Saturday, December 7, 2013

Cruelty towards others is cruelty towards us


[Gazette Blog Editor's note: The following is the first part of a three part series.  The other two parts will appear during the holiday season at approximately two week intervals.]

Is It Good?  Part 1

Politics is moral because it makes life better, but how true is that?  It suggests that somehow mankind can take action to solve the problem of evil, but politics puts our survival into question.  Absolute truth is not justified by the myriad political and religious organizations that claim different and often mutually exclusive realities.  They each have the right to be wrong.  Politics is not about promoting a culture of skepticism or compromise and it does not help us to acquire the tolerance of moral pluralism needed for the understanding of history’s echoes in today’s chambers.

Books have been written about the demise of ethics in America, claiming that a return to old time religion and values is the solution.  Their statistics are about divorce, gay marriage, crime, addiction, and abortion, but do they really measure morality?  David Hume (1711-1776) explained that “no is implies an ought”.  Evil is more mysterious than facts suggest.  No particular moral foundation has ultimate validity.  Making the world a better place requires our actions to follow a variety of ethical guides.  This first of a three part commentary treats theories of evil.  Its inspiration was Professor Charles Mathewes’ Great Course, Why Evil Exists.

Modern entertainment news journalism feels that asking whether a thing is good or bad is a sufficiently probing question, but things are becoming more complex and harder to understand.  Disagreement comes easily when the subject is ethics.  It is not the conclusion that matters but rather the arguments that are presented to support it.

Writers, since the rise of literacy, have worried about evil coming from faith in rationality and the scientific method.  Rationality is cold and heartless.  Man’s creativity seems to make an endless litany of new evils possible.  If ethics is not immovable and unchanging, it becomes subject to corruption and equivocation.  If ethics is absolute and rigid, it cannot address new dilemmas.  It has always been difficult for man’s search for meaning to bring new knowledge to the word.  Paul Tillich (1886-1965) tried this when he claimed that the Bill of Rights and all ethics is intrinsically religious, but he did not portray religion in its traditional form.

Trying to understand evil is an act of audacity.  Some will condemn the writer when thoughts are confusing or if they present no simple certainty, but that is the nature of evil.  Others have their mind made up and are searching for that which will support their already existing conclusions.  They might find it here.  Others are fortunate to have divine assistance or an unambiguous, comprehensive truth for all times and situations.  They need no introspection.  Others are afraid of thought that might challenge their beliefs.  They need the courage of conviction.  To all of the above, I would say that thoughts, words, and symbols often have broader and deeper meaning than first comprehended, and that thinking about the theory of evil is like learning how to read.  It can be a useful skill even if one does not agree with every book.


Evil seems pervasive in all of human history.  Throughout the ages, it has been thought to be mankind’s greatest problem, but does it have any reality independent of our consciousness?  Is there really a strong relationship between how we feel in our hearts and how we act in the world?

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) concluded that there was no such thing as an absolute binding morality, at least in the traditional sense involving self-sacrifice, self-denial, and empathy for others.  He seemed to feel that this was just the stupid and weak trying to impose their rules on the creative and strong and that destruction and change drove the future more than tradition and perpetuation.  By his view, morality was no longer useful.  Instead of a good or bad world neatly composed of opposites, he would have us focus on what is healthy or sick and on our “will to power”.  He would view evil as coming from laziness.  Does it remind you of political slogans concerning the makers and takers, and that we should not enable others by doing for them what they should do for themselves?

Paul Tillich reminded us that evil takes advantage of our inability to see that things are more than they seem to be.  For example, a chair is transcendent in so far as it reflects the tree that provided its wood, the craftsman who built it, the artist who designed it, and the person who selected and bought it.  For Tillich, the moral act was not obedience to any external law, divine or otherwise, but to the inner law of our true being, our created good nature.  People who risk their lives to save the life of another know transcendence.  The moral act is always a victory over disintegrating forces and the evil act a self-destructive perversion of creativity.

We perceive life as a complex of opposites:  truth and falsity, spiritual and physical, wisdom and chaos, good and evil, happiness and misery, birth and death.  Evil is rooted in our concept of the world but we cannot see that the diversions of life like getting and spending, mislead us from understanding the difference between bigness and greatness and what it means to express our gifts and talents.

Suffering and sorrow are unavoidable parts of life existing within man’s feeling that are not quantifiable.  Life will never be fair.  That which we cannot control must be gracefully accepted.  Instead of trying to get what we want, shouldn’t we appreciate what we have been given?  Limiting resentment helps one to see more objectively, but must we complacently tolerate evil or should we learn to be appropriately angry, not blindly and passively accepting, to live the moral life?

We are not just inhabitants of the world.  We also create the world we live in, but Martin Luther (1483-1546) felt that our resistance to evil would only mire us more deeply in it.  Our sinful nature and self-righteous reliance on ourselves is our flaw.

We know good and evil as mysteries that are not adequately defined by any dogma, theology, or book.  Regardless, we all must make ethical decisions.  We get as much from the symbolic notion of evil as we put into it.  To make evil concrete, material, and specific is to limit its definition.  Though we necessarily follow the guidance of moral tradition, because there are so many decisions required in ordinary daily life, we must not give absolute authority to them. They easily become destructive when substituted for empathy and listening.  A legislated universal morality, claimed to be religious freedom, holds culture securely in place and applies equally to everyone, but what is good for one man seems evil to another.  Sometimes the wrong things seem right at the time and sometimes the right things work out to be wrong.  By what basis do we make decisions between wrong and wrong?  When moral values conflict, no theory can tell us what to do.

Personal Morality

The threat of eternal damnation makes sin personal, a matter of things like wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy, and gluttony, as described by the doctrine of the seven deadly sins.

We encounter fraud, deception and injustice every day, yet no logic knows evil more clearly than our personal pain.  We need community to warn us when we are going too far, but can we understand evil without having personally experienced it?  Cruelty towards others is cruelty towards us.  It depersonalizes and makes us into the objects that we see others as.  Should we allow outsiders to make ethical decisions for us when they cannot possibly understand our personal situation, when we don’t know how we will decide until we have to?

It is right to be concerned about the assault on universal truths and timeless values.  A concern for man’s immortal soul arises because of the increased temptations in modern society, but the significant difference in modernity lies in technical power, the capability to eradicate pain and suffering, or the power to impose it.  Clearly, intensity of conviction and moral force fails to mandate any particular “objective” conception on matters like birth control and preemptive war.  Prudence mediates between absolute moral totalitarianism and unfettered relativism, but wisdom, modesty, willpower, and compassion remain contextual and subjective.  Finding a virtuous mean is difficult for a partisan Congress that values individual rights above human relationships.  But humans are bound to a transcendent moral order that is greater and longer lived than any individual.  It is in our nature.

Is the moral spirit breathed into life instead of coming out of it?  Research suggests that all of God’s creatures are like Pinocchio with a built-in Jiminy Cricket to advise them.  Pinocchio is how many of us were taught about an interpersonal morality, but it can be twisted to argue that only we set the standards for our own behavior.  Worse yet, objective right and proper action can be evil if done with an uneasy conscience.  Guilt is acting against one’s conscience even if it is the right thing to do, but some people seem to have no conscience.

J. P. Morgan recently paid a thirteen billion dollar settlement, stemming from their role in the 2008 real-estate bust that robbed people of their home values.  The “fair and balanced news” blamed the crash on excessive regulation.  J. P. Morgan faulted the government for not appreciating their help.  Lacking any feeling of guilt and sense of responsibility, they blamed others.

Is evil an inherited devilish instinct, a rebellion, that comes from our pre-human ancestors?  Carl Jung (1875-1961), theorized that we had a collective unconscious that knows more than any single generation of humans.  Our emotional predispositions to common experiences like power, sex, motherhood, and the protection of a helpless child come from patterns or prototypes he called “archetypes” and are essentially identical for everyone because of our common humanity.

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) saw evil as an unconscious internal battle between our greedy anti-social self and our guilty conscience, and that we had a subconscious death drive justifying violence, cruelty, aggression and our “will to power”.  But we don’t hear a thundering revelation or listen to that small voice inside us.

Flip Wilson’s 1970’s comedy character “Killer” was either in prison or at the pool hall.  He used to say, “The Devil made me do it”, suggesting that somehow he was not responsible and that we could be more than tempted.  Satan is not needed.  The human mind is more than enough.  Killer’s struggle was more internal than external.  Dante Alighieri (1265-1321), in his poem, The Inferno, described Hell as an intrinsic punishment, self-made, self-inflicted, and chosen.  The common attribute of all Hell’s occupants was the failure to take responsibility for their acts and what they had become.

Somehow good is more than autonomy and our particular ideas about fairness.  Often sin is mundane, bad rather than evil, just plain mean, deceptive, and occurs within the everyday context of our simple lives.  It could be things like Halloween or Pay Day loan stores.  When it is said that “guns don’t kill, people do”, we are claiming that evil is entirely personal, but can we frame the same question in terms of intercontinental ballistic missiles?  Somehow genocide requires more than individual sin and the little things that evil grows from.  When nations stockpile weapons of mass destruction, evil has grown far beyond its personal beginnings.

Next time, part II treats the history, psychology, and roots of evil.  It considers evil’s subjective, rational, and scientific tapestry.

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