Tag Archive | philosophy

What Evil is

So anyway, is there some sort of scale of badness that culminates at “Evil”? I think it’s generally accepted that evil is the worst kind of bad but I still feel that it’s not terribly well defined. In a strictly dichotomous sense, it’s the opposite of “Good”, but there are numerous superlative terms that exceed “good” in their representation of goodness. If we go back to the concept of a scale, then it might be possible to talk about Good and Evil in strictly paradigmatic terms, so that on one end is the most Evil thing/act imaginable, and at the other end the most Good thing/act imaginable.

Presumably, then, in the middle is “Neutral”, neither Good nor Evil. I’m struggling to think of something that would fall under that category. Beige, maybe. The vacuum of space. Ricky Ponting’s retirement. I really don’t know.

The thing about this scale (which, incidentally is making me think of this which is very distracting) is how it can be made divisible. How much easier is it to define “slightly good” than “slightly evil”? How much further up the scale of Good is “Fantastic” than “Wonderful”? This, at least, is relatively easy to answer. What’s happened is those two words in particular, but also “Awesome” and “Brilliant” and others, have ended up being misappropriated by lazy and unimaginative language users and mixed into a slurry of words that in some sense or other relate to the relative goodness of something. That’s not what they meant originally, it’s just how they’ve come to be used.

So let’s return to the paradigms: At one end of the scale is the most evil thing/act of which one can conceive, and at the other is the most good thing/act of which one can conceive. Now, St. Anselm, in his Proslogion presented his ontological proof of God’s existence. The gist of it, if you can’t be bothered following the link to Wikipedia, is that if God is something than which nothing greater can be conceived, then surely it’s greater if such a thing exists in reality. Ergo, God exists in reality. QED. Atheists and other philosophers (such as myself) like to poke fun at this argument in all sorts of imaginative and entertaining ways. But then atheists also like to quote Epicurus in somewhat unfair terms because it suits their needs. Both arguments fall down in similar ways but you know those kooky atheists, they just don’t care. When there’s a cheap shot to be had, they’ll have it, by gum! (Just as an aside, the sport of atheist baiting, whilst generally thought to be outlawed under anti-trolling legislation no-one really takes seriously, is actually a wholesome sport the whole family can enjoy. Why not give it a try?)

I don’t know how helpful it is to draw a comparison between Anselm and our scale of Good and Evil, except to say that by using this same logic, if the most Evil thing of which one could conceive actually happened in the world, then it would actually be the most Evil thing, and therefore the real definition of Evil itself. The same applies to the notion of Good.

“Ah ha!” I hear you exclaim, “This notion of what is Good and what is Evil is entirely subjective! There’s no way humanity could possibly agree upon what’s most Good or most Evil!”

Well, quite.

Let’s take humanity out of the equation, then. Let’s try and conceive of what is Good and what is Evil in a universe minus humanity.

Tricky… How about just trying to conceive of the universe minus humanity?

Can’t be done. Mr. Descartes told us that at the end of the day, the mere presence of a “thinking thing” to ask the question “So, this is nothingness, eh?” proves that it’s not really nothingness.

So, the “Problem of Evil“. When taken out of a human context, it ceases to be a problem. It’s quite possible to conceive of a universe existing without human beings around to observe it, but utterly impossible to conceive of a universe in which either Good or Evil exist without human beings around to make judgments about the goodness or evilness of things.

Good and Evil are not creations of God, they are concepts created by humans. Some humans at some points in history have believed actions they took to be entirely Good, whereas others thought they were Evil. Taken out of human context, they are merely actions. We don’t call tigers evil for killing and eating furry animals, even human animals, furry or otherwise. But Hannibal Lechter? Evil as an EVIL THING. Strangely, cannibalism in “primitive cultures” generally isn’t seen as evil, just “primitive”. Hitler is generally attributed responsibility for the deaths of around six million people, and is thought to be Evil personified. The Spanish ‘flu pandemic claimed nearly 50 million lives but isn’t considered evil. Why? Because we believe Hitler was motivated to do bad things, whereas the ‘flu virus is just a virus, and doesn’t have motivations.

Perspective is everything.

So, in the end, what has been the point of this little ramble? Just to address these ideas of Good and Evil and give them some perspective. Calling someone or something (e.g. a country or government) Good or Evil is meaningless, because those terms rely upon a moral point of view that is far from universal. Besides, you can’t have one without the other, and in the space between these two opposite concepts are innumerable other concepts that better and more effectively describe the world around us. We’re better off trying to explore those concepts and the vocabulary that go with them, than to try and paint the world in black and white.

Ramble on!

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Responsibility, Accountability, Initiation and Reason

Events in my private life have recently led me to pondering the concept of personal accountability. It’s a sticky subject, for a number of reasons. What does it mean to be held to account for one’s actions? Does it differ from taking responsibility for one’s actions? If it does, it’s in a very subtle way, which is part of the stickiness. I’ve learned that responsibility is, at least in an interpersonal sense, rather a subjective notion. It seems to rely upon whether or not an individual is prepared to accept responsibility for their actions. If they refuse to accept responsibility for their actions, then they cannot be held to account for them. At least, they will refuse to be held to account for them in the same way that they refuse to accept responsibility for them. I’m sure anybody reading this will be familiar with the scenario I’m describing.

Now, in civilised society we have laws, and officers of the law, whose duties include enforcing personal accountability in the form of the limitation, in some form or other, of an individual’s freedom. This might take the form of a fine, a community based order, or even a prison sentence. It is thought that through the process of administering the law of the land an individual is brought to the realisation that they are responsible for their actions and have been brought to account for them accordingly. It’s not a perfect system, I know. It would seem that being told by a judge and a jury of their peers that they are responsible for some action does not necessarily mean that an individual accepts that responsibility, even after they have been held to account for it. It’ll do, however, for the interests of society. Society likes to see that justice is being carried out.

In the case of interpersonal relationships it is somewhat different. We generally can’t force people to accept responsibility for their actions without being in breach of the law ourselves. So where does that leave us? Why, with rational discourse, of course. It is possible that an individual can be encouraged to share the view of another if they are prepared to enter into a rational discussion of the matter. It might go something like this:

Arthur: “Bill, I think you shouldn’t have told Fred that he was a noodle-brain.”

Bill: “But Arthur, Fred forgot to bring his knee-pads to training again. It’s happening often and it’s very frustrating.”

A: “I understand that, but when you called Fred a noodle-brain it hurt his feelings. Is it worth hurting someone just to express your frustration about their forgetfulness?”

B: “Well, I suppose not. I didn’t want to hurt Fred’s feelings, I really just wanted him to realise how annoyed I was feeling so that maybe next time he would try harder to remember his knee-pads.”

A: “I’m confident Fred would accept that as being the truth. Perhaps you could pay him a visit, or call him and explain your position?”

B: “Yes, I should also apologise for hurting his feelings, I feel bad about doing that.”

In a perfect world, everyone would be of a rational disposition and would conduct themselves in an entirely rational manner. Our world is far from perfect, so a more likely scenario would be:

A: “Bill, you’re a bastard for calling Fred a noodle-brain.”

B: “Blow it out your ear, Arthur. You’re not the boss of me.”

OR

B: “No I didn’t, who told you that?”

OR

B: “Well Fred told me you play with dolls.”

and so on…

In the interpersonal sphere of experience, we have traditionally broken ourselves up into neat groupings called “families”, and we have used these family structures as microcosmic societies, with their own systems of justice. Parents would lay down the law, children would adhere to the law, order was maintained. This is still the case in some families, and in some cultures more so than in others. In the West, generally speaking, the family unit is breaking down, due largely to increased mobility of the workforce, increased divorce rates and commercial television. Well, the first two, anyway. Perhaps I should have added the advent of “aged care facilities”. Anyway, there have always been alternatives to the family unit when it comes to interpersonal relationships. Sometimes we will group ourselves according to interests or beliefs. Religions, charitable organisations, clubs and societies, sports teams and such can act upon us in different ways. Sometimes they stand as intermediaries between the greater society and the family. Sometimes they have hierarchical structures similar to both families and society.

I read an excellent article recently that looked at the nature of initiation in a spiritual sense. It looked in detail primarily at self-initiation of various kinds. What was lacking was some insight into the nature of initiation into a tradition such as Wicca. There are two distinct qualities that differ from self-initiation: taking oaths before one’s gods and other people, and making a commitment to a group. A Wiccan group, or coven, is hierarchical in its structure in much the same way as in a family or in society as a whole. But when one is initiated one is bound to that group by oaths that honour not only the tradition but also one’s fellows within that tradition. Witches who work in covens will often report that after a time they become attuned to their coveners both emotionally and spiritually. The relationships formed in this manner can tend to be intense and highly charged, and in the past the general rule was that one wouldn’t socialise informally with one’s coveners. This was to avoid public blow-ups of energy that more rightly belongs in the controlled environment of a circle. It’s not a perfect system either, and unfortunately many a personal relationship has been damaged or broken because uncontrolled energies spilled out into the private lives of witches.

Because one has taken oaths, and because one is bound to a group of other minds, personal responsibility is of the utmost importance. Within the coven structure interpersonal disagreements can be brought forward and at that point the parties involved are obliged to conduct themselves in a rational manner, and it is the responsibility of those further up the hierarchy to maintain an objective viewpoint and to ensure that the dispute is resolved in a fair manner to all parties. Again, it’s not a perfect system and it’s been my experience that on several occasions even people in this situation can simply refuse to accept responsibility for their actions and hence cannot be brought to account. However in these instances there are other minds to consider, and there are often repercussions felt throughout the group when one member goes awry, not to mention the fact that oaths have been taken.

Now someone can have a bit of a tizzy without breaking oaths, that’s not the issue here. But the question arises that if not for the betterment of oneself why does one seek a spiritual path? I have written before on the qualities necessary to be spiritually “upright”, as it were, but I shall add to that the necessity for self-exploration. “Know Thyself”, the seeker at the Temple of Delphi was told. “The unexamined life is not worth living”, Socrates said. These are fundamental tenets not only of philosophy but also spirituality. The only explanation as to why someone wouldn’t behave rationally is if they are unable to, for whatever reason. Perhaps they are mentally incapable. Perhaps they are emotionally incapable. Irrational refusal to accept responsibility for one’s actions seems to point towards an unwillingness to acknowledge something about oneself. That’s certainly been my experience. People who are afraid to look into themselves and examine what they find closely also tend to be the people who will deflect rational enquiry and apportion blame where it isn’t due.

We all do this, or have done this at one time or another. Whilst recently I have had cause to call out one person on their appalling behaviour and lack of personal accountability, I’ve also had to acknowledge that I had been at fault and allowed my behaviour to adversely affect another. It was uncomfortable and difficult to do, but also completely necessary. I could have adopted an attitude of belligerent denial of my culpability but what would it achieve? In the end, I’d have only been deceiving myself.

So finally, here’s a question for you: What is the purpose of reason if there’s no-one to reason with? To my mind, right now at least, I contend that individualism, especially in the form of the ego, is in fact the enemy of reason.

Free Will, or not

The question of free will is one that has troubled me for as long as I can remember. Part of my reasoning behind choosing to study Philosophy was to pursue an answer to this question. If I may refer you to the Wikipedia page about free will you will note that the question has been the topic of debate for as long as history and at least hundreds of serious attempts have been made to address what might be called the problem of free will during that time. The problem, in simple terms is that if everything around us appears to conform to basic rules of cause and effect, causality, then why shouldn’t we? Why do we perceive a difference between the laws that govern Nature and the “laws” that govern our own behaviour? Surely, if we are effectively biological, physiological machines, then our cogs and wheels are subject to the same causal relationships as those in a car or a printing press?

So the “problem”, if you read through the very large entry on the topic, seems to boil down to how much we are prepared to accept that our lives are determined by causality. If our lives are completely determined by causality then free will is simply an illusion, and all of us are just acting upon the universe as some small element within it, the course of our lives already set according to the myriad causal circumstances that brought us into being.

If our lives aren’t entirely determined by causality then how is it possible to figure out by how much? Do I have enough free will to go down to the shops for a pie, or only enough to decide that I like pies?

It’s questions like this that philosophy was invented to address, and indeed it’s questions like this that only seem to find a simple (acceptable) answer through a belief in spirituality. I don’t know how the atheists get on, but I suspect it’s much like everyone else: in a state of uncertainty. With spirituality it’s possible to address uncertainty with faith. In an atheist world view I suppose it’s possible to address uncertainty with either a fierce adherence to the argument that best suits your needs (hard determinism is a compellingly simple option, yet it does make things a little sticky, ethically speaking) or I guess there are other ways to distract oneself… Look! A shiny thing!

Having just witnessed the great, globulous mass, festooned with tinsel and bunting that is the United States elections, I ask myself how the question of free will is any different when applied to political will? Is there really such a thing as a “free” election, or do voters go to the polls as pre-determined elements in a larger, pre-determined sequence of causality? Can people really be persuaded by the arguments of one politician over another? Taken on a broader view like this, it seems easier to think that political “movements” have purpose and will of their own, but when you reduce the concept down to its composite parts you have to accept that such things are but a macrocosm to our individual microcosm. It does make for rather a hollow victory, does it not?

So, what to do? I think, on measure, most people take the most pragmatic path, which is to simply not give the idea any thought and get on with things as though it weren’t there. I won’t say I’m not still troubled by the question but within my personal world view I see a necessity for control of one’s will, even if it’s not strictly, one-hundred percent “free”. That fits in with my spiritual beliefs, which demand responsibility for one’s actions. In fact, the actions of my will are fundamental to my world view, and I think the way to get around the whole causality thing is to consider the nature of time. What if it’s just because we’re really only equipped to comprehend time in this linear way? What if there were other ways to conceive of reality that didn’t require this sequence of cause and effect? Surely if some deity created the universe then they also created time, and so therefore they must exist outside of time? That might work, at least for the deists. If time is really actually linked to the way in which space and gravity interact, then what of these other dimensions some scientists are suggesting might exist? In other dimensions there may be no reference points from which to observe time! Maybe in those dimensions time doesn’t exist as we understand it at all! Zounds!

I suspect that it’s not just my limited understanding of science that’s the problem. I think it’s the fact that reality is subjective, and if, at the end of the day I have come to accept a kind of reality that differs from another, then it’s no big deal. If other people share that same view, then all the better. Really, I’m happy to accept that I can assert my will to create change, because I have found that in my reality (and apparently in some others’) that has been shown to happen. I suppose it’s a kind of casual causality. It might even look good in corduroy slacks.

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