The Nature of Evil (In Evil Times) (1999)

by Josh Weaver

Evil. For many, it is the ultimate four-letter word. It is a word that need not be defined, an idea that need not be explained, for we humans are all too familiar with the concept of evil. Indeed, it would almost seem that you canít have one without the other, that evil is human. That within each of us lies dormant the potential for evil. Yet for others, evil is an anomaly, the exception rather than the rule, like webbed feet, or a cleft lip. For them, some people are simply born evil. For still others, we have nothing to do with it at all. Evil exists in and of itself, as an independent agent for which we are merely the means to an end. Like marionettes, we are employed in its service, forced to play out as passive puppets the macabre spectacle of its grand design. And then there is St. Augustine, for whom evil is merely a matter of perspective, for whom evil is all part of Godís master plan. Evil exists, but it isnít bad. It is only we, with our limited perspective in the grand scheme of things who perceive it as such. Donít worry; God knows what heís doing. In spite of Augustineís assurances, I have my doubts.

The main problem I have with St. Augustineís conclusions is the way in which he arrives at them. The problem is that he sets out to fit reality into his worldview, instead of building his worldview up around reality. He is like a scientist who creates the results and conclusions he wants first, and then sets out to design the experiment to reproduce them. He starts off by saying that God exists, and then goes on to set a number of hard and fast rules about the nature of that God. The essential result of these rules is that we end up with a God who must be perfect in every way. Unfortunately, this leads to all kinds of troubling questions. If God is perfect, then how can evil exist? It canít exist independently of God because this would leave God open to nagging questions about His universal sovereignty. But if God created evil, then what does that say about His infallibility? In the end, the only way that Augustine can reconcile his belief in an infallible God and the existence of evil is to essentially deny the existence of evil, or to say that to the extent to which it does exist, itís actually a good thing. Because God is perfect, then all of His creation, including evil, must also be perfect. His stubborn insistence upon the infallibility of his own preconceived notions about the nature of God lead him ultimately, in my opinion, to give up on the problem of evil. Because he cannot honestly examine the issue of evil without calling into question the validity of his own faith in God, he chooses the easy way out (albeit through a rather ingenious trick of intellectual slight of hand) by denying the very existence of the issue!

However, I must say that Iím not in complete disagreement with Augustine. One of the consequences of his line of thinking is a certain acceptance of evil as a natural part of the world. If evil exists, then it is just another one of Godís creations. I too, believe evil to be a natural part of the world, but I believe it to be so for different reasons. Unlike St. Augustine, I am not limited to thinking of evil in purely religious terms, and as such have a greater freedom in my approach to the problem. I do not however, claim to have all the answers. What follows is merely my own personal theory on the nature of evil. While I feel certain that it can account to a large degree for most evil, I do not believe that it can completely explain every conceivable instance of it.

First of all, I believe evil to be a naturally occurring phenomenon. That is to say that I believe it to be the consequence of natural processes occurring in nature, and not the result of some sort of supernatural forces. Secondly, I believe evil to be a purely human phenomenon. In other words, I believe evil to be dependant upon the active participation of a person, although the victims of an evil deed need not necessarily be human. I add this caveat if only to avoid speaking of evil earthquakes, or evil cougar attacks. For the sake of the current discussion I wish only to speak of evil as it pertains to the human sphere. I also make this distinction because I believe human consciousness and reason to be one of the key ingredients in the existence of evil. But I will touch more upon this later. First, let us begin with what I consider to be the fundamental driving force behind evil, that of competition.

When we look upon the living world, one of the universal constants we find is that of competition. Single-celled organisms compete with other single-celled organisms over limited supplies of food. Plants compete both above and below ground for the nutrients in the soil and the sunlight in the sky, each struggling to grow the tallest or develop the most extensive root systems. Animals compete against each other to see who will mate, with only the strongest getting the chance to pass on their genes to the next generation, in hopes that their offspring will be better equipped to compete the next time around. Wherever we look in nature we will find the principle of competition lurking just below the surface. The same is true of humans. We are no less subject to the rigors of competition than any of the other forms of life on this planet.

However, in the game of life we do not all start out on a level playing field. It is essentially a genetic crapshoot as to how one will be prepared for dealing with lifeís demands. Some people are smarter than others, some healthier, others better looking, or more likeable. All these things and many more have an effect upon our ability to compete effectively with others in the world. Individual shortcomings can be minimized through co-operation with other individuals, and we see this in nature as well as within society, however this co-operation is almost always in the service of a more effective competition. The ultimate result of unequal agents competing amongst each other is unequal results. We cannot all win, and where there are winners, there are also losers. Inequity and inequality are the inevitable results of competition, and ultimately of life.

So where does that leave the thinking, feeling, rational being? For lifeís winners it leaves us with feelings of arrogance and superiority. For lifeís losers it leaves us feeling powerless, and inadequate, and these feelings can with time lead to growing jealousies and resentments. In time these resentments can build into anger, in time this anger can turn into hatred, and where one finds hatred there is always the potential for evil. This is of course a gross oversimplification, but if one examines the basis behind much of what is evil in the current world, competition and its resultant inequalities are often to be blamed. Religious intolerance revolves around the competitive nature of contrasting beliefs, with each faction or creed competing with the other for our everlasting souls. Political violence is again the physical manifestation of the competitive struggle between two opposing viewpoints. Much of the friction between the West and the rest of the world can be traced to economic inequalities resulting from fundamentally different ways in which they have organized their societies to compete in the global market. The examples linking evil to competition are many and I have only touched briefly upon a few here. The constraints of limited space donít allow me to go into the discussion in as great a detail as I would like, as I still have one more point Iíd like to make before I conclude, but I can assure you that the more thought one gives to the idea, the more examples one can find in support of it.

The last point I would like to make is one which I alluded to earlier when I said that evil was a purely human phenomenon. Competition is universal. All life is subject to its demands. And yet, it is only in humans that we observe what could be called evil behavior. Plants and animals may compete with each other, they may even fight and sometimes kill one another, but I have never known them to act in a manner that can be compared to the way in which humans sometimes compete. And the reason for this I believe to be quite simple. Simply put, the reason is reason. We are thinking beings, capable of a complexity of thought, and a degree of cooperative competition far beyond that of any other creature. We are capable of conceiving the evil act. We are also capable of abstraction with regards to rationalizing the evil deed. In other words, realizing that we are subject to competition we are able to devise a winning strategy. That strategy is society, but that very society is dependant upon our ability to think abstractly. We conceive of the machine as a whole and of ourselves as cogs within that machine. We also conceive of other machines in competition with our own, and of these machines as being composed of their own cogs. Yet by belonging to one machine and not to another we make distinctions between ourselves, and the cogs of other machines. It is easy for us to think of others, and indeed entire groups along impersonal lines, and as such we are far more able to devise impersonal, and often evil solutions in dealing with them. The carrying out of the collective act of evil is also facilitated by the dispersal of responsibility and guilt across the collective whole. No one cog is ever completely responsible for the actions of the entire machine. It is in precisely this way that Holocausts are made possible. This is not to suggest that evil is an exclusively group activity. Obviously this is not the case. Reason and abstraction are equally capable of equipping the individual to commit evil in similar fashion, albeit on a smaller scale. Whenever reason and abstraction are employed in the service of competition, evil can always be a potential consequence.

So what then does all of this mean in the end? Is evil natural, and even to be expected? Unfortunately, as far as it pertains to humans within a social setting, that is to say, the non-isolated individual, I would have to say yes. Now does that mean we should all simply accept evil as a matter of course? Certainly not. Just because we begin to think of evil as the inevitable consequence of competition doesnít mean we shouldnít take steps to combat it. Reason and abstraction may be important facilitators in the existence of evil, but they are also are most powerful allies in combating it. We need to understand that competition, the very force that drives us apart, is also that which can ultimately bring us back together again. When we can begin to think of the entire planet as being united in the common cause of survival, then perhaps we can begin to let go of our hatreds and relegate evil to the role of an antiquated custom of a bygone era (Donít you just love a happy ending?).