Thursday, October 7, 2010

Does Evil (Still) Exist?

Ron Rosenbaum raises some good questions about the ontological status of evil and the free-will/ determinism debate in an article in this month's First Things.

His column begins with this:
At the close of the final 2010 Templeton-Cambridge Journalism Fellowship seminar series in Cambridge this June, after writer Rob Stein’s informative discussion of “Conscience,” as everyone began packing up, one of the moderators, Sir Brian Heap, turned to me and asked (presumably because I’d once written a book entitled Explaining Hitler): “Did Hitler have a conscience, Ron?” Having spent a decade examining that very issue, which was at the heart of my book, I was able to reply, crisply and cogently: “Um, well, I’m not sure . . . I mean, it all depends.” Yes, it all depends. It all depends on how you define conscience, and how you define conscience depends on how you define evil, the cancer for which conscience is the soul’s MRI.
Evil has gotten a bad name lately. It always was a name for some sort of badness, yes; but lately the word sounds antiquated, the product of a less-sophisticated age. Evil belongs to an old, superstitious world of black and white, and we all know now that everything is gray, right? It belongs to a world of blame in which the Enlightenment tells us that “to understand all is to forgive all”—no blame, just explanation. There are some who argue it’s an unnecessary word: Having no ontological reality, no necessary use, it’s merely a semantic trap, a dead end.
After a century that saw the slaughter of more than a hundred million souls, we seem to be insisting on one more casualty: the word evil. Perhaps because by eliminating its accusatory presence and substituting genetic, organic, or psychogenic determinism, we escape the accusatory finger it points at the nature of human nature. Things go wrong with our genes, or our amygdalas, or our parenting, but these are aberrations, glitches. The thing itself, the human soul, is basically good; the hundred million dead, the product of unfortunate but explicable defects, not the nature of the beast.
But there are losses to the glossing-over process that has made the concept of conscious evil so unfashionable. If we could rescue free-will evil from the various determinisms that have been substituted for it, we could also set free will—the freely made choice to do good or evil—free again. Doing so would reestablish the possibilities of freely chosen courage and nobility, of altruism and self-sacrifice, rather than reducing them to some evolutionary biology survival stratagem. We diminish and marginalize the idea of evil because we don’t want to face the accusatory consequences that the free choice of evil—a choice contrary to conscience—entails.
Further on in the piece Rosenbaum poses this perplexing moral question: "Can someone be evil if he thinks he’s doing good, no matter how deranged his thought process? It has troubled everyone from Plato to Augustine and their heirs, but it remains a genuine problem—because most people we think of as doing great evil think of themselves as doing the right thing."

Chew on that one for a moment and then click on the link to the essay. There's lots there to make you think.