When Evil Comes, 7 – The Moral Compass

The nitty-gritty of our struggle with the evil within is not resolved by abstract reasoning.  It is faced every day in our decisions about how to treat family members, friends and acquaintances, business and work colleagues, schoolmates, strangers, and our planet.  Most of these decisions are made casually, on automatic pilot so to speak.  They are made in accordance with an (however unconsciously) internalized set of principles and criteria we have imbibed from our family of birth, our more extended community as we grow and mature, and the cultural influences we encounter and move in and through along our road to maturity.

Traditionally, religious communities and institutions played a vital, primary role in the moral and ethical development of the members of a family, clan, tribe, and nation.  Here in the West, we have adopted a public posture of “secularism”, or “no-religion”, and we propagate this perspective in our publicly funded education system.  The secular, Enlightenment-based concept of human nature holds that religion is, at best, to be tolerated in the private sphere but not to enter the public realm.  In consequence, morality and the judgment of evil has become largely a private concern, as long as they do not cross legal boundaries which are set according to current socio-ethics.

There are historical justifications for this approach to efface God and religion from the societal framework of right and wrong.  These justifications involve the once deplorable excesses of various brands of Christianity in persecuting and eliminating dissidents and “infidels”, even to the point of mass-killing in persecutions and crusades.  The problem generated by removing religious concepts of good and evil and their origins from our public life is that we must then provide a plausible substitute for holding to any durable, quasi-absolute standards of what is good and what is evil.  As said above, such substitutes have proven rather fluid since they have been increasingly adopted over the last fifty to sixty years.

In the still early years of the 21st Century we have reached a stage when the elimination of God has really begun to matter far more than the Enlightenment philosophes who pushed it so hard could ever have anticipated.  Those earlier generations of Enlightenment thinkers were supremely confident that religion was an almost wholly pernicious force and that reason and science could provide a much “purer” guide to finding a moral compass.  However, the forerunners of modern relativism left their successors with scant intellectual equipment to begin developing any practicable alternative to the Judeo-Christian order of things in the area of morality and issues of good and evil.

However much we might wish to do so, the truth is that here in the West (or anywhere humans live in societies) we simply can’t escape that discussion, no matter how militantly we strive to exclude it from every area of public discussion, whether in politics, economics, social order, education, climatology, personal living, and, yes, even science and technology.  We may wish desperately that it would just go away for “good”, but it just won’t.

“But,” you object, “hasn’t all that been settled once and for all?  Haven’t we declared God dead, except maybe as a nice, comforting personal crutch when we’re desperate?  Haven’t we demonstrated with sufficient proof that bringing the Deity into the public picture only engenders fanaticism and terrible excesses?  Hasn’t recent world history reconfirmed all that outside the West, allowing us to congratulate ourselves and thank our forebears for removing that sort of ugliness from our society?”

If only it were so!  Or, perhaps more appropriately, if only our intelligentsia over the last two hundred and fifty years had not thrown out the baby with the bath water.  There is now a remarkable phenomenon beginning to stir among the neo-philosophe heirs of the Enlightenment.  Where once they asserted as a firm dogma that morality and a sense of strong moral compass do not require God or the Church, there is a growing awareness that without a foundation based on an absolute standard and origin, there is no anchor, no central position or authority from which to make pronouncements that some things are always wrong, always evil, never acceptable or justified.  And without such an anchor, it seems we cannot escape the eventual admission that everything is equally valid in the moral and ethical sphere.  Or it is all just arbitrary according to the current majority view or the officially sanctioned view.

Some of the more astute thinkers among previous generations of Enlightenment-principle proponents saw this clearly and strove mightily to find some new foundation for a firm, immovable set of moral and ethical standards and the judging of questions of good and evil.  A few such figures include Auguste Comte, Immanuel Kant, Georg Friedrich Hegel, and, in his own way, Karl Marx.  And then there is the gigantic, clairvoyant figure of Friedrich Nietzsche, the bravest of them all in his strict adherence to total intellectual honesty.

The others, Comte, Kant, Hegel, Marx, Darwin, and some lesser lights of their ilk danced around the issue.  Nietzsche faced it squarely, honestly, and with brutal frankness.  If we “kill God”, we are only left with ourselves.  We must then choose what we will and find the will to live with it, to make the world we choose come to be.  But only those of superior will to power, the forerunners of the new humanity, can find such a will.  They must transform themselves and bring the rest of humanity with them.

All Kant’s torturous intellectual dancing around “pure reasoning” (a self-contradictory term to begin with) and “critical, practical reasoning” were about finding a way into moral life without the Creator.  Perhaps there was/is a Creator to set up the Universe, but the rest is up to us.  But, in the end, Kant couldn’t find the way into it and left those who tried mightily to follow his convolutions baffled, although quite intrigued.

Hegel read and admired Kant but decided to take a different route, returning to the basically Socratic methodology of the dialectic.  We begin with an assertion of “truth” – a “thesis”.  At some point, the “thesis” is exposed as problematic when evidence seems to contradict it.  This generates a basic question such as, “What if the opposite of this thesis is as true as the thesis?”  The opposite is the “antithesis”.  We then struggle with finding a way to combine the elements of both which seem to be true.  Finally, we find a formula which satisfactorily brings the opposing concepts together, and this becomes our new “thesis”, our new assertion of what is true, right, good, etc.  Until new evidence crops up that we still haven’t arrived at the final truth.  And on the process goes, possibly forever.

Marx loved Hegel’s adoption of the dialectic.  He used it to find the “thesis” he believed the society of the West was operating from in its economic and social dimensions in the 19th Century.  The thesis was Adam Smith’s version of economic development – free-market, laissez-faire liberalism and personal rights.  Marx said it didn’t go far enough.  Only the rich and powerful benefited.  The antithesis was the overthrow of this exploitative system.  That was the next, necessary step in human progress (Auguste Comte’s contribution was the Philosophy of Progress).  This overthrow had to happen and it had to be violent in order to free the oppressed laboring classes and create a socialist society.  The final synthesis would be a sort of purified form of socialism called Communism.  However, this could not happen without the intermediate stage of Socialism.

Darwin added the refinement of not even needing a Creator to explain the natural world.  He also effectively short-circuited all discussion of absolutes in any moral sense.  After all, if the two ruling laws are survival of the fittest and natural selection, what does talk of “good” and “evil” even signify?  The only “good” is survival for its own sake.  The only “evil” is extinction.

How do we find the solution to where evil comes from and how to deal with it from among this cacophony?  Here are some succinct summations of the “answers” which come out of the various approaches cited above. 

For Comte, whatever denies progress based on science and the supremacy of reason must necessarily be evil.  

For Kant, the liberation of the human intellect from dogmatic entrenchment will, over time, enable us to discover what the real absolutes are, based on “pure reason”.  (He never resolved how pure reason could evolve given the subjectivity of human life and experience.)  At that point, we will be able to create a society based on the final, distilled purity of knowing what right and wrong are. 

For Hegel, there is no final version of right and wrong, of total moral certitude.  We can only, hopefully, improve our understanding of such things as we dialectically engage them.  Ideally, as with Comte, humanity will begin to approach a Utopian society based on its ongoing ability to improve itself.

For Marx, there is a shortcut to this hoped-for Utopia: diagnose the present situation, viz., a terribly oppressive, exploitative system benefiting the few and crushing the many for the benefit of the few.  Take affirmative, strong action to overthrow this system.  Create an interim system that will enable the once-oppressed masses to move into the desired totally egalitarian, decentralized Utopia.  Voilà!  No more revolutions or changes necessary!  Earthly paradise!  God is then really dead because the Deity is just a tool of the now-eliminated old Oppressor class to keep the oppressed in line.

Final question for today:  Do any of these lead us to a final answer as to why evil still and always has been so prevalent and persistent?

Short answer: No!  We will discuss why they don’t and can’t next time.

TO BE CONTINUED

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