Friday, July 18, 2008

Response to Chris Schwartz

The following is a response to a recent post by my friend Chris Schwartz on the issue of evil and history. I had to respectfully disagree with some of Chris's views. I sent my response via e-mail, and Chris asked me to post it here so that we may start a discussion.

Dear Chris,

I have been thinking about your commentary on the theodicy of history, and I am sending this e-mail as a type of response. It will not by any means respond to every point you made, but it will deal with matters I found particularly striking.

First, I wish to examine your reliance on the belief in a personal God. (I will not address the issue of God itself, which would require a book to properly address.) Even if we concede God exists-I am not certain that he does or does not-why do we have to insist that he is interested in us one way or another? At one point, you deride "the deist's negligent watchmaker." I personally believe that this vision of God is the one most likely to exist. The most persuasive argument for God that I have encountered is the "first cause" argument. (I.e. something had to produce the universe, both matter and energy.) God seems as good an explanation as any. Deism fulfills this without any unnecessary claptrap.

Part of the reason I am rather hostile to the concept of a personal god is that it strikes me as an invitation for unnecessary religious interference in our lives. If God is personally interested in every person, it necessarily follows that he may want to regulate all aspects of our lives: our thoughts, our sexuality, our political beliefs…

Admittedly, this hostility developed at least partially from my youthful experiences with the Catholic Church, which made me suspicious of any type of authoritarian religion. One could potentially argue that I am simply projecting the offenses of an embittered nun onto God itself. Still, I believe that the progress of Catholicism, Evangelical Christianity, and the more fundamentalist sects of Islam and Judaism should give pause to anyone who believes that a personal god is necessarily a good thing.

The second issue I wish to examine is the question of evil. I am not certain it is impossible to accurately describe something as good or evil. Although it is true that in many cases there are heavy shades of gray in even the worst crimes, there are some large scale crimes that can be reasonably described as evil, no matter what good effects they may have on the individual level.

Turning to the case of the Cambodian genocide you cite, I personally believe such events fall into the category of absolute evil, no matter what good side effects they may have had. Take, for example, the case of Haing S. Ngor. Mr. Ngor was a Cambodian refugee who came to America after the fall of Pol Pot. In America, he became a part time actor, ultimately garnering an Oscar for his role in The Killing Fields.

However, the level of suffering he experienced in Cambodia negates any good consequences he experienced from coming to our country. As he described in his autobiography, Surviving the Killing Fields, Ngor's family was largely destroyed by the Khmer Rouge. His wife died while giving birth to his child, who also died, all for lack of a doctor. (This, incidentally, ultimately led to Ngor's own death, as he was shot after refusing to give some muggers a locket that contained the only photo he had of his wife.) Ngor himself was in three different Khmer Rouge prisons, where he had two of his fingers cut off and was at one point literally crucified.

Some things are simply so evil that no amount of individual good stemming from them can allay, or even slightly mitigate the evil. These events fall into the select category of "pure" evil. This is not to say that their perpetrators are absolutely evil; all humans have at least some good in them, even Hitler or Pol Pot. This does not change the nature of the acts, however, at least in my opinion.

It is true, and you might wish to write about this at some point, that the term evil is often abused in that is applied to our enemies when they commit certain acts, but not to our allies when they do the same. For instance, Robert Mugabe is attacked to violently intimidating his opponents, but Hosni Mubarak is given a pass for equally atrocious repression. Although some pundits, such as Alexander Cockburn, use this to excuse atrocities on the part of leaders they are sympathetic to, it seems to me that we should confront evil both in our supposed allies and our enemies.

You argue that absolutely recognizing evil is not a necessary component to taking action. I tend to disagree. For instance, the Allies, even if they did not know the full horror of the camps, had more than enough information to make the determination. Based largely on laws the Nazis had published regarding Jews, legal scholar Raphael Lemkin was able to publish Axis Rule in Occupied Europe in 1944, in which he coined the term genocide to describe Nazi policy. Full knowledge isn't needed to judge whether someone is doing evil.

Furthermore, I feel evil is a potentially useful concept for rallying people to oppose human rights abuses, genocide, etc. It is a term people are used to, that they can instantly rally around. For instance, the objection to President Bush's use of the term evildoers was not that I did not think al-Qaeda is evil. It was that it lent a hysterical air to the proceedings that was unnecessary and destructive in the post 9/11 environment. The President could have evoked the evil of al-Qaeda without sounding like the mayor of Gotham City.

One thing I really want to praise you for is the conclusion of your essay. It incorporates human responsibility into the concept of God's involvement in the world that I found thought-provoking. I especially liked your use of the Hamlet analogy. It made me look at the play in a way I never had before.

I hope you won't take offense at the critiques in this e-mail. I found your essay very interesting, and wanted to discuss the matter more with you.


Michael Gallen

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