by Dmitry Selemir
Why I think Evil does not exist and why we should recognize this sooner rather than later
There is a good reason for using that word ‘musings’ in my title. To start, I don’t want this article to have a feel of an overly academic exercise. It wasn’t conceived nor was it constructed as such. Also, I am much more interested in the subsequent discussion and in the thought process it might stimulate rather than claim my stake on a unique piece of knowledge I supposedly put together for everyone’s benefit. Dear academics, if you are reading this, please forgive me for having a go at you, it is by no means done out of smugness or disrespect, I most certainly hold you in the highest regard possible.
But enough with the niceties, after all, we are talking about Evil.
In our modern society Evil is a pretty important concept and it became even more prominent in the academic circles in the last few decades as we are collectively trying to process the causes and consequences of major events of both the 20th and the 21st century (I will not insult your intelligence by bringing up specific examples). As far as Evil empires or axes (take your pick) are concerned — we have had a number of seemingly mutually exclusive accusations and what better place to start understanding what on Earth are they on about than understanding what they might mean by Evil?
While for most people Evil as a concept would be something primal, almost axiomatic, existing in its own right outside of our judgment, the reality is — it is relatively young. In fact, I would go as far as to state that Evil as a term made its debut, in today’s understanding of it at least, as a necessary attribute of a monotheistic belief system. Within that system, we have a supreme, perfect being, who creates the world, which we see as imperfect (i.e., there are things we don’t like or things that don’t make sense to us). The supposed imperfection of the world is a subject of a separate and a rather long discussion. I will only suggest here that, again, the reason we even talk about it today is because it is necessary for a belief system to instill the need to strive for a different way of life, dictated by one central authority. It is a fundamental feature of any organized religion, essential for both its survival and spread and that internal conflict between the desired and actual reality is key to its appeal.
It is important for a successful religion to offer just the right blend of Love and Fear in its message in order to achieve maximum impact and the presence of that evil dark side and its consequences for non-believers and sinners is right on the money. It is not at the heart of the system, it exists at the fringes. Yet, it is ever present and it is enough to ensure you are always aware — if you deviate from the “right” path — there will be consequences.
While providing the ammunition for a successful spread of religion, it simultaneously creates a bit of a problem for the philosophers working within its paradigm — i.e., how can the world, created by the perfect being, be imperfect? Perhaps the most notable theory was suggested by Leibniz, who stated that the best possible world has the right balance between the Good and Evil and therefore in order to create the world God has to introduce both Good and Evil and that it’s all about the proportion (which, of course, God got exactly right, being the perfect being).
I am not here to challenge the understanding of Good vs. Evil relationship within the context of organized religion, however. I think the main problem is to do with the fact that it traveled into the post-religious world and is commonly used in a supposedly secular context having acquired that fundamental, universal property we attribute to it.
From a secular point of view, Evil is a purely human construct, created in order for us to classify and in a way measure events taking place around us. Moreover, I would argue that the concepts of good, bad, ugly, beautiful, moral or immoral etc., just like the concept of Evil, do not exist outside of human society. We pass our judgment on both physical phenomena like hurricanes, tsunamis, earthquakes (Evil in the broad sense if we use Kant’s classification) and the inter-species phenomena, i.e. actions of fellow humans or other animals (Evil in the narrow sense). We feel the need to classify the events taking place around us, this helps us arrive at the optimal mode of behavior within our environment and there is nothing wrong with it. However, extending it further and attributing a more independent and universal quality to it is a mistake, which can be rather costly as we make an erroneous assumption that everyone understands it in exactly the same way, or that there is this mysterious struggle between Good and Evil within us, influencing our decisions.
Let’s look at the broad and narrow definition separately.
The broad sense withstands no criticism. While ancient Greeks believed natural disasters happened because they displeased Gods in one way or the other, we should really know better. We know the nature and the causes of these phenomena and there is absolutely no need to give their analysis any kind of moral angle. Moreover, while the effects of these phenomena might be harmful to us, they can be absolutely vital to other species (forest fires is one example, with certain types of seeds unable to germinate without them) and even to the other members of our own species and the effect might end up being beneficial to us perhaps in a very long run, even if it is significantly longer than a lifetime. We can only give them that negative judgment in a very narrow sense — right now it is bad for me and therefore it is Evil, which makes it a purely emotional, minute construction. In fact even invoking the argument that something is Evil because it threatens our very existence is inherently flawed because our existence is only important to us. Period.
Let’s now turn to a more complex concept of Evil in the narrow sense — i.e., the moral/inter and intra-species evil, i.e., murder, theft, abuse etc.
As a species — we, humans, construct increasingly complex and theoretical concept of what constitutes good and bad, to the point that we have forgotten its origin and treat it as self-evident. As with any dogmatic concept, we inevitably find that our theoretical and idealized version fails to adequately serve the world around us. Let’s take the most fundamental and seemingly obvious one — murder. While I will concentrate on murder in my line of argument, exactly the same reasoning can be applied to any other such concept.
The first reaction is a resounding negative — murder is bad and murderers are evil, right?
Let’s have a look at it in more detail, though. Most of us have no problem with killing animals for food, those who do will have to accept that killing of animals by other animals (or fish, insects, viruses etc.) in nature is not only inevitable — it is absolutely necessary for a self-regulating biological system, not only ensuring their evolution and ability to adapt to and withstand natural disasters, but also their very survival as species. Predation is necessary for balance (and ability to process waste and avoid propagation of diseases).
If we look at our own species and killings among ourselves, we find another dilemma. For most of us not all killing is bad, otherwise, we would have never had any wars. If the cause appears fair (another peculiar concept) to us — it justifies the means and to a certain extent justifies both the killing of the enemy combatants and even the collateral damage. There are those who believe in the necessity of capital punishment. And, of course, not to be forgotten, there is the moral dilemma of euthanasia and abortion. In any case — many of us believe that some murders are justified (inviting the rather peculiar concept of necessary Evil). Note that I only lump all these together into one line of discussion, not in order to pass judgment on them, but simply because they all deal with a loss of life caused by or involving another individual.
While I am not arguing that murder is somehow good or in any way excusable — it is an inevitable feature of all societies we, as humans, managed to construct and its classification as bad and evil is also a feature of our society. In fact, we don’t have to go far back in history, even within the most “killing-averse” western society to find that the further back we go, the wider the circle of socially and morally acceptable killings becomes (take duels for example or honor killings).
One could argue that it is a natural phenomenon as it is one of the side effects of the evolutionary mechanisms built into all living things. Being highly evolved and being able to construct much more complex societal structures than any other species known to us, we strive to eradicate it. We see it as counterproductive in the long run; however, so far we have been unable to really tackle the problem. In part this is because as evolved we are as a species, we are still governed by the same instincts as our more primitive ancestors or relations in the animal kingdom. Killing a rival (or even rival’s offspring) is commonplace in nature and the reason we have departed from such practice is dictated by a more complex branch of evolution responsible for the social constructs within our society rather than a peculiar brain function. It certainly has nothing to do with the rules passed on to us from above — groups (and later tribes/villages/ countries) where the level of violence between its members has been reduced tended to be more successful, leading to their dominance and subsequent, much greater impact on our current societies.
Today, we look at most murders as purely individual undertakings — decisions made by an individual because that individual is Evil, or has more Evil than Good within his/her nature. While there is always a high degree of individual responsibility in each such action, it is also a by-product of our inability to effectively manage societies we construct. A concept of Evil is used to absolve society of all responsibility — putting all of the blame on the individual. In the process, we conveniently forget that each individual is a product of that society and in most cases interacts with that society constantly in the run-up to the fateful event itself. Perhaps this is my liberal side manifesting itself, but personally, I think attempting to always lay the blame squarely on the individual and only individual (for any type of offense) is a gross oversimplification.
It’s not all about finding who is to blame, however. This inability to understand the responsibility of societies every time something happens ensures we don’t take any steps towards eradicating the problem (or at least any significant improvement). In a way, we are always treating (and when I say treating — I mean cutting away) the symptoms only, because we seem to be unable or unwilling to study and understand the real causes. I am not suggesting that we are missing something simple here, though. Studying and understanding the causes can only be done with increased access to individual data — which means increased surveillance and redefinition of the relationship between the individual and society. This is an interesting problem in itself, however, this is outside of the scope of this particular discussion.
We also fail to understand how large groups of individuals — the whole societies can get lured into committing atrocities and we’ve had numerous examples of that happening in the 20th century. What we often forget is — most of the individuals involved actually believed they were acting against Evil, not the other way round. It’s the very understanding of the concept that was flawed.
In fact, this point deserves special attention. As a human construct the concept of Evil forms within a particular society and depends squarely on the fundamental principles taken as the basis of laws governing the relationships within these societies. The understanding of what constitutes Evil, therefore, changes from one society to another. To give one example — within the tribe which formed no concept of private property — theft (and associated with it the Evil label) simply does not exist. A person who grew up within that framework will struggle to understand why something they would do without a second thought might cause an offense.
These societies can overlap and fragments (as small as one individual in size) can exist within each other, more often than not without creating any conflicts. Unfortunately, this is not always possible. From time to time, we find ourselves clashing over specific examples when the two concepts end up producing opposite judgments. The biggest mistake we make is we always assert that our own concept is the right one and the other one is barbaric at best. It feels natural to do that, however, we often forget that the other side feels exactly the same way and the truth is — both are entirely justified within their own moral framework.
I would argue that the only way to avoid conflict is not by trying to impose our own rules on others, but by recognising the differences and limitations of our authority. This would pave the way towards agreeing on the applicability of these rules and ways of interpreting them in potential conflict situations.
Of course, it will be naive to suggest that getting rid of the concept of Evil will solve these problems. It wouldn’t stop conflicts, killings, it wouldn’t make us any kinder to each other. Yet, if we discredit the concept as an absolute, we remove this convenient excuse our leaders can fall back on — perhaps we can make it more difficult for them to justify their ill-advised actions and would force us to take a much more critical look at ourselves and encourage us to take more individual responsibility for the actions of societies we belong to. Perhaps it will also allow us to look at the world around us in a slightly different light and help prepare us for the challenges yet to come.
Up to now, we have mostly relied on either external factors (natural phenomena, like hurricanes, tsunamis, famines and diseases) or violent actions (wars, coups and revolutions) to achieve temporary balance. In other words, we have always waited until situation resolved itself. It is essentially equivalent to driving a car without the breaks because it’s bound to stop at some point by itself anyway.
While technological advances of the last two hundred years meant that the impact of the natural phenomena has decreased significantly — these same technological advances meant that the violent option became that much more devastating. Using my car analogy — the speeds are much higher now, so we are less likely to stall in the mud, but if we hit a wall — it’s game over.
With increased life expectancies, and continuing increases in population and inevitable strain on available resources we can not avoid reaching such singularity points — when resolution can not be achieved by itself. In fact — one could argue that we are in the process of dealing with one of such singularity points developing right now.
In order to develop a new mechanism for managing this process, arguably, we need a paradigm shift. Recognizing the limitations of some of these supposedly fundamental concepts could very well be the first step paving the way to a different, more effective principle on which we construct our societies and manage relationships between them.