March 25, 2002


Evil (Jennifer Szalai, 18th March 2002, New Statesman)
Human beings push against the limits of the natural world, acting upon them rather than simply reacting to them; we believe that a "meaningful" life entails more than the necessary acts of sleeping and procreating, foraging and eating. In this, we differ from animals who live in response to their environment; when they take the life of another, they do so out of what John Updike calls "a joyless necessity" - for the purposes of survival or because of an evolutionary imperative. Although an animal's behaviour might be deemed ferocious or cruel, it would be difficult to use the word "evil" to describe what it does. Derived from the Old Teutonic ubiloz, meaning "up" or "over", the word "evil" implies something beyond necessity, some sort of excess.

Religious moralists think of this excess as something that comes from without, a satanic impulse that dooms the possessed. Moral relativists also think of it as something that comes from outside; but they see the source as something more worldly and less holy, be it a social structure or an abusive childhood. In other words, ordinary people do extraordinarily horrible things when their constitution compels them to do so; and while the moralists and the relativists may differ in the terms that they use, they share an unwillingness to address the role of individual choice, no matter how constrained or limited that choice might be. Evil - if applied to that dark space between necessity and excess - can only reside within the boundaries of the self. Its source lies in the very thing that makes us human: the impulse to transcend the reality that surrounds us, to abstract from our concrete experience and to free ourselves from necessity. As such, the human capacity for good is inevitably tied to the human capacity for evil: both account for those actions that lie beyond the necessary requirements of everyday survival.

I believe that she's mistaken and that religious moralists recognize that evil, like good, resides within us, not without. Still, the essay is interesting. Posted by Orrin Judd at March 25, 2002 8:11 AM
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