Evil

"You fit into me / like a hook into an eye / a fish hook / an open eye". Margaret Atwood, in one of her more gruesome poems, making a perfectly gentle analogy gory. Thus does evil fit into the eye of the beholder. Evil is a wound in the eye of this beholder. It does not exist because I see it, rather I cannot see because it is. Evil is ignorance, a kind of moral blindness, a felt scotoma, and it is self-afflicted before it is shared. It is blindness in the form of a wink we give to ourselves to seal our approval and complicity. You really only need to look away for a split second. An active dis-remembering will take care of the rest. We only say that moral values are subjective so that, when we violate our own principles, we can comfortably change them to more convenient ones. The grin of evil is universally recognized. The evil eye does not behold.

"Aha!" you say to me. "There you go drawing the line, demarcating good from evil in a value judgement, expressing an opinion which is after all only your opinion." (As if one were to be made guilty for having, let alone declaring, one's opinions, one's values. Whose value is that speaking?) Yes, I draw a line between good and evil, the one I love the other I hate (except when I am winking, and we all wink, sometimes even nod off....). And unless you are entirely amoral, bereft of the least moral notions, you too draw a line for yourself in the moral sand, separating what you will do and what you won't do; what you might do vs. what you would never do; what you do in the open vs. what you do when others are watching. Your values are your choices, the ones you have already made, the ones you have yet to make. We human beings, we are valuing creatures. Let us each draw our lines in the sand, let us compare, let us make beautiful sand-art together.

We are up to our ears in value judgements, even and especially moral value judgements. Think only of our kids, our lovers, our friends. Every positive joy or terror we are to them represents a value of the utmost ethical consequence. Values are not only the hand-me-down thou-shalts of society; they are not necessarily harsh, authoritarian value that traditions have drilled into us. Morality is not only social convention. It beats in our hearts as our own private deep-set ethical values, which, like most of our profound beliefs, lie hidden from us, hidden from ourselves, their creators. Our moral judgements are not just what we are told to say, or what we actually say when we have to stand up in a crowd and draw a line for everyone to see. Our values are also the opinions that guide us when we act contrary to our stated and wished-for values. Value is not in the eye of the beholder. It is in the guts of anyone riddled with moral contradictions. And who, if they dare look closely at themselves, does not see the great psychic cauldron riven by value conflict and tension? Our society itself is in the throes of moral indecision, a society that has lost its path through gaining too many paths. Each of us suffers in our depths the absurdities of our age.

Perhaps, just perhaps, we suffer from too many opinions, too much confusion, too many roads leading away from Rome (or down the mountain, to choose a less catholic and more universal metaphor). But then again maybe not. I would argue that there is, after all, more agreement than disagreement about where to draw the ethical line. Notable exceptions to the contrary. common decency goes a long way, and cuts through many cultures. We all draw lines, but in many instances the lines converge. Basic moral principles like the golden rule are espoused by innumerable cultures (although they are practiced more rarely, like all valid moral principles). Violations of such shared norms — especially knowing violations — are consensus evil, a workable approximation of objective evil.

But citing the universal agreements in the breach is not the only way to speak of objective evil. Another definition of evil that reaches toward the objective is unnecessary suffering. There remains some situational relativity in the notion, for necessity is not absolute, but nor is it inscrutably subjective (the way “tasty” is). Pain at the dentist is the prototype of necessary suffering, necessary since it is the only way to achieve years of happy chewing; it is therefore prudential, rational in the long run. By contrast, pain that has no compensatory outcome for self or others, pain that isn’t for anything, is pointless pain, and as such exemplifies evil in this sense. One can debate how objective the notion of “unnecessary” is, but there is at least some chance that it could be spelled out without overly relying on subjective interpretation.

Further beyond the universal, but strangely perhaps more likely to find consensus, there is another sense of evil, often neglected in philosophical discussions of moral evil, according to which evil is, not unnecessary suffering, but simply suffering tout cour. One might call this the non-moral sense of evil, since it does not imply Thus an evil omen portends suffering that may or may not be justified or merited, or even the work of some malignant spirit. The spirit need not be malignant, for we read in the King James that God visits evil upon the wicked. Evil due to God might include the rightful suffering of wrong-doers as well as prudent but painful tests of the righteous. Such evil is perfectly consistent with the omni-benevolence of God (in a way that omnipotence, arguably, is not). The two are logically consistent because the word evil also refers to whatever causes “discomfort, pain, trouble, [or is] unpleasant, offensive, disagreeable” (OED 4). Even the necessary and compensated pain at the dentist is evil by that account; it is not just necessary suffering but necessary evil. Likewise just punishments can be, are often intended to be, evil in just these senses. So a just God can visit evil upon us, at least as far as logic goes. Although pain itself is subjective, it is also real (it is a subjective reality); and its causes in many cases may be objectively discerned. So this non-moral evil also has a shot at objectivity.

Evil (in all of these senses) arises in response a variety of cognitive and emotional factors. It lies in our perceived best interest; it springs form anger and envy, from both loyalty and betrayal; it is at home in intimacy, born of passion and desire. Evil poses with urgency the question of forgiveness. By some accounts, hope is evil. This essay ends here, but not the stench of the problem it treats.

To be sure, cross-cultural agreement does not go far enough. Some line converge and yet are crossed, but not all converge. It would be folly to presume that the areas of agreement I have suggested exist are enough to resolve the areas of disagreement, which can also be basic and fundamental to self-identity (who we are). There is not one single consistent objective set of values. There are innumerable sets of objective values, objective values in conflict, not only across social and political divides, but spanning private spiritual abysses as well. O to leap over such abysses!