Building a Moral Immune System

 When Fyodor Dostoevsky sent the manuscript of his celebrated novel, Crime and Punishment, to the publisher, he included a brief note.  “This is the story,” he wrote, “of a university student who is infected by ideas that float on the wind”.  There are three things this brief message conveys that are worth amplifying.  One is the vulnerability of university students to pernicious ideas.  The second is how such ideas, “floating on the wind,” are either difficult or unlikely to be recognized for the harm that they bring.  In Book III of the Republic, Plato explains that when the mind is infected by something alien, one of the most serious impairments that results is the mind’s inability to know that it is infected.  “Vice cannot know virtue too,” he writes,” but a virtuous nature, educated in time, will acquire a knowledge both of virtue and vice:  the virtuous, and not the vicious man has wisdom” (409d).  Likewise, a thoroughly dishonest man cannot recognize an honest one because he has no pattern of honesty within himself.

The third thing centers on the notion of being “infected.”  We are infected from the outside, that is to say, from something that is alien to us.  We do not produce an infection from within ourselves.

Our autoimmune system consists of 100 billion immunological receptors that distinguish the self from the non-self.  It protects us from outside substances that are potentially harmful to us.  It is our interior defense system.  Remarkable as it is, it does not always protect us from infection.  Dostoevsky’s note suggests that we need another kind of immune system that protects us from harmful ideas.  We need a complementary form of an immune system that protects us from being infected in a moral way.  Therefore, we need a moral immune system that shields us from pernicious ideas such as pride, anger, and envy which are harmful to us on a moral plane as persons.

Psychiatrist Viktor Frankl draws an interesting connection between pernicious ideas and social catastrophe.  He came to see from his prison camp experiences that it represented a microcosm mirroring the world as a whole.  The “pathology of the Zeitgeist” (the ruling ideas of the time), as Frankl describes it, is marked by provisional, fatalistic, conformist and even fanatical attitudes to life.  These poorly thought out, philosophically bankrupt approaches to life are not only futile on a personal level, but can easily mount to a psychic epidemic.  In short, as Frankl explained, bad ideas lead to the concentration camp (Psychotherapy and Existentialism: Selected Papers on Logotherapy, pages 104-5).  Tolerance of immoral ideas invites social mayhem.

The word “enthusiasm” in Greek, etymologically, refers to “being filled with gods.”  It emphasises what we have within ourselves that enables us to live a vibrant and passionate life.  From a scientific point of view, we might regard these “gods” as our immunological receptors.  On the other hand, we can view them as the moral powers we possess in order to be fully alive.

Our interior richness, our potential for moral excellence and physical health is often ignored and, as a consequence, remains undeveloped.  We are then left vulnerable to outside influences, many of which prevent us from being truly ourselves.  We can regard our moral immunological receptors as the various virtues that give us the strength we need in order to resist injurious outside influences.  St. Paul advised that we protect ourselves with the “armor” of God: “Stand therefore, having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and having shod your feet with the equipment of the gospel of peace; besides all these, taking the shield of faith, with which you can quench all the flaming darts of the evil one” (Ephesians 6:16).  This notion that virtue can serve as a strong defense against evil indicates that virtue is something far more effective than a polite option.

Friedrich Nietzsche viewed Christian virtues, especially charity, chastity, meekness, and humility, as examples of weakness.  The truth of the matter is that virtues provide us with strength and build an effective barricade against vice.  Our spiritual interior is far more capable than we sometimes think.  But, in addition to being recognized, they need to be developed.  Outside influences infect us.  Inside strengths protect us.  We stand against a world of bad ideas.  Virtues are, indeed, our allies in this eternal drama.

Crime and Punishment is a novel based on the twin propositions that a life ruled by bad ideas leads to crime, and that crime demands punishment.  Its corollary is that good ideas allow us to develop personal strength, and that this strength brings about a meaningful and happy existence.  Dostoevsky translated the poetry of Dante’s Divine Comedy into the form of a novel.  Both Dostoevsky and Dante advise us that we possess the inner capacity for goodness, but our failure to do this results in personal calamity.  Heaven and Hell pivot on virtues and vices.

Our autoimmune system operates apart from our will.  It is autonomous.  But, extraordinary as it is, it begs for a complementary moral immune system which does require the effort of our will.  Together, these two immune systems relate to the whole person, body and soul.  We should be more attentive and appreciative of the capacities we have on the inside and less eager to be infected by “ideas that float on the wind.”

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Dr. Donald DeMarco is Professor Emeritus, St. Jerome’s University and Adjunct Professor at Holy Apostles College.  He is is the author of forty-two books and a former corresponding member of the Pontifical Academy of Life.  Some of his latest books, The 12 Supporting Pillars of the Culture of Life and Why They Are Crumbling, and Glimmers of Hope in a Darkening World, Restoring Philosophy and Returning to Common Sense and Let Us not Despair are posted on  He and his wife, Mary, have 5 children and 13 grandchildren.  

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