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Ethics, Introduction to Philosophical Inquiry

The Objectivity of Evil ?

Hi everyone,

This is Chris from the community. I’m actually an old classmate of your teacher. I’m learning TONS from reading your posts. The creativity exemplified is inspiring and puts me to shame. As the leader of a church community, I’m fascinated by questions of truth and good and evil and I’ve noticed these terms popping up in some of the posts. I’m loving the dialogue on these all issues. Thanks for allowing me to be involved!

I don’t know how much I’ll be posting or commenting in the future but I’m hoping that this post stimulates more conversation on these important matters.

The Objectivity of Evil (?)

I assume these types of issues will be addressed in the ethics portion of the class. But here are some thoughts anyways. What if objective evil does exist?

By objective evil I mean that some behaviors are wrong for all people in all places regardless of culture, upbringing, or historical moment. Actions such as torturing children, genocide or raping women are truly evil regardless of public opinion, evolutionary benefit, or personal belief. Granted, this may not be an understanding of evil that is promulgated frequently anymore but let’s think about it anyways.

After all, it may be that it is only by embracing this definition of evil that we can rationally condemn events like the Holocaust, or the genocide in Rwanda as wrong for all people in all places at all time periods. If evil is simply a social construct and lacks any ‘objectivity’ that would relativize morality.

Relativism is, of course, convenient provided you are not the victim of a harmful action.

But wouldn’t denying objective evil (or good) mire us in moral relativism? Are we willing to embrace the consequences of this ethical position – can we even do so consistently?

I have doubts.

Moral relativism (often linked with cultural relativism) advocates that morals are also relative to different cultures and time periods explicitly denying any objectivity to our moral experience by which we can call certain cultures to account for depraved acts.

This ethical viewpoint logically requires the belief that there are cultures where torturing babies for fun, forcibly circumcising women, blowing up children, or burning widows on the funeral pyre of their husbands, would be good acts IF that particular civilization decided to label it as such. Calling those types of actions evil would then be a form of cultural imperialism; imposing our cultural values on another society.

As has often been pointed out, moral relativism (or what could be called collective subjectivism) casts doubt on the legitimacy of the Nuremberg Trials and it’s attempt to assess moral culpability for various Nazi leaders who were implicated in the extermination of six million Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals and others. If individual societies determine moral values, what warrant did the western super powers who won the Second World War have to impose their perspectives on the German leaders? The Germans decided to kill Jews. The Americans (and others) decided that was wrong – but to each his own. And the relativist (or constructivist) has no grounds for arguing against the above statement regardless of how personally repellant and horrifying she may find it

Maybe this is worth considering: If a person’s moral theory forces us to call something ‘right’ (even if we personally disagree with it) when it is so obviously wrong (regardless of how anyone feels about it) it is time to change our ethical system, or framework. If the premise ‘all morality is culturally relative’ requires a conclusion you know must not be true, like, ‘Napalming babies is culturally relative’, it is time to abandon the premise

In one of Liam’s well-thought out responses to a comment on his post he mentioned the issue of blasphemy no longer being consider evil, indicating moral progress. While I believe moral progress occurs (do you?), let me suggest that when it comes to issues like blasphemy the difference is a change of belief not a change in moral values. I assume people thought (and think) that blasphemy is evil because it puts people’s souls at peril. The reason many people don’t think blasphemy is evil nowadays is because they don’t believe that ideas have eternal consequences, that people have souls, or that God even exists – if they did they would think it is a great evil to blaspheme still because of the intrinsic worth of human beings; in the same way that people today still (for the most part) think telling lies that destroy a person’s life is morally reprehensible. I would suggest this is a change in cultural beliefs about certain facts and not a change in moral values per se. The distinction being made here is subtle and bound to be misunderstood. But other examples could be given of this point but I’ll leave it there (think religious sacrifices vs. sacrificing men and women in war, and/or hunting witches vs. hunting spies and traitors. Maybe I will try and clarify this another time, if necessary, but the post is already too long. Maybe some one else can explore it).

Food for thought.

Chris

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About Chris Price

Pastor at Calvarybaptist.ca

Discussion

7 thoughts on “The Objectivity of Evil ?

  1. Love all that there is to digest and contemplate in this post, Chris – thanks for taking the time to share your extension of this conversation with us. I think the thought experiment you propose here is valuable in considering our particularly post-modern approach to applying an “It’s all relative” response across the board. I found myself a few times in the last couple of days wondering, “Aren’t there certain actions and behaviours that are plainly, categorically, evil?” You’ve done a far more articulate job of posing that question here, though, and I’m grateful, as you not only raise this, but also extend the discussion toward the more fluid human relationship with “facts,” and our interpretation of experience: “I would suggest this is a change in cultural beliefs about certain facts and not a change in moral values per se.”

    This is an extremely interesting angle to approach the discussion from, and one that, I agree, is subtle, but no less worth exploring as we continue moving forward in our own inquiry.

    Looking forward to seeing where this takes us…

    Posted by bryanjack | September 27, 2012, 4:26 pm
    • Are certain actions plainly, categorically evil? There are things(like napalming babies) which just so utterly fulfill our ideas of wanton cruelty and evil that we need to ask that question. But – and I hope I dont come off in support of napalming babies – but what actually differentiates napalming babies from other actions? It is far off to the side in our idea of evil – but without a concrete line, what does it matter how far it is if we can’t actually say there is a legitimate line? Sometimes, I think, we just need to trust in how we feel about things.

      On another note, Sam Harris wrote a book called The Moral Landscape, which tried to find a science-based approach to morality. I haven’t read it, but I’ve heard great things about it – check it out!

      Posted by Liam St.Louis | September 28, 2012, 12:11 am
  2. Thanks for the post, Chris. Your analysis of my blasphemy comment makes sense – I imagine deeply religious people still consider blasphemy morally reprehensible, even if attitudes towards it are nowhere near as strong(even among the devout) as they were before. Why do you think that might be? (a tangent, but just a part of changing values).

    One question you ask is, if morality is relative, then “what warrant did the western super powers who won the Second World War have to impose their perspectives on the German leaders? ” I would ask why they need a warrant. Warrants need an external judge – which we don’t have. Accepting His existence, God is always on your side in every war – and the same is true for the other side. Who is to say which is right? To the winner goes the spoils, warrants be damned. What’s interesting is to ask if, had the axis won, would they have been able to impost and instill their values into the conquered populations?

    Posted by Liam St.Louis | September 28, 2012, 12:06 am
    • Good stuff and good question.

      Normally, we like to be able to give justifying reasons (warrant) for our significant beliefs; reasons that are consistent and rationally defensible. As you note the comment on warrant took place within a critique on relativism. According to the relativist what the Nazi’s did (btw I like the point you made about Hitler in another response) may be repellant to us but it’s not really wrong in any absolute sense that would consistently allow us to call them to account for their actions. If values are determined by societies, and relative to societies, what right (or warrant, or justifying reason) does one society have to drastically impose their values on another. They don’t need one, of course, but they are then acting inconsistently with their premises as a relativist. If at this point we throw up our hands and say, ‘well, who cares about being rational and consistent’, the conversation isn’t going anywhere I would think.

      If we, however, want to affirm emphatically that it is wrong to burn people simply for being Jewish, or hang people for being black, regardless of cultural context and/or time period (as I think we do) how can we do so consistently as a relativist. There are other ethical options that would allow us to be more consistent, while allowing for some gray areas (After all, you don’t get gray without black and white) and disagreement in applied ethics.

      It’s interesting you bring up Sam Harris. He would agree with the basic problems pointed out in the relativist position (as well as others not mentioned). He is a moral objectivist and to the nihilist and the relativist he would say ‘a plague on both your houses’.

      One significant critique of Harris’ work is that he is trying to get an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’. Science mostly deals with what ‘is’ not what ‘ought’ to be; facts, not values. David Hume warned against making such a move many years ago. Not only is it a category mistake to derive an imperative from an indicative (an ought from an is), nature seems to be an unreliable guide for morality, as she sends us conflicting signals. Is Hume right? Another good question. I would suggest checking out Hume and Harris.

      There are also debates on line where Harris defends his book that you might want to check out. I’d love to hear what you think about the last question you brought up in your comment!

      Great stuff man – thanks for the interaction,

      Chris

      P.S. A wise man once wrote, ‘Don’t judge a philosophy by its abuses’. I try to live by that advice when entering the world of ideas.

      Posted by Chris Price | September 28, 2012, 4:26 pm
  3. A very thought provoking post Chris, thank you. I was previously more or less in the “good or evil is what you define it to be camp” (basically, it’s relative) but now I’m not quite as sure. I dare say there is no one sane on this dear planet of ours who could morally justify napalming babies, but that being said, there are certainly things that are morally or culturally relative either over different geographic regions or over different time periods (anti Semitism for example). So are there some objective evils (and goods as well?) and everything else is in some sort of fuzzy grey area? If so, what defines when the fuzzy grey area stops and the things that are truly, 100% irrevocably evil begin?
    I think the answer might not be that there are absolute evils, but rather things on a relative scale that once they approach a certain area become so universally hated by society’s population that it ceases to matter just how ‘evil’ or not it is, its condemned by everyone. I propose that something is ‘evil’ once a sort of critical mass of people in a given society condemn a certain act as such and the society in question responds as if it were an evil. “Absolute” evils would simply be things that just happen to be considered evil around the world, napalming babies for example.

    Posted by nichoman321 | September 28, 2012, 5:23 am
    • This is really awesome. I’ve been thinking a lot about it. My wife is getting annoyed with me.

      It may be that my role here is not so much tell you what I think per se but spur on your thinking.

      I would consider whether or not the approach you suggest, while defensible and interesting, would share some of the inconsistencies that seem to be unavoidable given moral relativism.

      Here is a well known dilemma to chew on:

      Allan Bloom wrote a book called, ‘The Closing of the American Mind’. In the book he presents this scenario to his students. Let’s call it ‘a riddle for relativists’:

      In the 19th century when the British colonized India they outlawed the practice of Sati. Sati refers to the custom of burning widows on the funeral pyre of their husbands. Were the British right to outlaw this practice?

      The students found themselves on the horns of a dilemma. If they agreed that the British were correct in outlawing the practice of widow burning they would be affirming a moral standard that overarches all cultures and peoples – contra relativism. They would be advocating the right of British colonialists to impose their morality on the Indian populace in this instance at least.

      However, if the students contended that the British were wrong in outlawing Sati it would offend their deepest sensibilities about the dignity and value of women. It’s okay that woman are forcibly burnt on their husbands funeral pyre, or forcibly circumcised at the hands of men, if that culture deems it appropriate.

      Yikes.

      It seems like the students in the above example were, in a sense, trapped by their own relativistic morality. With the above example Bloom was forcing them to confront the apparent inconsistencies inherent in their moral understanding. They didn’t want to force their morality on other people but at the same time they really did feel like certain acts are morally repugnant and should be forbidden.

      I think that intuition is right – certain acts are morally repugnant and absolutely wrong. Thoughts?

      At the very least, I’m simply suggesting there may be other options besides relativism (and its offspring) to consider. As you go on in your philosophizing, which you certainly should given the quality of your response, consider different ethical positions – a deontological approach blended with virtue ethics, or, perhaps, a version of consequentialism or something. Maybe check out the Sam Harris book that Liam’s suggested to Mr. Jackson.

      For what it is worth, I think we can subscribe to certain absolute principles in morality based on, say, ‘the intrinsic worth of human beings regardless of race, ethnicity or orientation’. This moral principle can be subscribed to in a manner that doesn’t minimize our duty to care for other creatures, or our planet as a whole.

      If we embrace a principle like this, for example, we can consistently condemn murder, racism and the Holocaust and say these actions were absolutely evil because they committed crimes that violated the intrinsic worth of human beings (evil would be defined then as that which ‘ought’ not be done given certain moral axioms like the above one). Even though culturally the Nazi’s decided that it was okay to extinguish the Jewish people they were simply wrong because there are certain moral principles that overarch all cultures, they were, in this occasion, wearing moral blinders.

      When we embrace a principle like the above one (the intrinsic value of humanity) it allows us to talk meaningfully about moral progress. Abolishing slavery or Apartheid, for example, would be real examples of moral progress because both steps involved more fully appreciating the intrinsic value of black people (outlawing Sati could also be seen as moral progress for the same reason). In addition, this still allows for the ethical disagreements we do see. For example, people may agree on the principle but disagree on how it is to be applied in certain contexts, or the disagreement may not be about the moral principle it may be a disagreement about facts (see Liam’s comments on blasphemy. There are other modern examples surrounding contentious issues where the disagreement is not about the principle but the facts. I bet you could think of a few).

      Anyways, embracing some things as absolutely evil also allows for gray areas. I like to remind myself that grey is a mixture of black and white and can’t exist without the both. This is really wrong (black), this is really right (white), this is somewhere in between, we’re not sure about this etc. (grey). We can move carefully from clear to unclear.

      And obviously things are more complex than this, especially when you get to applied ethics, but it seems like a good starting point at least.

      The only question becomes than how do we justify the intrinsic value of humanity? Can it be justified given naturalism, or is it an example of Specieism (an unwarranted bias towards your own biological classification – racism towards the rest of nature) Do we need theism to declare that human’s are intrinsically valuable as Liam hinted at ? Or, can we simply assert this principle and work from there?

      It’s worth thinking about. Seriously, great comment. I really thought about what you said.

      -Chris

      Posted by Chris Price | September 28, 2012, 10:33 pm

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  1. Pingback: Thinking Dutch | Interesting read on NYTimes Philosophy Blog « Philosophy 12 - September 30, 2012

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