Monday, November 20, 2006

On Evil

In response to a previous post, Mark asked
How about a column on your take on an atheist (or jewish atheist) view on evil, its existence, cause, and cure.


First, I'm going to avoid any discussion of subjective vs. objective morality since, regardless of which may be preferable, I've seen no evidence that an objective form of morality exists, let alone whether any person knows what it is. I explained previously that my own sense of morality is founded on empathy and sympathy. You may object that these are emotions and hardly a basis for morality, but I can find no better place from which to start. Additionally, I cannot imagine the world would be worse off if everybody else also based their morality on empathy and sympathy (as opposed to basing it on, for example, religious texts, religious teachers, Marx, or voices from God.)

My definition of evil is therefore this:
Evil is overly selfish action.

This will of course not be precise enough for my absolutist readers, because of the word "overly." However, I see no non-arbitrary means of drawing a line between an action which is reasonably selfish and one which is "overly" selfish. I see that not as a flaw in my perspective on morality, but as a strength: I understand that reasonable people may disagree on what's moral in a borderline case. Moreover, it implies that evil is a continuum, not a binary proposition. Murder is worse than stealing a car and stealing a car is worse than stealing a sandwich.

The religious reader will no doubt have noticed that my understanding of evil is more or less the same as the Golden rule as attributed to Moses:

Love your neighbor as yourself.


The cause of evil is therefore obvious: selfishness. The most evil acts -- say, mass murder -- are evil because they place more value on one's own enjoyment or advancement than on other people's lives. The borderline cases -- for example, drinking the last canteen of water when lost in a desert with another person -- come about when reasonable people may disagree whether one is valuing himself or herself significantly more than another person. Again, I'd prefer not to debate borderline cases.

Why, then, are some people more selfish than others? Some answers are obvious. Evolutionarily speaking, of course, men who went around raping and pillaging would have had more surviving children than those who only had sex with women who were willing. Similarly, there are some evolutionary explanations for altruism. Having loving feelings towards one's own children is obviously beneficial from an evolutionary standpoint and the same goes for loyalty to kin, decreasing proportionately as the genetic relationship diminishes.

Then there are cultural reasons. The human brain has a remarkable capacity for learning social norms, and such norms are often enforced by the group. Speaking evolutionarily again, being ostracized from the group would have been deadly almost anywhere on Earth until very recently in the West, when one may join another group relatively easily. People who are raised to be selfless will likely be less selfish than those raised without such concerns. Someone growing up in a Taliban training camp, for example, will learn to hate Jews and Americans and glorify killing us. It's much easier to teach someone to hate people from a different group than to hate one's own group, for obvious reasons. Tribalism is just the selfishness of a group rather than an individual.

So what's the "cure" for evil? Ultimately, I don't think we can cure evil. It's as much a part of the human experience as love. However, we can work to reduce it. Ultimately, it comes down to culture. We can exploit people's natural tendencies towards in-group loyalty by enlarging the size of the group. Small groups can remain while becoming part of a larger group, just as America has Catholics and Jews who are both American. Nations are good tools for creating larger groups, although they can be much more dangerous to those not in the group than a bunch of small, divided groups can be, as the history of warfare, ethnic cleansing, and genocide shows.

I don't know if it's possible to get the entire human race (minus rebels, who will always exist) to identify as a single group. The ascendancy of Democracy and secularism (not atheism, per se) are surely steps in the right direction. Secular democracies do not go to war against each other. Most of the non-nation wars in the world today are warring religious sects, whether it's Sunnis and Shiites, Muslims and Hindus, or, well, mostly Muslims and anybody.

Within America, there are the "culture wars," which are a result of religious or idealogical groups clashing, usually orchestrated by powerful people with something to gain. Luckily, they rarely have resulted in violence, and aren't close to civil war. I think this is because our founders successfully created a system in which people of different ethnicities and religious could identify as Americans in addition to their smaller allegiances. The war in Iraq, for example, can only be won if Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds manage to identify themselves as Iraqis as well as members of their tribes.

Those of us who would reduce the amount of evil in the world should work to, to paraphrase our president, be uniters, not dividers. It won't be done on the battlefield, short of extreme genocide, which is so evil it wouldn't be worth it. Rather, if it is to be accomplished, it will be by winning the hearts and minds.

Maybe Lennon said it best:
Imagine there's no countries
It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace...

You may say I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope someday you'll join us
And the world will be as one


Except we don't need to get rid of countries and religions, just subsume them into something greater, so "the world will be as one." Osama bin Ladin would have gotten nowhere if middle-eastern Islam had merged with the rest of the world. Hitler would have been a nobody if he couldn't convince his countrymen that "Aryans" were a super-race and Jews, pygmies, and gays were vermin. There will always be crime and there will always be criminals. But maybe, we can cut back on war and genocide.

29 comments:

Chana said...

The word "selfish" is relatively vague, however. For example, in Ayn Randian though, the ultimate example being Atlas Shrugged, it is actually selflessness that is depicted as the great evil (quite convincingly) while the most "selfish" men, as it were, are those that succeed. The problem with claiming that one who is overly selfish is evil is, as you noted, that the word "overly" is completely subjective. As well state that one who is selfish is evil. And what is considered selfish? If I have the ability to cure cancer but refrain from doing so, am I evil? This is passive- it's not like I have actively stolen the formula for the cure for cancer. But can anyone FORCE me, for the good of all, to "do good," that is, to cure cancer, if they knew I had that power? Is the use of force justified to those who are overly selfish?

I'm merely pointing out some of the problems with this definition. I enjoy, like I said, Howard Roark's selfishness. :)

Ezzie said...

I don't disagree. In general, there's the concept of groups tend to remain small. Every large group is subdivided - there's a book about how groups can't truly sustain more than 150 people or so without splitting that's fascinating. Of course, you realize that that's exactly what some religions try to do: Christianity tried to convert everyone into the same group, Islam tries to force everyone to be Muslim or die (or be dhimmi). The Jewish attitude has generally been "just leave us be!"

But there's another factor as well: People want what's best for others, usually. If we see an opressed country, we try to save those people. I think this is the right approach - but this leads to more wars, as we try to foster democracy and freedoms elsewhere. Sure, if we let despots rule as they see fit, there wouldn't be war. There would just be millions of unfortunate casualties every year.

CyberKitten said...

JA said: Secular democracies do not go to war against each other.

I'm not totally convinced about that one. I think its certainly rare but then again Secular Democracies are pretty thin on the ground too.. [grin].

How about the War of 1812? Where both Britain & the USA Secular Democracies at the time?

Jewish Atheist said...

chana:

Rand's selfishness may be appropriate in the arts or applied arts, but it's generally thought to be an oversimplified way to look at society. I'm actually kind of embarrassed to have her as a famous atheist. :-) Your point about passive morality is interesting -- I went into some detail about it a long time ago: Active vs. Passive Morality A Plea for Action.


Ezzie:

But there's another factor as well: People want what's best for others, usually.

We do have instinctive empathy, yes. That's where I get the basis for my morality. It often seems like too many people either lack that empathy or are good at suppressing it, though.

If we see an opressed country, we try to save those people.

I think you overestimate our idealism. It often seems the case that we "try to save those people" only when that country is (believed to be) strategically important. For example, we "tried to save" the South Vietnamese and Iraqi civilians but did next to nothing in the Congo and Rwanda.

Sure, if we let despots rule as they see fit, there wouldn't be war.

That's surely not true. All despots do practically is make war. They need to be contained and eventually overthrown.

CK:

Isn't Great Britain technically a Christian Monarchy? :-) But I take your point.

dbs said...

Great post.

Regarding Chana's comment; caring about yourself is a healthy, positive thing. "Love your neighbor as yourself" presumes a certain level of self-love. And, in fact, having an apreciation of yourself is fundamental to having a positive relationship with anyone else.

So, the Golden Rule is not to be self-less, it is to grant other the same rights which you presume for yourself.

So far as morality goes, I prefer Hillel's "that which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor".

http://daasdiybur.blogspot.com/2006/04/objective-morality-without-god.html

beepbeepitsme said...

Gee, I don't believe that "evil" exists in a supernatural sense.

There are behaviours which we, as human beings, judge to be wrong or right, moral, immoral or ammoral.

But it takes a belief in religion, to believe that certain things are "evil".

To me, "evil" is a word originating in superstitious beliefs, which refers primarily to the belief in forces external to the human mind, which coerce and manipulate human beings to do "naughty things."

I don't believe that such forces exist.

Human beings, on the otherhand, have always had opinions about what is right and wrong. These opinions are based in their cultural, geographic, historical and social time frames.

r10b said...

JA I haven't had time to consider all that you wrote but let me just in now with a couple thoughts before the comments start flooding in.

The cause of evil is therefore obvious: selfishness.

As you're well aware that is the Jewish/Christian perspective, too. Although we would extend the definition beyond choosing our desires over another person's to choosing our desires over God's.

...men who went around raping and pillaging would have had more surviving children...

If a godless evolution (sometimes) demands selfishness and (excessive) selfishness is evil, then evil is inherent in evolution. In other words evil is not only natural, but sometimes necessary. If evil was necessary for the rapers and pillagers in their time, who is to say, since evolution has not ceased, that the evil among us today is not likewise necessary for our continued existance?

Anonymous said...

John Lennon said it best? OMG! John Lennon never wrote a half decent song in his life. If "Imagine" isn't the most inane and pretentious song ever written, it comes pretty close. (Okay, I'll admit "Eleanor Rigby" is up there too, but Imagine is in a class by itself.) It's one of the few things that makes me want to go to shul.

Another anon

BaconEating AtheistJew said...

Pymies? I think you mean gypsies.

Beep, evil has morphed into the secular dictionary to describe people like Hitler. I know we can associate it with the supernatural, but I know what it means when the supernatural isn't involved. Raping a child is an evil act....there are certain things that go against a universal morality.....but I agree that most things that are considered immoral are subjective. Even child rape. I rate it 1000 on the immmorality scale of 0-1000, but some pedophiles may rate it much lower.

C.L. Hanson said...

I've been thinking a lot lately about one of the questions you (J.A.) cover here: Is it possible to get people to identify with the entire human race? Or is there something about the human brain that makes people divide the world into "my people" and foreign/other people? With a non-trivial "other" group?

It's not clear.

I agree with you that identifying with one community doesn't prevent one from identifying with another (i.e. Jewish and American, French and "cultural Mormon" ;-) ), and by extension, feeling that you're part of the worldwide community doesn't require shedding or downplaying your own ethnic/national origin. Indeed, proudly wearing your cultural identity makes it easier to turn towards your own people (as an insider) and persuade them to get along with other groups.

BTW, you have a cool blog here -- you cover a lot of interesting subjects. :D

Gary McGath said...

If evil is "overly selfish action," then a suicide bomber is utterly free of evil.

Even in the case of mass murder without self-destruction, the notion that the goal is to advance one's own well-being is dubious. Assuming we agree that Hitler was an advanced example of evil, do you really think it makes sense to say that he killed millions of people because that made him better off than if they were alive?

The idea that a good-evil axis can be based on the beneficiary of an action, with benefit to oneself being bad and benefit to others being good, is untenable. It divides people in a subtle way if consistently applied. If, for instance, you do something to benefit me, then you are good in doing it, but I would be evil in accepting it; and the more good (benefit to others) there was in your action, the more evil it would be for me to accept its benefits.

You give the example of a rapist who commits the act in order to have more surviving children, thus giving him a selfish motive. But this strikes me as completely misunderstanding the rapist's ends. Rapists aren't concerned with whether their victims have children; they're concerned with hurting people. The brutality which characterizes them does nothing to enhance their child-bearing capacity; quite often it does the opposite, since they may kill their victims and thus prevent them from carrying on the rapist's line.

I propose a characterization of evil which is quite nearly the opposite of yours: Evil is the pursuit of destructive ends for the sake of inflicting harm, with no positive end sought. Sometimes the goal is revenge against a world they despise; sometimes it's service to the imagined commandments of a lunatic deity. Your definition exempts the suicidal mass murderer; mine identifies him as the most evil type of person. I think mine is closer to what most people understand as evil.

beepbeepitsme said...

RE BAJ:

It might be a difference in cultures, not many australians (unless they are religious) use the word "evil" outside of a religious context. I know I rarely do.

Having said that, Australia, unfortunately, is being infected by the evangelical religious meme, so no doubt it will be used more often in the future outside of a religious context.

I may just be a product of a passing generation. The comparisons were to me: -

1. holy and evil
2. good and bad
3. right and wrong
etc etc

Modern useage has made the comparison one of "good and evil" acceptable for many people. It just isn't for me. ;)

beepbeepitsme said...

See this is my problem, I use an english dictionary ;)

EVIL: noun 1 extreme wickedness and depravity, especially when regarded as a supernatural force. 2 something harmful or undesirable.

I note the word "especially"

CyberKitten said...

I'm with you on the use of the word 'evil' beepbeep. To me it always has a religious meaning rather than a purely human moral one.

Jewish Atheist said...

r10b:

The cause of evil is therefore obvious: selfishness.

As you're well aware that is the Jewish/Christian perspective, too. Although we would extend the definition beyond choosing our desires over another person's to choosing our desires over God's.


Except that we really have no idea what God wants from us, if He does exist. I cannot believe an omnipotent being cares if we masturbate, for example, but religious leaders all over the world seem to agree He does. Besides, He's omnipotent, why do we have to worry about pleasing Him? Let Him please Himself.

If a godless evolution (sometimes) demands selfishness and (excessive) selfishness is evil, then evil is inherent in evolution. In other words evil is not only natural, but sometimes necessary.

There's no doubt that evil is sometimes beneficial to evolution. Evolution is an amoral force.


Another anon:
It's one of the few things that makes me want to go to shul.

Ok, that made me laugh. :-)


BEAJ:

Pymies? I think you mean gypsies.

Heh. Good point.


C.L. Hanson:

Or is there something about the human brain that makes people divide the world into "my people" and foreign/other people? With a non-trivial "other" group?

Interesting question. It does seem like people spend a LOT of time thinking about the "other" group, even if it's just liberals vs. conservatives. Maybe the only way to unite is against a common enemy.

BTW, you have a cool blog here -- you cover a lot of interesting subjects. :D

Thanks!!


Gary McGath:

If evil is "overly selfish action," then a suicide bomber is utterly free of evil.

A suicide bomber (of the sort we're seeing lately) is choosing his own beliefs or his tribe's goals over the lives of innocent people. Just because he's dying doesn't mean it's selfless.

Assuming we agree that Hitler was an advanced example of evil, do you really think it makes sense to say that he killed millions of people because that made him better off than if they were alive?

Obviously, he thought he was gaining something by doing it. Creating the thousand year reich or whatever. Going down in history. Etc.

If, for instance, you do something to benefit me, then you are good in doing it, but I would be evil in accepting it; and the more good (benefit to others) there was in your action, the more evil it would be for me to accept its benefits.

You have an interesting point, but I think you're only evil in accepting it if I'm not competent to decide to do something to benefit you. Remember, we're talking about being "overly" selfish here. If you give me a dollar and I take it, there's no evil. But if a crazy (mentally incompetent) person offers to give me his entire four million dollar inheritance, it would be wrong to take it.

You give the example of a rapist who commits the act in order to have more surviving children, thus giving him a selfish motive. But this strikes me as completely misunderstanding the rapist's ends.

From an evolutionary standpoint, genes which predispose one towards rape might be advantageous. That doesn't have anything to do with the rapist's motives, which are presumably about sex and/or violence. Just as evolution
"wants" us to have children, but we often just want to have sex.

Evil is the pursuit of destructive ends for the sake of inflicting harm, with no positive end sought.

That seems to leave out the Enron guys, for example, who were just trying to get rich at everybody else's expense. Or rapists, actually, assuming they just want to have sex with someone who's unwilling.


beepbeepitsme:

I wouldn't ordinarily use "evil," either, being as it is less clear than "selfish" or "cruel" or whatever. In fact, I was a little mystified at first by the original question about evil having a "cause," for example. I realized it stems from the mythology of Satan or original Sin or whatever, but what they use "evil" to describe, I can still try to explain.

Ezzie said...

It often seems like too many people either lack that empathy or are good at suppressing it, though.

Heh. True. :)

It often seems the case that we "try to save those people" only when that country is (believed to be) strategically important.

I don't think that it's "only", more that it comes first. We can't save the whole world at once, so we start with the ones that make the most strategic sense. The problems in Congo and Rwanda are as terrible as the ones in Iraq/Afghanistan, but the ones in those countries are more likely to affect us first. Also, while we knew what to do to get rid of the Taliban/Saddam, the same does not hold true of Congo/Rwanda. It's unclear what needs to be done there.

That's surely not true. All despots do practically is make war. They need to be contained and eventually overthrown.

That's not true. Ahmadinejad, Kim... they threaten a lot, but they don't actually go to war. Assad isn't going to war. Castro isn't making war. Even Saddam, once he lost, hadn't started up again except threats. Most of the problems in these countries are often internal or very regional-focused.

r10b said...

Except that we really have no idea what God wants from us, if He does exist.

Your Jewish and Christian friends would beg to differ.

There's no doubt that evil is sometimes beneficial to evolution. Evolution is an amoral force.

No doubt. But if evolution is an amoral force how did it give rise to evil (a moral force)? Your hypothesis is incoherent.

Jewish Atheist said...

Except that we really have no idea what God wants from us, if He does exist.

Your Jewish and Christian friends would beg to differ.


Yeah, differ with each other. :-) I bet no two of them would agree on what God wants from us.

No doubt. But if evolution is an amoral force how did it give rise to evil (a moral force)? Your hypothesis is incoherent.

This is where our uses of the world "evil" diverge. I don't think of it as a force. It's just an adjective. Actions can be more or less evil, but there's no big war between the forces of good and evil.

r10b said...

I agree (somewhat) that there is no "big war" between good and evil. And if there is, God is the general of both armies.

Evil may be just an adjective, but it still must have a meaning. Unless you want to redefine all terms to suit your argument, good and evil are terms describing moral states. And still we are left with the contradiction of amorality producing morality.

Jewish Atheist said...

And still we are left with the contradiction of amorality producing morality.

How is that a contradiction?

R10B said...

Moral: concerned with the distinction between right and wrong.

Amoral: not involving questions of right or wrong.

If all the elements of a process and the process itself are morally valueless, how can the output have any moral value?

If to propose such a thing cannot be labeled a contradiction, it can still be labeled nonsense.

Jewish Atheist said...

If all the elements of a process and the process itself are morally valueless, how can the output have any moral value?

For an action to be moral or immoral, I believe it has to be performed by a conscious actor. Earthquakes (for atheists, anyway) are merely amoral, regardless of how many innocent children are killed. Evolution is guided by blind forces and therefore is immoral. Humans, although ultimately caused by evolution, are conscious actors whose actions may therefore be judged by moral standards.

Of course, there's the whole thorny question of consciousness and free will and whether the whole thing's an illusion, but I'm taking a break from that since I can't make any headway.

beepbeepitsme said...

Human beings are concerned with attributing morality to actions, behaviours, ideas and concepts. And it has been of social and cultural value for us to do so. (It has also been a way to devalue specific behaviours, actions and concepts.)

The universe is not concerned with what human beings consider moral, unless you believe that the universe has a mind, or that there is a supernatural entity which has a mind.

It takes the presence of a mind for the issue of morality to be relevant.

I don't assume that because human beings have minds, that there is a more powerful, invisible mind which wants us to comply with its sense of morality.

To me, the assumption of a powerful mind which is invisible and outside of our purview, suggests an athropomorphising of the unknown and the inexplicable.

r10b said...

Earthquakes (for atheists, anyway) are merely amoral, regardless of how many innocent children are killed.

They are amoral for theists too, as earthquakes lack will.

Humans, although ultimately caused by evolution, are conscious actors...

That's where you lose me. We don't need to chase our tails here; I just want you to understand that I don't think amoral evolution can give rise to a moral being unless another moral being got involved. The "information" needed to create morality could not, to my mind, spontaneously generate, even gradually :-).

And since it's Thanksgiving, let me say thanks to you for your interaction over this past year.

Jewish Atheist said...

They are amoral for theists too, as earthquakes lack will.

Surely a large number of theists would say that God (or Satan) causes earthquakes.

I just want you to understand that I don't think amoral evolution can give rise to a moral being unless another moral being got involved.

There's no such thing as a moral being, just moral and immoral actions by conscious beings. And they're not objectively moral or amoral, either.

And since it's Thanksgiving, let me say thanks to you for your interaction over this past year.

Thanks to you, too! Have a good one. :-)

beepbeepitsme said...

RE: r10b:

The process of natural selection is ammoral in the sense that a human concept of right and wrong is not automatically part of natural selection.

It doesn't mean that a being cannot evolve that is concerned with "right and wrong."

And it doesn't mean that a being cannot evolve who has "moral behaviour" which is expressed genetically.

Just recently scientists mapped the bee genome. They were interested to try and explain why it was evolutionary advantageous for worker bees to be sterile and to invest all their time and life caring for the eggs of a single queen bee.

What they observed was that in some hives, a small percentage of bees which were usually worker bees and sterile, were actually laying eggs in the hive given the opportunity.

They called these bees "anarchist bees" because their behaviour conflicted with the usual reproductive and social pattern exhibited within the hive.

By mapping the genome of a "normal worker bee" and that of one of these "anarchist bees", they were able to compare the differences in their genomes.

What they found was that the "anarchist bees" did not have the reproductive indicators turned off which would have made them sterile. Instead they were fertile, just as the queens were.

The scientists wondered why a small % of bees exhibited with genomes which expressed this physical behaviour.

They conducted an experiment whereby they seeded a hive with a queen and a much larger collection of "anarchist bees" than would normally be present in a hive.

The result was inevitably disasterous for the hive. When nearly all the bees were trying to lay eggs, there were not enough sterile bees to do the work, and the social structure of the hive collapsed.

It was always wondered what evolutionary advantage sterility might have considering that fertility is the key to passing on genes.

And why would such a large population of bees bar one, the queen, invest all their energies and life into the rearing of another bee's young?

Essentially, sterility IS an evolutionary advantage for bee hives. Scientists refer to this sterility as "genetic altruism."

"Altruistic" in the sense that the majority of bees have, through natural selection, waived their "rights" to breed, in favour of the continuation of the hiveand the continuation of the species.

Of course this is not a discourse meant to parallel human breeding habits. I am in no way suggesting that some humans should breed and some shouldn't, so please don't misconstrue this post.

It is merely an example of how, what we would consider as a moral behaviour, namely altruism, has been natural selected in bees and is expressed genetically.

Gary McGath said...

Jewish Atheist:

In your response to my earlier comment, you define "selfishness" in a way which includes all possible motivations.

"A suicide bomber (of the sort we're seeing lately) is choosing his own beliefs or his tribe's goals over the lives of innocent people. Just because he's dying doesn't mean it's selfless." If acting on one's own beliefs is selfishness, then anyone who's been really committed to a cause is "selfish." The selfless person would be the one who goes along with the crowd without regard to his own evaluation of it. And such a person really is, in a strong sense, "self-less."

Likewise for Hitler's "gaining something by doing it... Creating the thousand year reich or whatever. Going down in history. Etc." If all kinds of strongly goals are considered as a form of personal benefit, then there's no distinction between egoistic and non-egoistic action.

Interesting discussion. I'm planning on a post of my own on the nature of evil; if and when I get it written and posted, I'll link to yours as an inspiration for getting me to post on the subject.

Jewish Atheist said...

GM:

Looking forward to it. :-)

R10B said...
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