The secular problem of evil is a distinctly human problem and is rooted in our self-awareness. We discover (and value) ourselves but find ourselves in a world that does not seem to agree, or at least, it lacks the same level of commitment to our personal value that we have.
One of the key moral questions of our time (or any time) has to do with the inherent intrinsic value of each human being as well as the grounds for that value. It is because we value ourselves that we see “survival” (or continuance of the “self”) as so important.
Our survival “instinct” is rooted in a basic, physical, organic need for resources to keep our organism (our body) alive. It seems to be basic to our natural, physical makeup (just like any other animal), but our self-awareness makes that survival into a “value” based on a fundamental belief in our right to exist and even to flourish. Our self-awareness “interprets” our survival instinct as good rather than bad and therefore “valuable” and worthy of our best efforts (even, perhaps, at any cost).
Survival is, therefore, more than an “instinct” for us. It is perceived as a right, an innate expectation and an outward expression of the self. It is the way things “ought” to be and the other “wills” we encounter in the world around us “ought” to agree and act accordingly.
Therefore, death is unwelcome, suffering and pain are to be avoided and the blind, amoral forces of nature must be kept at bay.
Protection will be necessary.
A Dangerous World
Yes, protection. Protection from others, protection from nature. Why is it that nature, in the form of cold and heat, earthquakes and hurricanes, famine and pain, even death itself, intrudes on our pursuit of survival and development and interferes in our pursuit of our highest “good”?
This is one of the key questions. After all, I can negotiate with other “wills” who are also motivated by self-interest. We can communicate, we can oblige, we can force, entice, cajole, love, and simply ask for their help (or their non-interference). But Nature? There is no sense there. Nature is a cluster of blind, amoral forces that seems to make no distinction between what is good for me and what is not good.
Mother Nature aside, the real world of nature is not so friendly. It is full of both good and evil. It is both cruel and non-cruel (in terms of its affect on me). We need what nature has to offer but it is a love-hate relationship because we have limited control over the natural events of everyday life.
Leave aside for a moment what mankind does to nature in the pursuit of resources for our survival and development. Leave aside for a moment that mankind is the true source of many “evils” that seem to come from the realm of nature. Still, nature is unpredictable and uncontrollable in an ultimate sense (even in our scientific and technologically advanced day and age).
It is still an open question whether we are making things better or worse in the long run in our attempts to control and entice resources from this world of ours. Not that we have much choice. Resources are needed today. Survival is always an immediate concern.
In addition, at the end of the day, our physical bodies are dominated by the forces of decay and death. There is no escape. Protection is, indeed, necessary, from others and from nature itself (including our own bodies).
Perhaps we will even come to the realization that we need protection also, and mostly, from ourselves (our corrupted will and our commitment to self-interest above all). Our awareness of the perversity of life that, on the one hand, demands that we prioritize our own self-interest in a dangerous world and then, on the other, condemns us for it since it is both a natural response and the source of most evil in the world. That awareness of the perversity of life, of evil, being both the deceiver and the accuser, that awareness of the absurdity of living in an abnormal world is likely to cause a revolution in our self-understanding and appreciation for this world we live in.
The Cruel Dilemma of Life
Two people, who certainly deserve a seat at the table to discuss the nature of our joint existence and to help us find a solution to our common problems, are Feuerbach and Freud. Both of them offer the thought that human existence can be seen as a “cruel dilemma giving rise to deep “feeling(s) of dependency”. Noted philosopher, Peter Byrne explains:
On the one hand the human mind recognizes that it faces in nature a world which it cannot wholly control, on the other it´s desires and needs drive it to seek satisfaction from this same nature, so that nature is at once independent of the self and yet the self is deeply dependent on it (italics mine).
Freud, of course, gave his own, unique perspective on this issue by suggesting that the human child has a previous dilemma involving his/her parents. During the stages of infancy and childhood, the child is protected from the outside world to a degree and, in any event, the parents act as a filter of sorts between the child and the world at large. They act as protectors (or non-protectors) and providers (or non-providers) for the desires and needs of the child.
But not all of the desires, needs and wants of the child are met (and should not be met, though the child does not understand this yet). Therefore, the human child develops a self that has an “estrangement-dependency” relationship with the world but mitigated through and identified with his or her parents.
Individual Defense Mechanisms
It would appear that the “self” in that context needs to develop some self-protection from others, some self-justification for the pursuit of his or her own desires and needs or, at the very least, to develop a plausible self-understanding in order to deal with the dynamics and social norms necessary to accomplish the goals of his or her own self-interest.
This “self” will necessarily develop defense mechanisms for its own protection as it interacts with the world around it. The final result, with all of the defense mechanisms, inferiority complexes, anxieties, beliefs and values in place, may be seen as a necessary evil.
What do we mean by a necessary “evil”? That is a value judgment. It is, paradoxically, both a necessity in a world which lacks proper protection as well as an impediment to necessary social integration. In other words, this concern about our self-interest (and the need to protect our ego in a dangerous world) is often not in our own self (or best) interest – not just in terms of our relationship with others, but also in terms of our relationship with ourselves.
Much has been written about the effects of this “estrangement-dependency” on the development of the self, but it is good to keep in mind that the “egoism” which normally develops is the root of all kinds of problems.
Corporate Defense Mechanisms
In that sense, both of these men would postulate that one of the key “corporate” defense mechanisms developed by society over time is the concept of religion. Both Feuerbach, in his Lectures on the Essence of Religion and Freud, in his The Future of an Illusion, give a grounding for theistic religion as a way for the “self” to deal with the “not-self” (others and the world) by creating “gods” or even “a God” who can deal with others and nature on our behalf.
Of course, the underlying assumption is that our “gods” are not only able but willing to act on our behalf to give us what we want or need. When that doesn’t happen (as is so often the case), we develop manners and means to entice, please, or obligate “God” to do something for us either through ritual and sacrifice or, in more refined cases, through moral effort (however defined).
Because religion is, according to Freud, a social “illusion,” the motivation for moral effort becomes a central issue. If religion is the ground for moral effort, but religion is an illusion, then why bother?
On the other hand, morality appears to be unavoidable. Some form of morality is necessary but it has no basis for motivation in religion since (in this view) religion is an illusion. What kind of morality can exist in that kind of vacuum? Morality is more than practical self-interest. It must go beyond the self to engage the intrinsic value of others.
Morality as a Limit to our Wills
Morality is the “ought” that relates the self to others (although we will come to see that there is a fundamental “ought” that also relates us to our own “self” and the role of our ego in determining what is good or bad for us). In any event, the moral expectation is that we must strive for good and avoid, or fight, evil.
Good and evil are not only defined individually but also socially. Morality is more than a social contract, it captures our highest values and instincts for what our lives could be and should be (at least according to some).
Our highest good is inevitably bound up with the highest good of the others most closely connected to us. Morality is unavoidable if for no other reason than it is a necessary limit to our “wills” in the pursuit of our own “good” (as well as the “good” of others). We are, whether we like it or not, corporate (as well as, social) creatures.
The social contract is practical and necessary and immediate. It is sometimes (and to a degree) backed by common law and justice and is punished and rewarded accordingly. Often social expectations have an unwritten system of rewards and punishments that may or may not affect your ability to relate economically or socially with others.
Morality is deeper still and is oriented toward those attitudes and actions that go beyond the social contract and, in fact, under gird the way that we deal with each other. “Honesty is a good policy.” “Keep your promises.” “Every person is valuable and deserves our respect and care.” These are not things that can be legislated for or against.
The Moral Gap
Yet, here also, we find a “gap” – the moral gap. We experience a world in which “good” is not always rewarded and “evil” is not always punished. In fact, quite the opposite is often true. There is a gap between moral action and the expected and appropriate results of those actions. What are we to make of a world in which there is no apparent ground (and therefore motivation) for our moral efforts?
Freud suggests that this, too, is part of the “illusion” of religion. We want to live in a just universe and so we create “gods” or, especially in this case, “a God” who is the supreme justice over all of reality and who will bring order out of the chaos of our existence.
Finally, when all is said and done (religion would claim), there will be justice – good will be rewarded and evil will be punished. We live in a just universe whether that justice comes now, in this life, or in the life to come. A comforting thought, most would say – whether true or not.
The Evil Within
But that is the essence of the ongoing debate. If it isn’t true, then how can it be comforting? We have to believe the illusion. And if it is true, if we do live in a just universe, then how will it affect us? How will we fare in the face of the kind of implacable justice that sees all and knows all and shows no mercy?
That truth is dangerous. For there is one other, last reality that we all must face which is rooted deeply in our very natures – a reality that many would recognize (even if they try to explain and interpret it in different ways). That is the reality of “evil” in our own natures.
The concept of “evil” here is a value judgment based on our experience that this “lack” or “incompleteness” or “perversion” within us (however defined) is not in our own best interest.
Peter Byrne speaks of “evils afflicting the pursuit of the good” in the world around us (suffering, pain and death) but he also speaks of “imperfect wills” and a “self (that) is enmeshed in evil.” At one point, he speaks of the “cussedness of the human will” and the fact that we are “prone to choose evil over good.”
This is a mystery. Why would that be the case? Is it related to the defense mechanisms that we all develop to protect ourselves in a dangerous world? Perhaps. Perhaps it is more than that. But in the end, the reality of it is there and some sort of answer must be given to account for it.
Is Freud for Real?
In the meantime, Freud would suggest that this “illusion” called religion may be a necessary evil but it certainly isn’t true. What is interesting is that his perspective is more rooted in his “predisposition against the supernatural” than because of any philosophical or metaphysical argumentation (of which he makes none at all).
Freud makes it clear that he believes that “science fully reflects what is real.” There is nothing else. There is no God to go to and find your answers. It is all an illusion, a necessary illusion perhaps, but an illusion nonetheless.
Yet his “positivism” about the scientific metaphysics of reality is out of fashion today, especially in light of recent scientific and cosmological advances, even though many people still believe that his opinions about religion stand the test of scientific and philosophical inquiry.
That is not necessarily true. There is still more to be said.
Building the Tower
What is becoming evident is that the tower is being built strong and tall, the foundations have been laid and another level of interpretation of reality has been developed, taught and accepted as truth.
- We started with the awareness of self and the belief in our own inherent value and right to survive and flourish. (VALUE)
- We built on that an awareness of an unfriendly and even dangerous world of nature and other “wills” that may or may not value our right to survive and flourish as much as we do. (FACT)
- Yet we need this world and we need the “others” in this world. We are dependent on nature (and others) when we desperately want to be independent and in control. We are unavoidably social and corporate by nature and necessity. (DILEMMA of CONTINGENT-DEPENDENCY ON NATURE AND OTHERS)
- Therefore, we have an obligation, an “ought,” towards others, again by nature and necessity. (NECESSITY OF MORALITY BEYOND SELF-INTEREST)
- That “ought” has been grounded in a naturalistic, utilitarian social contractualism on the one hand, or systematized into religious belief in a transcendent ground for morality on the other. In either case, society or religion (or a combination of both) has attempted to provide a necessary motivation for morality (and the social contract and law) through a system of rewards and punishments and a belief (in the case of religion) in a just universe despite appearances. (GROUND AND MOTIVATION FOR A MORALITY BEYOND SELF-INTEREST)
- We have even considered the suggestion that the problem is within us, within our very natures, but we shy away from that bit of truth like a nervous filly on a frosty morning. (EVIL IS ROOTED IN THE NECESSITY AND DECEPTION OF SELF-INTEREST)
We have not yet reached the pinnacle of the tower, nor have we tried to open the gates of heaven. The workers are still busy with their labors and the architects are still pouring over their plans.
To change the image for a moment, the participants around the table are still discussing the nature and interpretation of reality and how we can deal with our differences.
Yes, no doubt. There is certainly more to be said.
“Where can we find the high priest?”
The old man spoke to a wizened old hag, ancient eyes opaque and sightless, sitting against the wall beside a stall selling pottery wares. She had a pipe and was smoking some ill smelling brew, no doubt homemade, powerful enough to bring tears to the eyes if you got caught in one of her hacking exhalations of smoke.
“Who wants to know?” she said, spitting a stream of dark liquid into the dirt beside him. “You got a reason to talk to him? He’s a busy man.”
The old man made no reply. One of his companions indicated the temple and said, “Let’s go and ask someone in there.”
“He ain’t in there,” the old woman said, then indicated with her head. “He’s way up there. Nigh unto heaven. Seems they all getting ready for a big event tonight.”
“They gonna open up heaven or something. Makes no never mind to me so long as I have my pipe and a bit of something once ´n a while.”
“Thank you, grandmother. I guess we’ll have to make our way up there, then.”
“Grandmother, is it? Nobody’s dared call me that for a long time.” She paused for a second and then seemed to make a decision. “You be careful of that there Sargon character. Full of himself, he is and he ain’t got no right to be, if you know what I mean.”
“I think I do.”
“Everyone’s expect’n something for nothing these days, as if all our troubles are gonna go once we open up that there gateway. Suppose you’re no different.”
“We’ll soon find out.”
The old woman thought about that for a moment. Then she laughed. “I guess that’s right,” she said. “It surely is. They’ll soon find out. Maybe more than they bargained for.” Then she scowled and looked up in the direction of the old man’s voice. “Sargon and that high priest now, they got plans. Don’t you be getting in their way or nothing. It’ll just bring a load of grief. There ain´t no give and take with them. No way. Hard men they are.”
The old man turned away, looking up at the tower thoughtfully. He walked over to his donkey and loosened a sack and threw it to the dirt beside the old woman. She looked up startled.
“Thanks for the advice,” the old man said. “That’s a bit of something for you.”
“Obliged,” the old woman said, and then she hacked and spat again but this time it landed on her own sandaled foot and she swore under her breath. The old man and his two companions had already turned away, headed for the tower in search of answers.
Footnotes and references included in the original manuscript.