Saturday, 9 March 2019

The Strange Thing About Good & Evil

Good and Evil both exist - in fact, they seem to me to exist in a more concrete way than anything that science measures. The reality of good and evil is so instantiated in truth that a universe in which one of the laws of physics suddenly became radically different would be far less strange to sentient minds than a universe in which good and evil no longer exist. In fact, it seems impossible to have sentience without value judgements - and it seems impossible to have value judgements without the up and running concepts of an extreme upper end (maxima) and an extreme lower end (minima), where one is an ideal we have no chance of attaining, and the other is a nadir from which we should stay as far away as humanly possible. 

But what's really interesting about those concepts, for me, is that the more broader and abstract they become, the more real they appear to be, and the more the propositions about them seem evidently true. When you speak of historical passages of evil, like Nazi Germany or ISIS in the Middle East, the evil attributed to them is an abstraction - it's as though the evil that pervades in those events is a much bigger thing than the narrower particularities of the events. They seem 'possessed' by evil, perhaps rather like how William Burroughs talked about 'genius' as being something we are possessed by, not something inside us implicit in the individual (although in a sense, it's possibly also that, because creativity is heritable).

The more you break those historical catastrophes down to their constituent parts, and the grainier those parts become, the more you diminish the overall intensity of 'evil', to the point that it's very hard to ascribe the notion of evil to any individual person - and even harder still once you drill down into the inner-humanity of that person, and the shared suffering and tragedy that's a central part of the human condition.
Even the people thought to be the poster boys of evil - Adolf Hitler, Jozef Stalin, Saddam Hussein, Ian Brady, Charles Manson - were all damaged by their surroundings, plagued by their insecurities, and corrupted by the seduction of having power over others. Peel off the layers, and you don't find anything as substantial as evil - you find really bad choices, failure, regret, circumscribing defects, psychological torment, and a wounded psyche that hates and fears its surroundings, and turns inwardly towards a parochial rejection of truth and goodness.
And here's the other thing: each and every one of the people that the sententious subsections of society deem as 'evil' and 'beyond the pale' can be redeemed - they can love by being loved; they can be liberated from their plight by sorrow and regret; and by being forgiven they can be restored, as though a big blanket of goodness has been thrown onto their fire of torment. Restoration is possible because Good and Evil are bigger things than individual properties of personhood.  

Good and Evil seem to me to be too metaphysically overwhelming to be reducible to mere individual traits or personality properties. Their nature in the reality we know constitutes a fundamental reality in the nature we know - it really is as profound as that. Because of that, we humans are so much more amazing than we realise, and so much worse than we realise - and that is the duality of the human condition, played out sublimely where individual identity is perceived as a weighted average of all our thoughts, feelings, decisions and actions.