Friday, October 18, 2013

Evil Is Always ...What?

Occasionally I hear the question "What is the nature of evil?" and sometimes the question leads to worthwhile conversation. But what would we think of someone whose answer to the question began "Evil is always..."? How could anyone presume to address a question of illimitable complexity by opening with a generalization?

Yet a number of my life's formative figures have done just that, and I believe that they cast clarifying light. The figures I have in mind are Reinhold Niebuhr, Jonathan Edwards, Saint Augustine, and Martin Luther King, Jr.

The bluntest of these figures is the theologian and public commentator Reinhold Niebuhr. In 1944, with World War II raging, Niebuhr described evil using the charged word "always":
Evil is always the assertion of some self-interest without regard to the whole, whether the whole be conceived as the immediate community, or the total community of mankind, or the total order of the world. The good is, on the other hand, always the harmony of the whole on various levels. Devotion to a subordinate and premature "whole" such as the nation, may of course become evil, viewed from the perspective of a larger whole, such as the community of mankind. (The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness, Scribner's, 9–10)
Niebuhr's basic ethical imperative is to strive for increasing harmony among ever-broadening communities of concern.

One of Niebuhr's formative predecessors was the New England theologian and minister, Jonathan Edwards. In The Nature of True Virtue (1755) Edwards describes "all sin" as selfishness without regard to larger contexts in which things are interconnected. Edwards refers to the most comprehensive context as "the great whole of existence" or "being in general":
All sin has its source from selfishness, or from self-love not subordinate to a regard to being in general. (Ann Arbor Paperbacks, 92)
Sin's opposite is "true virtue," the subject of Edwards' book:
True virtue most essentially consists in benevolence to being in general. Or perhaps, to speak more accurately, it is that consent, propensity and union of heart to being in general, which is immediately exercised in a general good will (p.3, Edwards' emphasis).
Edwards' basic ethical imperative is to strive for ever-broadening goodwill toward the great whole of existence.

The basic principles of Niebuhr and Edwards bear the imprint of Saint Augustine. In Book 7 of his Confessions (written in 397–401) Augustine chronicles his crisis in faith as he struggled with the question, What is the nature of evil? He calls out to God:
I pictured your creation filled with your infinite being, and I reflected, "Look, this is God, and these are the things God has created. God is good, and though he is far more wonderful than they in every respect, still he who is good has created them good; see too how he surrounds and pervades them. Where, then, is evil; where does it come from and how did it creep in? Or does it not exist at all? ... Either the evil we fear exists, or our fear itself is the evil. So where does it come from, if the good God made all things good? (Tr. Maria Boulding, Vintage, 125)
Augustine tells us that his years of questioning led him to a resolution that we may find startling:
Everything that is, is good. (Quaecumque sunt, bona sunt.)
What then is evil? Augustine's answer is that evil is not something different from good in kind. Evil is different in quantity. Evil is insufficient good. Evil is an absence, a lack, a deficiency, a privation (privatio). Evil is not a thing to be destroyed but a partial vacuum to be filled.

Augustine believes that our self-interest (Niebuhr) or self-love (Edwards) is in itself good, but never good enough. We become better persons to the degree that we enlarge our self-interest toward concern for the total order of the world (Niebuhr) or the great whole of existence (Edwards). Our ethical paths, says Augustine, must always "keep totality in view."

I think we can say that in Augustine's view, evil is friction among our limited self-interests at the expense of the common good, that is, at the expense of the larger communities of which we are inextricably members. This friction takes myriad forms, from highway littering and personal quarreling, to planetary despoiling and human holocaust.

Amelioration comes not by inflicting destruction upon something named "evil," but by flooding deficiencies of good with more abundant goodness—as darkness is dispelled, not by obliterating something called "dark," but by flooding darkened realms with light.

From his struggles as a "vagabond soul" (animo vagabundus) Augustine knew well that a basic principle is not the end of ethical struggle but its beginning. For one thing, others will disagree with the principle. And persons who embrace the principle face unavoidable questions about how to make decisions and act upon them in the face of unforeseeable outcomes.

No one was more fully aware than Niebuhr of the difficulties, ironies, and tragedies involved in making principled decisions and acting upon them. More than most public figures, he often changed his mind about ethical issues and admitted his former errors of judgment.

In the 1940s, for example, Niebuhr favored U.S. involvement in World War II. When his nation's development of the atomic bomb became public knowledge, he approved that decision. When the U.S. dropped atomic bombs to convince Japan of its certain defeat, Niebuhr again approved, though he lamented the targeting of two cities filled with civilians instead of some unpopulated demonstration area. With the coming of the Cold War he supported the doctrine of mutually assured destruction (MAD) as a means of preventing war that might otherwise cross the nuclear threshold.

By the time of his death in 1971, Niebuhr had voiced doubts about these earlier attitudes:
The development of the hydrogen bomb, of guided missiles and of tactical atomic weapons has made many of our conclusions otiose.
He came to believe that nuclear war would be "ultimate and suicidal holocaust"* and supported proposals for an international No First Use treaty.

The fourth and final figure in this brief survey, Martin Luther King, Jr., was also abundantly aware of the difficulties, ironies, and tragedies involved in making ethical decisions and acting upon them. This is in part because he was an admirer of Niebuhr. Recalling his years as a graduate student, King writes of Niebuhr:
I became so enamored of his social ethics that I almost fell into the trap of accepting uncritically everything he wrote. (Stride Toward Freedom, Perennial, 1964, 79)
King avoided that trap. Niebuhr believed that evil sometimes necessitates violent resistance; King resisted evil non-violently. Niebuhr rejected pacifism; King was a pacifist.

In the end Niebuhr and King agreed about the ethical imperative of avoiding nuclear war, though not about the political and diplomatic means for trying to do so. Niebuhr's dread of "ultimate and suicidal holocaust" echoes in King's language:
In a day when vehicles hurtle through outer space and guided ballistic missiles carve highways of death through the stratosphere, no nation can claim victory in war.... If modern man continues to flirt unhesitatingly with war, he will transform his earthly habitat into an inferno such as even the mind of Dante could not imagine. (Nobel Prize Lecture, December 11, 1964)
King put his trust in the moral principle of overcoming evil with good, keeping in view the world's totality:
So we must fix our vision not merely on the negative expulsion of war, but upon the positive affirmation of peace. We must see that peace represents a sweeter music, a cosmic melody that is far superior to the discords of war. Somehow we must transform the dynamics of the world power struggle from the negative nuclear arms race which no one can win to a positive contest to harness man's creative genius for the purpose of making peace and prosperity a reality for all of the nations of the world. (Nobel Prize Lecture)
King's sermons** offer hopeful images of dispelling evil's darkness, not by violence, but by the light of goodness:
Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that.


* Quotations from Campbell Craig, "The New Meaning of Modern War in the Thought of Reinhold Niebuhr," Journal of the History of Ideas 53.4, 694–96.
** Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?, Harper, 1967, 62–3; Strength to Love, Harper, 1963, 37 .

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