The Limitations of Systems
“There will never be a system so good that the people in it no longer need to be good.”
Since I heard those words from Gary Black at a recent seminar, I have begun seeing its implications in our world like the kid in Sixth Sense sees dead people. We are often ignorant of the components of the culture in which we are entrenched, and I I was not aware how much faith we place in systems. But since it was pointed out to me, the places I see it are overwhelming.
When a pilot crashed an airplane into the French Alps, there was immediate attention given to the systems of security on the plane and the systems meant to encourage mental health in pilots.
Our church has been working on bylaws, and no matter how much we tweak them, we can always find ways that something could still go wrong. We just can’t get the system tight enough.
The illumination of violent police behavior across the country has ignited the debate about how to fix the system with increased surveillance, changes in leadership, and adjustments to training procedures.
Wherever you find tragedy, injustice, or shortcomings, you will find people clamoring to change systems. On one hand this is good. Systems do indeed play a substantial role in shaping our world. They can contribute to restraining evil, promoting justice, and providing opportunity. We should be concerned with systems. The problem comes when we move from understanding the importance of systems to asking them to bear the full weight of responsibility for reality.
One of the reasons we place so much emphasis on systems is that we are reticent to talk about character and virtue. We dare not offer that there are certain human characteristics and behaviors that are more noble than others. Ways of being and acting that are better for the individual and for society as a whole. These ways of being and acting are generally sacrificial and difficult. They are not founded on the self, but on the common good. At times we praise these characteristics when they are displayed, but we celebrate them as unattainable anomalies, not virtues which all might pursue.
That leaves us with nowhere to go but to systems. We should work on systems, but we should not be surprised when the systems fail us, and we tweak them, and they fail us again, ad infinitum. The only sure way to attain justice and flourishing in the world is by the agency of virtuous people working for the good of all. If all people put evil to death in themselves, the systems of the world would still promote goodness but would no longer need to restrain evil. Indeed, that is our ultimate destination.
We live in a time where despair, evil, and frustration are mixed in with hope, love, truth, and goodness. We need people who will live as good, courageous, upright people in the midst of whatever systems they function. Because “there will never be a system so good that the people in it no longer need to be good.”