Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Certain Evil

I do not believe there is evil in nature.  The natural world simply operates as it does, without morals or reason, plainly in response to stimuli in the short term (action) and the long term (evolution).  Nature is a system.  Evil, like good, is a purely human issue; we interpret some things that happen one way, some another.

I am not dismissing good and evil as unimportant, I'm simply saying they exist solely in the domain of human experience, not nature.  I am neither suggesting we should, in a Nietzschean sense, seek to ignore this distinction by synthesizing a higher truth*; I believe some things are, in fact, evil.

But where does evil come from?

The men who shot 14-year-old Malala Yousafzai in the head four times simply because she believes girls should be able to go to school committed an evil act.  How were they able to do such a thing?  Because they are evil people?  I think that's likely too simple an answer.

Timothy McVeigh, when he blew up a building full of people in Oklahoma City, committed an act of evil.  The 9/11 hijackers did evil.  The Nazi's attempt at genocide was evil.  There is undoubtedly evil in the world, and all of it is created by people. 

If we set aside the actions of the completely psychotic, what remains is a clear through-line that connects in commonality much of human evil, and that is certainty.

The men who shot Malala did so because they believed this to be  the will of Allah, whom they believe to be the one true god; that girls must not be educated as boys, and that her contrary beliefs and actions meant it was right to kill her.  They did not see it as an act of evil.  They rather saw her as enacting an evil in the eyes of god.  

But they did not just "suspect" this, for any uncertainly in them would have prevented them from this horrific action.  If they had said "I think god wants me to shoot her, but I could be wrong about that" then I submit they would never have actually fired their weapons.  They might have argued against her, tried to stop her, reviled her to others, but to actually attempt to end her very life, at 14 years old, they had to be absolutely certain that they were righteous in their action.

Timothy McVeigh, similarly, believed that the United States federal government was an evil force that was destroying the fabric of this nation and our freedoms, and that this constituted a war against its citizens.  He saw himself as a freedom fighter, and that attacking a federal building was a justifiable act of war against his oppressors.  He didn't consider this as one possible interpretation of the situation, with other possibilities also arguably true, he was absolutely certain he was right, or he would never have taken the lives of so many strangers who had, directly, done nothing to him whatsoever.

The 9/11 bombers were certain they were right.  So were the stormtroopers.  

There is danger in nature.  A tidal wave can drown you, a grizzly bear can eat you, a slip off of a cliff will subject you to gravity and a deadly fall.  But none of this is evil, it just is.  Evil is in the hearts and intentions of people who are certain, absolutely certain, that they know the truth and that this knowledge justifies acts that would otherwise be evil, but are not evil because of some larger, more important truth.  In the main, I doubt that there are evil people, people who simply want to do bad things while cackling to themselves and twirling their mustaches.  I think most evil is done by people who see themselves as certainly doing the right thing, and they are so sure of this it enables them to commit the most horrible acts imaginable.

I'm not saying that certainly is the only source of evil.  Greed can cause it, anger can, selfishness can, etc...  but an awful lot of evil is committed by those who intend good, but are simply deluded by their certainty.

The cure, of course, is credulity.  We must question everything; our government, our teachers, our priests and rabbis... but mostly ourselves and what we believe.  We must never allow ourselves to disregard the possibility that the things we hold the most true may be completely wrong, and that the things we see as lies and foolishness may be correct.

Of course, that means I must doubt the very notion I am putting forth in this blog, and I do.  But to doubt does not mean to dismiss, or even disbelieve.  It means that I would never take an extreme action based on this belief.  I would never say that it is okay to kill people who operate with certainty because I believe certainty is a major source of evil in the world. 

This belief motivates me to avoid certainty in myself.  I do not believe there is a god, but I may be wrong.  I believe the second amendment is not about individual gun ownership, but perhaps I am in error.  I believe abortion should be legal but rare, but I'm willing to entertain other opinions.  I do not lack conviction in my beliefs.

I lack certainty.


*Or, at least, that was my interpretation of "Beyond Good and Evil" in my undergrad days.