Monday, July 21, 2008

Evil's Source

No one that I know - certainly no one that I take at all seriously - believes that the world is now or ever has been as it should be. But though we all agree upon that - that the world always could have been better than in fact it was - we do no agree upon why this is so. When we wish to speak of those parts or aspects of the world that makes it less good than it might have been, let us use the word "evil". Something evil, then, is something that, in some way or other, is not optimal. It is something that falls short, something that might have been better. So then we all agree that the world does now, and has always, contained evil; but we do not agree upon evil's source. Let us focus upon the evil that we humans do. Call this "artifact evil" or AE for short. (A good word for this is "sin", but some might not agree to its use, for it is a religious term.) Examples of AE: rape, murder, hatred, jealousy, spite, neglect of those in our care, genocide, slavery, racism, sexism, etc. Each is human, and each is evil. There are, I believe, two sorts of explanation of the genesis of AE in the world. One makes individual AE primary, the other makes group AE primary. Let me explain.

Individual AE

Here the root cause of all AE is said to lie in the individual human heart. It is there that evil is first conceived, and it is there from which evil action springs. As Solzhenitsyn said, the line that divides good from evil runs through the human heart. The one who holds this view need not deny the existence of group AE. The racism inculclated in the youth of the South when I was young might be a example, for it seems that this racism was spread across an entire culture and that this culture perpetuated its racism in the education of its young. But though one who holds that the root cause of AE is individual need to deny the existence of group evil, she will insist that, if one traces backward to time to the source of this group evil, one will find the individual human heart, corrupted by its love of that which is evil. Christianity is, I take it, wedded to an individualistic account of the source of AE. There is much in the story of humanity's fall in Genesis that is not true if read literally. But there is a nugget of truth in the story that Christianity must embrace, and it is that first one individual, and then another (and after them all humanity) turned freely against God and thus brought evil into the world. AE, says Christianity, has its source in an individual decision and individual action. Thus did evil enter the world, and thus now does it infect all of humanity. Note a consequence of this for how we are to conceive of the individual. The individual is prior to any group of which she is part. Her identity - that which at bottom she is - is not formed by the societal relations that bind us to one another. Rather the individual exists first - first in thought, first in action- and from this societal relations spring.

Group AE

Here the root cause of all AE is said to lie in culture, class, race, gender - in general, in group identity. Here the line that divides good from evil is the very line that divides group from group. When in The Communist Manifesto Marx tells us that the history of every society heretofore has been the history of class struggle, he makes quite clear how we are to conceive of the individual and of AE. The identity of the individual is derivative from the class of which he is part. I am the man that I am because I am a man of this class. Class first, individual after. Because of this, AE must too have its root cause in group identity. At bottom, it is not this or that human who is evil. Rather at bottom this or that group is evil (and by this we are likely to mean that it oppresses or otherwise mistreats other groups over which it has power), and the evil done by the individuals within it derives from their group identity.


Since Individual AE and Group AE differ so fundamentally about the cause of AE, one should expect that they will differ about how to put things right; and they do. Individual AE calls for the transformation of the human heart. (As John Lennon so wisely said, "when you tell me that it's the institution, well you know you better free your mind instead.") Only then, it says, can societal justice be achieved. Group AE on the contrary calls for societal transformation first, and holds that this is the only way to achieve the good of the individual. Individual AE does not see societal upheaval as necessary to address AE (though it might think this helpful at times). Group AE does. For it, evil can be overcome only if society is reformed - if, for instance, the slave-owner is made to free the slave. Indeed it is common among those who hold to Group AE that revolution - the violent overthrow of oppressor groups - is necessary to the abolition of AE. I know where my allegiance lies. I am Christian and with Solzhenitsyn hold that evil has its source in the individual human heart. Transform the heart and justice will follow. Seek justice without a transformation of the human heart and revolution will come to naught (indeed it will likely breed more evil than existed before).


ElderChild said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Doctor Logic said...

How about the South? Had the North not gone to war with the South, would slavery have vanished by change to the human heart? By 1865? How about the civil rights movement? Suffrage?

Empirically, how do hearts change if not by force of persuasion?

Moral progress is made when two things happen. First, there's an increase in empathy. Second, the fear of change has to be overcome.

Empathizing with slaves is not quite enough. Slave owners needed to overcome their fear of the new order. And that was done at the point of a gun.

I don't see either of these things being prompted (at statistically significant levels) except by social force.

Take a more modern example: gay rights. Gays were hated and marginalized by society. They were regarded as creatures that could not be empathized with. Men also feared that being near gay people would make them gay. What changed people's minds? Gay rights laws, and favorable presentation in the media. Thanks to legal protection, gays started coming out of the closet. The average Joe learned that gays were people too, and that they had not contracted homosexuality from the gay friends they didn't realize they had. People lost their fear and restored their empathy.

Let me ask you this. Has humanity made moral progress? Is the world better today than it was 1000 years ago? 500 years ago?

Franklin Mason said...

And whence comes the social force that can effect change? From where can it come expect through the conversion of the heart?

If everyone had always believed homosexuality a perversion that deserved no legal protection, society never would have changed (and as we know, it's in need of change still in this regard). The belief of a vocal minority that change was necessary came first, and this was a change of heart. I grant that this minority might then reform the wider society in ways that act primarily upon thtat wider society, not this or that conscience. But the conscience came first.

How do hearts change? I'm afraid that I don't have an answer. Nor can I answer how they become perverted. This is a mystery that (I think) the mind cannot penetrate. It drives to the very heart of the issue of the freedom of the will. But I still maintain that all change for the better begins in the individual human heart and radiates outward from there.

It seems to me that there are pockets of moral progress, but I think that we're always in danger of a slide downward. Reversal is always a possibility (as was shown by, for instance, Nazi Germany and the the USSR.)

Doctor Logic said...


I think it's interesting that you only acknowledge pockets of progress.

It seems that all the Christian bloggers give a similar answer, denying any net progress.

It's a thought-provoking observation for me. To imagine being in a world where everything we do in this world is ultimately pointless and hopeless. And, consequently, only personal, non-physical change ("of heart") is valued and rewarded.

I suppose the interesting question would be this. Suppose it is shown that the world has made moral progress over the centuries, and that this trend continues today. How would you reconcile that progress with your worldview?

Franklin Mason said...

I suspect that I haven't been clear.

The existence of moral progress is not inconsistent with my world-view. Indeed I suspect that, in a sense, I should embrace it. The Church, with its insistence upon the dignity and equal worth of all human beings, did constitute a kind of moral advance; and that advance continues to unfold.

But I can think of no reason to suppose that there's no retreat. As a matter of fact, there has been. Nor can I think of a reason why there should not be significant (perhaps near total) retreat in the future. Moreover, I don't think that this view depends upon my Christianity for its truth. Long before I became Christian, at a time when I was a materialist and an atheist, I believed much the same. Then and now I believe that individuals and society too are quite corruptible.

You seem to think that my Christianity and your atheism should make a difference in what we say about moral progress. I'm unsure why this should be so.

Second point. I never said, nor did I mean to imply, that what we do in this world was pointless. I never said that societal transformation was impossible or pointless (or any other such thing). Rather all I said was that, if there is to be such transformation, its seeds must be found in the transformation of the "hearts" of individual human beings. I applaud the progress that has been made. (I'm a great admirer of Western democracy, in particular of the U.S. Constitution.) I hope that it will continue. But I think that it is fragile, that we cannot be certain of its continuation, that it might fail, and that ultimately its fate depends upon the moral choices and actions of individuals.

Doctor Logic said...


You seem to think that my Christianity and your atheism should make a difference in what we say about moral progress. I'm unsure why this should be so.

To be honest, that's not really the direction of causality I was suggesting.

Rather, I'm suggesting that optimism about human progress is more likely to lead to secular humanism and atheism, and pessimism about human progress is more likely to lead to theism.

Here's my model of human progress. The more death, disease and suffering about us, the less we value life. The shorter our expected lifetime, the more impulsive our choices. There has been dramatic moral progress on this planet. Centuries ago, life was cheap. Duels were commonplace. Torture and abuse were normal. Self-determination was very limited. Superstition ruled the day. Illiteracy was standard. The list goes on. There was little time or inclination for deep moral consideration of the issues. What changed was medicine, education, economics, democracy, police forces, social justice and so on. Now, most people in the West live far better than medieval kings. They don't have to breed heirs for their survival. They don't have to fear that everyone they know might be killed tomorrow by an invading army (even armies have higher moral standards these days). Now, people have time to worry about euthanasia, the death penalty, or Janet Jackson's boob. It's Maslow's hierarchy of needs.

Yes, all of this could be lost. A limited nuclear war would take away education, medicine, policing etc. We would once again be thrown back into a dark age. It is fragile from that perspective. However, moral progress isn't appearing by magic. It's a mechanism. Improve people's lot in life (and their lifespan), and that generally results in moral progress.

I don't think all Christians are pessimists, and many probably share my views. But I'm using the term Christian pretty loosely here. The Christian bloggers I've interacted with all seem pessimistic. Maybe you are not as pessimistic as you seem, but I notice you haven't given an opinion about moral progress since the Dark Ages. :)

Franklin Mason said...

There has been an implicit restriction of time-frame in my arguments. They concerned life in the here and now, not life in the world to come. As concerns that next life, Christians are quite radical optimists. I for one am a universalist - all will be saved. There can be no more radical optimism than that.

I'm unsure whether your example of a possible slide backwards - nuclear war - is meant to be characteristic of the real possibilities here, but I would add that there could be a slow, non-catastrophic slide backward that was human-engineered. The 20th century gave us many examples - Hitler's Germany, Mao's China, Stalin's Soviet Union, the Ayatollah's Iran, etc. I think it partly luck that the Soviet Union didn't win the Cold War - we benefited from inept Soviet leadership. If they had had more clever leaders, the world might be a very different place.

I don't find that I have deep disagreements with your sketch of the history of moral and economic progress. But I would suggest that there were quite deliberate attempts to, as it were, spread the wealth and the power. This happened in the U.S. in the early years of the woman's rights movement. Certain men cracked open the doors of power to let women in, and if they had not, we'd be now where we were before. Conscience must stir before societal change can happen.