Kent Bottles: Good, Evil, Niebuhr, Buddhism, Health Care Reform, and Twitter
One of my housemates posted the following by the kitchen: “There are no enemies anywhere.” Every morning when I see it, I shake my head and wonder how come I live in a different world. I do think we should assume positive intent, until proven otherwise, and we at ICSI have made that commitment in our work on health care reform. I was reminded of the saying by the kitchen when I retweeted the following this Saturday: “How the world does not work RT @Lissarankin #MojoTip
Remember that the Universe is a safe place with your best interests at heart.”
“How the world works” is my category of tweets that document evil in the world. This weekend I tweeted: “The way the world really works: Elaborate revenge plot by wife in NYC (http://bit.ly/6ntmQ7)” links to a New York Times article about a wife who goes to extraordinary and disturbing lengths to seek revenge against her husband and his pregnant paramour. Later, I retweeted an even more upsetting case: “RT @HealthSociety New Zealand man injects sleeping wife with HIV (AFP) http://bit.ly/4t6bc7.” And to make me even more depressed Sunday, I found the following: New York Times List of Least and Most Corrupt Countries in the World http://bit.ly/7PDkYx.
My friend ePatientDave remarked: “@KentBottles That is NOT the way the world really works! It’s how some wackos work. Outliers <> the world. ” and “@KentBottles If we live as reactions to the worst, all is lost. Let’s live as creators of the future. (I know YOU do!).”
There is evil in the world. So what is the proper way to respond? The best advice I have found in this area is Reinhold Niebuhr’s Moral Man and Immoral Society. One thing is for sure, we have to see the world for the way it really is. Idealism like the sign in my kitchen is not enough and can actually be dangerous by making us think we are doing good when in reality we are only dreaming about a world that does not really exist. Niebuhr says, “The dream of perpetual peace and brotherhood for human society is one which will never be fully realized.” American society is “in a perpetual state of war.”
The existence of evil has led some philosophers to conclude that there is no God. If God is the infinitely powerful, perfectly good, all-knowing, all-seeing creator of the world, then it is not logical that such evil and God would both exist. The evidential problem of evil philosopher followers “argue that when we consider particular instances of horrendous, apparently pointless evil, or reflect on the magnitude of severe human and animal suffering, it is simply staggering to suppose that an omnipotent, omniscient, and perfectly good being is in charge. What could possibly justify his permitting such monstrous evils?” (William L. Rowe, “Evil, Problem of” in Donald M. Borchert, Editor-in-Chief, Philosophy and Ethics, New York: Macmillan Library Reference USA, 1999.)
Moral absolutism regards good and evil as fixed concepts established by God or nature. Amoralism considers good and evil as meaningless concepts because there is no morality in nature. Moral relativism holds that standards of good and evil are merely products of culture. Moral universalism is an attempt to find a compromise between absolutism and relativism. Sam Harris (The End of Faith, New York: WW Norton, 2004) thinks we can use happiness and suffering metrics based on brain biology to establish universal definitions of good and evil.
The Buddhists I have read seem to regard good and evil as “a single unitary system” that represent “True Opposition.” Steve Hagen (How The World Can Be The Way It Is, Wheaton, Ill.: Quest Books, 1995) writes: “True Good – those actions that spring from an awareness of the Whole, from just seeing – is utterly beyond any everyday sense of good and evil, or right and wrong, or pleasant and unpleasant. It’s the appropriate action at the appropriate place and time, free of selfishness, attachment, conceptualizing, and even (as we normally think of it) intent.”
I would like to do good in a world that contains evil. I know that merely wanting to do good is not enough. One only needs to read Edward Tenner (Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences, New York: Vintage, 1996) to recognize that efforts to do good can backfire and create great harm.
Kelley Ross developed a “recognition of evil test” that seems to be of some help in trying to differentiate between the naïve and the truly evil. In discussing Martin Heidegger, Werner Heisenberg, and Mircea Eliade (all of whom had some affiliation with fascism during the mid-20th century), Ross writes:
“The problem is whether foolish or ignorant views are vicious or merely well-meaning but uniformed. The proof is whether the views become disillusioned in the face of conspicuous demonstrations of evil. If there is no disillusionment in such circumstances, then we must ask whether such evils really follow from the views and so whether the views are really naïve or in fact informed, deliberate, and actually pernicious.” (http://www.friesian.com/eliade.htm)
Mark Sedgwick (Against the Modern World, New York: Oxford University Press, 2004) concludes that Eliade became disillusioned with the evil acts of fascism and so is not truly evil. Emmanuel Faye’s new book on Heidegger “argues fascist and racist ideas are so woven into the fabric of Heidegger’s theories that they no longer deserve to be called philosophy.” (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/09/books/09philosophy.html) I believe Faye would conclude that Heidegger would flunk Ross’s “recognition of evil” test and be labeled evil.
Working on health care reform is so important and so complicated and complex. Decreasing health care per-capita cost and increasing quality for all our patients is an admirable goal worth pursuing. I only wish I had a better personal understanding of what appropriate actions lead to goodness without unintended evil consequences. Any help along these lines would be greatly appreciated. This work is humbling indeed.
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