Evil And Morality
Posted 22 May 2012 - 09:27 PM
For example, she asked me "can you actually have a person who is evil, or are just their actions evil? Or do the evil actions make the person evil? Or if evil comes FROM their actions, in any way, directly or indirectly, does that make the action or the person evil, either, or neither, or both?" My understanding is that since all men are created by God, and God is all good, while humanity was wounded by original sin we can never be totally inherently evil, though we perform evil actions (sin), since evil is the lack of good. But in order to have culpability for evil, we have to be aware what we are doing is wrong and fully consenting. So for the last part of her question, my friend gave the Ender's Game example of if a kid is playing video games featuring combat, and then someone uses that kid's actions to devise actual war strategy, is the kid and/or his actions evil?
We've also had a discussion on relative vs absolute morality, and I've had a hard time trying to figure out how to best explain. I'm not always sure how to answer hypotheticals, like the classic train one about switching tracks to kill one person vs five, or things like if someone straps a bomb to my chest and orders me to rob a bank am I responsible for the theft. What I'm looking for are some good Catholic resources on what constitutes moral versus immoral, good versus evil, in somewhat simplified terms, so beyond the Catechism or something uber-dense like Summa Theologica. Any suggestions for good, relatively easy to understand books for beginners?
Posted 22 May 2012 - 10:24 PM
Posted 22 May 2012 - 10:53 PM
http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG0015/51.HTM (these are a list of instances when evil appears). This is a section that you might find relevant. It uses Thomistic language, so if you're uncertain about Thomas I can understand why you might be reluctant to use it. But I'll do my best to explain it, if I can:
I'll see what I can dig up on evil that might be more accessible than the Summa. Thomas Aquinas has a larger book on evil which is helpful, but it's even more dense than the Summa. However, his larger book really helps explain what evil is. I have a series of responses that I will break up to help explain what evil is and how it operates. Evil is a very complex subject, so I'll do what I can here. I want to make it as easy as possible to follow my different sets of answers.
Your instincts here are right on the money. Evil is always defined with reference to something else: good. I'll give a couple examples of what I mean and then apply these to evil. Think of hot and cold. Heat has a positive definition; that is, heat is some thing. Cold, however, is often defined as a lack of heat. If it's cold outside, what we really mean is that there's no heat out there. We commonly define light and dark in the same manner. Light has a positive definition, but dark is often the absence of light in a space. If you walk into a room and say, "It's dark in here," you really mean "There's no light in here." These are just common examples of instances when we define one thing as the absence of the other.
We do the same thing with good and evil. Very simply, we define evil as the absence of good. Think of a limp or a toothache. If you limp, you are not walking well: the evil here is the lack of being able to walk well. With a toothache, you're missing a good tooth. I would know, I've had quite a few of these... In each case, there is a good that we expect to have but we don't. These are different ways of trying to explain what evil is. Evil is always the absence of some good.
Before I go any further, I should note that there are different types of evil. I just mentioned natural evils. You can also have an evil as punishment. I don't want to say too much here because evil of punishment is really hard to explain simply, but some evils can be a natural punishment for doing something wrong. I watched the series finale of House yesterday and the introduction piece that came along with it. In the introduction (a reflection on the show as a whole), Hugh Laurie shoots himself in the foot. It hurts! The pain there is both a sort of punishment and a natural evil. It's natural punishment because he did something really stupid and felt the results of it. It's a natural evil because his foot lacks the healthiness we expect it to have. Don't shoot yourself in the foot.
These are the first two types of evil and it's necessary to understand them so that I can respond to your question about whether or not people are inherently evil.
Posted 22 May 2012 - 11:17 PM
Now, sometimes we will decide not to act for a particular good for the sake of another good. For example, on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday Catholics are called fast. While eating is a good action, we forgo eating on these days to remind us of some greater good in our life. This greater good is the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of our Lord. These goods are more remote goods that we seek by some other action. The distinction between remote and immediate goods is a bit philosophical, but it's necessary to understand the place of evil actions.
If we look at our lives as Catholics, we have a hierarchy or order of goods. That is, some goods need to be more important than other goods. For example, when we are young, we ought to be respectful towards our parents. This particular good is more important than other goods, such as the good of enjoying a nice dessert (eating dessert is normally a good action) or going to a baseball game (again, normally a good action). If our parents tell us we cannot have dessert one night or we cannot go to a baseball game, we must obey because respect towards our parents is a more important good in our lives.
What I've done is set up a pyramid of goods. At the bottom we have all the simple immediate goods, such as brushing our teeth or eating desserts, or enjoying a video game. Moving up the pyramid we have other goods that are more important, such as respecting our parents or obeying our teachers. The top of our pyramid, as Catholics, is God and our eventual union with Him. We hope and act that all of our actions direct us toward Him. Our desire to be with God should transform our attitude towards all of the lower goods on our pyramid. In a sense each pyramid is determined by our person so there is freedom as to the particular goods, but at the same time all of us are supposed to have God as the most important aspect of our actions, so there is objectivity here as well. So in a sense, some of my goods are chosen by my personality and desires. However, that doesn't give me absolute freedom to act as I want. I still must maintain a proper ordering to all my goods in light of what I know from faith and reason.
At this point you're might be wondering why in the world I've brought all this up. It's all to give one definition of moral evil: if our goods get out of order, we have then committed an evil action. For instance, if you eat dessert after your mother tells you no, then you have placed your desire for good food above the respect due to your parents. This is an evil action. If I stay on Phatmass all night and ignore my wife, my daughter, or my school studies, then I've disordered my priorities and have committed and evil action. I'm going after a good action (I enjoy Phatmass), but in the process I'm neglecting a more important good. That's how my action is evil.
Quick tangent here: a venial sin would be a slight disordering, but a mortal sin is when we really mess up our priorities. A person who seeks sex as the ultimate good in his/her life has gravely disordered his/her ultimate good (God) and has committed a grave evil. (If you read the Catechism it gives grave matter as one of the three criteria for a mortal sin).
Another analogy that works well for moral evil is the example of shooting an arrow. When you shoot an arrow you're aiming at a particular target. Your arrow might miss the target, and this is analogous to evil/sin. Evil is missing the target that you're seeking, though maybe you aimed at a lesser target in the process. This last analogy is a little bit harder to play out than the first concept I gave.
In summary, all our actions seek at some good. It just happens that sometimes the good we seek is to the detriment of a greater good. I'll go back to the dessert analogy. Bodily health is more important than bodily satisfaction, though the latter is still good. If I eat a moderate amount of dessert each night to satisfy my body, that's fine. However, if I eat too much dessert, I have neglected my bodily health. An even better example would be drinking alcohol. I can have a glass of alcohol each night and still maintain my bodily health, so I haven't harmed my bodily health by enjoying a good. However, if I start drinking two, three, or more glasses of alcohol each night I risk damaging my body. I have sought one good (the enjoyment of a nice drink) but have lost out on a more important good. I have committed an evil action. (To be more precise, I've actually committed a series of evil actions.)
All through this explanation, though, I hope one thing is clear: people are inherently good. They were created good and always seek some particular good in every action. Evil actions are not evil because we desire to be evil, but because we desire a lesser good as though it is more important than some greater and more important good.
Let us look at the example of Judas for a minute. Judas is often considered by many to be the worst person who lived (I'm not taking up this point of view, but using him as an example). Judas knowingly betrayed his friend and Our God, Jesus Christ. What action could be worse (except actually killing Jesus perhaps)? And yet, Judas sought the 30 pieces of silver, his public safety, the removal of Jesus (perhaps because he didn't really believe him), or any number of other lesser goods. His action isn't evil merely because he choose to be evil, but because he desired and acted for some lesser good at the loss of a greater good.
Even a person who thinks that he is attempting to do evil itself is seeking some other good (though perhaps we don't know what exactly that good is right away). This means that all people, no matter how many evil actions they do, are still good.
All of this goes back to your original point: we have been created in the image and likeness of God and as such we are inherently good.
Posted 22 May 2012 - 11:19 PM
Posted 22 May 2012 - 11:30 PM
He has no knowledge about an action or he did not choose to perform an action.
A person has full culpability if he has full knowledge and chooses the action in its entirety.
Now there are many other factors at play, such as whether a person could have found out what he didn't know. If a person chooses to be ignorant, he's responsible for his action. If he could know more, but doesn't realize he could know more, then he's less responsible. This gets into really complex distinctions, but I'm just pointing out that full knowledge isn't quite necessary for culpability.
If a person doesn't know he's being used and has no way to know, then he's not culpable for someone else using him. If he's coerced into being in that position, then again he's probably not culpable.
If you're interested, I can get resources for what I have here (most of it's straight Thomas Aquinas). Otherwise, I can also try to explain some about objective morality versus relative morality or some of the other stuff there.
- TheoGrad07 gave this props
Posted 23 May 2012 - 11:09 AM
Posted 25 May 2012 - 01:13 AM
I struggled with a similar thing, and what really helped me gain knowledge was taking courses in Philosophy, Ethics and Catholic Morality. If such an option is available to you, I definitely recommend you take it. The courses really encouraged me to think and to learn, and they provided me with a great list of resources too
I hope you can find the answers you search for. God bless.
Posted 25 May 2012 - 09:06 AM
For example, she asked me "can you actually have a person who is evil, or are just their actions evil?
To address the above, St Francis de Sales writes that God loves people infinitely, but hates sin infinitely. He repeatedly tries to kill the sin in order to save the sinner. You're right - a person is never evil. People perform evil or good actions but their actions don't change their substance.
But in order to have culpability for evil, we have to be aware what we are doing is wrong and fully consenting. So for the last part of her question, my friend gave the Ender's Game example of if a kid is playing video games featuring combat, and then someone uses that kid's actions to devise actual war strategy, is the kid and/or his actions evil?
No, the kid is not evil, and his action is not a sin if he doesn't know it's being used for evil ends. The other people, who are not inherently evil either, are performing evil actions by using the game for war strategy.
What I'm looking for are some good Catholic resources on what constitutes moral versus immoral, good versus evil, in somewhat simplified terms, so beyond the Catechism or something uber-dense like Summa Theologica. Any suggestions for good, relatively easy to understand books for beginners?
One book that recently helped me understand the Catholic definition of sin, evil, good, etc. a lot better (and as a side effect helped me feel less guilt and realize that I was not an evil person!) is How to Profit from Your Faults by Joseph Tissot. You can get it on amazon. And it's a really great explanation of Catholic morality.
Edited by Theresita Nerita, 25 May 2012 - 09:07 AM.