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On Crazy Institutions

Like 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 responded.

Crazy Systems

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 non-believer

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.

A 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.)

When 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 business."

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.

Personal Craziness

Personal 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."

In 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).

Where psychological 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

Institutional 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, "winning." 

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.

But 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

An 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 another.

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.
As 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
subject 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."


The 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. 

While 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 meditation.

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?

To this 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.

Alan 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).