Wednesday, November 01, 2006

The question of evil

CC posed a fascinating question for this month’s UU Carnival : Can people be evil? If so, what are the theological implications? If not, how can we account for all the evil that some people commit? My answer is yes, people can be evil- but first we must discus what evil is.

Life is always a balance, for man or nature; balancing the demands of the individual with the demands of the race. It’s a far more complex equation than merely quoting Spock: The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few- or the one. It’s more complicated because you must assess the intensity of the need, and the intensity of the harm. Just how complicated the social algebra can be can be seen in some Eminent Domain cases- I recall a case where the state’s case for immediate eviction was quite compelling: every month delay cost the taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars in penalties and interest. But so was the homeowner’s case for staying: he had only six months to live (cancer), and he wanted to die in the bed his children had been born in and his wife had died in. How do you balance the relative harm?

Evil lies in the deliberate upsetting of this balance for your gratification. Great wealth is not evil, if you earned it; Sir Paul McCartney may have more money than God, but he received that money from millions of people who paid it in exchange for the hours of entertainment he gave them. On the other hand, a single dollar is evil if it’s stolen for any reason other than the support of life. A petty evil, granted... but then, serial killers often begin by pulling the wings off flies.

So far, I can’t imagine many UUs disagreeing with me. Where I differ with many is that I believe there are absolute evils, acts that no ‘situational ethic” can whitewash. I can start with an example from the book 1984: Winston was asked by the revolutionary (or so he thought) if he would be willing to throw acid in the face of a baby, if that would win the war. He answered “Yes”... and that answer cost him his soul, for he was forced to admit later that he had the same morals as “Big Brother”. I do not, can not believe in “situational ethics” if that means answering the question above “Yes.”

I do believe that there are evil people- those for whom personal gratification is dependent on the suffering of others. Many rapists don’t do it for the physical satisfaction (evil enough in itself), but just to see that look on the victims face. Schoolyard bullies (the kind who grow up to have careers in gangbanging) beat their victims for the same reason. A large percentage of dictators are like that; there is reason to believe Saddam Hussein is one of those- certainly his eldest son, who watched torture sessions as a kind of cabaret entertainment, was.

The theological implications, for me, are few. The Divinity I believe in does not compel, She only persuades, and any human occasionally allows mundane distractions to drown out that voice we hear with our souls rather than our ears. But the evil person is totally deaf to Her. Although a mental defect rather than a physical one, being deaf to the Divine’s pleas and the victims’ alike is a birth defect as surely as if he had been born without eardrums. My Divinity does not inflict birth defects as a test, or punishment unto the seventh generation; neither does she use evil people to inflict punishment upon sinners. To me, the only theological implication is whether the victims will listen to Her whispers and forgive evil, acting only to safeguard mankind and not to gain revenge.


powderblue said...

“I do believe that there are evil people- those for whom personal gratification is dependent on the suffering of others.”

I think I know what you’re getting at, although I disagree with that statement. At least it needs to be qualified. Otherwise, it means that people who gratify their palates by eating the flesh of other beings are evil.

If you live in times where society condones treating others as property – existing only for and at the pleasure of those in power – you’re not evil if you’re among the power elite and make your decisions accordingly. That’s why we in the U.S. should not judge our country’s founders for holding and abusing their slaves. It was accepted then.

Joel Monka said...

You make good points; I need to refine my definitions. I used the word "gratification" to try to imply whims, rather than the needs of the body. Stealing bread when you're starving is not evil, but raping someone is not necessary to sustain life. And if one is counting sustanence, I would say "other people", rather than "other beings", as I do not consider eating (non-human) meat to be evil.

Yes, we are usually only as enlightened as the society we live in- that's why those who rise above that level are revered. Why is it whenever the sin of slavery is discussed, nobody mentions the British or the Dutch? After all, it wasn't "Americans" who brought slaves to this continent, it was the European powers.

powderblue said...

I agree that the whim versus need distinction is relevant to the judgments we make of others’ behavior.

It was a whim that led U.S. slave owners to sexually gratify themselves with their female property. By our standards today, they had ethical alternatives to their biological imperatives. They were, though, behaving within the accepted norms of their power group. They were not evil, in my opinion.

Today it’s similarly a whim, at least for humans in the developed world, to use other sentient beings for food. We have alternatives to our biological imperative to eat, and to eat pleasurably.

Most people who have these alternatives would never choose to personally harm another sentient creature – especially to the degree they emotionally and physically suffer in our industrial agriculture system – for nothing but a taste treat. There is no moral distinction between these wretched beings and our companion animals, whose similar treatment would bring us to tears. I’m hoping that Unitarian Universalists, with our heritage of using reason to challenge orthodoxies that no longer make sense, will increasingly act to hasten the moral progress of a plant-based diet.

You mention that you don’t believe in situational ethics. I’m also uncomfortable with this term. In a certain respect, though, situational ethics is not so much something to believe in (or not) as it is a reality to acknowledge. If society and its institutions sanction a behavior, regardless of the degree of unnecessary suffering that results, people are not evil or even bad if they take advantage of this license. Without public support, though, only psychopaths routinely inflict suffering on others for their own pleasure.