Fundamentals; the presuppositions of civilization.
What is a civilization and what defines 'civilized' vs 'barbaric'? What makes post-Enlightenment civilization unique? What is evil, as opposed to tragedy?
These are some of the fundamentals one needs to understand in order to properly examine the world's cultures, societies, economies and political movements.
A comment about the banality of Evil?
Last Edit - 30 Jul 19
"The path to totalitarian hell begins not with a group of people deciding to be evil; it begins when a group of people become convinced they have arrived at the incontrovertible truth; that anyone who disagrees with them is the enemy of truth. This is the root of all barbarities." - P. Lawlor
“Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.” - C.S.Lewis
What many miss about evil, is the banality of the worst evils. Most of the worst evils can be found in he seemingly trivial minutia of an idea. One must be boringly pedantic to find the root of evil, unless one is historically literate enough to recognise a pattern already highlighted as being a recognisable path to hell, so to speak.
For example, killing another human being for any reason other than individual or collective self-defence is clearly evil and the violation of the first and greatest human right, the right to life. The majority of people simply couldn't bring themselves to commit such an act and/or would suffer immense guilt after such an event.
So, how does one explain away the many genocides in history, or barbaric acts during which, and after which, the perpetrators seem to show no remorse. In fact, some even showed pride in their action. Simply put, they don't see their acts as evil, despite all civilised humans being appalled.
In such a case, it's not the murder that is the greatest evil. The greatest evil in such cases is the idea or ideology that allowed the perpetrator to strip the victim of any value. If something or someone has no value or is not legally even a 'someone', then where's the crime in destroying it, or them?
Humans are 'civilised' by teaching and imposing moral inhibitions to evil acts. If such inhibitions are removed, by law or general social consent, barbarism is inevitable. It's not that people wake up and decide to become evil one day, the reality is more banal than that, they adopt a idea that simply doesn't see the evil for what it is or, more dangerously, adopt an ideology aimed at a hypothetical 'purity' or 'utopia' in which there are no limits to 'the end justifies the means'.
During the Dredd Scott case in the US in 1857, the US Supreme Court ruled that Dred Scott and his wife's status as property precluded them being considered human. Far from being 'pro-Slavery', the US Democratic Party considered themselves to be the champions of fundamental human rights in their defense of individual property rights. Abraham Lincoln was labelled as a 'tyrant' who was hell-bent on violating the rights and liberties of American citizens.
Lincoln retorted that the only liberty he was violating was their 'liberty to violate the liberties of others'. Lincoln was a true liberal.
In a separate article I'll discuss how a simple philosophical idea, that no humans have intrinsic value, led to the worst genocides in recorded history and how, ironically, adding the deplorable spectre of racism to such a scenario actually reduced the destruction by a factor of 10.
One doesn't need to hate someone to facilitate the worst evil, one simply needs to reject their fundamental humanity. If they're of no value, then why not get rid of them or, if they're an impediment to your latest ideological experiment, then perhaps murdering them is actually the ethical decision.
If the test of reality proves that latest ideological experiment was, firstly, just a rehash of a very old and tired idea and, second, a load of intellectually bankrupt garbage, well, . . . . . oooops!
The banality of evil.
'Ordinary Men' - Christopher R Browning
'Gulag Archipelago' - Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
'Man's Search for Meaning' - Viktor E Frankl
'The Rape of Nanking' - Iris Chang
Civilisation, what is it?
There are many definitions of 'civilisation'. However, to be an academically useful term, civilisation must be defined and contrasted with 'culture', 'society' and 'empire'.
To keep it simple, a 'civilised' person is one who exercises their rights and freedoms in a manner that displays an appropriate regard to the rights and liberties of others. A 'civilisation' is a society which defends the individual's rights and liberties, philosophically and legally placing them in a position of supremacy over group or societal interest and, as a primary goal of it's 'social contract' has a tradition of justly mediating between the rights and liberties of citizens wherever they come into friction or conflict. A civilised society only recognises one legal status, that of 'formal equality' and 'equality under the law'.
A 'barbaric' society is one in which individual rights and liberties are subservient to group, tribe or state interests (tyranny) or in which individuals exercise their rights and liberties without due regard for the rights and liberties of others (anarchy).
'Culture' - the shared language, traditions, food, music, etc of a definable society.
'Society' - a group of people sharing a 'social contract' of government, whether voluntary or coerced.
'Empire' - A political entity in which a 'society' has extended it's political or military influence beyond it's normal geographical borders and imposed that political structure on other societies or cultures.
Egalitarian Universalism; the foundational idea underpinning civilisation.
'Egalitarian Universalism' (or Universalistic Egalitarianism) is the term describing the idea that every human being has equal intrinsic value and is, therefore, in possession of inalienable rights and liberties. The origin of this idea is the Judeo-Christian idea that all humans were created equally valuable in the eyes of God, although other cultures and philosophical traditions have also tended toward a similar conclusion.
'Egalitarian Universalism' is the foundational idea behind Human Rights and Civil and Economic Liberties, and the core of 'Classical Liberalism'. It is the philosophical foundation of the tradition of 'Liberal Democracy'. Therefore, Egalitarian Universalism is the core philosophical presupposition behind civilisation or 'modernity' as some term it.
Athiest Philosopher, Jurgen Habermas describes this philosophy in these terms:
“For the normative self-understanding of modernity, Christianity has functioned as more than just a precursor or catalyst. Universalistic egalitarianism, from which sprang the ideals of freedom and a collective life in solidarity, the autonomous conduct of life and emancipation, the individual morality of conscience, human rights and democracy, is the direct legacy of the Judaic ethic of justice and the Christian ethic of love. This legacy, substantially unchanged, has been the object of a continual critical reappropriation and reinterpretation. Up to this very day there is no alternative to it. And in light of the current challenges of a post-national constellation, we must draw sustenance now, as in the past, from this substance. Everything else is idle postmodern talk.”
This does not mean that one must be religious to accept Egalitarian Universalism. Many Atheists and Agnostics also believe in Egalitarian Universalism, Human Rights, Civil Liberties and Economic Liberties. All this means is that the acceptance of intrinsic human value as the fundamental value in a civilized society is essential. Pure pragmatism and a modicum of historical literacy will reveal Egalitarian Universalism as the fundamental basis for civilized society.
All societies who have rejected Egalitarian Universalism are characterized by anarchy or tyranny. History reveals no exceptions to this principle, it's as reliable as gravity, if not more so.
What is Evil, as opposed to Tragedy?
First, it is important that I clear up one thing, humans are neither inherently evil, nor good, in their raw state. Both Thomas Hobbes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau were wrong on this issue. It is worth noting, however, that it is easier to become evil than good, as good requires the knowledge and understanding of what is good, whereas evil requires no knowledge what-so-ever. The two greatest commandments of Christianity are; 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.' and 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' Long story short, however you define 'God', if you ignore that which has been revealed as universally 'good', then evil becomes inevitable.
Albert Einstein illustrated the problem very well when he opined, 'Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity; and I'm not so sure about the universe.' Simply put, no human is capable of independently separating good and evil without an external reference.
Therefore, Hobbes's principle, whilst technically wrong, is pragmatically useful. Better to follow Hobbes and occasionally be pleasantly surprised than follow Rousseau and be constantly disappointed.
People become evil when they decide to embody evil ideas. They become good when they decide to embody good ideas. The key here is 'they decide', it's a choice each individual makes. Nobody but you is responsible for who you choose to become.
It is extremely important to understand and define Evil. It is a terribly misused word that has an extremely important meaning when comparing and contrasting historical events, philosophies, policies and socio-political movements.
Simply put, Evil is 'The deliberate causing or extension/continuation of unnecessary suffering.' There are three important things to note about Evil. First, it is the result of deliberate choice and/or action. Second, the result must be 'unnecessary' suffering, or inevitable suffering being rendered 'unnecessary' by removing other mitigating consequences. Also, just because something is unwanted or undesired does not make it unnecessary. Finally, it must result in actual 'suffering' or harm. An overwhelming emotional reaction to an idea or opinion contrary to one's own is not suffering, but merely a symptom of a lack of emotional maturity.
The reason it is easier to embody evil than good lies in the fact that evil can lie in what you don't do as easily as in what you do. Doing nothing is a choice and, where doing nothing allows evil to occur, the choice to do nothing is evil.
By contrast to evil, 'Tragedy' does not involve a deliberate choice or act. There are those who call these events 'natural evils' or similar terms, but this is grossly misleading. An accident is just that, an accident. It was not an event that could be predicted and was not the result of someone's deliberate act. Natural disasters also fit the description of 'tragedy'. They may be disasters, but they are 'naturally' occurring, not deliberate.
It is important to note that the vast majority of true PTSD cases result from an exposure to malevolence (evil), whether from another source, or in the patient's own actions. Humans are much more emotionally robust in dealing with tragedy than with evil and PTSD cases resulting from simple tragedy are remarkably rare.
So, we have a technically accurate definition of 'Evil'. If you run across someone who is too philosophically dogmatic to accept the existence of 'Evil', just kick them in the shins and watch their reaction. I guarantee they'll instantly experience suffering (barring a medical condition resulting in their pain receptors failing), conclude it was unnecessary and attribute it to the deliberate action of another human being; Evil. Lesson complete!
In summary, ideas may be inherently evil or inherently good, depending on the validity of their fundamental presuppositions. Humans become evil or good, when they make a conscious decision to adopt and embody evil or good ideas.
The problem is that evil is easier than good. One need do nothing to perpetuate evil, whereas good always requires one to act.
There is an ancient observation that has been repeated for all of recorded history. It varies in style, but remains fundamentally the same concept: 'The line between good and evil runs through the centre of every human heart'.
With all that said, mistakes are made. As the old saying goes, 'the road to hell is paved with good intentions.' If you read the book 'Ordinary Men' by Christopher R Browning, you'll read of how a battalion of normal German policemen made the slow slide into genocidal acts in Poland during WWII. None intended evil at the outset but were unprepared for the circumstances that faced them and ended up committing unspeakable acts of evil.
Even in such a case, all is not lost. As Sir Winston Spencer-Churchill opined, 'To improve is to change, to be perfect is to change often.' True repentance, in the classical Judeo-Christian sense, means that you not only accept your actions as wrong, but 'confess' the correct action and resolve to pursue that in the future.
Those who are recorded as 'evil' in the history books are those who refused to change despite the evidence that their ideas and actions resulted in evil.