Good and evil

There is an argument that has been going on for as long as humans have had time to sit and think philosophically. The argument has to do with a person’s basic perception of the nature of humanity. Are we inherently good or inherently bad? From a logical point of view, it becomes easy to explain the source of evil in the world if one argues that humans are simply evil to the core. From a simplistic point of view, that is the argument of the doctrine of original sin. There is evil in the world because humans have used their freedom to do evil things. From the very first humans, we have used the knowledge of good and evil to commit evil. This leads to the question of whether or not humans are redeemable. The answer of religious philosophy is, “Yes, humans can be saved, but they cannot save themselves. They need the help of a higher power.”

I think that the argument is a bit misleading because creating the dualism of only two options is rarely the way the universe works. I would argue that humans are capable of great good and also capable of great evil. There is no such thing as a completely good person and it is probably true that there is also no such thing as a completely evil person. The amount of good or evil we contribute to the world is not a product of our essential nature, but rather a product of the decisions we make.

The Christian position towards evil has always had a deep confessional component. Our striving to do good in the world includes the confession that we have not always made the best choices. We make mistakes. We cause pain. We need to confess our sins and repent. The basic message of John the Baptizer was echoed in the message of Jesus: We are not the victims of our decisions. We have the power to choose to go in a new direction.

This argument has received a great deal of attention in our country’s press in recent months as the Black Lives Matter movement has moved into the streets in every state. Of course there are more than two positions and more than two points of view, but to simplify for the sake of illustration, there are some who have taken to the streets to say that the history of our country has resulted in the systematic oppression of some of our people. Our country was founded on the exploitation of slaves who were forcibly taken from their homes and pressed into servitude. Although slavery has officially ended, our country continues to take advantage of a segment of our population through underemployment, low wages, lack of essential services such as health care, child care and housing. We continue to perpetrate this injustice through unequal enforcement of laws and the overuse of jails and prisons. As a society we need to confess and repent. We need to admit our flaws and go in new directions. The peaceful protests in the streets of our cities are a form of confession of the flaws of our society and a call to the repentance of systematic change.

On the other side of the argument are those who say that despite missteps, the basic direction of our nation’s history has been positive. They argue that no apologies are necessary and that the continuation of the present situation and direction is the best course of action for the country. This argument was taken to an extreme by an opinion piece written for the New York Times by Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas. In that piece he described slavery as a “necessary evil” on which the American nation was built. He sees the peaceful protests as an “orgy of violence” and has backed the Trump administration’s use of troops to quell the unrest.

To claim that the evil of slavery was necessary is, from a philosophical point of view, a dangerous justification. If you can justify the enslavement of human beings, you can pretty much justify almost any other action. Race-based slavery involved rape, torture and the sale of human beings for profit. It is hard to describe that practice as anything but evil. To call such evil “necessary” is an interpretation of history that many find repulsive.

While this argument plays out in the newspapers, legislatures and streets of our nation, we all need to continue to look not only at our history with a confessional eye, but also our current behavior. As we argue over the history of the slavery of Africans in the United States and try to make sense of our shared story, we all are using computers and cell phones and other electronic devices to capture pictures, send messages and make our arguments. Inside of all of these devices are lithium-ion batteries. The development of this technology has created a revolution in how we communicate and access information. This technological revolution, however, is coming at a high human cost. The lithium and cobalt in our batteries come with a toxic legacy that harms the health of communities near the mines and damages the environment. Furthermore cobalt mining is based on the brutal practice of child labor, particularly in the Democratic Republic of Congo, home to over half the world’s cobalt mines. Apple, Tesla and Microsoft have all been sued over cobalt mining deaths. Jodie Lutkenhaus, a chemical engineer at Texas A&M University, wrote, “Everyone is carrying around a lithium-ion battery mined by children.”

I know of no way to deal with the realities of our patterns of consumption and the harsh realities of the world than to say that we humans are of a mixed nature. We strive towards good, but are guilty of evil. We make mistakes and our mistakes cause others pain. From my point of view, confession is a necessary part of living a meaningful life. And for confession to have meaning, repentance must follow. We need to change our ways.

To Senator Cotton I say, no evil is “necessary” and to dismiss evil as “necessary” stands in the way of making the fundamental changes that allow us to move towards fulfillment of the vision of a society where all are treated equally.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!