Why evil?

I keep wondering “why?” Why is there so much strife among people? Why are people greedy, why do they need to conquer others, why are they capable of and even enthusiastic about, cruelty and violence? Why is there evil?

In the twenty-eight or so posts I’ve put on this blog, I have been trying to comfort myself in the face of what seem to be terrible and stupid things messing up the world around me. I used to believe that if one can just understand matters thoroughly, some sort of reasonable light will appear and I’ll be able to say, “That’s alright, then.” But no.

I have found, however, that by identifying the questions which bother me, and then reading widely and thinking my way through things, I have been able to understand them. That has relieved some tension. I have pressed on to ask, “Can I give my informed consent {so central to my concerns as an ethicist} to this?” When I can, I feel less anxious. Less worried. But this is wearying. I need more courage from others. I thought that by putting this blog out into the world I might get at least two results. One might be responses from readers which help me understand better – this happens sometimes, but generally by direct mail rather than as a comment on the blog, so unfortunately the readers don’t get the benefits of those responses. The second result I hope for I mentioned in my earliest posts, that because, apparently, we do not really think by ourselves, but are influenced by people around us, and by people around them, I might influence other people by expressing my thoughts this way. Thus I might encourage others and others, me, in this very, very dangerous age.

Thus when I look at natural evils such as the horrible fires in Australia, and the human evils such as the decline of liberal democracy, and feel fear, I seek to examine evil closely. Being an ethicist; and having been an academic library administrator; a parish clergy in urban, suburban, and rural areas; and a clinically trained chaplain in mental hospitals in very deprived urban centres, as well as an intelligence officer, I have quite a few perspectives on matters, and a broad experience of people in the ten locations in two countries where I’ve lived and worked. I have also read a lot in my several professions. This has always been necessary to understand the context of my work. So I certainly feel equipped to decide whether to give informed consent or dissent to events around me. But I could use more information, more perspectives, and more encouragement to stave off the fear.

I know an easier way to keep the fear at bay, of course, and I know people who use this tactic: to just be concerned only about what it happening in their own lives. I can’t do that, probably because of my religious heritage: be as concerned for others as for yourself, neither more nor less. I really can’t be OK with the world as it is as long as I am aware of the horrible stresses that so many undergo, especially if I can help them or change the minds of some who refuse to be concerned.

About evil, I know all the psychological explanations; the biological/neurological explanations; the effects upon people by their upbringing; other things that have happened to a person during his/her lifetime; neural mutations; chemical imbalances; damage to certain parts of the brain; and cultural values. I know that we’ve only recently moved away from “survival of the fittest” as an explanation of individual adaptation, and moved on to appreciate the evolutionary advantages and group benefits of altruism.

But I want a theological explanation. I am firmly grounded in the concept of a divine being who began everything (sorry, but eventism, and the fact that science is more interested in answering “how” than “why,” just don’t satisfy). It is in that context that I ask, “Why?”

I am familiar with several religious mythic explanations. Let’s examine only one (the religious heritage in which I am grounded*), for the sake of my argument: Adam and Eve, etc. in the first two chapters of the Biblical book Genesis. Even that story leaves a puzzle: obviously God fashioned them to be able to choose to do wrong. Why? Hebrew Scripture is a description of what life is like; that description is used as a springboard to understand what the Divinity must be like to have made things so. You can see that this story is not an explanation, and it’s not a search for a better Divinity or for a better reason. It is not a presentation of the Divinity as the Ultimate Good. This story is grounded on how things are, not on what we would like them to be. It’s not a fantasy. So the story does not seek to answer the question “why.”

As an ethicist, I am accustomed to looking at who or what benefits from an action, and who or what pays the price for that benefit (who or what suffers the downside). I look for the reason for good and evil on the assumption that someone has planned out the events with these values in mind.

This depends upon the conceit that we understand ourselves and our place by telling stories, i.e., we take the facts as we perceive them, which maybe disjointed and without pattern, and then tell ourselves stories to understand how events affect us now and how they may in the future. Apparently this is not only a spiritual need; it is a normal function of the brain as brain (see Gender and Our Brains: How Neuroscience Explodes the Myths of the Male and Female Minds, by Gina Rippon). The brain is always predicting things, not simply noting them and filing them away. But there is not a satisfactory scientific explanation about how this is done, let alone why. (Although apparently it may sometimes have to do with anticipating danger. It may even have to do with the limits of our sight – our eyes see only a small portion of what is before us at the given moment; the rest of what we “see” is sort of the average of information the brain noted as our eyes scanned the rest of the area around us.] We are in a sense, accustomed to depending upon story, fiction, and prediction, as well as ever-processing thought.

Telling a story is sometimes meant to explain something we’ve done or thought without being aware of it, i.e., “confabulation.” We don’t actually know that we did the act, let alone why, nonetheless when asked, create an explanation. And, we’re told, when we call out a memory we change it by examining it, and so the memory is unreliable, though not necessarily false (Human: the Science Behind What Makes Us Unique, Michael S. Gazzaniga).
So, then, we do not really know ourselves. How can we possibly understand why we do bad things? Note that the Biblical story does not explain this, indeed the story leaves it to us to deduce that we were designed for choosing . We can blame God, if that does any good, but it certainly does not provide a theological explanation.

Perhaps there is value in having evil? God identifies the forbidden tree as possessing knowledge of good and evil; and the serpent tells the couple that if they eat of it they will be like God in knowing both. I speculate: I wonder whether God wants people to share that divine knowledge; that God wants us to appreciate how very difficult the divine identity and role are because of that knowledge. All deistic religions insist that the Divinity wants to be worshipped. I wonder if the worship is desired because the Divinity wants to be appreciated. Knowing both good and evil is an awesome (meaning that one stands back with mouth agape in awe) responsibility. Looking at life and the history of people, we can see that sometimes moral choices include doing evil in order to do good, e.g., Churchill’s choice not to reveal England’s knowledge of Enigma to avoid some German bombing missions on English soil. But it’s difficult to see the justification for evil. Even if knowing good and evil is the essence of divinity, the question why remains. Why must God know evil?

I suppose one can easily say that if there is no evil, one cannot recognize good. So what? What’s wrong with having just good, even if we don’t recognize it? As it stands, we must accept that there are both, and get on as best we can. How is that better than having only good in the world?

In the Biblical Isaiah chapter 45, verse 7, God claims to have created (not an action word – it means to be the authority for the existence of something) darkness but fashioned (as a potter fashions something from clay) light; to have created evil but made (not so skilful or intention-full; a common action like making toast) good. It is as if evil and darkness are the background for life, while light and good are the more exceptional qualities. This is part of the “if you don’t have evil you can’t recognize good” argument. Really, this is the excuse that there are human limits in understanding the Divinity, rather than an actual presentation of the divine understanding of evil’s purpose.

If we try to extend our imaginations and thinking, we approach two issues: why is the knowledge of good and evil an essential quality of divinity; and, looking earlier than the existence of the Divinity (a logical impossibility?), who decided that it should be so even for the Divinity? This is rather like trying to understand theoretical physics’ multiple universes, multiple dimensions, and so forth: that science is derived primarily through mathematics, which is something of a barrier to understanding. The religious explanation is derived primarily through human understanding and language, which are very limited in understanding the divine.

This theological narrative doesn’t make us the only ones who have to put up with the presence of evil – so does the Divinity. Because being able to choose to do good or evil (by disobeying God and eating the fruit) is implicit in human identity, we might think it unavoidable. But in the story, this is not a profound moral choice the people made – it was a simple matter of appetite for a good snack. Surely a snack is avoidable? Or is it an appetite for something more? Presumably they already had sufficient nutrition in their garden. It was wanting more that led to being like the Divinity.

To bring the discussion into a contemporary secular arena, perhaps what we should want is not to be more like the Divinity, but to be more human. In User Friendly: How the Hidden Rules of Design Are Changing the Way We Live, Work and Play, the authors Cliff Kuang and Robert Fabricant, pose this question after analyzing the new design of self-driving automobiles:
 …What if stress, and the agency that comes with constantly fiddling with your environment are, in some way,               the essence of what it means to be human? Would we really want to live in a world that was truly friction-free,             where the room temperature adjusted before we ever had a chance to feel any kind of discomfort? Wouldn’t                 that make us more and more like floating brains in a vat stuck in a Matrix, unaware of what’s real? Wouldn’t               the machines then be dictating our desires, rather than merely anticipating them?
The authors seem to believe that choosing, or agency, is the essence of being human. Of course, there is a vast difference between choosing whether to turn up the heat, and doing something evil. But we are in a time when turning up the heat may indeed do something evil, i.e, increase damage to the climate. We do well to understand all the consequences of all our actions (see Inconspicuous Consumption: the Environmental Impact You Don’t Know You Have, by Tatiana Schlossberg). So perhaps to be fully human requires that we seek knowledge of good and evil so that we may be ethical, fully aware of the consequences of our actions. Perhaps it is impossible for human creatures to be unaware of good and evil, as a matter of definition. Perhaps that is so for the Divinity as well.

I’ve reached my limits in understanding, or even asking questions, about why there is evil. My quest for informed consent is stymied here. But I think that there is benefit in having thought things through as far as I can. I have marked my boundaries as to whether the available explanations are sufficient, or satisfying, or useful. They are not. And so I register my informed dissent.

*I would be most appreciative if someone from other religious backgrounds could provide information from those.

One thought on “Why evil?

  1. Hear! Hear! Thanks for candid expression of true feelings and real questions of importance! Seldom heard or done anymore. True courage!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.