Considering the massive volumes on the nature of good and evil written over the ages the answer to the question posed in the title should be intuitively apparent. However, given so many babbling interpretations of what is evil and where it comes from, much of it theological, we shouldn’t wonder why this is not the case.
What I am proposing is not something new, doesn’t take a leap of faith, or endless dialectic debate. Often human beings make things so overly complicated, even obtuse, when it would serve us better to just listen to a few great minds through history that have, through empirical observation and logic, often building on those who came before them, reached a clarity on the subject that can be comprehended readily.
To understand this on a basic and natural human level we must first put aside theological prejudices that inhibit logical perspective. If you disagree with that premise then answer Epicurus’ riddle, or razor if you prefer, regarding the nature of God and evil: “Is he willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil?” This razor does not discount the existence of God, only the nature of God and of evil. However, to track evil to its core, we need to keep our minds free from doctrines that are not based on empirical reality.
One of the universally acceptable definitions of early philosophers regarding what evil was basically held that it was suffering, sorrow, and distress resulting from wrongdoing, all of which was morally reprehensible. Such Western ancients like Aristotle, Plato, and Epicurus defined it by the process of elimination of what is not good or beneficial.
In the late Roman Republic we have Cicero, considered by many historians as Rome’s greatest political scholar, who wrote “True law is right reason in agreement with nature; it is of universal application, unchanging and everlasting….” Cicero wrote often about what he considered natural or true law, and while he saw many evils perpetrated by his contemporaries like Cesare, Octavian, et al, he also determined what was evil by an elimination of what was good or beneficial, but more often for the state than for people in general.
The late Roman Era Augustine says that evil was not created by God, that it is an accident of creation that corrupts the human will causing suffering. You have to truly make a leap of faith here because if God created all things, but not evil, then as Epicurus asked, where did that come from.
With Early Renaissance Aquinas we get a break through as he holds that existence and truth are interconnected and are good, and those things that are not a natural part of existence and truth are evil. Although still somewhat a process of elimination, it does maintain that human existence is good, as is freedom, self-preservation, marriage, family, etc. and that which harms it is evil. This is important as Aquinas talks to the concept of natural law for human existence, a precursor to the Enlightenment.
So Augustine and Aquinas proposed that evil could not exist within God, nor be created by God. They rejected the notion that evil exists in itself, proposing instead that it is a corruption of nature, implying that good is man’s nature; some very positive thoughts, but still though we are left with the question as to where evil comes from?
Lao Tzu’s concept of evil is very useful for understanding. He differentiated between casual and consequential evil, the former created by human will, and the later as a consequence of various natural occurrences. Without going into Taoism, impossible in the confines of a blog post, consider an example: cancer is an evil thing as it causes so much suffering, but it is a biological consequence, unrelated to human will; then consider genocide, purely an act of human will. Let’s leave what Lao Tzu meant with these examples for the purposes of this discussion.
What we have with Taoism is that evil comes from two sources, basically human will and natural occurrences, which can at times be interrelated. Natural occurrences bear no moral responsibility, as that is a human issue. Human will, which means from the minds of men, involves moral responsibility. There is the issue of unintended consequences, which in truth can make critical analysis more difficult, but still needs to be addressed.
There has been more recent research done by psychiatrists that suggests that evil is the intentional infliction of harm on others merely for the pleasure of doing so. I find this insufficient logically because it doesn’t address evil resulting from such human conditions like narcissism, where there is an absence of any consideration of the results of ones actions and therefore devoid of any consideration of others. Also rage, where one loses the ability to control emotions, like empathy, disregarding the consequences on others. Then there are instances where great evil was done with the intention of not doing harm or enjoying the harm done, but in the name of some greater good, but has unintended consequences that are patently evil.
There are current political philosophers who propose that evil represents the antithesis of order and peace. Does that make anarchists evil? Were our founding fathers evil for promoting insurrection? Such a proposition could be mere sophistry to support a state whose policy of order and peace is oppression and coercion, things themselves that are evil. Therefore such a thesis is only valid if the order and peace are beneficial to the natural laws of human existence, seldom the case in history, so not a valid foundation of understanding.
Now back to Aquinas in order to proceed to the Enlightenment. Here we have the development of the antithesis of evil, meaning what is good, as a way to understand better where evil comes from. We can go through so many philosophers, sociologists and political scientists of the period, but who stands out paramount of all is John Locke. I didn’t include economists as that discipline of study had yet to exist; contrary to popular belief Adam Smith was not an economist but a philosopher and sociologist, who did contribute invaluably to the Enlightenment, but not in the same sense as what we’re looking for.
Locke gives due credit to Aquinas but it should be noted that he was at first not a proponent of religious tolerance, but gradually came to the conclusion that suppression of such was contrary to natural law by repressing freedom. Locke is rightfully considered the founder of modern natural law and rights, and while he was a religious man himself, did not lean theologically for his thesis. Like Aquinas, he maintained that human existence was good and inexorably tied to truth, meaning that which is essential for self-preservation is the true meaning of existence and therefore good, and that these included life, liberty and property. Please note that the last was always a part of Locke’s natural law whereas it was Jefferson who partially plagiarized it with “….life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness….” in the Declaration of Independence.
Locke based these three prime elements of natural law logically, meaning without life, there are no rights, without liberty there is depravation of life, and importantly for clear understanding, without the ownership of the products of life and liberty, providing for its own industry, human life and liberty are diminished contrary to natural law. Therefore, evil comes from the violation of natural law depriving man of these essential rights.
Further, the violation of natural law and rights is only made possible by coercion, and therefore it is existentially necessary to defend against it. To be able to exercise coercion, you need power, and therein we find the source of evil, the power over human beings. If history teaches us anything, it is this insatiable hunger for power which drives men to act with malice toward their fellow human beings. Such power requires human effort, depriving men of liberty, often using that power to deprive others of their life and property.
It is not that the earlier philosophers like Aristotle, Plato, and Augustine didn’t see this as it has been the way of mankind for millennia, as they did recognize it by the empirical process of eliminating such things from those that provided good for people; they just didn’t follow the thread of thinking that led to Aquinas and Locke who logically determined through a spirit of benevolence the goodness of human existence and the natural rights that provide for its self-preservation.
Although Taoism, originating in the 6C BCE, was well known by scholars in the West by the 8C CE, and may have had some influence on Aquinas and Locke who were very learned men, the development to the thesis of natural law and rights for human beings, while having many contributors, is principally to their credit.
It is here though where we come to the conundrum about power in human society; essentially, the question arises as to what is reasonable for humanity to invest in the power of governance. If we are to judge solely on the thesis that power corrupts, then we should eliminate all power, including governance. Anarchists do use that line of thinking in a compelling way, until you then ask who will stand against evil; anarchy doesn’t address this issue as it takes good men to stand together against the evil of power, which is a logical contradiction to the proposition of anarchy. Understand that the word anarchy itself is misunderstood and abused; it is derived from Greek meaning without government, not meaning chaos and disorder. The problem is that without some societal level of organization, how are the depravations of power to be avoided?
It is to that question that political science is primarily dedicated; how to construct a governance that will defend society against power, the source of evil itself, without empowering that governance to do so? As evil arises not from any consequence of nature, but as the casual will of the human mind, any governance that can be trusted to respect and defend natural law and rights must address the problem of eliminating, or at least limiting to the best of its ability, the will to power. That is a high standard of benevolence for human achievement, and as sacred a matter of trust for people to place in their leaders as there can be; it is not a “necessary evil”, but a necessity of self-preservation, and therefore if achieved, something good.
What is considered by men of good will to be the best instrument of governance in modern times that respects the natural law and rights of humanity is the US Constitution. It has been flawed with the absence of liberty for all by tolerating slavery, even though later amended, and does allow certain things that enable power to the abuse of natural law and rights, but it was intended to be limited in its provision for power in governance. As its prime author, James Madison said “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.” He simply understood the dilemma about power in that providing for it presented the possibility for evil, while not providing against it did the same. It was on this basis that he constructed the many separations and balances of power in the effort to limit the government to only expressed powers, depriving it of any rights, and reserving all rights to the people.
While it has worked comparatively well in that regard, meaning relative to other nations, it is indeed a living document providing for amendments, some good and long past due, some bad and contrary to the intent of the original. What Madison and other Founders could not construct against was the potential for that insidious will for power even in the very leaders we may elect to government. Ultimately, plans only work to the extent they are believed in; the question then has to be asked to what extent Americans believe in their government, meaning do we still trust it?
That is a constant reasonable question because of the very nature of governance being empowered. So then, having found the source of all evil, where does America stand today as a society governed by the laws it created to protect its very existence against the depravations of power? If we consider the fact that we have devolved into polarized power camps, competing “democratically” for who’s in charge, and consequently becoming more and more a nation of men and not of law, we are not standing in a good place.
By law here was always intended to mean one law for all, but it now has become laws that favor one group over others, or against one group at the expense of others. Such laws are therefore immoral as they represent the very abuse of power that is the cause of evil. The great French political philosopher Frédéric Bastiat coined the phrase “cruel alternative” when such laws are created, presenting people a dilemma that “When law and morality contradict each other, the citizen has the cruel alternative of either losing his moral sense or losing his respect for the law.” That was never the intent of our constitution, which was the preservation of liberty for each individual in order to best serve natural law and rights.
Why did we the people fall for the same evil as those that govern us? Why did we lose our faith in our own natural human rights to not only be coerced in to the submission to power, but engage by joining the combating power camps? Consider a question asked by the French political scientist who traveled the early 19C US, Alexis de Tocqueville: “If one admits that a man in his full power might abuse his adversaries, why not admit the same of a majority of men?”
The corruption of our political institutions from the limited government of a Republic to the calls for greater “democracy” manifests again this insatiable will for power, the root of all evil. As Tocqueville points out, it doesn’t matter with power if the abuser is one or is many, it is power itself that is evil. Tocqueville was writing from observation, as was Aquinas and Locke. Are we ignoring the obvious because our eyes are wide shut, or because we are drugged with the intoxication of power? Is it us against “them”, whomever they may be, and if we all act together, we will hold the power over others?
We can’t blame the times we are in as an excuse for the reliance on power and the evil it has brought us. We have the will found in our minds to either embrace the source of all evil and or deny power over our fellow man. Agreed that these are very trying times, and while I can’t recall where I read the insightful observance of Abraham Lincoln, or if I have his words exactly right, but they are well worth considering: “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”