The concept of evil, a seductive explanation for the many horrors perpetrated by mankind over the millennia of human existence, persists and thrives to this day. To contemplate man’s inhumanity to man, even from just the last century alone, and not to feel a deep sense of revulsion and loathing of human inflicted suffering seems tantamount to exhibiting an indifference typically associated with sociopaths. The need for a explanation cries out to anyone who reflects on the myriad of historical cases of brutality, conflict and social injustice.
How are we to make sense of this? Can there ever be a satisfying explanation without invoking some kind of concept of evil?
It is not obvious we can. The idea of human morality existing as a purely relative and artificial man made construct, essentially an expression of our emotional response to situations and events, doesn’t seem immediately likely. Nonetheless various powerful philosophical arguments have been leveled against the notion of absolute morality, ones that when considered with an open mind are hard to ignore and brush under the carpet, as inconvenient and unattractive as the conclusions they lead to might seem to be. And it becomes even harder to refrain from a position of cultural relativism when confronted with the bewildering array of different cultural perspectives that I have personally been privy to, coming from a working life exposing me to many different ethnic groups and culturally diverse people. What seems so obviously wrong from one cultural perspective can quickly dissolve away when fully understood from the viewpoint of a person from another culture. And conversely what appears correct and proper from one’s own cultural perspective can quickly become more dubious and tentative when exposed to the moral standpoint of someone from a fundamentally different background.
I feel that American society in particular is full of glaring moral contradictions, to the point it can seem almost laughable if it wasn’t for the sad and tragic consequences that certain beliefs and misconceptions can ultimately lead to, and that are commonly held to be absolutely true in America at the present time. Indeed the idea of one’s own country always fighting for the liberty of other more primitive countries with their ‘incorrect’ political systems is both dangerous and misguided. I am not suggesting that America is necessarily the ‘bad guy’ and its enemies the ‘good guys’, merely suggesting the converse is not necessarily the case either. And I am not suggesting that the politics of wars are primarily driven by this perception of moral superiority. However the public support and sanctioning of wars is often partly fueled by this notion that we are always without question the liberators and freedom fighters who have the moral high-ground to displace existing regimes that fall short of our own perceived standards of government.
If we adopt the position that morality is subjective then where do we stand on the issue of how we should treat each other? Isn’t adopting the relative morality position simply carte blanche to treat other people however the hell we want to, regardless of the suffering we might inflict? If there is no absolute right or wrong then who’s to say I can’t go out and rob my neighbour if I am a bit short of cash this month and need to pay an outstanding gas bill? Or sell class-A drugs on the side to make ends meet? Without appeal to some kind of moral framework there doesn’t appear to be any particular reason why I can’t do these things (providing I don’t get caught of course).
I don’t agree with atheists on many things (with respect to their atheistic views) but there is one area where they may have some kind of a valid viewpoint – humanism. My understanding of humanism is that of being a movement that challenges the notion that we even need to appeal to a higher power or higher spiritual purpose in the first place in order to inform our conduct. We all know what suffering feels like, and we all know what it feels like to suffer at the hands of others, to varying degrees and in different ways of course. Can we not use these experiences as a basis for informing our behaviour toward others? Is it not enough that we know what it is like to suffer at the hands of others and as a result do not wish to inflict that same suffering on other human beings?
As I have gone through life and progressively become more acutely aware of what it feels like to suffer as a result of the actions and behavior of other people, be it through acts of pure maliciousness or acts of indifference, it has made me ever keener not to subject others to the same kind of suffering that I have gone through in my lifetime. I don’t feel the need to acquire the approval of a higher power or deity in order to do this. And I don’t feel the need to appeal to a higher spiritual purpose either. I merely need the empathy to understand and appreciate that others suffer the same way I do if I treat them like I have been treated myself by others. This provides me with all the qualification and legitimacy I need to essentially follow Jesus’ primary command – ‘do unto others how you would have them do unto you’.
Spirituality and religion should not be needed as an impetus for us to behave in a humane way to our fellow human beings. And the thorny issue of the objective existence of moral principles or lack thereof should not impede our desire to refrain from behavior that inflicts suffering on other people.
“A humanist is someone who does the right thing even though she knows that no one is watching.”
– Dick McMahan, New York humanist, 2004
“Of moral purpose I see no trace in Nature. That is an article of exclusively human manufacture – and very much to our credit.”
– T H Huxley
Can I see another’s woe, and not be in sorrow too? Can I see another’s grief, and not seek for kind relief?
For everything that lives is holy, life delights in life.
– William Blake