Saturday, February 18, 2012
The Problem of Evil
The other evening we watched Slavery by Another Name, a PBS presentation based on the book by Douglas Blackmon. Anyone who could watch this without tasting disgusting evil has little sensitivity or reason. How could you not condemn the perpetrators, those who made profit by keeping African Americans in abject bondage even after “emancipation”? How could you not condemn community leaders, even Teddy Roosevelt (formerly one of my heroes), who, like the banal Eichmann, refused to acknowledge, must less stop, this atrocity?
And how could you not praise Blackman and PBS for letting us know this part of America, land of the free?
There is a problem of evil that has nothing to do with a good, omnipotent god creating or permitting bad things on earth while supposedly forbidding them in heaven. Rather it has to do with our new understanding of physics, social conditioning, and neuroscience. Recognizing the determinism in science even quantum and emergent physics, the role of the environment in shaping behavior, and the modular nature of the brain, do we let people, including ourselves, off the hook?
(Recall the joke about the judge who said to the murderer, when he claimed in his defense that he was predestined to this crime, “I’m sorry, I am predestined to sentence you to life in prison.”)
Is there evil that must be opposed vehemently? What makes it evil? And when are we practicing and being evil while attributing it to others: terrorists, communists, criminals, racists, anarchists, Republicans, atheists? Can we hold people, institutions, and nations accountable? And ourselves? Should we not make those southern aristocrats, plantation owners, and businessmen who perpetrated such horrors on African Americans pay for their actions? Should we make amends for our and our ancestors’ silence? Or just forget it? Like the Holocaust, Vietnam War, American Indian and Armenian genocide, Japanese brutality, Dresden, Hiroshima. Just chalk them up to our naturally selected proclivities for violence, selfishness, righteousness, domination!
Elsewhere I have argued for an ethical model based on the structure of our humanity, our existence in the world, as revealed through biology, psychology, and neuroscience. Good behavior enhances that structure. Bad behavior diminishes it. Evil is much more than breaching the customs of a culture, much more than desecrating religious codes of some holy book, and much more than breaking the laws of civil society. Evil is violating existence itself, destroying that which makes us human, obstructing our collective progress, and devastating our common future.
Some philosophers of science following Plato have argued that evil is lack of knowledge. They argue that our way of dealing with evil, whether earthquakes or wars, is knowledge by problem solving. But I prefer to say that lack of knowledge is a source of evil—especially when we neglect or refuse that knowledge.
Evil can be attributed to acts, persons, institutions, and situations. An act that treats another as an object for personal gain is a violation of one’s own dynamic relationship with others as co-creators. A mine owner identified by a pattern of behavior that cohorts with a justice of the peace to arrest a black man and sell him to that mine owner to work off a fine is an evil person. An institution is a complex pattern of behavior involving many persons with stable rules. An institution, like an economic system that depends on slave labor or unequal wealth creation is evil. So is a church whose rules keep women or races in a subordinate position and that legitimizes and sanctifies ignorance.
Here is the problem, really crisis, of evil. Evolution, accidentally or by some overseeing “Providence” if you want (I don’t!), has brought us to a point where we can take responsibility personally and collectively, for our past and our future, for the place and condition of our very being. It comes with the power of reflection, the ability to think scientifically, to choose freedom with our existence.
I am not saying we are totally, unconditionally free or powerful or thoughtful. I am saying that we together in association can take responsibility to become free, thoughtful, and powerful. Freedom and power and thoughtfulness are not granted by the state, by the church, by aliens, by angels, by gods, or by nature. They are achieved through thought and action with others of our species. Wise people have indicated this for as long as we can remember, but it is only since the Enlightenment, the Age of Revolution, and the New Science that this is dawning on our species globally.
We live in a time and space in which we can acknowledge our past and shape our future to achieve a world in which people can become free and powerful and thoughtful or its opposite. It is an awe filled responsibility.
There are acts, persons, institutions, and situations that are evil—that obstruct human progress, that undermine the dynamism of human existence. However, because ours is an ambiguous existence, evil is not absolute. Acts can be forgiven, persons can change, institutions can reform, and situations can transition. To demonize a person or an institution is just another evil.
Some politicians and pundits pander to the ignorant and the fearful, using hateful labels and slogans about the other side even though they know better, because it increases their ratings and profits “from the base.” In doing so they promote popular ignorance, fear, and even violence. These panderers indeed are most despicable. But even they are not absolute evils to be dehumanized as they do to others.
Anger towards these people, institutions, and situations, as found in Slavery by Another Name and often on talk radio and stump speeches, is appropriate. We must do all we can to stop their injustice, but never participate in their belief and action that would make an enemy an object, a thing, an alien—a “devil.” When we do this we become them and participate in their evil—as Malcolm X came to understand with his growth in Islam. Indeed all institutions including religion are to be judged and reformed by the standard of our humanity and our capacity for progressive understanding and love.
Let human morality not be founded in or judged by the oracles of the gods. But let the oracles of the gods be founded in and judged by human morality.