Thursday, May 06, 2010

The Problem of Good and Evil

The problem with the concepts of good and evil is not related to their existence in the world of humans; the issue relates to how they are perceived. This is of vital importance for so much of the system of jurisprudence that we rely upon, as an allegedly civilized society, is predicated on our collective beliefs surrounding good and evil, especially the latter.

If evil is defined as an action with the intent to do harm, or an action whose primary intent might be for some other reason but whose implementation would knowingly result in causing harm to others, then evil certainly lives amongst us. Defining an action as evil does not provide any explanation as to what prompted a person(s) or government or group to act in such a way. It is not enough to simply label the perpetrator as evil; that is no explanation at all.

The CEO of a tobacco company who pushes a product that is known to be lethal cannot be put into the same category as a clearly mentally disturbed psychopath suffering from paranoid schizophrenia who has committed a murderous act. It is very convenient to color a perceived enemy, or a foreigner as evil, for they can then be treated without regard to their inherent humanity. It seems that human societies need their demons as well as their heroes to maintain the illusion of cohesiveness. It is expedient to bundle all our inner fears and perceptions regarding evil into demons such as Osama Bin Laden, Adolph Hitler, Joseph Stalin, etc. In this way, we don’t have to consider the person, or, more importantly, the fact that each of us is capable of extraordinarily evil acts under the right set of circumstances.

Adolph Hitler has become the symbolic arch-villain. This is understandable given that he was the architect of the horrific plan to exterminate the Jews. Six million individuals died under devastating circumstances as a result of his policy. However, if we proceed to count the bodies – some fifty million individuals – who died violent deaths during World War II, and analyze how they died and under whose hands, the picture of good and evil becomes a bit more murky. When we proceed to count the bodies of civilians including women and children that died excruciating deaths at the hands of Allied (the good guys) bombings, it paints a less that flattering picture of the real nature of human behavior. How many civilians died in a fiery caldron in the city of Dresden Germany as a result of relentless fire-bombing from the sky; how many hapless citizens of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki died of severe radiation exposure that left their skin literally hanging from their limbs – a radiation dose so extreme that it literally wiped out their bone marrow and eviscerated their immune system. Ten thousand children in Hiroshima alone died such a death. How many citizens of Japanese and German cities died as a result of thousand of sorties of Allied bombers? Why don’t we sum up the total of these deaths, or are they irrelevant because we perceive ourselves as being on the side of good. Are these acts not evil acts; if they are not evil, then why not? The answer to me is quite obvious – we were the winners. War has an insidious momentum that pushes the envelope of reason and rational judgment, that shreds our inner sense of humanity and compassion, and that ultimately leads to human depravity and degradation.

The plethora of cop shows and the violence-based video games that provide so much of the cultural backdrop in our society perpetuate this view of the world – as populated by the forces of good and evil. Our prison system (with one of the largest per capita prison population in the world) is, in fact, inhabited by thousands upon thousands of individuals who are mentally disturbed either as a result of genetic disease or of childhoods in which they were horribly abused. We have been known to imprison and execute those who have been shown to be severely mentally compromised. This system of jurisprudence continues in spite of the remarkable breakthroughs currently being made in the area of neuroscience, especially in regard to mental dysfunction and illness.

True justice, in my mind, incorporates a real perception of the human condition and must, by its nature, be responsive to the truth and responsible for its own missteps. In this way, real human progress is possible.

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