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Evil, Ethics and Freedom

Posted by on in Studies Blogs

Theodicy, the theological study of evil, is one of the stumbling blocks of religion. I have a few thoughts on the subject, which I doubt will end the matter, but perhaps shed a certain Pagan light on it. In general theodicy is trying to answer the question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” “Because God wills it,” to test or to strengthen the adherent, or “Karma,” the result of past actions, are two of the more popular answers. As a Thelemite, I am not so interested in what happened but in what to do, so I tend to look at this from the other side: “How do I avoid doing evil?” This leads me to a systems-analysis approach to evil that shows how hard it is to avoid doing Evil, but there is some hope in that too.


But first, I want to eliminate some ideas about evil, so we can see where it really resides. There is an ancient idea about evil that the Catholic church preserves, but rarely teaches because of our contemporary understanding of the world: ‘Natural Evil’. Disaster and disease are the usual events called natural evil, but we can’t really see these phenomenon as evil today. We know diseases are (generally) germ-caused, not by evil demons. We understand that the avalanche and the earthquake are the result of natural forces that, if they did not function as they do, universally and automatically, other aspects of the world would not work as it does and thus support life (read: us). But we must remember that in the ancient world these events were considered manifestations of evil.

On the other end of the spectrum is ‘Moral Evil’. This has to do with the proscriptions of religious practice. For a Jew it is immoral to eat Pork. I, however, can enjoy my bacon. It is immoral for the avowed Tantric to cut his or her hair (it kills the Dakini who live on the ends), but there is nothing wrong with me keeping my hair close-cropped. In each case, it is due to the requirements of their specific religious practice, inherited or chosen, that the action is bad or evil. Not having those commitments, they do not apply to me, my breakfast and the barbershop are secure.

For clarity of thought I separate ‘morality’ from ‘ethics’. Morality, as mentioned comes from religion (or spirituality if you are on your own), and as such they apply only to adherents. Ethics, in my view, are more universal and not dependent on religion. Rather, ethics are developed from reason and experience, some quite simple. It does not take too much thought to understand why murder and theft is unethical. War and self-defense is where this gets complicated. Insider trading exemplifies experience-based ethical proscription. It is not obvious why having the scoop on a hot stock is problematic, but the stock traders know that if someone has such inside information it distorts the marketplace so much so as to cause unnecessary disasters. We learned, and made rules against it. Being the product of reason and experience ethics are public and not a matter of conscience as religion-derived morality is. We understand why we must, or mustn’t, as opposed to the inexplicable rules of religion like pork eating and the Jew. Because of this public nature we often enshrine these ethics into law enforced by the state. We generally see why all persons must obey these ethical principles.

But none of this really gets us to an understanding of evil. I raised the issue of ‘natural evil’ to eliminate the actions of nature which is just going about its business in this marvelous world which works so wonderfully well, (no ‘Fall’ here). I raised ‘moral evil’ to eliminate the private requirements of religion that apply to some, but not to the rest of us. (A recognition of this might help the various religious populations to get along. What is incumbent upon you and your religion has no bearing on me and mine.) What I still want to know is how to not do evil, because, well, doing evil is bad. So, where is Evil?

This is where systems-analysis comes in, a discipline I learned in school and apply in my business life. Analyzing the system of possibilities present at the moment of choice, we can see that in every choice there are only a finite number of actions we can take (or not take). This is simply the result of being finite beings ourselves. Thus, when confronted with a choice, and only having finite-n choices to choose from, we can state a priori that one of the choices will be the best, one will be the worst, and the rest will be somewhere in between. This is just logic. Where it gets difficult is in picking the best choice. How do we know the consequences of our actions? Sometimes we can work out some of the consequences, sometimes even several steps down the line from our decision point, but a lot of the time we are just guessing on the basis of reason or experience, or even just intuition. We may appeal to the maxims of religion or philosophy that tell us to be harmless or to strike first, but again we are the ones applying them.

What lead me to think of this in the first place was the contemplation of the idea of a wholly deterministic world, as Porphyry reports of Pythagoras. They felt that everything that is happening right now has happened (more or less) exactly this way in the past. No choice we make is material because we made that choice exactly per script before. I have no idea why they thought this, but we can see something similar in Calvin’s idea of predetermination: God has already picked the Elect, the rest will go to Hell. Nothing you can do will either save or damn you, but your actions will show if you have been selected and your success will prove you are one of the elect. [Really? <sigh>]

In a wholly deterministic world there are no choices for us to make. ‘God’ has already scripted history. The problem here is that then there can be no evil. Everything is as ‘God’ willed it and so murder, war, theft, plunder are just part of the ‘natural order’. Without choice there can be no evil. You are compelled by Divine necessity: you could not have chosen otherwise. In this case our discussion is done, but who thinks this is correct?

What we have hit upon is a proof of the freedom of will. Unless the universe is a wholly deterministic system, what evil there is resides in the choices of volitional entities like ourselves. This is why we excluded natural evil, which is determined by the laws of nature, and moral evil, which is determined by religious practice. What is left is our ability to choose from a number of options for better or for worse.

The hard part in this is our limited knowledge, resources and intelligence. How do we pick the one best choice? Sadly, it is difficult to know the consequences so that whatever our criteria for the ‘best’ may be, we can only choose what we think is optimal. If history is any guide, and with the best of all intentions, we can see that we don’t always choose the best.

And this is where the hope lies: Finite entities choose imperfectly. We can scarcely know what will be the outcomes, but we are impelled by necessity to choose. This is simply the way the world is set up: in this we have no choice. We must simply do our best and face the consequences. At some level we all do evil. We make bad choices for the best of reasons. And this is the best there is. Compassion for ourselves and for others in our error is all we can do. This is the hope-filled realization: the world as it is set up asks us to be compassionate towards ourselves and each other in our imperfect choosing. We all err.

Evil we can now see is a result of freedom. Without the freedom to make choices, choices have no goodness or badness, or for that matter ‘meaning’. But once we see that we are free to choose Good, but rarely have all the resources to know what is Good, we can conclude that compassion is the appropriate response to ourselves and others in our choices. And when we learn from our choices, and can choose again, perhaps with the next opportunity we can choose even better.

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Sam Webster is a Pagan Mage, one of the very few who is also a Master of Divinity, and is also currently a Doctoral candidate in History at the University of Bristol, UK, under Prof. Ronald Hutton. He is an initiate of Wiccan, Druidic, Buddhist, Hindu and Masonic traditions and an Adept of the Golden Dawn founding the Open Source Order of the Golden Dawn  in 2001. His work has been published in a number of journals such as Green Egg and Gnosis, and 2010 saw his first book, Tantric Thelema, establishing the publishing house Concrescent Press. Sam lives in the San Francisco East Bay and serves the Pagan community principally as a priest of Hermes.


  • Tom Terrific
    Tom Terrific Saturday, 29 September 2012

    Coincidentally, this subject came up a few days ago on a Pagan board I frequent. I offered my view and was excoriated by one participant as though I were pontificating or proselytizing. It’s a dangerous subject to discuss with some Pagans.

    I disagree with the proposition that moral evil is relative. I believe there is such a thing as objective moral good and objective moral evil, irrespective of what we may think about them. Do I know what they are? That’s an entirely different matter. Religion is man’s attempt to transcend the limits of his finite mind and join with the Infinite, and part of this process is framing … and re-framing, and re-framing … reality as it seems after processing experience. We all struggle for insight, but our insight is perpetually imperfect. That doesn’t mean it isn’t getting better (or worse, as the case may be), but it is certainly incomplete.

    So, different religions will frame good and evil differently. “Who is right?” misses the point. All are right – insofar as they are all genuine attempts to bridge that divide – and all are wrong, because all are incomplete. What matters is that we seek, share and keep seeking. Eventually, all roads up the mountain will lead to the same summit.

    Several years ago, I stumbled onto a way of casting objective good and evil in a non-judgmental way, that nevertheless encompasses the more common way of looking at them (yet goes beyond it). It all hinges on whether you believe that life has meaning. If life has meaning, that necessarily implies purpose. You may not know what that purpose is, but that doesn’ t mean it isn’t there. That purpose has objective existence, because you have objective existence and thus your life has objective existence. Good describes actions that further your life’s purpose, while evil describes actions that frustrate your life’s purpose.

    If you are a Christian, and you believe your life’s purpose is to know God, then good describes actions that bring you closer to God and evil describes actions that hinder you from coming closer to God (sin). Christianity adds the element of judgment, but that addition doesn’t make my framing inapplicable; the definitions still apply, but the Christians add something more. I guess that’s their business, but it doesn’t invalidate the frame.

    It is critical to separate the idea of judgment from evil. I think it is the marriage of these two ideas that keeps many Pagans from accepting objective morality.

    I would go further and say that, because we are all human, at some level – at the core of our beings – our life’s purposes are all the same. That is the point where all religions meet. Until we get there, however, we are all going to have different takes on what constitutes “good” and what constitutes “evil.”

    Many Pagans say they reject the notion of objective good and evil; I think they do this because they are afraid someone will come along and force an orthodoxy on them, or that divine judgment is a necessary correlation. As I have tried to indicate, these things are not necessary; and so I think these Pagans have thrown the baby out with the bath in an effort to avoid a conclusion they see as necessary and unpleasant.

    Lastly, let me add that moral evil might be described as acting in such a way as to deny the purpose of your life, or that life has a purpose to start with. If I am going to be accused of pontificating, let it be for asserting that life has purpose; for I have yet to meet anyone who lives as though they believe that life is meaningless, no matter what they say.

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