Why are we bad?

Paul Seabright

  • Wickedness: A Philosophical Essay by Mary Midgley
    Routledge, 224 pp, £14.95, September 1984, ISBN 0 7100 9759 X

‘Of all the creatures that were made,’ wrote Mark Twain, ‘man is the most detestable. Of the entire brood he is the only one, the solitary one, that possesses malice. That is the basest of all instincts, passions, vices – the most hateful. He is the only creature that inflicts pain for sport, knowing it to be pain. Also in all the list, he is the only creature that has a nasty mind.’ Why? There, in a word, you have the question addressed by Mary Midgley’s new book. It is different from the Problem of Evil as this has been traditionally known to theologians – namely, how an omnipotent and good God could create a world that has evil within. Theodicy has always been capable of interpretation in two ways: most traditionally, as a question of justification, of coming to terms with the fact of evil in the world, consistently with our respect for God its creator. Alternatively, and increasingly with the advance of secular thought, the problem has been seen as an evidential one. does the evil visible in the world admit of the existence of a good and omnipotent God at all? For the traditional problem, evil not due to human agency has always presented the greatest challenge. But the modern version, which Mary Midgley sees ‘as our problem, not God’s’, focuses entirely on the evil caused by the actions of man. It arises for both believers and unbelievers, and is best described as a humanist version of the justification question: how can we come to terms with the evil that we do, consistently with our self-respect? Now just as over time the presumption of respect for God has increasingly been questioned, a fact that has changed the way in which the traditional problem is viewed, so it may be (as Mark Twain’s sour tone suggests) that taking our self-respect for granted is a vain prejudice too, and that the only answer to the problem of human evil is that it has no answer: that we are just a revoltingly evil species. But even if that is so, most of us are still unable to live with the self-knowledge. And the prematurity of the pessimistic conclusion is underlined by another reflection: the Problem of Evil is distinct from the problem of accounting for the moral categories of good and evil in human life; in neither the traditional nor the humanist versions has anybody worried about the Problem of Good. Whether foolishly or not, once we think in moral terms we do find it natural to assume a modicum of self-respect, just as (whether simple-mindedly or not) we have thought it natural to assume respect for anybody who has created the universe. It has been evil that seemed anomalous, and it is the understanding of evil in terms compatible with our self-respect that is attempted by Mary Midgley’s book.

It is important to set out the problem with some precision, because the question ‘why do people behave wickedly?’, like many such inquiries into the springs of action, is hard to pose in a way that does not invite trivial answers. When the Russian fencer Boris Onischenko was found cheating at the 1976 Olympics (and was nicknamed ‘Disomschenko’), a British newspaper put to an eminent psychiatrist the question ‘Why do people cheat?’ and received the solemn reply: ‘Because they want to gain unfair advantage.’ The fault did not he entirely with the hapless shrink, for it was not easy to see what the newspaper wanted, to know what would have counted as an adequate reply. Mrs Midgley doubtless knows what would be an adequate reply to her own question, but does not at the start of her book make it clear enough to remove any unworthy suspicions about her proposed solution: ‘Evil, in fact,’ she writes, ‘is essentially the absence of good, and cannot be understood on its own.’ Well, yes. But she has not made things any easier for herself by claiming only four sentences previously the exact opposite: ‘Indeed, the notion of evils comes first. You could hardly have much idea of generosity if you did not grasp the dangers of meanness.’ So far, then, evil is the absence of good and good is the absence of evil. It’s a start, I suppose.

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