The following builds on some ideas expressed in my March 12 column The Root of All Evil.
The Book of Genesis says that Adam and Eve ate the Forbidden Fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, suddenly became aware of their nakedness, and tried to cover themselves. God came round and wondered why they were suddenly ashamed of their nakedness.
Obviously, the Tree made Adam and Eve aware
of the concept of Good and Evil, but not the content
of what is good and evil. Otherwise, the utterly moronic idea that nakedness was evil would not have entered their heads. No wonder they were expelled from the Garden of Eden. Now thinking in terms of good and evil, but not knowing what
is good and what
is evil, they would have mismanaged the place. They were incompetent.
Thousands of years later, we still don't seem to have much of an idea about good and evil. Sure, some will say that there are indeed moral absolutes that everyone besides psychopaths agree on, such as murder. But even that is debatable: some religions teach or imply that murdering non-believers is permissible. Not even child rape and violence against women are condemned universally, and theft and fraud against foreigners or second-class citizens has been permitted in many cultures. Nor can we even say that human moral consciousness is "evolving." After all, unprovoked warfare - such as U.S. aggression against Serbia and Iraq in the last nine years - goes unpunished, torture is making a comeback, and the global economy is based on usury and inflation.
Nevertheless, instead of humbling ourselves, humans still try to abolish evil from the world. But we disagree with each other on the source and content of evil, which leads to conflicts, quarrels, and war. But there does seem to be two elements all sides seem to agree on: evil is caused by other people's wrong beliefs, or other people's selfish behavior. The difference of opinion centers on which beliefs, and on which behavior.
The wrong beliefs could be religious, or they could be ideological or national. In any case, other people's cultures and values are perceived as a threat to our own, and as the cause of war and instability in the world. And selfishness could be greed, but it also could be lust, gluttony, or some other vice. Those who complain about a "corrupt" culture are really complaining that other people are just too selfish.
Of course, other people with the "wrong" beliefs think their
beliefs are right and ours are wrong. And people justify their own "selfish" behavior by criticizing the beliefs of their critics. Anyone who does anything for profit or pleasure will be criticized for destroying society or the environment. But anyone who wants to impose his beliefs on others will be called an extremist or fanatic. Every dispute, foreign and domestic, is like this. You're either condemned for what you believe, as both the Religious Right and environmentalists are, or you are condemned for what you do, as both Wall Street investors and Hollywood producers are.
And this cycle of condemnation sows hatred and discord. Your problems are caused by the beliefs and actions of other people. It is up to you to "fight for what's right" by getting back at them.
And this leads to a third area of agreement among many, though not all, people: aggression in the name of stamping out evil is permissible. In short, the use of force is not evil. Killing for the sake of a doctrine is legitimate. Imprisoning people whose "crimes" amounted to hurting only themselves, is perfectly fine. People will become "good" through the fear imposed by laws and regulations, not through persuasion and example. And our excesses and errors will be forgiven because our intentions are good.
But what if this is wrong?
Isn't it possible that evil isn't in the beliefs and lifestyles, but in the hatreds? In the quarrels and conflicts? That the main evil is the aggression? That toleration of lesser evils is to be preferred over the use of force against deviant individuals and foreign tyrants? That the backlash and blowback from prohibitive laws and preemptive wars create worse conditions than the use of coercion and force tried to fix?
I won't provide empirical data in support of this position today. But think about Adam and Eve. What they thought was "evil" was only an illusion. When they tried to "do something" about it, they lost Eden. This unfortunate or "evil" consequence was a result of treating their illusion of evil as something real. They didn't attain the knowledge of good and evil, they only thought they did.
What makes us think we are smarter than they were? And if we are not, how dare we even try to run the lives of other people? The physical and emotional battles we wage against "evil" will probably leave more scars than if we just leave other people well enough alone.