The presence of evil (moral knowledge and moral telos)

The state of affairs

People talk of the one constructive thing that comes from the evils that we commit to as is that we learn not to do them.

Sometimes I imagine, as I would imagine most people might, that the most perfect state of affairs for all people would be if no evil was to occur in the world; perhaps, but I do not make this claim here; that the absence of evil may entail the absence of human suffering; this state of affairs would be a very different place to the world that we live in; suffering is present everywhere. This is merely an intuition that I elicit, an ideal view of a normative state of affairs; a moral commonwealth whereby, assumedly we, as moral agents would satisfy some highest ideal of moral character; virtue, summum bonum; call it what you will.

This, as experience may tell us, is not our state of affairs; the state of affairs is that evil is a presence in the world, and our moral intuitions tell us that we, if we are to be morally significant beings, seek to change this.
Moral knowledge

We make msitakes but we learn from them also. In our own personal biographies, we make mistakes unique to us, our own orientation and psychological dispositions; it may be that the mistake of the glutton is to eat too much; the mistake of the gullible is to be transparent about their honesty and confidence in others that they may be truthful, let us call these subjective lessons of morality.

We also, have lessons to learn that go beyond our own eccentricities and niches; what we, as a member of a certain group (say, men), or, we as a member of a cultural and ideological community (say, scientists, or marxists), have to learn. We may even go to the larger quantifications and talk about human nature itself (which I really don’t like using such an expression). Lessons we may learn from the history of humanity.

I have just stated above the fact of the matter that we learn moral platitudes from previous experience. This should be an obvious truism. Now let me consider the media by which we learn moral platitudes.

We can learn of moral character, or a distinction between the right and the wrong through moral philosophy, which, I must say, is the worst way to learn about morality. Moral philosophy as a normative doctrine and the meta-ethical analysis of moral propositions, moral states, properties, dispositions or content can very much inform us, but as a practical matter; we invoke the distinction from Nussbaum of know-how and know-that. Moral philosophising pertains to the former species, wherby genuine moral knowledge and practical intuitions and insights about how to live our daily lives pertain to the know-that.

So, the following question we have is this; of what within the resource of ‘know-that’ platitudes do we come to know of moral things. A well documented case of this is literature.

We learn of the ills of racism in To Kill a Mockingbird; we learn of the horrors of man when they take their own control over each other in Lord of the Flies, we learn the evils and corruption of greed in Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith; and we learn the dangers of those irresistable wiles of feminine deception in Nabakov’s Lolita.

It is an interesting question in the philosophical literature as to whether the things that we learn of in art are aesthetically significant to our judgment of the work: we may also ask if knowledge about morality pertaining to a specific work is knowledge about the art of the work, whether it is propositionally similar to say, discussing the form of it. Is art morally indifferent; so that we can acceptably laugh when we watch the film American Psycho (which I certainly do!); or is art, like Adorno would have us believe, the vanguard of culture against the uneducated and brutish masses who are becoming corrupted by the inescapable force of the industrial capital consumerist society. I have sympathies with both views; but perhaps I shall consider those another time.

Evil and moral telos

Let us consider the moral telos as a notion that there is an order ultimately, to the actions moral of all people; that evil may perhaps one day be overcome, and that the evil we find in the world is acceptable and an important part of the furniture of our states of affairs (in virtue of this telos). Let me put it in another way; a moral telos is that sort of thing when people say these things happen for a reason. Which, I must say, I hate when people say because it is a question-begging statement to which they never answer.

We may think of moral evils as in some way a necessary part of our world. Durkheim thought this as a practical reality; we expect to analyse suicide statistics because we assume at ome point these phenomenon such as crime and suicide are inevitable. We maintain a police force, anti-terror divisions of government and prisons because we may assume as some constant that crime may take place; these are interesting sociological concerns, but for the purpose of this article, not our present worry.

The worry is more metaphysical; the idea of a moral telos seems complimentarily linked to God. Namely, that God is the author of the moral order, and, it is in relation to God that the ironing out of evil, or the presence of evil obtains. Theodicies give many different explanations for the presence of evil; we may say, for instance that it is because of the free will imbued within us.

This reminds me of the old wednesday masses we had; Father Thomas used to talk about the significance of God’s love; God loves us so much that he allows us to disobey him, Father Thomas told us that the importance of free will is that we are able to say ‘YES’ , as well as ‘NO’ [in the Barth sense viz Commentary on Paul’s letters to the Romans].

The presence of evil is an effect of the magnificence of human freewill; perhaps magnificence is not a good word here, but to say that evil is a consequence of being autonomous agents. Be it logically possible for there to be a kingdom of ends whereby no evil is present because we are all good of character? Kant seems to think so; but I ask this; is the presence of evil necessary for the instruction of moral platitudes? I think not.
But then again, I think of the powerful humanity of certain important moral works; the beauty of art that is moral is that we can relate to it. If we lived in a world where no evil took place, but we were nonetheless moral beings capable of evil; how are we to learn? where is the carrot and stick?

The question I suppose I am putting foward is this; if we were to live in some possible world where all of us were perfect moral agents, we were mortal, and capable of evil; what would happen? what would be our motivational status for action? Perhaps I am assuming too much here tacitly about the nature of these perfect moral agents; but I ask this; is committing evil the best way to learn of not committing such evils?

I am finding it difficult to say no.

Michael (and Destre)


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