A Note on the Problem of Evil
James Herod, July 1979
[Prefatory Note, April 2007: There is a glaring error in this essay. I assert that "In the last analysis there is no effective recourse available to the non-killers to protect themselves against the killers except to adopt the tactic of killing, the very thing they reject." This is obviously not true. There are many things that we can do to stop killers other than killing them. I wrote this essay during what was perhaps the darkest period of my life, the late 1970s, which may account for its severe pessimism. Another remark is perhaps called for. In 1979 I had never heard of so-called "consensus decision making." It may not even have existed yet. I think the first manuals started to appear in the late 1980s. So I was still struggling with the problem of majority rule, and trying to hedge it as best I could.]
To begin with, there is no objective definition of what `evil' is. What some people think is evil others consider good. Except for this inconvenient circumstance there would be, if not exactly a solution, at least an arrangement for dealing with the problem of evil, namely the victory of righteousness. Good people could, in principle, triumph over evil ones and simply suppress them. As we know, the attempt to carry out this strategy has resulted in endless barbaric calamities stretching from the emergence of our species right down to our own day. The Cambodian communists (Khemer Rouge) will do as a contemporary example.
Actually, if evil people could be identified with certainty then there would be after all a solution of sorts, an ultimate solution, to the problem of evil. They could be murdered, all of them, along with any new ones who appeared, and as fast as they appeared. Aside from the numerous known cases where this has been tried on a local scale (however enormous, e.g., the Holocaust), one cannot help suspecting that it did in fact also occur on a grand scale at some time (maybe several times) in the history of our (homo sapiens) competition (war) with other near-human species, and perhaps not so long ago at that. Could it be for example that Neanderthal people were simply murdered to extinction by the Cro-Magnons barely 50,000 years ago? If so, this would be an example of the we-they split on a grand scale. Was this slaughter (if it happened) justified with the usual excuse – competition for scarce food and resources – or was it carried out under more mundane pretences: racism, specie-ism, ethnocentrism, nationalism, tribalism, religious fanaticism, political fanaticism, or, most likely of all, greedy plunder, pure and simple.
It might be argued (as Arthur Koestler does, and this fits my mood these past few years), that murder is the single most distinctive characteristic of the human species, and the one that has done the most to shape the outlines of human history. The willingness of some humans to kill, and the capacity to do so, to defend what they think is right, or simply to get what they want, casts a very dark cloud over us, our past, and our future. I find it very hard to discover any reason to be hopeful that the situation will ever be fundamentally different, given what seems to be our immutable natures. How is it for example that so few people have ever revolted through century after century of oppression and slavery; and how is it that there is always someone ready and eager to step forward to manage, or even to institute, this slavery? Have the rulers ever failed to recruit the executioners they have needed, even once?
My pessimism began in earnest with the collapse and defeat of our little radical movement, as I watched in horror the birth of a hundred idiotic and reactionary cults (that, plus the seeming impossibility of launching any useful project). This pessimism received further reinforcement (aside from the general tone of the times) in the summer of 1976 when, by chance almost, I read a handful of books on endangered species, as well as half a dozen of Solzhenitsyn's works. Then last winter I read a couple of Nietzsche's books, as well as Koestler's most recent, and profoundly pessimistic, diagnosis of the human situation (Janus).
It seems all too clear from the dismal record of our species that there is scant hope for humans as such, especially since no fundamental changes seem anywhere on the horizon. It was only ten years ago after all that helpless and innocent Vietnamese peasants were being burned alive in their villages by the world's mightiest nation, and only 35 years ago that 10 million prisoners were murdered in cold blood by the Nazis. At this very moment all the major nations are armed to the hilt; several wars are raging; many thousands of people are being tortured in prisons all over the world; innocent people are being cast adrift in the sea by the boatload; lobotomies are being performed; untold billions of animals are being confined, tortured, and slaughtered; hundreds of plant and animal species are being exterminated; near starvation afflicts millions (a form of murder in contemporary circumstances), with millions more living in abject poverty solely because of the greed of others; and so forth.
Koestler's hope (and it is the only hope he sees) for a magic drug that will miraculously cure our murderous instincts seems to me absurd, while Nietzsche's belief – that if only Christianity could be overthrown and replaced with a proper set of values perhaps the race could then regain some of its former vitality and strength – is equally worthless since it is based on a false diagnosis of the problem, although his description of the decay of the species, its loss of capacity, and its baseness is surely unsurpassed. There may be hope for a new, entirely different, species to live in peace and prosperity, but not for humans. We (that is, the murderers among us) will continue murdering, burning, and plundering each other, other species, and the planet until we destroy ourselves and probably half the earth with us. Where are any forces strong enough to ensure a different outcome?
The problem is that a moral stance is useless against the willingness to kill. Leave morality out of it for now, since there is no absolute definition of it anyway. Take merely the disagreement between those who don't want to kill and those who do. In the last analysis there is no effective recourse available to the non-killers to protect themselves against the killers except to adopt the tactic of killing, the very thing they reject. They have to become as skilled at killing as their attackers are. Otherwise they will perish. This is the story of homo sapiens, ``the crown of creation'' (Koestler). Nor is the case essentially different if we consider – not the ultimate solution, but any of the other endless forms of abuse – slavery, exploitation, discrimination, meanness, ridicule, torture, or simple domination. The struggle not to be dominated, abused, and exploited, even in the ordinary walks of everyday life at work, in the store, or at home, puts you into essentially the same kind of struggle that villagers had with marauding warriors, by pitting you against people who are ready to use force to get what they want. In order to fight them successfully you have to become strong, aggressive, and warlike yourself, especially since there is no longer any spot on earth for peaceful people to escape to. Escape was never a solution anyway, although it has been tried again and again, since the warriors are always among us, and even inside us. This is the doom of homo sapiens, nature's mistake.
I have been aware of the so-called moral dimension of the revolution ever since I started arguing the case for direct democracy in the late sixties, if for no other reason than that one of the most frequent objections to the prospect of majority rule (real majority rule) was that a majority could be just as ruthless as any ruling class. True, I said; but hopefully, since no one was going to hand over power to the people, by the time they fought for and won control over their own lives they would have achieved, in the process, greater maturity, wisdom, compassion, and civilization, enough so to forego any barbaric treatment of the minority. I still believe this, to a large extent, and I would most certainly rather put my fate in the hands of ordinary people than in the grips of some self-appointed elite. And besides, the conditions under direct democracy would be so vastly different as to produce a qualitatively different situation on practically all fronts. The only trouble is there is not the slightest indication that the population at large will ever embrace a fight to achieve direct democracy and majority rule.
Nevertheless, it was not until the mid-seventies that the matter of the quality, character, or civilization of the majority began to rival for me the importance of the long-sought structural changes (and is structure actually anything more than character?). It became more and more obvious that the `new person', the changes in character (in morals if you will), had to come first, since otherwise why would anyone undertake to change the system? Only a mature and wise people would want to, or be capable of, governing themselves. But this is an unhappy thought. Where are such people going to come from? They are certainly nowhere to be seen now. Quite frankly, I just don't see where such people are going to come from, and this is the main source of my pessimism I believe. I am not really convinced by the philosophers of hope, like Ernst Bloch, that anything can happen, or that new things have appeared out of the blue throughout human history and will do so again. I will admit though that I have been reading a lot of Bloch recently to try to shore up my sagging spirits. Even so, it still seems to me that all the strongest forces in the world today are working for dehumanization, destruction, brutalization, ignorance, debasement, slavery, and death; not enrichment, maturity, enlightenment, ennoblement, freedom, and life. The uplifting forces are puny compared to the forces of destruction. Thus there is good reason to despair.
There is a snag in this discussion however. What I see as destruction is thought of by many others as development, and what I see as abusive some consider natural and normal. It is necessary then (but so very hard) to always keep uppermost in one's mind my original assertion – that there is no objective definition of evil. For example, although there are certainly many cynical capitalists, I think most of them believe they are only doing what is right, best, and good, just as Alexander, Caesar, Attila, Genghis, Cortez, Napoleon, Hitler, and Stalin felt they were only doing what was right, best, and good, however grotesque these claims may have seemed to their victims. So the claim that capitalism is evil is, as we know, hotly disputed. It is not therefore a handy case, as in Star Wars, where the bad guys are dressed in black, have sneers on their faces, and venom on their tongues. I believe that capitalism is only the most recent, most insidious, and most vicious scheme so far devised by greedy, evil, and murderous people to exploit, intimidate, rob, and enslave others in order to enrich themselves. But there are plenty of decent, sincere capitalists who would be shocked at such an accusation, feeling as they do that they are working for the advancement of humanity. When you accuse someone of being greedy, when they see themselves as generous, there is bound to be a struggle.
Is there any escape then from struggle, from the effort to win, and to have one's own values prevail in the world, even after we realize that there is no universally valid criterion of evil which everyone will agree to? I think not. There is no way out. Capitalists have to be defeated, and a new social order established in place of their system of slavery. The fact that it is my word against theirs (and yours) reinstates struggle to an even more central position than it was in under the conviction that some people can know the Truth. Thus majority rule is the very best that we can hope for. It is still a system of coercion, but qualitatively different from any form of authority that has existed so far on this earth. It's true it would not constitute `Freedom' for the minority, in the sense that they would not be getting their way. But they (or more likely, we) would be in a completely different situation and relationship vis-à-vis the majority than the present population is in vis-à-vis the ruling class. It is this difference that constitutes the only form of freedom we will ever know. But our chances of ever knowing even this are grim in my opinion. Saddest of all are those of us who do not want to fight, because servitude, abuse, and defeat is our prescribed fate.
I have returned then, unfortunately, reluctantly, and in spite of my own inclinations, to the inevitability of struggle and to the necessity of hoping for the victory of righteousness; but this hope is tendered on premises different from the traditional hope for the victory of righteousness. Solzhenitsyn also calls for the triumph of goodness over evil. But for him evil and goodness are givens. He speaks as a sectarian, as a fanatic, as a person who knows the Truth. Most tellingly, he aims for unity, and the call for unity is invariably the first rallying cry of the would-be dictator. Solzhenitsyn is an elitist. He wants a moral elite, a moral intelligentsia, to save humanity, much as Nietzsche wanted an aristocracy of free spirits, and as Christians want a kingdom of the pure in heart. I think perhaps there is no more striking sentence in Gulag than when Solzhenitsyn says that thieves (a category or type in the camps) are not human beings. Thieves are to Solzhenitsyn what counter-revolutionaries are to the Soviet authorities (and what communists are to capitalists) – enemy creatures to be murdered, exterminated, and wiped off the face of the earth. This is the beginning of the Gulag and the Holocaust all over again. There is no room in Solzhenitsyn's new moral order for the heretic. Unity is to be achieved by everyone endorsing Solzhenitsyn's own program. Thus even though he has surely written the most monumental indictment of the human race ever penned (and not merely of Soviet tyranny), he sorrily falls victim himself to the very habit he denounces, which makes his indictment even more damning. He stumbles because he believes in an objective moral order. Evil people are those who refuse to recognize the true spiritual values which are so obvious to Solzhenitsyn himself. There may well be such a moral foundation to the universe, but this is irrelevant as far as we humans are concerned, since it is my word against yours as to what it might consist of.
Direct democracy recognizes the inevitability, innateness, and permanence of disagreement, struggle, and conflict. It is based on force, that is true, but with a difference. The minority would be included, not excluded, from the decision-making process. The minority would be an active participant, and since decisions would emerge out of an ongoing process of discussion and debate, face to face debate on a personal level in councils, there would be the hope of having one's own views prevail. Under such circumstances it seems unlikely that the usual kinds of permanent minorities, those prevailing under a hierarchical system, and which are based on race, language, sex, ethnicity, age, or what have you, would persist. Issues would come to be decided more and more on the basis of ideas and arguments, from the very nature of the situation, and therefore minorities would tend more and more to change composition from issue to issue. There might well emerge however (undoubtedly would emerge) philosophical minorities, much as we now have conservatives, liberals, and radicals, whereby whole blocks of issues and votes would fall together. These various blocks of people would probably organize into more or less permanent parties, both within councils and between them, in order to more effectively agitate for the victory of their points of view. But since the majority, by force of arms, would vigilantly defend its established procedure for decision making – majority rule through a system of councils united on the basis of direct democracy – there would be no way for the minority to prevail except by persuading the majority of the correctness of its point of view. Of course it could try to impose its own way by force, through war and murder, and undoubted it would try, sooner or later.
And this, the prospect of having to be perpetually on guard against being murdered, is why the human race is a mistake and is doomed, to be replaced perhaps in some distant future by an altogether different and superior type of being, if nature so desires. On the other hand, what could such a being possibly look like? To have the power to kill, but sense enough not to, is surely one of the hurdles to maturity and civilization for any higher creature. Not to kill because you can't (and this is ultimately the effect of Koestler's magic pill) is no achievement at all. So if by chance we do continue to survive as a species, a thorough victory over the impulse to murder is one of the thresholds we must pass over, if the potential is after all within us to change and evolve into better beings than we now are. But how such a thing can ever come about is beyond the reach of my imagination, and it may very well be that we are genetically precluded from ever achieving such a level of grace.