Monday, July 3, 2017

The Shape Of Reality: Identifying Evil

As noted in the opening post in this series, I believe Christianity offers compelling reasons to believe that truth is found most fully and consistently within the framework of a Christian worldview. Considering what we read in front page headlines, it seems appropriate to begin by looking specifically at ethics and morality.

In the aftermath of the Penn State scandal, everyone agreed that a long-standing taboo ought to remain: child molestation is not good. The case involving Dr. Gossnell’s butchery of newborn children, as well as terrorist incidents such as the bombings at the Boston Marathon  engendered an additional outcry against the presence of moral evil in the world.

People from all walks of life have found common ground in their stand against this type of injustice. However, it is increasingly difficult to find a consistent explanation for why these are examples of objectively bad things - that is, actions that are wrong irregardless of individual feelings and preferences.

  • Michael Ruse has stated, “Morality is a collective illusion of humankind put in place by our genes in order to make us good cooperators.”
  • Richard Dawkins wrote in The Blind Watchmaker“In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect of there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.”
  • In an interview with SkepticFrank Miele asked Mr. Dawkins, "How do you determine whether something is good or not, other than by just your personal choice?" Dawkins responded, "I don't even try."
  • The late Paul Kurtz wrote in The Humanist Alternative, "The humanist is faced with a crucial ethical problem: insofar as he has defended an ethic of freedom, can he develop a basis for moral responsibility? Regretfully, merely to liberate individuals from authoritarian social institutions, whether church or state, is no guarantee that they will be aware of their moral responsibility to others. The contrary is often the case...we may end up with [a man] concerned with his own personal lust for pleasure, ambition, and power, and impervious to moral constraints."
To Dawkins and friends, there is no ultimate right or wrong other than what we decide by personal choice or tribal agreement. This is not to say they and other atheists have no sense of morality - that is clearly not the case. But if their claims are true, our apparently intuitive revulsion at child molestation, infanticide, and terrorist bombing seems to be no more than humanity’s collectively chosen illusion in a universe devoid of good, evil, and even justice.

Perhaps this inability to define terms helps to explain why formerly taboo issues like infanticide are starting to gain a foothold in mainsteam conversation.  This is the abstract of an article entitled "After-birth abortion: why should the baby live?" in the Journal of Medical Ethics:
"Abortion is largely accepted even for reasons that do not have anything to do with the fetus' health. By showing that (1) both fetuses and newborns do not have the same moral status as actual persons, (2) the fact that both are potential persons is morally irrelevant and (3) adoption is not always in the best interest of actual people, the authors argue that what we call ‘after-birth abortion’ (killing a newborn) should be permissible in all the cases where abortion is, including cases where the newborn is not disabled."
If there is no such thing as "wrong" or "evil," then nothing objectively bad is happening here. People might not like that doctors like Gosnell punctured the skulls of newborns and snipped their spines before collecting body parts on his shelf, but that's about it.

In a world of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some kids will get molested and some won't (and some psychologists will support child sexual assault).  Some marathon runners will get bombed and others won’t (and about 1/3 of the population will think that terrorism is justifiable). Some people will think that what Dr. Gosnell did was appalling (and some judges will  find no crime in cutting the spines of newborns with a scissors, while some eminent philosophers will defend its permissibility). We dance to the music of our DNA, and if our DNA plays a discordant tune, that’s not our fault. Blame a pitiless universe devoid of justice and full of bad luck.

While many adherents to various Eastern religions (and their Westernized forms) have a carefully defined commitment to the moral life, the religions themselves struggle to identify good and evil as well. If all is one – if a form of monism such as pantheism is true – then everything that exists, including good and evil, is part of  one unified reality. The lines of moral demarcation becomes blurry at best.

  • Joseph Campbell records an interview with a Hindu guru who said, “There is no good; there is no bad."
  • Zen Master Yun-Men said, ‘’The conflict between right and wrong is sickness of the mind.”
  • Herman Hess wrote in Siddhartha, “The world…is perfect at every moment…I see whatever exists as good, death is to me like life, sin like holiness, wisdom like foolishness, everything has to be as it is, everything only requires my consent, only my willingness, my loving agreement, to be good for me, to do nothing but work for my benefit, to be unable to ever harm me."
  • In The Aquarian Conspiracy, the late Marilyn Ferguson wrote that once people achieve a higher consciousness, "There is less certainty about what is right for others. With an awareness of multiple realities, we lose our dogmatic attachment  to a single point of view."
I am not suggesting that adrents to Eastern religions are by definition immoral. That is clearly not the case. I am simply noting that in that worldview, our notions of good and evil exist only in our perceptions. To borrow from the language used in the quotes above:

  • Those who molest boys are not "bad," and those who bring molesters to justice are not "good."
  • Seeing a difference between the perpetrators and victims of a bombing is a sickness of the mind.
  • When a doctor perforates a woman's bowels with rusty instruments,the world is perfect at that moment.
If this understanding of morality is true, we are left with either the illusion of evil and good, or a universe in which evil and good are one and the same.

I would argue that the foundational claims of both of these worldviews are counterintuitive to the way in which we live our moral lives. French philosopher Luc Ferry - a self-proclaimed secular humanist -  has written in his best-selling book 'A Brief History of Thought':
“The literature of materialism is peculiarly marked by its wholesale profusion of denunciations of all sorts. Starting with Marx and Neitzsche, materialists have never been able to refrain from passing continuous moral judgment on all and sundry, which their whole philosophy might be expected to discourage them from doing.”
For example, Dawkins says teaching religion to children is child abuse. But if Dawkins is right that there is no good and evil, and a world of blind physical forces is indifferent to us, then my teaching of religion can’t be any more wrong than the child abuse to which he compares it. I tell my boys that God exists and Jesus offers them life and hope; Coach Sandusky molests young boys in showers. According to Dawkins, there is a moral equivalence there.

This is foolishness. Dawkins himself has conceded by his own description of the nature of reality that he's not talking about "bad" or "good." He's talking about what he personally prefers. It's hard to have no definition for evil or good, then promptly try to say certain things fit those categories. Even Hollywood understands the need for a standard. Vince Gilligan, creator of Breaking Bad, noted in an interview with the New York Times,
“If there’s a larger lesson to 'Breaking Bad,’ it’s that actions have consequences. If religion is a reaction of man, and nothing more, it seems to me that it represents a human desire for wrongdoers to be punished. I hate the idea of Idi Amin living in Saudi Arabia for the last 25 years of his life. That galls me to no end. I feel some sort of need for biblical atonement, or justice, or something. I like to believe there is some comeuppance, that karma kicks in at some point, even if it takes years or decades to happen. My girlfriend says this great thing that’s become my philosophy as well. ‘I want to believe there’s a heaven. But I can’t not believe there’s a hell.’"
In this worldview, no one can be brought to justice in an objective sense, because no one does anything objectively wrong – which means nothing can be made right. Arthur Leff, atheist law professor at Yale, wrote in a Duke Law Journal article entitled “Unspeakable Ethics, Unnatural Law”:
“I want to believe – and so do you – in a complete transcendent and immanent set of propositions about right and wrong; findable rules that authoritatively, and unambiguously direct us how to live righteously. I also want to believe – and so do you – in no such thing, but rather that we are wholly free, not on only to choose for ourselves what we ought to do, but decide for ourselves, individually and as a species, what we ought to be. What we want, heaven help us, is simultaneously to be perfectly ruled and perfectly free, that is, at the same time to discover the right and the good and to create it…

We can say that a valid legal system must have some minimum process for rational determination and operating. We can say that the majority cannot consistently disadvantage any minority. We can say that, whever else a majority can do, it cannot systematically prevent a minority from seeking to become a mojority. We can say all sorts of things, but what we cannot say is why one say is better than any other, unless we stated some standard by which it definedly is. To put it as bluntly as possible, if we go to find what law ought to govern us, and if what we find is not an authoritative Holy Writ but just ourselves, just people, making that law, how can we be governed by what we have found?

...As things stand now, everything is up for grabs. Nevertheless: Napalming babies is bad. Starving the poor is wicked. Buying and selling each other is depraved…. There is in the world such a thing as evil. All together now – sez who? God help us.”
Joel Marks, professor emeritus of philosophy at the University of New Haven and a scholar at the Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics at Yale University, arrived at the same point of epiphany. He wrote in the New York Times: 
"I had thought I was a secularist because I conceived of right and wrong as standing on their own two feet, without prop or crutch from God. We should do the right thing because it is the right thing to do, period. But this was a God too. It was the Godless God of secular morality, which commanded without commander – whose ways were thus even more mysterious than the God I did not believe in..."

Christianity claims that Vince Gilligan's "desire for wrongdoers to be punished" can be fulfilled precisely because some things are objectively wrong or right, and that justice is the process through which an objectively good moral standard can bring a judgment that transcends preference alone. Greg Koukl writes in The Story of Reality:
"We all know that something has gone terribly wrong with the world. We call it the problem of evil.' But that can only be so if there is a right way for things to be. And that could only be so if the world was designed for a Purpose that for some reason is not being achieved. But it’s hard to make sense of 'Purpose' and 'things gone wrong' if we are driven solely by 'a purposeless and natural process that did not have [us] in mind,' if there is 'no design, no purpose, no evil and no good,' and if life in the final analysis is nothing more than 'solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.'"
A worldview informed by Christianity claims that we believe in and use the language of right, wrong, and justice because these things exist. We may not always know them perfectly, but it’s ingrained in our nature to seek them. C.S Lewis noted that in the same way our ordinary longings have a source of fulfillment (we are thirsty, and there is water), something real exists to fulfill much deeper longings (such as joy) as well.  In this case, we long for the world to be just. Christianity says this longing can be genuinely fulfilled as real good overcomes real evil. William Lane Craig identifies the Christian grounding for the very language of morality:
"On the theistic view, objective moral values are rooted in God. God’s own holy and perfectly good nature supplies the absolute standard against which all actions and decisions are measured. God’s moral nature is what Plato called the 'Good.' He is the locus and source of moral value. He is by nature loving, generous, just, faithful, kind, and so forth. Moreover, God’s moral nature is expressed in relation to us in the form of divine commands which constitute our moral duties or obligations. Far from being arbitrary, these commands flow necessarily from His moral nature."
What, then, is evil? Christian theologian R.C. Sproul writes,
"Evil cannot be defined as a thing or as a substance or as some kind of being. Rather, evil is always defined as an action, an action that fails to meet a standard of goodness. In this regard, evil has been defined in terms of its being either a negation (negatio) of the good, or a privation (privatio) of the good. In both cases, the very definition of evil depends upon a prior understanding of the good."
Christianity offers a foundation for good (the nature of God), identifies the source of  the world's problems (a force is at work that seeks to negate or deprive the good), and offers hope for justice and  (God, the foundation of all that is good, has given us a framework within which to adjudicate between good and evil so that justice can be realized). Francis Schaeffer wrote in "Christian Faith and Human Rights,"
"One of the distinctions of the Judeo-Christian God is that not all things are the same to Him. That at first may sound trivial, but in reality it is one of the most profound things one can say about the Judeo-Christian God. He exists; He has a character; and not all things are the same to Him. Some things conform to His character, and some are opposed to His character."
Os Guiness recounts the story of W.H. Auden’s journey toward the Christian faith. It began in a theater in America during World War II when Auden observed a German audience cheering the bayoneting of women and children during the siege of Poland. At that moment, Auden realized the pervasiveness of evil within humanity.
“The second thing I saw instinctively, if I was to say that was evil, I had to have a standard by which to do so. I didn’t have one. I’d spent all my life as an intellectual, destroying the absolutes, and now suddenly I needed one to be able to say this was wrong” (quoted in “Time for Truth,” in A Place For Truth).
In the Christian worldview, goodness has its foundation in a perfect God that transcends our personal preferences and perceptions of reality. We are not stuck in a universe of blind, pitiless indifference. Since God's very nature embodies what is truly good, and God has seen fit to reveal Himself, we know the standard of good for which we should aim. And since God desires us to be able to model that standard, he has given us the wisdom, desire and ability to pursue good and reject evil so that, to quote the Lord's Prayer, God's will is done on earth.

Up next in this series: Are We Really Free?