In the last blog, we noted that evil can be due to natural causes or to human free will and that there are six explanations of evil due to the latter. We then looked at the first two: immaturity and accident. Now we will look at the four other causes of evil due to human free will.
In the category of evil due to error, I am referring to the use of incomplete or erroneous knowledge in a decision for action. This may be avoidable through careful study of circumstances of decision and thoughtful reflection on actions. Socrates sees knowledge as the distinguishing feature in human behavior, that is, he sees virtue as identical to knowledge, arguing that no man will knowingly do what he knows to be wrong. However, I am unconvinced as my last three categories of human evil will demonstrate.
Weakness is a common source of evil and includes intemperance, rashness, negligence, and cowardice. It is overcome by the ancient virtues of temperance and fortitude combined with patience and diligence in decision making. Unlike error which may be unavoidable, weakness can be overcome by the mature individual through the art of self-discipline.
Selfishness is an excess of the self-preservation instinct intensified by human emotions and psychological constitution. Early in life it leads to evils of immaturity, but later in life it blinds us to fairness and compassion. It often reflects the belief that personal sacrifice is unnatural, irrational, or unrewarding, but many great thinkers – for example, Buddha, Jesus, Epicurus, Seneca, and Spinoza -conclude that restraint, moderation, and selflessness can be good for both the individual and for others.
Last is malice, the intention to cause harm to others. The more common form, mean-spiritedness, leads to relatively minor evil; whereas the less common form, cruelty, can lead to major evils. Most of us have experienced the former although most often subconsciously; especially in response to a perceived hurt. It may be overcome by self-examination and control of emotions especially anger. Cruelty in all of its forms must be overcome through ethical reversal and good will or if necessary by external restraint.
Extreme evils of error can be seen in an unwavering certainty of one’s belief. When paired with selfish desire to outshine others, we get Becker’s misplaced heroism discussed in Escape From Evil1. When paired with cruelty we get J. Brownowski’s vision of the catastrophic evil of the Nazis in The Ascent of Man2.
Remembering Frankena’s principle of beneficence we discussed in the section on ethics3, our primary duty is not to inflict evil or harm. This requires us to eliminate to the extent possible all the evil due to our actions, particularly that due to error, weakness, selfishness, and malice. Alternatively, knowledge, humility, self-examination, fortitude, consideration of others, and good will are the remedies for most human caused evil.
1Becker, Ernest, Escape From Evil. The Free Press, New York, 1975.
2Brownoswki, J., The Ascent of Man. Little, Brown, and Company, 1973. Page 374.
3Frankena, William K., Ethics, Prentice-Hall, Inc. ISBN 0-13-290478-0 . 1973, p. 47.