Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Evil? No such thing.

Well, I've had with people talking about evil in the world. The metaphysical concept of evil is no longer relevant in the 21st century. There is no force of evil generating horrible events, there are only the laws of nature and human behaviour. We seem to have developed this concept of evil to explain the random, uncontrollable events around us. The death of loved ones in a natural disaster is at least comprehensible if you think some great malevolent force caused it due to your not being nice enough to your god of choice, in turn weakening his ability to protect you (or something). Nowadays, when an earthquake happens, we know it's due to plate tectonics, not a pissed-off deity smiting left, right and centre. In nature, what we call evil is simply the universe obeying the laws of physics (and yes, it's ALL physics). The universe at large doesn't care that it might inconvenience us with the odd supernova, earthquake or hurricane. It just is.

What we call evil in humans is essentially the degree of socially unacceptable immorality being displayed in a particular behaviour, whether in an individual or a group. And morality is not a universal absolute. It is a sliding scale, a function of the society observing it, and is in fact defined by the society observing it. The ancient Aztecs, a relatively sophisticated civilization, butchered thousands of people at a time to appease a bloodthirsty god. They didn't see it as evil, it was simply a necessity (as they saw it) for their society to keep functioning properly. From their point of view it would have been evil not to kill them. Today, such behavior is so far from acceptable that it is beyond unthinkable. So what's the difference? The moral values of the societies in question. Our global society today generally tends to value human life, and unnecessary death is not very well looked upon (what people do about it, of course, is another matter). Individual acts of what we term evil can run the gamut from shoplifting to sadistic, violent murder; again, the "evilness" is relative to the society passing judgment.


  • Stealing in Saudi Arabia can cost you a hand. Which is worse: theft, or mutilating someone for life? Which is evil, the former or the latter? Both? Neither? Is one more evil than the other?
  • Necessity, coercion or social pressure might make a "normal", well-adjusted person perform horrific deeds in time of crisis, for example during wartime or famine. Is this evil?
  • Someone who steals food from another to feed his starving family, knowing that he's putting another family in the same situation as the one his family is in now? Is this evil?

As human beings, we are flawed. We sometimes do terrible things to one another, but in the end we and we alone are responsible for our actions. We can explain all of history's atrocities in terms of human flaws: a combination of greed, politico-religious extremism, and charismatic sociopaths manipulating their way into positions of absolute power. We don't need to resort to some supernatural, meta-physical force of evil. That's simply a cop-out.  We are in control of our destiny. "The devil made me do it" is no longer acceptable. We can do better. We must do better.

The question is will we?

Posted via web from John's posterous

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