Last week saw several noteworthy events happen. Among them was the death of comedian Robin Williams and the violence in Ferguson, Missouri. Additionally, news reports of on going violence in the Middle East and the on going natural disasters of the wildfires in the western portion of the USA serves to show that great suffering can be found in many places around the world. Indeed, if one puts in a small amount of effort, it is sorrowfully all too easy to find evidence of evil and suffering even in their immediate environs.
The question arises, how is one to face these age old problems? While it is natural to desire to take actions to eliminate these problems, we must recognize that human efforts to eradicate these traits from the world will end in failure. Not because humanity is wretched, as some would teach, but rather because suffering is a natural part of existence in this world and that evil is a choice made to cause egregious, and generally needless, suffering.
The Buddha spoke of how suffering was part of existence and it was due to our attachment to things. Christians have, through the ages, declared that suffering was due punishment for rebellion against the Divine order and that evil was the fruit of the action of their anti-deity, Satan. If we look to different religions and philosophical paths around the world, we find different explanations given for why these things exist. The question as to why horrible things happen to innocent people will continue to vex us long after the Sun has burned out and humanity has left the cradle of Earth to fare to other worlds.
Suffering is a universal problem. All things that live will suffer at some point in time. It is reasonable to argue that suffering is a natural consequence of life. (It is equally reasonable to argue that pleasure is also a natural consequence of life.) Evil, however, is a problem that plagues humanity more, for we are the primary authors of its presence in the world. One might argue that the snake is amoral and lacks moral agency when it consumes a mouse. This incapacity to choose between right and wrong thus renders the snake’s actions amoral because it lacks the basic functions of conscious decision making. It is acting on account of millions of years of evolutionary programming. The whole of nature operates in this fashion.
Humanity, however, has the capacity to override that evolutionary programming and make moral decisions about their actions and how they interpret the actions of others. Personal morality moves a person to make decisions as to if the items they purchase at the store are going to be fair trade and ethically produced or mass marketed, factory produced with unknown damaging consequences to the environment. This is a moral decision that an individual makes. It is when many individuals band together and start making moral judgments that we encounter collective morality. It is collective morality that tells us if engaging in acts of warfare are right or wrong.
Now, the question is, how do individuals fit into the collective moral picture? What does one do when their sense of moral justness is outraged by what the collective morality tolerates? The answer can be found in things like the Civil Rights movement and the anti-apartheid movements in history. When you oppose the actions of the collective majority, you have a moral responsibility to oppose it. Opposition can come with a steep price. People in the two movements I mentioned died for their cause. Sometimes we lack the capacity to pay the ultimate price for our convictions. This should not dissuade us from action, because even the most limited action that you can take against evil has a net effect for the positive.
Some, however, have a flight response in the face of such things rather then a fight response (I tend towards the fight response myself). This should not be shamed. If you can not take action against evil, at the very least do not entertain it within your home and in your own actions. Conscientious objectors are as important to stopping collective evil as those who actively work against it. Additionally, if you must fly from evil, attempt to bring those who are at risk of succumbing to evil’s temptation with you.
Let me give you some concrete examples.
A man in Nazi Germany opposed the regime’s policies and practices. He complied with the laws that he did not find to objectionable and then refused to engage in the others. This is a method of active resistance to evil by way of passive behavior.
Countless people fled Nazi Germany prior to the start of World War II. They found the laws and practices of this regime intolerable but were unable to resist actively. Thus, they showed their opposition by leaving. Many of these people that had the ability to do so, brought others with them or provided means for others to leave the country. Their efforts laid the groundwork of the work of so many others to smuggle innocent people out of the country.
One might ask, what of the people of Nazi Germany who sincerely thought they were doing the right thing? It is possible for a person to be persuaded to engage in acts of evil. Appeals can be built around constructs that are especially tempting. Humans are creatures that seek simplicity. If you reduce a situation to a difference between two factions and make the faction that appeals strongest to your audience seem to be the ‘right’ one, it is possible to use that urge for simplicity to cover any multitude of evil actions as distasteful necessities to support the chosen faction’s actions against the other.
The common man is disinclined to engage in deep consideration of the ethical outcomes of their actions. The desire is to do the necessities of the day, avoid suffering, and achieve some form of pleasure. It is when it becomes apparent that the actions of others pose a threat to this peaceable existence that the common man’s temper becomes aroused. There are times, however, that action must be taken to rectify institutionalized harm. For the institutionalized harm is detrimental to the well being of the whole populace, including that of the common citizen.
In my rambling (which has taken me three days to compose fully), I have tried not to point blame upon any party and reserve my opinion. It has become clear to me, as I have worked on this, that it would be intellectually dishonest of me to withhold my position upon these matters. My invocation of Godwin’s Law only highlights the fact that I do have a position here.
Institutionalized racism (and other forms of discrimination) are abhorrent to me. It is my understanding that they run contrary to the spirit upon which the United States of America was founded. From what I have learned of the situation in Ferguson, this is a case of institutionalized racism meeting police militarization. The racism lays a foundation for violence against those who are deemed ‘lesser’ by accident of birth. It is my opinion that we, as civilized people, should be opposed to racism (and other forms of discrimination) and work to mitigate its influence over how society operates. I am firmly convinced that it should hold no sway over laws and their enforcement. To allow this is to undermine the rule of law.
With respect to acts of genocide, mass violence, and related evils perpetrated around the world, I sincerely believe that they should be opposed and justice be sought for the victims. Organizations like ISIS are in my understanding anathema* and persons who are able to take action against them to dismantle and render impotent these organizations should do so. These organizations exist for the sole purpose of perpetuating their will with out regard to the cost of life.
It is possible to effect change with out resorting to genocide and wide scale violence against the people living in a region. Any who would engage in such behavior should be reviled and none should take them into their company. I recognize that such behavior has happened in the past and is likely to happen in the future. It is, however, something that we have the capacity to surmount and put behind us as a species. Sadly, I do not see this happening within this millennium. Humanity, I fear, will only recognize the cost of such behaviors when it is all too late to repair the damage it has wrought.
* I use the term in the sense of that which is offensive to Deity and should be shunned and opposed.