Thursday, December 19, 2013

Must we do unto others before they do unto us?


By George Templeton
Gazette Columnist

Is It Good? Part II

Are we to understand evil theoretically, as philosophers and theologians have tried to do, or are we to focus on overcoming pragmatic evil?  Is it Ronald Reagan’s “evil empire”?  Will we divide our world into us (the good) versus them (the bad)?  Are we taught to hate and fear?  Do we justify our actions, thinking that if we don’t do it somebody else will?  Must we do unto others before they do unto us?

Our conscience transforms evil into holiness.  Hatred becomes a greater evil than the things we disapprove of.  Intolerance delights in creating a nihilistic, amoral relativist “straw man” who can easily be torn to shreds to support its proud judgment.  The problem is that evil often fits within the guidelines of history, culture, psychology, and religion.

Evil’s History

When did sin begin?  Saint Augustine (354-430) was not so sure of the literal consequences of Adam and Eve eating the forbidden fruit from the tree of knowledge.  Was evil born or just recognized then?  Were we created in response to some internal need inside of God?  Myth reveals truths that are broader and deeper than any attempt to explain them.  Knowledge is blessing and curse.  We all suffer punishment, but Augustine could not explain why we deserve it.

Saint Augustine concluded that thought alone was sufficient to prove God’s existence, but he recognized that the Bible contained symbols and ambiguity.  He explained how to separate the literal from the symbolic.  Augustine interpreted the Bible.  A thousand years later, religion interpreted Augustine to create Jansenism.  The pope declared it heresy because of its Calvinist tendencies in 1713. 

For Augustine, evil was an internalized senselessness turning away from and perverting the basic good in all creation.  Good could exist without evil, but evil, having a blameless facade, could not be without good.  There was no such thing as evil to choose, but man had enough freedom to turn away from good.  Evil was a wolf in sheep’s clothing, empowered by wanting empty and meaningless things.

Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716) thought differently, claiming that evils are inevitable and necessary to build character and provide the contrast required to understand and appreciate goodness.  The atheist Bertrand Russell took it further when he claimed that a Godless universe indifferent to human determined values could be basically evil.

Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) wanted to understand how evil persuaded its followers.  He saw evil as motivated by our endless desire for more.  It was a self-indulgent gratification, a false pride that on closer inspection revealed self-interest and self-deception.  It was a private matter, facilitated by solitude and hiding.  When secret billionaire donors fund organizations that subvert Democracy and majority rule, we should be concerned that public interest might not be at heart.  Disgusting things are done in private.  Evil is darkness, when you shine a light on it, try to see it, it goes away.

Jean Calvin (1509-1564), a theologian and lawyer, had been exposed to the darker side of man.  He believed in a hard form of predestination and that people, though not actually compelled to sin, were no good.  For him, the Genesis fall had forever more corrupted mankind.  His theology made Geneva into a glass city supervised by spiritual police who imprisoned and executed drunkards, dancers, and heretical disbelievers.  Those who seek God outside of human experience, who distrust rationality and see evil intentions in their brother, have inherited Calvin’s ideas.

Karl Barth (1886-1968) is regarded by many as the greatest conservative Protestant theologian of the 20TH century.  Evangelicals reject him because he did not consider the Bible to be literal.  Barth saw evil as human created and experienced.  It was a problem that would be solved in the fullness of time by God’s providence.  Barth’s thinking was not constrained by religious orthodoxy.  “The nothing”, materializing in “affliction and misery”, was his definition of evil that would help mankind understand its dreadfulness.  “Nothing” was God’s permission instead of production, and a non-willed reality.  It was something that God passed over in his grander scheme.  But “nothing” fails to embrace the finiteness of human comprehension.

Nothingness offended the rational minds of the ancient Greek philosophers.  How could nothing be something?  In the seventeenth century, most people thought it was impossible to create a void.   Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) showed otherwise.  Science knows that zero and infinity can lead to difficulties when they are contained within one’s symbolic algebra or computer program.

Psychology of Evil

Is evil an illness?  The charming, cunning, psychopath, who feels no guilt, remorse, or empathy, may know the difference between right and wrong but not apply it.  The law holds us fully responsible only for intentional acts arising out of free choice, but are we free and responsible for evil in ourselves and the world?  Is God responsible for evil when he allows the Devil to do his work?

Abraham, the Biblical father of faith, faced a moral quandary.  To violate God’s commandment would be wrong, but society, not hearing that commandment, would view Abraham’s plan to sacrifice his son as wicked and the act of a mad man.  Note that Abraham’s intended act was not authorized or justified by God’s command.  Abraham could have concluded that he was hearing the Devil.  It was Abraham’s interpretation that authorized God’s command.


Free will seems incompatible with an omniscient creator who knows, preordains, and sustains all things.  Are we like Pavlov’s dogs, compelled by stimulus and reflexes, or controlled by Freud’s individual unconsciousness or Jung’s collective?

Freedom can both create and destroy.  Could sin exist without freedom?  Not permitting sin would require abolishing freedom.  We sin because we can.  A universe with freedom seems better than one that is determined even when sin is included.  Most of us feel that we are at least partly free.  Freedom’s ethos is bounded by responsibility, randomness, capability, and necessity.

There are many different degrees and types of freedom.  The Tea Party’s perverse freedom, documented on the Web in the Michigan Tea Party’s “Rattle with us” mission statement, is spiteful.  It wrecks and destroys and takes personal offense at restrictions imposed by society.  It is an individual thing that lacks responsibility beyond the self and sees society’s laws and regulations as tyrannical, controlling everything.  When the individual comes first, before one’s neighbors, anything that limits personal freedom can be questioned.  More than the individual is at stake.  Civilized democracy requires the constructive cooperation and compromise that comes from empathy and mutual understanding, not from violent revolution, private militias, military law, and threatening the government to create a fear of “we the people”.

Subjective Evil

Subjective morality depends on feelings like hatred, disgust, anxiety, fairness, happiness, comfort, appreciation and love.  Subjective sin grows from the inside like a cancer.  It includes things like the character of a person, honesty, fidelity, frugality, prudence, humility, generosity, gratitude, compassion, empathy, altruism, and devotion, but is concrete only in overt behaviors.

It is a matter of debate whether the moral worth of an action depends on motivation.  Saint Augustine felt that thoughtless evil was worse than motivated evil regardless of consequences because it created blindness to sin and a personal internal fault.
Reasoning cannot be trusted when thoughts just occur and are not controlled.  John Milton’s 1667 poem, Paradise Lost, emphasized the supremacy of a pure conscience, but does gut feel allow common sense?  Was the Genesis fall good instead of evil because it had been God’s intent and laid the foundation for the coming of Jesus?  Could what we perceive as evil actually be good?

G. W. F. Hegel (1770-1831) declared that war is virtuous and honorable, providing opportunities for heroic sacrifice.  He said that war deters evil and drives mankind’s progress.  Peace promotes decay, corruption, and deterioration.  A personal, internalized morality holds that it is appropriate to punish and kill an enemy as long as we do not hate him, as long as we feel about him as we feel about ourselves.  C. S. Lewis, in his book Mere Christianity, denies the emotion of remorse in the service of war when he argues that defense needs gaiety and wholeheartedness, not resentment, guilt, or shame.  The soldier goes to war for the good of others.  Part of him never comes back.

Rational Evil

The belief in the mutual exclusivity of mind and reality and that we must belong to the latter sets the stage for trivializing moral decisions.  Thought is not a sign of weakness or indecision that denies truth and worships reason.  It is necessary for judgment and diplomacy.
If you have had to choose between wrong and wrong, make decisions that will unavoidably hurt someone, and tossed and turned the night away while fully accepting responsibility and understanding that the outcome is uncertain, you know that more than intuition is required.
Logical arguments are complex and tricky.  There is no such thing as unbiased pure reason, but rational morality follows reason instead of impulses.  Some psychologists claim that reasoning is an illusion, but how they choose and formulate questions biases their conclusions.
Critical thinking requires an effort to understand the pros, cons, and possible consequences.  It is only possible when one’s mind is not already made up.  Rationality may be imperfect, but irrationality is worse.  The road to the conclusion that one hopes to justify must be carefully examined and capable of withstanding criticism.

Medieval Scholasticism accepted Catholic orthodoxy while recognizing its tensions and conflicts.  It used formal logic to dispute and analyze in minute detail.  It tried to make ethics into a science by virtue of the perfect use of reason, but reason fails when it ignores complexity or is based on presumptions that are inaccurate.  The ancients lacked the scientific method and our understanding of matter, fire, water, heat, and gravity.  Their arguments reveal how growth in knowledge has to encompass and explain the word if the word is to remain credible.

Can intellect resolve every question?  Martin Luther (1483-1546) felt that the Devil must be a theologian.  Uncertainty to him was a sign that the Devil is corrupting your mind.  Reason helps to make evil seem less.  We say, “It seemed like a good idea at the time.”  The power of faith is directly proportional to its unreasonableness.  If we could reason our way to the truth, faith would not be necessary.

Emmanuel Kant (1724-1804) found evil in self-interest taking priority over the general good.  Good came from intentions and cold-hearted duty, and excluded feelings.  It could not depend on individual desires, but rather had to be universal and without exception.  Kant said, “Act so that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of another, always as an end and never as a means only.”

Are moral truths self-evident and reasonably known apart for experience?  The decisions required in a complex world emphasize ends, but acts performed out of moral duty can be good regardless of consequences, and evil can exist independent of consequences.  If morality depends on motives instead of consequences, and if rationality is universal, the enlightened should agree, but they don’t.

Even when people are told about intentions, they fabricate explanations that are consistent with an amoral mankind.  Is the purpose of moral reasoning only to influence other people, guard our reputation, or justify evil acts?  Is the world much worse than we think it is?  Anne Frank, the optimistic 13 year old Jewish author of a diary written in hiding during the time of the Nazi holocaust, wrote otherwise:  “Despite everything, I believe that people are really good at heart.”  Politics in America is rooted in the idea that humanity is either no good or nice.  But if people are basically good by nature and become corrupted, why is evil so prevalent? Should not good come from good?

Scientific Evil

Scientific studies suggest that our sins depend more on surrounding context than on innate character.

Stanley Milgram’s 1961 Yale University study found that authority could override personal ethics when students were instructed to administer incremental electric shocks to a hidden subject, strapped in an electric chair, who screamed, cried, and seemed to die.

The Stanford prison experiment, performed by Philip Zimbardo found that human behavior is twisted by social structures, when he performed a role-playing simulation and the “guards” exhibited sadistic tendencies and pleasure from inflicting pain.
John Darley and Daniel Batson’s Princeton University involved seminary students who were instructed to give a lecture on the parable of the Good Samaritan.

Unknown to them, a person in obvious trouble was staged where they would encounter him on the way to the auditorium.  Because they were in a hurry, few bothered to aid the distressed person.

Studies show that honest people cheat when they are unlikely to be caught and if they can fabricate an excuse, but how do we define “honest”?

Next time, part III contemplates civilized and powerful evil and how it relates to folly, predestination, and relativity.

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