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08/26/2014 07:26 am ET Updated Oct 26, 2014

Do Good and Evil Exist?

Scott Peck used to collect religious jokes and this was one of his favorites. Chatting in Hell were a Catholic priest, a Jewish rabbi, and a New Age minister. Why were they down there? "Back on earth I was a whiskey priest," the Catholic says. "I loved the booze more than anything." The rabbi pipes up, "It was ham sandwiches that did for me. I just couldn't leave them alone." They both turn to the New Age minister and ask why he's in Hell. "This isn't Hell," he replies huffily, "and I'm not the least bit warm."

Peck's serious point was that the problem with the New Age movement and prevailing attitudes today was the denial, not so much of Hell, as of the existence of evil. Peck believed that evil was an ever-present part of life and he marshalled some good evidence for that view. But I think the hardest issue for a thinking person to decide today is whether good and evil really exist at all, as a force outside (as well as within) humanity. For me that is a much harder question, and a more important one, than whether God exists. The question also, I believe, has vital implications for how we live our lives and even for how we run our businesses.

Before discussing whether good and evil exist, we have to face one unpalatable truth, one that many people go to unreasonable lengths to avoid. The nicest conclusion would be that there is some force for good in the universe, but there is no force for evil. In religious-speak, God exists, but the Devil does not. That is the "New Age" position. But a moment's clear thought reveals that is an untenable position. If there is an outside force for good, there has to be an opposing force -- not necessarily an equal one -- for evil. You simply cannot believe in a "real" spiritual world that includes good but excludes evil. A world like that could exist, but a moment's observation of what happens in the world tells us would not be our world. There are only two defensible positions:

1. Good and evil exist beyond humanity -- there is a good force in the universe and a bad one and they are at war.

2. Good and bad may exist within humanity -- there may be bad people, including really "evil" people, as well as good people, and/or, we are all a mixture of good and bad, and/or "good" and "evil" are just names for what we like and dislike -- but there is no outside force in the universe for either good or evil.

I'll present evidence and logic for the position 1 and then position 2, before giving my view.

WHY GOOD & EVIL EXIST

1. The existence of bad or evil people. Peck says, "There really are people out there who like to maim, to torture, and to crush other people." It is hard to look at the evidence of Hitler's concentration camps or Stalin's gulag and think that evil doesn't exist. This does not necessarily mean that it comes from outside humanity, but there is a strong presumption. Were Hitler and Stalin just terribly misguided folk, whose only flaw was that they believed the wrong things, and pursued them vigorously? I don't believe it. There was real malice there and it is hard to credit that degree of dedication to badness without some force that used them.

Maybe humans can become horribly bad without outside help - but there is no parallel for such evil in the animal kingdom. Animals may do terrible things to each other but there is no malice in it. As a more evolved being, with the knowledge of what is good and evil, humans have the option of dedicating themselves to one or the other, or neither. If humankind is more "spiritual" than any other species, that creates at least the possibility that there are even more "spiritual" forces for good and evil.

Similarly, there is a small percentage of people who are sociopaths, who want to rape and pillage. One of the most unpleasant but revealing experiences of my life was working for a pathological liar - all decency had been extinguished in the quest for power at any price. John was a scary sight - not so much a man as a monster successfully masquerading as a normal well-adjusted human.

2. Introspection and observation. There are times when normal people give themselves over to good or evil. Times when we are angry, despair, and seek to destroy ourselves and other people. And times when we go the other way, behaving nobly and helping other people with no thought of reward. I think of these downward and upward spirals as being us wallowing in badness or goodness, of yielding to our good or bad emotions, but also - it feels like - being "egged on" from outside forces, human, and also, perhaps, super-human. I've never experienced a lynch mob, but I have seen them portrayed, and it seems that they coalesce into something powerful and cohesive, but sub-human. And then there is the small number of "good people", such as Nelson Mandela, who make the best of a bad job and forgive those who have wronged them terribly. No doubt Nelson had his quirks and character flaws, but it is hard to believe that he didn't have some outside help in doing what does not come naturally to humans.

3. There is some evidence that - despite Hitler and Stalin and Mao Zedong - society is progressing towards not merely greater prosperity but also higher moral standards. The most developed societies no longer torture their citizens - with a few notable exceptions. Children are treated better than they used to be. We no longer punish gay people for being gay. Animals are treated better too. There is even concern for the environment, which is not purely selfish. Again, none of this necessarily means that there is a force for good outside humanity, but directionality in history is one piece of evidence - the way that nature's laws work so cleverly and mainly beneficially is another - that there may well be an outside force for good, and that humans are allied with the grain of the universe.

4. There is evidence from the occult and from miracles that nature's laws are sometimes violated. This evidence is hotly disputed by rationalists, but it is undeniable that weird things sometimes happen. If just one weird thing happens indisputably, we have to attach some weight to that, but the universe is unquestionably mysterious as well as rational. For me, the biggest unexplained power is that of the human brain and specifically our unconscious minds, which seem to be connected to something bigger than ourselves. There may be explanations that don't involve outside forces, but I find it hard not be at least agnostic (and maybe positive) about the existence of forces beyond our understanding.

WHY GOOD & EVIL DO NOT EXIST

1. Five hundred years ago witches were drowned because they it was thought they were possessed by the Devil. Two thousand years ago, Christians and pagans alike believed that the world "above" and "below" the earth was stuffed full of spiritual principalities and powers. The sky was thick with unseen angels, good and evil, so there must have been very busy and efficient air traffic controllers. Now, only backward tribes and a few religious extremists believe in the existence of evil (or good) spirits. And a good job too - think about the witches and the crusades.

2. The technocratic explanation of progress is powerful. Society has got better as science has advanced - we no longer need God as a hypothesis explaining how the world works. "Good" and "evil" are names we use when we don't understand human behaviour - but there is always a scientific explanation, or one that, if we understood the background fully, can explain even truly wicked actions. Who could be more evil than Adolf Eichmann, who sent millions of Jews to their deaths? But Hannah Arendt, who reported and reflected brilliantly on Eichmann's trial in Jerusalem, showed that Eichmann was more a clown than a monster. She used the phrase "the banality of evil" to explain why he did terrible things - he was not very intelligent, followed orders mechanistically, liked to belong to the Nazi state machinery, and had no malice against the Jews. This does not excuse his actions, she said, but it does mean that he didn't need outside help to do his unbelievably terrible deeds. By extension, the problem was more that the Nazis had the wrong ideas, than that they were in some sense supernaturally evil. I find this a convincing explanation, as all kinds of "normal" and respected people in early twentieth century Britain and America - including H G Wells, Churchill, and George Bernard Shaw - held vehemently racist views that today we would all find utterly abhorrent.

3. Democracy and the 80/20 principle are both examples of good "memes" - good practices, ideas and observations - that can help society progress. In politics and business, it is quite normal for good people to do a lot of harm (for example, most communists and socialists); and for bad people, sometimes, to do a lot of good. Henry Ford was a nasty piece of work, but gave freedom of movement to ordinary people, perhaps the single biggest piece of philanthropy in the last century.

Ideas overwhelm virtue:

If you have ideas that cause great harm, such as communism and racism, your moral qualities are quite irrelevant. Conversely, if you believe in market forces and advance them, you can have a massively beneficial impact on society even if you are, in the technical phrase, a total shit. Once one admits the force of unintended consequences, the cosmic battle between good and evil looks a little exaggerated, perhaps even threadbare. Mankind has got better, not because we are more virtuous, but because we have more knowledge and insight than we used to. Good and evil may even be a sideshow, or an illusion, compared to knowledge and ignorance.

Two Conclusions

1. I personally find it hard to be sure whether good and evil exist beyond humanity. But I am inclined to believe that they do; and certainly, I think we should behave as if they do. I am sure there is outside help available to us, whether simply because we believe that there is, or because - more likely I think - it really is there. Progress in life is not just technocratic; it also comes from increasing the proportion of "goodness" in our actions. That this also makes us happier is indisputable.

2. Science broadly defined, knowledge, and above all, insight - with or without outside help - are also important sources of moral progress and good. With more insight, it is a great deal easier to do more good, and increase happiness for ourselves and the people around us.

Next week, I will ask whether "goodness" is relevant in business; or whether Adam Smith was right, that the self-interest of the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker - and not their ethics - is what matters.

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