Does Evil Exist?

In the absence of conscious beings with free will, morality can not exist.  Picture a universe of infinite violence such as our own with no sentient life.  Is the extreme destruction of a super nova evil? Is a tsunami evil, or an earthquake? Surely not.

Now assume a universe with consciousness and beings able to cause acts of violence and cruelty.

Destruction of itself can not, presumably, be deemed evil (even if caused by sentient beings) unless other sentient beings suffer. And even then intent must be shown. Accidental destruction causing suffering can not be evil. There must have been an intent to cause suffering. Or callous carelessness without regard to the consequences.

We know that consciousness exists even if we do not understand what it is. I think, therefore I am.

We do not know whether free will exists. Without free will there can be no intent to cause harm and suffering. Nor indeed to cause good or happiness.

But we must act as if free will does exist. We must believe free will exists. Not to do so makes all our thoughts, words and deeds pointless.

So on those assumptions does evil exist? Does good exist? Are there any moral imperatives or are we free to interpret morality as we desire?

I argue very strongly that moral imperatives do exist in a universe with sentience and free will.

The most important moral imperative is to abolish suffering. To refrain from causing suffering to conscious beings. I can not, will not accept, as I have seen argued recently, that good and evil are subject to change and interpretation by different societies in different ages.

This has absolutely nothing to do with a belief or disbelief in a deity. We do not need a deity to explain to us what suffering is and to tell us it is wrong.

And please, please do not tell me that society of any age or geography genuinely believed that the barbarity handed out to their fellow men was justified. Was not “evil”. If they did so believe then very clearly they were wrong. Good and evil do very obviously exist in our universe and it is our duty to espouse the former and eschew the latter.

We are not robots, surely? And on that assumption our duty is to prevent suffering.

I recently sang in a Passion by the contemporary English composer Howard Goodall.

The lyrics were profound (even if the music was not destined to become one of my personal favorites).

In his Lamentations are found the words of William Wilberforce, spoken in the House of Commons on 18th April 1791, “You may choose to look the other way but you can never say again that you did not know”.

Please do not tell me that among sentient beings with free will, morals are relative.

3 Comments

  1. I wish you profound and unexpected healing, then. I am sorry indeed to hear your condition is like that. It probably doesn’t help when pillocks come along and critique your thoughts, not realising they’re just for catharsis!

    And yet…I wonder. You’re bothered by the biggest questions. That subject matter suggests a philosophical purpose. Are you engaging in this, I wonder, in the hope that answers to the big questions might bring some relief, some peace of mind, or perhaps some purpose? That would be a traditional role for philosophy. We think to solve problems, and often philosophers think because the problem they have most immediately is their suffering.

    I value your writing either way, and I rather doubt that it is really without direction. Sometimes the movement of our own position on things isn’t obvious to us. I think there are times when tiny shifts are being made, unmade, remade, then one little change can suddenly reshape the whole.

    Consistency over time (or between separate models) isn’t ideal, because things must change for us to work things out. We can’t see whether our whole jigsaw represents the world fairly unless we shuffle the pieces. But logical consistency of the pieces is necessary for a truly useful picture to emerge at all.

    Deciding that one proposition is true or false affects all the pieces it links to, which are usually a great many, so we get a very different world view if we consider it with or without free will, for example, or if we have a piece that’s called Evolution through Natural Selection, or one that says humans are here for a higher purpose.

    And we can of course have a number of different models we hold in store at the same time and compare them, and yes, our mood makes us select one or the other. I keep flipping from “global warming disaster” to “we’ll make it” depending on fairly small bits of data or amount of sleep.

    Nobody ever figures everything out, not by a long shot. “Heal” is etymologically related to “whole”, and the more stuff that links together with logical consistency (and at least some degree of temporal consistency, obviously) the healthier our psyches, but psyches are never whole, just as world views never are. And probably one of the most healing pieces we can flip is exactly that proposition, that some people out there have it all sorted, that all my cogitation will lead to some absolute enlightenment.

    That’s my experience anyway. Letting go (finally!) of that dream of enlightenment freed me up to concentrate a lot more on parts of the jigsaw that mattered to me, and some parts I could figure out how they fit together better, and to work on my logical skills so that those parts are stronger for being rid of as many assumptions and biases as possible. You really have to stop letting your emotions drive your philosophy. Logical rules are as solid as anything else we know, and tested empirically (in my uncustomary view; there seems to be a belief they exist in some realm of abstract mathematical ideals, but whatever). We know they’re pretty sound. If you let wishful thinking or fear push you to set a true-false switch one way rather than another…well, you’re off on the wrong tack.

    And there’s a temptation for us to do that when we’re suffering, because it seems to make sense that a hopeful thought should lead to a better outcome. If I’m feeling vulnerable and can persuade myself that life is somehow more heroic and meaningful than it is, that should help. But it doesn’t, at least usually it doesn’t. It’s like an addiction. Abstinence leads to better outcomes than the temporary relief of indulgence. Think hard, like a scientist, and more happiness follows. Critical thinking – how we do philosophy properly – is a whole subject in itself, and we are hard-wired to abuse its principles with our evolved biases and quick-and-dirty computational habits: hyper-active agency detection; negativity bias; confirmation bias; loss aversion bias…tons of it. It’s a bloody miracle we humans worked out as much as we have! Or is it?… 😀

  2. I’m surprised to see this is less than four months old. I’m pretty sure you wrote recently that we don’t have free will and are “robots”. Maybe the universal machinery did some churning and out popped an updated answer to the question.

    I reject the argument that we must believe in free will, or must act as if we have it, and here you do both (after saying we don’t know whether we have it or not) and then you apparently continue with the assumption of free will: “I argue very strongly that moral imperatives do exist in a universe with sentience and free will.” Your thinking strikes me as clearer now than it was in June. It’s so good to be able to change our minds.

    I don’t think the lack of free will removes moral imperitives, but these arise deterministically as do our bodies and minds. I don’t believe in universal moral imperitives, however, because I think “good” and “bad” are always relative to some desired outcome, which we might not have desired.

    1. If I am inconsistent it is because my convictions change from day to day. Sometimes I hope for something and at other times I reckon that my hopes were futile and it is not thus after all. It is much the same in every aspect of my life. I find no consistency in my thoughts, actions or words. Sometimes I feel benign, confident and happy and act accordingly, write accordingly. At other times I feel very differently and my state of mind will be expressed in my writing.

      My writing serves no purpose whatsoever. I do not seek to convert, convince, change or persuade. I write merely for catharsis. To express the inner turmoil, the jumble of often inconsistent thoughts which roil and flow like steam within my damaged psyche.

      Nothing that I say has any value or meaning as such, much as in the natural world. It just is. My thoughts just are. Like writhing bacteria or the ocean currents, they weave and alter with no particular direction and certainly no purpose.

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