadia, 2011).