Is there such a thing as real evil? ISIS is beheading children of families who do not convert to their version of Islam. If that is not evil, I don’t know what is. There is objective evil in our world. Anyone who denies it either is amoral, defective mentally or too academic for their own good. What is worse that killing children? Making these children behead others and justifying it.
The British NewsPaper Dailymail reports that this is happening in our day. Ariel Castro was found guilty 937 counts, including murder, rape and kidnapping of two girls who he held captive for decades and did things so depraved to them that I cannot mention them here.
I can hardly talk about this stuff without breaking down.
This was a video of the http://www.cnn.com/2014/08/11/world/meast/iraq-rescue-mission/that the US military finally helped after pleadings on Capital Hill in 2014.
We have to admit that evil is real. How can some people deny that such objective evil exists? Well it should not surprise you that there are some “educated” people who deny the obvious, from the differences between men and women, the existence of something more than the physical or in this case, evil.
Ron Rosenbaum summarized the current trend to reduce evil to a neurological problem:
A phenomenon attested to by a recent torrent of pop-sci brain books with titles like Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain. Not secret in most of these works is the disdain for metaphysical evil, which is regarded as an antiquated concept that’s done more harm than good. They argue that the time has come to replace such metaphysical terms with physical explanations—malfunctions or malformations in the brain.
Or take the work of Joel Marks, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the University of New Haven in West Haven, Connecticut. He wrote
Even though words like ‘sinful’ and ‘evil’ come naturally to the tongue as a description of, say, child-molesting, they do not describe any actual properties of anything. There are no literal sins in the world because there is no literal God and hence the whole religious superstructure that would include such categories as sin and evil.” (C) Joel Marks 2010 SOURCE
Furthermore, it is not just these atheistic thinkers who deny objective evil exists, Christian Scientists also are among those that teach that evil is an illusion. The movement’s founder, Mary Baker Eddy, wrote, “ Sin, disease, whatever seems real to material sense, is unreal.”
We must address these thinkers head on.
Lets do it.
First, let us define evil. I know of noone who does this better than Augustine. Augustine argued well that all nature is good, originally. Everything that exists has goodness in it. Even devils. That goodness may be to be alive, or intelligent or fast, all of these can of course be abused for evil as much as they can be used for good. So evil then is the negation of or the corruption of the good. Like rust is to iron. Here is what Augustine said in his Enchiridion:
When, however, a thing is corrupted, its corruption is an evil because it is, by just so much, a privation of the good. Where there is no privation of the good, there is no evil. Where there is evil, there is a corresponding diminution of the good. See enchiridion
So then evil, is not a thing, or a person, or a devil. Rather evil is the negation of good. The less good you have the more evil. In the same way the less light you have the more darkness there is. Darkness is nothing more than the absence of light. The same can be said of evil. If God is the source of all goodness, then the less of God we have in a society the more evil we would have.
Second, contrary to some popular opinions, there is no absolute evil. The Devil or Satan is a fallen angel, thus he is not absolute evil, for nothing is. The devil is not the opposite of God. God is the only being in the universe who is completely and utterly unique.
Third, if objective evil does not exist, then one cannot logically argue that the Problem of Evil is a problem. When we argue that God is guilty for allowing evil in this world or allowing my father and son to die, we are assuming that there is objective evil to blame God for it. But if there is no objective evil, then there is no problem of evil for it to be a problem about.
Forth, it is very difficult to see how an honest atheist can believe in objective evil like the killing of innocent people. Richard Dawkins said it best, “The Universe we observe precisely has the property we should except if there is, at bottom, no deign, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.” Richard Dawkins, River out of Eden: a Darwinian View of Life (New York: Basic Books, 1996). Most classical atheists would agree with him such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Friedrich Nietzsche, Bertrand Russell , and J. L. Mackie.
Fifth, beliefs about something, don’t change what that thing is. Merely because we can find some fringe elements in culture and history that approve of mass killings, rape and murder of innocent children like ISIS, does not in anyway undermine the fact of evil. Just because someone or group believes X is true does not make X true anymore than if a student of mine believed he was getting a “A” will in fact get him an “A”! Beliefs do not determine reality, contrary to what Oprah Winfrey and her cohorts may preach. Thus, we need to beware of confusing what people think or believe (epistemologically speaking) about what is evil from what is evil–ontologically speaking.
Sixth, we dig our own moral pit by denying that objective evil exists. Even if we cannot prove it, we cannot deny it. I grant that I have had a difficult time trying to find positive, logical arguments that prove that evil exists, because our moral intuition is not quantifiable empirically. In light of that, we just cannot avoid dealing with the issue. I think there is a reason for that that is deeper than opinion. As a reaction against dogmatism and authoritarianism the secular scholarly world in the past few decades has backed away from intolerance and one sided, bloody war leading thinking, into an “open mindedness:” A way of seeing things, which as a byproduct embraces subjectivism and dismisses any hold on absolutes. See my blog about why open-mindedness is a problem morally speaking. Thus, “evil” or sin as absolute wrongs, are dismissed as archaic and backward thinking.
Thus, many have argued that the concepts of evil and sin are a social constructions. Orval Hobart Mowrer, former professor at Johns Hopkins University, and former president of the American Psychological Association, took issue with this. He addressed it in his article, “Sin, the Lesser of Two Evils,” in 1960:
For several decades we psychologists looked upon the whole matter of sin and moral accountability as a great incubus and acclaimed our liberation from it as epoch-making. But at length we have discovered that to be “free” in this sense, i.e., to have the excuse of being “sick” rather than sinful, is to court the danger of also becoming lost. This danger is, I believe, betokened by the widespread interest in Existentialism which we are presently witnessing. In becoming amoral, ethically neutral, and “free,” we have cut the very roots of our being; lost our deepest sense of self-hood and identity; and, with neurotics themselves, find ourselves asking: Who am I? What is my destiny? What does living (existence) mean? (“Sin, the Lesser of Two Evils,” American See “Sin”: The lesser of two evils. Mowrer, O. Hobart American Psychologist, Vol 15(5), May 1960, 301-304.
As Mowrer argued, when we eliminate evil from our vocabulary and ethics, we embrace tolerance and relativism, and that leads us to cut the very roots of our being; lose our deepest sense of self-hood and identity; and, with neurotics themselves, find ourselves asking: Who am I? What is my destiny? What does living (existence) mean?”
When faced with the reality of child sexual abuse by clergy, human trafficking, genocide, murder and rape, our collective souls cringe. University of Chicago Professor Lenon Kass was on to something when he called it the Wisdom of Repugnance. There is something within us that turns to disgust over evil, as much as when we smell rotten eggs or milk. That is not an accident.
Seventh, objective evil not just something external to us, it is within each of us. Former United Nations secretary general and Nobel peace prize winner Kofi Annan wrote that evil is real, but it is not to be labeled to groups of people but to events and what individual people do. Annan faced such questions when he headed the UN’s peacekeeping operations during the 1994 Rwandan genocide, in which Hutu extremists slaughtered more than 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus. He described how difficult it is to determine at which point violence becomes so deliberate and systematic that to continue dialogue achieves nothing. “There are times when the use of force is legitimate and necessary, because it is the lesser of two evils,” he said. “But the lesser of two evils is still an evil, and we should not forget that.” Annan suggested that it is helpful when using the word “evil” to apply it to actions rather than to people. “Of course, it is tempting, when someone commits many evil acts, to say that that person is evil in himself or herself. But I am not sure that it is right,” he said. “I do believe, very firmly, that people must be held responsible for their actions…But to say that any human being is irredeemably evil in himself, or herself–that is a different matter.” http://archive.episcopalchurch.org/3577_38787_ENG_HTM.htm
Eighth, for those who are Biblically inclined, the Bible has something to say about the human condition.
In Psalm 14:2–3 we read:
“The Lord has looked down from heaven upon the sons of men, to see if there are any who understand, who seek after God. They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one.” Here again we see unrighteousness as a property of the human race: “they have all turned aside . . . there is no one who does good.”
Job 15:14 similarly declares that sinfulness is a property of humanity:
“What is man, that he should be pure, or he who is born of a woman, that he should be righteous?” Verses 15–16 “Behold, He puts no trust in His holy ones, And the heavens are not pure in His sight; How much less one who is detestable and corrupt, Man, who drinks iniquity like water!”
Jeremiah 17:9 says that
“the heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick; who can understand it?”
Ecclesiastes 9:3 declares a similar truth:
“. . . the hearts of the sons of men are full of evil, and insanity is in their hearts through their lives.” SOURCE
This is echoed in the brilliant and deeply moving writing of Alekasandr I. Solzhenitsyn. He wrote:
“Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart…” ― The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956
Ninth, objective good is exciting and life-enriching, while while evil is a parasite with the illusion of replacing pleasure with happiness. Simone Weil summarized brilliantly how our media has also changed our perceptions of evil:
“Imaginary evil is romantic and varied; real evil is gloomy, monotonous, barren, boring. Imaginary good is boring; real good is always new, marvelous, intoxicating.”
For some of us in this secular culture, our moral plate has been feed the lie that evil is exciting but goodness is boring. Yet at the same time we are told that evil and good are socially constructed so then we don’t take them seriously anyway! Nothing shatters this myth better than being confronted with evil…and if not in person at lest in horror films. See my post on Horror Movies here
Tenth and finally,we cannot avoid evil. In our own way, we became intolerant of the intolerant, or of views we find offensive. Racism, oil companies, religious bigotry, homosexual discrimination, taking away womans’ “reproductive” rights, and the like, have become the new absolute evils. So we replaced one set of absolutes for another. I don’t think we can get away from them.
OS Guninness gives a brilliant summary of this problem. See what you think of this short video.
On a personal note, we need to address the evil within each of us personally and take it seriously.
I close with the words of Mark Rowlands, in his book The Philosopher and the Wolf: Lessons from the Wild on Love, Death, and Happiness by Mark Rowlands
“The idea that evil is a medical condition, or the result of social malaise, is ultimately because we have now engineered in ourselves the helplessness we have carefully constructed in others. We are no longer, we think, even worthy subjects of moral evaluation. If we are bad, or we are good, then this is really something else – something that must be explained in other, non-moral, terms; something beyond our control. To explain away our moral status, to excuse our own culpability in the manufacture of evil, this is the ultimate manifestation of that manufacture of evil – the clearest expression imaginable of the weakness that we have assiduously assembled in our own souls. To think of morality as really something else – the weakness is so palpable that only a human could miss it. We are no longer strong enough to live without excuses. We are no longer even strong enough to have the courage of our convictions.”
I don’t know of any tradition that really deals with the reality and the horror of evil that we have committed against each other as a race, than that bloody cross over 2000 years ago.
Look forward to your thoughts.