"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Monday, October 22, 2012

Does Evil Exist?

I have never been convinced that evil exists, persuaded as I am by history which teaches if nothing else that it repeats itself.  Shakespeare has written eloquently about the rise and fall of kings, and the familiar wars, coups, plots, murders, deceptions, and expropriations which were instruments of expansion and the protection and preservation of empire.  Machiavelli, a contemporary of Shakespeare believed the same, and evolved his theories of rule and governance based on this value-neutral philosophy.

The critic Jan Kott has called this perpetual repetition the Grand Mechanism, the engine of which is an ineluctable human nature.  As long as human nature does not change, said Shakespeare and Kott, kings and the common man alike will always act to defend their perimeters, seek to expand them, and never cease these pursuits until they reached a more-powerful enemy.  In their scenario there is no good or evil, but simply the playing out of primal forces, socialized by the times.

Nietzsche took this philosophy a step further and suggested that while ordinary people might think that good and evil existed, they do not; and the highest order of human being is the √úbermensch or Superman, who, through an expression of pure will,  transcends good an evil. 

Secularists have always believed that the absence of God makes no different in the course of human affairs.  Human society is self-regulating through the assembly of countervailing forces.  Social groups are formed – each with their own code of honor, valor, and honesty to preserve internal integrity – to help expand individual self-interest.  Lawyers and contract law are but instruments of allowing individual rights to be expressed against competing claims.  In other words, we do not eliminate ourselves in paroxysms of selfish violence because we have developed constructs to prevent it.  Social groups are but extensions of our desire to stay alive, protect our interests, and expand our protective perimeters.

Claire Carlisle has written an excellent two-part series on the nature and perception of evil in the Guardian (10.22.12, Part II), and writes:

David Hume gave a pithy summary of the problem of evil in his 1779 Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion: "Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil?" For many critics of theistic religion – and Hume can be included among them – this is not a problem to be solved, but a basic and definitive objection to belief in a creator God. The obvious secular response to Hume's (rhetorical) question is to simply accept that the world is as it is, evil and all.

The issue of evil and whether or not it actually exists has been debated for millennia, largely because of religion.  The Christian doctrine of creation makes the question of evil particularly pressing. If the world was designed and brought into being by a perfectly good, just and all-powerful creator, why does it contain evil at all? If God did not create evil, where did it come from? And why would God make human beings capable of extreme cruelty?

The popular Christian response has been that He created evil to test us, for the attainment of the Kingdom of Heaven, like anything else, should be hard work.  If not, its value would be diminished.  Only the good (and/or the redeemed) will see God.

Christian philosophers have taken a more sophisticated view of the argument. The emergence of St. Augustine’s thinking – and one which has dominated the Christian Church ever since – is that there is no such substantive, distinct thing called ‘evil’.  It is just the absence of good. 

As a young man, Augustine followed the teachings of a Christian sect known as the Manicheans. At the heart of Manichean theology was the idea of a cosmic battle between the forces of good and evil. This, of course, proposes one possible solution to the problem of evil: all goodness, purity and light comes from God, and the darkness of evil has a different source.

However, Augustine came to regard this cosmic dualism as heretical, since it undermined God's sovereignty. Of course, he wanted to hold on to the absolute goodness of God. But if God is the source of all things, where did evil come from? Augustine's radical answer to this question is that evil does not actually come from anywhere. Rejecting the idea that evil is a positive force, he argues that it is merely a "name for nothing other than the absence of good".

However, Augustine was aware that everyone ‘knew’ that there was evil in the world.  Whatever they called it, however they conceived of it, people observed the most horrific examples of anti-human behavior – Godless behavior, many thought; and since God was good, then there had to be a devil, somehow set up in his own kingdom as a kind of semi-autonomous state performing the necessary task of challenging ordinary mortals.

Augustine’s account of evil is, of course, metaphysical rather than empirical. He is not saying that our experience of evil is unreal. On the contrary, since a divinely-inspired world is naturally oriented toward the good, any lack of goodness will be felt as painful, wrong and urgently in need of repair.

This explanation has stretched the limits of believability.  There are too many inexplicably, pure diabolical events that occur, say many believers and non-believers, to label them ‘the absence of good’

We may demand a better account of the apparent positivity of evil – of the fact, for example, that holocausts and massacres often involve meticulous planning, technical innovation and creative processes of justification.

So, the world still tends to fall into two camps, one which believes that evil does exist and is the product of this semi-autonomous Devil; and the other which believes that evil does not exist but is simply an exaggerated expression of the human nature which is in all of us.

Carlisle, however, points out a third way, but one which confirms Augustine’s theory:

In his 2011 book Zero Degrees of Empathy, Cambridge psychopathology professor Simon Baron-Cohen proposes "a new theory of human cruelty". His goal, he writes, is to replace the "unscientific" term "evil" with the idea of "empathy erosion": "People said to be cruel or evil are simply at one extreme of the empathy spectrum," he writes.

To me, lack of empathy is another way of saying purely self-centered or self-interested and still has a negative connotation.  People without empathy (a term of positive affect) are less good than people who have it.  Almost all of Shakespeare’s characters are without empathy, mercy, or sympathy.  They act according to prescribed, in-built compulsions.  It is not just the villains like Richard III, Macbeth, Iago, Edmund, or Aaron the Moor who act this way, so do the more ‘sensitive’ protagonists.  Hamlet, for all his reflections about the nature of life and death, pursues what he sees as right action, but at the end of the final act the floor is littered with the bloody corpses of those dead because of his ambitions.  Richard II, the ‘philosophical’ king comes to his moral senses only late in the play, and for all of the first and most of the second act he is the same venal, ambitious, and anti-empathetic king as Richard.

In other words, Baron-Cohen tries to have it both ways, but he cannot.  I have long-ago sides with David Hume and Shakespeare on the issue – there is no such thing as evil.  It is a social construct to explain the exaggerations and excesses of human ambition, and no more.  It is part of the ebb and flow of history, as much a part of the totality of life as good.  It is always interesting, however, to reflect on how others have struggled to explain this perplexing, perpetual, and frightening aspect of life.

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