Do bad ideas and evil ideology spread like a disease? In this edition of The Moral Is, Fresno State philosophy professor Andrew Fiala argues that rotten ideas and pernicious ideologies will die out and that good ideas will eventually succeed, so long as we engage in moral and mental hygiene.
We tend to fear that immoral behavior is contagious. Some fear that terrorism and radical ideology spread like a disease. But is this really true? Are evil ideas really contagious? Some idiots do commit copy-cat crimes. And an old saying holds that one rotten apple spoils the bunch. But human beings are not fruit. The vast majority of us are reasonable beings, not seduced by the pernicious ideologies of the rotten apples.
Our bodies have natural resistance to disease and our souls have a natural resistance to vice and to bad ideas. Good nutrition and proper hygiene help to prevent the spread of disease. Morality and reason work in much the same way. The roots of our ideological immune system are tightly woven into our social and psychological DNA: most of the time, most people are decent, kind, and reasonable.
Moral vaccines and rational booster shots also help: education, philosophy, and science can provide us with extra resistance to ideological corruption. A daily regimen of moral and mental hygiene is essential for ethical fitness. Take time to be mindful. Build nurturing relationships. Avoid corrupting influences, cynical associates, violent media, racist ideology, sexist imagery, and the like. And above all seek the truth.
Some worry that this is not enough, perhaps thinking that evil is so insidious and powerful that it cannot be resisted. But to think this way is to already admit defeat. Good ideas—if they are really good—are obvious, reasonable, and desirable. There is no guarantee, of course, that good ideas triumph every time. But in the long run, unlike apples in a barrel, human beings have the capacity to understand the good, choose the reasonable, and resist corrupt ideologies.
Some worry that any new idea is evil. Conservative defenders of tradition view new ideas as dangerous contagions to be resisted and eliminated. But dumb and dangerous ideologies can’t overwhelm good sense. Ideas are not viruses that infect us against our will. Rather, good ideas catch on because we understand their value. And bad ideas die when they are exposed as evil and untrue.
The difficulty is, however, that when it comes to ideas, there is more than one kind. Even apples come in various colors. There are also pears, peaches, and persimmons. Some of our fear of ideological corruption is actually a fear of variety. We don’t want our apples contaminated by the apricots and avocadoes.
Some fruit is really rotten and ought to be thrown out. Any ideology that calls for murder and mayhem should be rejected. But in throwing out the bad, we should not discard the merely different.
One important component of physical, moral, and mental fitness is a balanced diet. Good fruit comes in many flavors. And one rotten apple rarely spoils the whole barrel.