Question for Humanists

I was just thinking about this concept, and it struck me as something that theists get asked all of the time, but it’s never really asked of non-theists.

My question is this: “Why is there evil in the world?”

The reason I ask is because humanism is predicated on the belief that man is basically good. But if man is good and there is no God, then why is there evil? And if man is good and all selections we make are not determined by us (determinism), then how could we determine to do evil if we’re basically good? It seems too simple, but I want to know how such a view is reconciled. It’s a sincere asking, so any humanist reading this blog, please feel free to share your response. Thanks.

Advertisements

71 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by ubi dubium on July 19, 2012 at 11:29 AM

    I recently blogged on this very subject! But I’ll put a quick summary here:

    This is a two-part answer, because there are two kinds of evil.

    First, evil not caused by humans, and this is the easy one. The universe does not care about us. It’s not designed for us, we evolved to survive in it. Natural disasters, disease, accidents. Stuff happens, and it’s not personal.

    For the second part, and this is the trickier one: Human beings are the product of evolution. This means that we are the desendants of the winners in the fight for survival that has been going on since the origin of life. We are scrappy survivors. We each must agressively pursue our own self-interests, as must all other organisms, because if we don’t do this, we don’t survive or reproduce.

    AND – we have evolved to be social animals. That’s our niche, our survival strategy. Each of us is incredibly dependent on the other members of our community. So we each must also aggresively pursue the welfare of our social group if we are to survive and reproduce.

    So, it’s a balancing act. To be successful as a human being, it’s necessary to balance individual interests against social interests. And it’s necessary to be aware of what that “social group” is, and who it includes. There is no one perfect balance, because the right mix depends on the situation at the time. Sometimes the best survival strategy is complete cooperation with your society, and sometimes it’s not.

    And sometimes people get that balance really wrong. Whether it’s putting your own interests too far ahead of the interests of those you depend on, or whether it’s blind obedience to a social group that has been misled by a destructive ideology, there are ample opportunities to get it really wrong, and either one can cause human suffering.

    You can find my full post on this here: http://boldquestions.wordpress.com/2012/04/20/the-problem-of…-answer-part-2/

    Basically it boils down to – humans aren’t basically good. They are basically survivors with the capacity to be good.

    Hope that’s helpful.

    Reply

    • Those are interesting points. Thanks for sharing. It does raise two follow-up questions, though:

      1) Why is human suffering evil?
      2) Is humanism fatally flawed then because it’s premise that humans are basically good is a false one, given your last statement?

      Reply

      • Posted by ubi dubium on July 19, 2012 at 12:02 PM

        I’ll take a stab at those.

        1. “Evil” can only be measured in relation to some kind of beings. Imagine a lifeless place, such as the moon. Can there be any “evil” on the moon, maybe evil moonrocks? No, there’s nothing possibly “good” or “evil” there, it’s just rocks. We can only measure good or evil in relation to ourselves. To humans, human flourishing and wellbeing is good. Anything that prevents that is evil.

        2. What’s your source for stating that humanism’s premise is that humans are basically good? I’ve read much humanist thinking, and that’s not a central premise of anything that I have read.

      • Thanks. I’m still a bit confused though.

        1. Why is anything that prevents human flourishing evil, and where do you draw the line as to something preventing human flourishing?

        2. I suppose maybe I’m in error. That’s what I’ve always heard as a premise for humanism, but I could be wrong. But if man is basically evil, then how does man have the capacity to do good if he makes no choices? Does this shatter determinism as a realistic worldview for humanists?

  2. There are a lot of people in the world, some do good things some do bad things depending on their motivation. A meth addict will do horrible things to ensure he’ll get more meth for example.

    99% of bad things people do are from self-interested motivations. The other 1% could be mental problems. Brain chemistry can explain a serial killer. I prefer to think that psychopaths exist due to random bad genes and not that they are designed by a higher power.

    Reply

    • But what makes something horrible? What makes something bad?

      And are humans inherently good, inherently evil, or neither/both? That certainly would help answer the motivation question, I would think.

      Reply

      • Posted by ubi dubium on July 19, 2012 at 2:26 PM

        Now you are asking very good questions! “What makes something bad?” is the real kind of question humanists wrestle with. Sam Harris recently wrote a book called “The Moral Landscape” which works on tackling this. There’s no easy answer, because something good in one situation might be bad in another. And something that I think is good now might produce a horrible result for someone else without my knowledge.

        And I don’t think humans are inherently good or evil. They have the capacity to be either. Most humans are self-interested, which translates into most people working cooperatively and honestly with other people most of the time, because that’s what works for survival.

        Humans are inherently complicated. That’s the best I’ve got.

      • So more questions. If something can’t be determined to be good or bad because we don’t know the implications, should we then consider morality at its basest to be unknowable, and therefore we shouldn’t make moral value judgments on any act? If we can’t call something good or evil, then shouldn’t we call it nothing? And therefore, shouldn’t all things be neither good nor evil? That would certainly jibe with your view that humans aren’t inherently good or evil, wouldn’t it?

        So in a godless world, is it safe to say morality ought not to exist, because we can’t come up with a reasonable definition for good and evil?

      • Posted by ubi dubium on July 19, 2012 at 2:51 PM

        No, I’d call morality the system of rules that we have developed over thousands of years to enable us to co-exist with each other. (A hermit has no need of morality.)

        I don’t think of good or evil as always absolute. It’s more of a sliding scale. Some things are definitely good, some definitely awful, but most of our actions lie somewhere in between, and are a mix of both. It’s about trying to work out the right balance.

        For instance, driving to work allows me to support my children = good. Driving to work increases traffic and global warming = bad. Each of us has to deal with this kind of question all the time.

      • So what you’re saying is that there is nothing that defines whether something is good or bad? There is no foundation, so to speak?

      • Posted by ubi dubium on July 19, 2012 at 3:40 PM

        Sure there is. We define it. Humans If you are looking for a foundation like a book, or a proclamation from a mystical authority, no you won’t find that. The foundation is thousands of years of human experience, our history of what works and what doesn’t.

        Some people find the thought that “we’re on our own” really hard to stomach and prefer to lean on a divine authority for their answers. I understand that, it’s really comforting to think there’s an absolute cosmic judge of right and wrong out there somewhere. But for a humanist, as they say “There’s no justice. There’s just us.”

      • But if human experience can’t tell us whether something is actually right or wrong (according to your prior statement something could be a mix of both), then why should we trust it?

      • Posted by ubi dubium on July 19, 2012 at 4:08 PM

        Because human experience can help us with figuring out the likely results of our actions, and determine if they might work out to an overall net good or an overall net bad.

        Some examples – In Australia cane toads were introduced to control a pest of sugar cane. Sounds like a good idea, right? But the toads didn’t wipe out the pests, were poisonous, had no natural enemies, and have proliferated like crazy. They are now a much bigger pest than the bugs they were introduced to control. Result = overall net bad.

        How about deliberately exterminating a species entirely? Biodiversity is good, yes? But our efforts to eradicate smallpox have saved millions of lives, with no long-term bad effects (except from the viruses point of view). Sure, it was expensive, and involved pressuring people into being vaccinated who might have preferred not to be. But the long term result was totally worth it. Result = overall net good.

        We learn from history, and we struggle to balance the needs of the many against the needs of the few, or the one (yes, I’m a Trekkie). We struggle to balance our short-term personal needs against our desire to provide for the long-term needs of our descendants. It’s not easy, not always clear-cut, and is never going to be.

      • But does an overall net good or bad make something good or bad then? Ponder this hypothetical.

        AIDS began as a disease in Africa. As such, it is most rampant among Africans. If we were to nuke all of Africa, then it would eradicate a significant portion of the AIDS cases. Also, we could exterminate anyone who is known to be HIV positive or have the AIDS virus in a first-world country. Sure, people would die, but we would be able to curb the spread of AIDS in the world, and we know we would still have enough people in the population that no specific race would be lost as a result of this action. Result = overall net good.

        So does that mean we should promote the nuking of Africa and the slaughtering of people with AIDS? It seems completely justified, jibes with “survival of the fittest,” and is the most beneficial answer to pass along a better world to our descendants. So this would have to be considered good and we should go ahead and do it, right? If not, why not?

      • Posted by ubi dubium on July 19, 2012 at 4:48 PM

        Nuke Africa = loss of many many more innocent people than would have died of AIDS, loss of cultural resources and history, loss of natural resources, loss of everything good those people would have done in the rest of their lives, and creating a world where that sort of thing is permissible, setting up a precedent for that sort of thing (and your own grandchildren might be next). Net = very bad indeed.

        So how about = quarantining the areas of Africa that are the worst hit? Hmmm…. better, but probably still net bad.

        So how about = putting a tax on the rest of the world to provide anti-virals for all the sufferers? Adequate medication can slow or stop the spread of the disease. Hmmm…

        How about = getting the Pope to proclaim that condoms are OK after all, a simple thing that could greatly slow down transmission and save many lives…

        Another example to consider – Nuking Hiroshima to end WWII. Cost many thousands of lives, mostly civilians. If the US had not done it, we would have had to invade Japan to end the war, which was estimated at a cost of at least a million lives, including many civilians. Net good, net bad? People are still arguing over this one, all these years later, with no clear answer.

        (Oh, and “survival of the fittest” describes how species have gotten to be the way they are, but has nothing to do with how we should treat each other. Nature does not care about humans, but humans do care.)

      • Let me break down your assessment of nuking Africa a bit:

        “loss of many many more innocent people than would have died of AIDS” — No way to know this, so it becomes an irrelevant point. It also doesn’t matter if innocents die on evolution because the whole of the populace has a better chance of survival, so it’s a non-issue.
        “loss of cultural resources and history” — History doesn’t die with people; perhaps access to some artifacts, yes, but not history. Regardless, why is this a bad thing?
        “loss of natural resources” — We still have plenty of natural resources to survive, just like we have plenty of people for the human race to survive; but again, why is this a bad thing?
        “loss of everything good those people would have done in the rest of their lives” — How do we know what good is, and that people would do it? plus, if they do good, there’s a good chance they’ll also do bad, so they cancel each other out. Irrelevant point.
        “creating a world where that sort of thing is permissible, setting up a precedent for that sort of thing” — What’s wrong with it being permissible?

        Do you see what I’m getting at? You’ve placed an inherent value on certain things (i.e. permitting the nuking of Africa is a bad thing, loss of innocent life is a bad thing) in order to arrive at your conclusion as to whether or not something is bad. To derive good or bad from something, you need a foundation for why said results are bad or good. And that’s what I’m getting at, and what you’re still missing. Why is something evil? Why is something good?

        Finally, you say “survival of the fittest” does not apply because humans care while nature does not. Given that on evolution humanity is just a by-product of nature, this makes no sense to me. If nature created us, and nature doesn’t care, then why should we?

      • The most basic qualification for “something bad” in regards to humanity is asking “does it cause harm?” If so, it’s something bad. If it causes good and harm, the “goodness” or “badness” of the act should be judged by whether or not it causes more harm then good and vice versa.

        Really don’t know why this is so hard for theists to grasp.

      • But why is causing harm bad? And how do we define something as “causing harm”? It’s not hard for the theist to grasp; we’re just asking for you to ground it in something.

        And you didn’t answer my question about whether or not humans are inherently good or evil. Which is it? Or is it both? Or neither? If you’re saying that bad people have bad motivation, I’m trying to figure out whether or not that motivation is inherent or not.

      • It needs no further foundation. Look up the definitions of “harm,” “bad,” and “cause” if you need to. I didn’t make these words up.

        We aren’t inherently good or evil. Of course motivation isn’t inherent.

      • So are you saying that if those words didn’t exist, evil wouldn’t either?

        And if we’re not inherently good or evil, why is there evil and where did it come from?

      • Posted by ubi dubium on July 22, 2012 at 7:09 AM

        Because “evil” isn’t a “thing”. It has no separate existence. It’s a quality we assign to actions and events to describe how they affect humans. It’s like saying “Well if light is only photons, how is there “blueness”?

      • So then are you saying evil doesn’t exist? Or does it simply exist as an arbitrary concept applied to certain actions? Because if it exists only as a quality, then who decides what it is assigned to and what it is not?

      • Posted by ubi dubium on July 22, 2012 at 12:39 PM

        We decide, of course. I think this question has been covered enough in the responses on this thread so far.

      • So if I decide that killing you isn’t evil, that’s justified? If I’m part of who gets to decide, then I can decide whatever I want and call it good, and who are you to stop me?

      • Posted by ubi dubium on July 23, 2012 at 7:37 AM

        The social group you live in, that’s who’s to stop you. Unless you are a hermit (and hermits have no need for morality) you live with and are mutually dependent on some kind of group of other people. And all successful groups have a rule that group members do not kill each other without justification. Any group that did not establish a rule like that would not survive for long.

        So doing such a thing would bring severe punishment from your group, and unless you were mentally ill, you would be aware of that in advance. And – you would be setting a precedent of rule violating that would be bad for your group as a whole, and so for the wellbeing of your family and loved ones in the future. The Golden Rule was not invented by religion, and it holds in every major culture. To exist in society, you generally need to behave in the way you want others to behave. Your conscience is your brain telling you that you are thinking about violating or have violated the rules of acceptable behavior for your group.

        Now, are you the kind of person who, if they did not think a god was watching them, would actually kill people? If you are, then I suggest you stick to your religion and never question it!

      • Many questions arise, but I’ll try to keep it brief:

        1) Why does my social group get to decide if what I did was actually evil?
        2) Couldn’t my social group be evil itself, and so by declaring what I did evil they’re actually saying it’s good? (i.e. Nazi Germany)
        3) Why would my social group stop me?
        4) If my social group is different than yours, this argument doesn’t apply (killing each other without justification), so all I need to do to justify this is to distinguish myself as part of a different social group than yours and I’m alright, yes?
        5) If good and evil evolved as part of a social order, does that mean the first murder wasn’t evil?
        6) If a conscience is your brain tell you that you are either going to violate or have violated social norms, did the first person to ever live not have a conscience? Or does that mean that hermits don’t have consciences?
        7) So if I’m a hermit and I decide to come into town and kill someone, it’s OK because I’m not violating my social order and I’m not going against my conscience?

      • Posted by ubi dubium on July 24, 2012 at 6:27 PM

        1) Why does my social group get to decide if what I did was actually evil?

        Because they decide who can stay in the group, who must be ejected, and who is so dangerous that they must be punished or eliminated.

        2) Couldn’t my social group be evil itself, and so by declaring what I did evil they’re actually saying it’s good? (i.e. Nazi Germany)

        Yes, and that’s why Humanism does not claim to have any easy black-and-white answers to life. At what point would your conscience overrule patriotism? Is there something that your country could do that is so awful that you could no longer declare your allegiance to it? That’s a good question for a long discussion right there.

        3) Why would my social group stop me?

        Because a misbehaving individual harms everyone. We want to punish or prevent bad behavior, and we want to deter future bad behavior. We arrest drunk drivers, we send thieves and murderers to prison, and we snub people who are rude.

        4) If my social group is different than yours, this argument doesn’t apply (killing each other without justification), so all I need to do to justify this is to distinguish myself as part of a different social group than yours and I’m alright, yes?

        This was certainly true a long time ago. Different tribes killed each other all the time, and felt perfectly justified. All you had to do was distinguish between “us” and “them”, and you could kill “them” with impunity. Just look at the old testament and all the killing that the Hebrews did. They wiped out whole cities on the excuse that “god told us this was our land”. Even though they had a commandment of “thou shalt not kill”. Apparently it was OK to kill “them”.

        Now, the whole world is becoming one big “us”. We are too interconnected to behave that way anymore.

        5) If good and evil evolved as part of a social order, does that mean the first murder wasn’t evil?

        Hard to define a “first murder” since social order preceded humans. Have you ever done any reading about Jane Goodall’s studies of chimps? They live in mutually dependent social groups. They are even known to make war on each other. Is that murder or not?

        6) If a conscience is your brain tell you that you are either going to violate or have violated social norms, did the first person to ever live not have a conscience?

        Again, “first person” is not well-defined. Chimps appear to have consciences, and even dogs do too, to some extent. A gorilla once rescued a person who had fallen into her enclosure at the zoo, and there are many stories of dolphins rescuing drowning sailors. Qualities such as empathy, compassion or conscience are not limited to humans.

        Or does that mean that hermits don’t have consciences? 7) So if I’m a hermit and I decide to come into town and kill someone, it’s OK because I’m not violating my social order and I’m not going against my conscience?

        Someone who decides to come into a town would no longer be a hermit! 🙂 Since people evolved to be social, a true hermit is somewhat of an outlier. They’d probably have a conscience, but might never need to use it as long as they were solitary. (Unless they are a hermit because every town had thrown them out for being unable to function with other people.) Did you ever see the Monty Python sketch with the colony of hermits sitting around together and gossiping about moss and dirt? Cracks me up every time.

      • Because they decide who can stay in the group, who must be ejected, and who is so dangerous that they must be punished or eliminated.

        That still doesn’t answer the question. Why do they get to decide?

        Yes, and that’s why Humanism does not claim to have any easy black-and-white answers to life.

        And yet we throw around terms like “good and evil” like they’re “black and white.” This is why I have a tough time accepting humanism’s answer to “why is there evil.”

        Now, the whole world is becoming one big “us”. We are too interconnected to behave that way anymore.

        So my social group is the world? Then why don’t I agree with the North Koreans or the Iranians? Shouldn’t we all agree on the same good and evil if we’re in the same social group?

        Hard to define a “first murder” since social order preceded humans.

        You’re right. No chimp ever killed another for its own gain. My bad.

        Qualities such as empathy, compassion or conscience are not limited to humans.

        Then why are we not crusading against evil chimps, or making chimps accountable to our laws? This line of reasoning seems to have a failure to connect belief with reality.

        Since people evolved to be social, a true hermit is somewhat of an outlier. They’d probably have a conscience, but might never need to use it as long as they were solitary.

        I thought conscience came from social order. If a hermit had a conscience, where did it come from?

        Ultimately, if society is the basis for good and evil, then why do we condemn something as evil when it’s 1) possible for society to be in error, 2) possible for society to change its mind and 3) often that factions of society disagree with each other on what is evil. As I’ve asked others, who decides what is actually right if people disagree?

      • Posted by ubi dubium on July 27, 2012 at 12:34 PM

        “That still doesn’t answer the question. Why do they get to decide? ”
        Who else is there?

        “And yet we throw around terms like “good and evil” like they’re “black and white.”
        I don’t.

        “So my social group is the world? Then why don’t I agree with the North Koreans or the Iranians? Shouldn’t we all agree on the same good and evil if we’re in the same social group?
        It would be great, sure, but they don’t think they are in the same social group with us. Changing their minds about that would be a goal worth working for.

        “You’re right. No chimp ever killed another for its own gain. My bad.”
        Sure they do, and Gooall was very surprised that they did. But does it count as murder?

        “Then why are we not crusading against evil chimps, or making chimps accountable to our laws?”
        I rather think that’s a matter of concern for the chimps, not us. Unless you plan to live in chimp society, or invite them to live in ours.

        I thought conscience came from social order. If a hermit had a conscience, where did it come from?
        Nobody is raised in isolation, children can’t survive on their own. Even a child raised by wolves would be raised with their social order. And I think we have an innate sense of “conscience”, but it’s shaped by our upbringing.

        Ultimately, if society is the basis for good and evil, then why do we condemn something as evil when it’s 1) possible for society to be in error, 2) possible for society to change its mind and 3) often that factions of society disagree with each other on what is evil. As I’ve asked others, who decides what is actually right if people disagree?
        We just have to do our best, muddle through, and try to come up with the answer that best promotes overall human wellbeing and minimizes suffering. As I’ve said, humanism provides no easy or simple answers to questions like that. But with so many disagreeing sects in the world, neither does religion.

      • Who else is there?

        God, for one. But where does society get its authority to decide, and specifically who in society has the authority to decide on my actions, and on what basis?

        I don’t.

        So there are instances where the torture of an innocent child is acceptable? If not, then you do.

        It would be great, sure, but they don’t think they are in the same social group with us. Changing their minds about that would be a goal worth working for.

        If they don’t, then why do you?

        Sure they do, and Goodall was very surprised that they did. But does it count as murder?

        If they have a conscience and can discern right from wrong, I would have to say it does, would you not agree?

        I rather think that’s a matter of concern for the chimps, not us. Unless you plan to live in chimp society, or invite them to live in ours.

        Why are we distinguishing between species? If it’s an evil act, it should be decried and stopped, right? Unless your belief on good and evil is either 1) disingenuous or 2) limited to humans, which means chimps don’t have consciences and you contradict yourself. If you say “I’m in no position to judge chimps,” then you’re picking and choosing how to enforce your moral beliefs on, and you leave yourself no real foundation by which to judge mankind either.

        We just have to do our best, muddle through, and try to come up with the answer that best promotes overall human wellbeing and minimizes suffering. As I’ve said, humanism provides no easy or simple answers to questions like that. But with so many disagreeing sects in the world, neither does religion.

        So as a humanist, why should someone take humanism as an authority on good and evil when the best it can do is to “muddle through” and “try to come up with an answer,” when theism has an objective authority that means no muddling or trying? It doesn’t seem like a level playing field, and any reasonable person wouldn’t choose humanism given the two alternatives.

      • So are you saying that if those words didn’t exist, evil wouldn’t either?
        No, I’m not saying that, but I generally use words to convey information about reality. Would you rather I act this out?

        And if we’re not inherently good or evil, why is there evil and where did it come from?
        Self-interested motivations and unusual brain chemistry among other things.

        If you don’t accept any of this, would you at least agree that natural evil is more easily explained without a God than with a God.

      • No, I’m not saying that, but I generally use words to convey information about reality. Would you rather I act this out?
        Then if evil transcends those words, perhaps you can better explain what “causing bad harm” means, instead of insulting my intelligence.

        And if we’re not inherently good or evil, why is there evil and where did it come from?
        Self-interested motivations and unusual brain chemistry among other things.

        But you said that motivations weren’t inherent. See your comment on July 21st. So which is it? And does that mean that only those that have unusual brain chemistry are capable of doing evil?

      • Sorry if you took that as insulting your intelligence. I was trying to be light-hearted.

        Evil doesn’t transcend those words.
        And, no, motivations aren’t inherent. How did my answer contradict that?

      • Evil doesn’t transcend those words.
        Then why not just take those words out of our vocabulary? If it doesn’t transcend those words, then removing the words would remove evil. This seems an easy solution to the problem if evil is only embodied in the words.

        And, no, motivations aren’t inherent. How did my answer contradict that?
        When I asked where evil came from, you said “self-interested motivations.” Where do these “self motivations” come from if they’re not from “self”?

      • Evil doesn’t transcend what the words mean, not the letter combinations themselves, of course.

        I’m going to need your definition of inherent…

        Still interested in this question: would you at least agree that natural evil (bad things that happen not caused by man like cancer and tornadoes) is more easily explained without a God than with a God?

      • Evil doesn’t transcend what the words mean, not the letter combinations themselves, of course.

        Well then perhaps you can explain to me what the words mean to you, so we can better understand what evil is to you. Some examples could be helpful.

        I’m going to need your definition of inherent…

        Something that is innate in us from birth; a part of our nature. Something not given to us by the outside world, but is located only in self.

        Still interested in this question: would you at least agree that natural evil (bad things that happen not caused by man like cancer and tornadoes) is more easily explained without a God than with a God?

        I think assigning the term “evil” to something without grounding it in anything is a slippery slope. When you say something is “bad,” you need to assign it some kind of meaning or value first, with something as a foundation for why it is actually considered “bad.” I would say for me to answer your question honestly you need to establish properly what you mean by calling a natural event “evil.”

      • The most basic qualification for “something bad” in regards to humanity is asking “does it cause harm?” If so, it’s something bad. If it causes good and harm, the “goodness” or “badness” of the act should be judged by whether or not it causes more harm then good and vice versa.

        In the case of natural evil (this isn’t my terminology, by the way) an individual with cancer would say that it causes harm. It causes pain and possibly death. If an individual’s house is hit by a tornado, it causes harm. It causes financial and possibly bodily harm.

        My foundation for evil is unjust harm, whether it’s caused by nature or man.

      • If it causes good and harm, the “goodness” or “badness” of the act should be judged by whether or not it causes more harm then good and vice versa.

        And who decides whether or not something is more good than bad?

        My foundation for evil is unjust harm, whether it’s caused by nature or man.

        So evil is not dependent on choice? I mean, nature can’t choose to be evil, right? And how do we determine whether something is “unjust”?

      • Who decides? You or I can decide, but society usually makes the final judgment. It IS subjective, but it isn’t baseless, that’s important. Most of us will come to the same conclusions because it is not baseless.

        I don’t think nature can be evil because nature isn’t guided by anyone. If God guides nature, then God commits evil acts. You, I, and ultimately society decides whether something is unjust. Justice isn’t baseless either. In this case unjust harm means harm coming to an innocent.

      • Who decides? You or I can decide, but society usually makes the final judgment. It IS subjective, but it isn’t baseless, that’s important. Most of us will come to the same conclusions because it is not baseless.

        And if people in society disagree? For instance, abortion is a hot topic in the US. Who decides if abortion is good or evil, since people fall on both sides of the coin and feel very strongly?

        I don’t think nature can be evil because nature isn’t guided by anyone. If God guides nature, then God commits evil acts. You, I, and ultimately society decides whether something is unjust. Justice isn’t baseless either. In this case unjust harm means harm coming to an innocent.

        So it’s your opinion that God causes every natural act if He exists? God is as responsible for an earthquake as He is for a flower blooming? He literally has to cause all of those things to happen, or they wouldn’t happen?

        And again, what if people in society disagree on what is determined as “unjust”? Who wins?

      • Posted by ubi dubium on July 26, 2012 at 7:29 PM

        Yes, abortion is a tough problem, and humanism offers no easy yes/no answers, just a different way to look at the problem. Without a belief in a “soul” we need to decide what it is that we are trying to protect, and how to find the best balance. I personally think it’s important to protect self-aware beings (I’m admittedly biased that way, being one myself), so I have no problem with woman aborting an embryo, since it has insufficient brain to be self aware. A near-term baby is aware enough to be worth protecting, unless it is endangering the life or health of the mother, since she also may have existing or future children that factor into the decision. In between? Again, we have a big gray area with no clear line of “this is good, this is bad”, only a balance of interests that depends on the situtation. Up until clear viability, I think this decision needs to be left up to the woman and her doctor, because no politician can legislate for every complicated situation that may arise.

        And sure, if there were an all-powerful omniscient god, then he’d be responsible for every earthquake and tornado and childhood disease and miscarriage and botfly and guinea worm and everything else awful that happens. If there were anything not in his control, then he wouldn’t be all-powerful, would he?

      • So the same act can be good or evil depending on whose perspective we’re looking at? The torture of a child can be good if we’re looking at it through the lens of someone who’s OK with that stuff? And if it’s good for someone and not for someone else, who are we to condemn them? Isn’t that just us imposing our beliefs on them, which again not hypothetically is something that non-religious people are consistently crying out against? Who are we to judge, if there is no clear-cut answer to what is good and what is evil?

        If there were anything not in his control, then he wouldn’t be all-powerful, would he?

        There’s a difference between having things under one’s control and actually causing it. I have my daughter under control from leaving the house, but I am I causing her to not leave? Maybe sometimes, but usually she stays in the house of her own free will because she realizes that’s best for her. There’s a big distinction between permission and promotion, which of course is a big piece of the theist’s defense to the problem of evil argument. But since we’re talking about humanism’s response to the ontology of evil, I don’t think we need to go down that road here.

      • Posted by ubi dubium on July 27, 2012 at 2:51 PM

        “So the same act can be good or evil depending on whose perspective we’re looking at? The torture of a child can be good if we’re looking at it through the lens of someone who’s OK with that stuff?”

        Vaccinating a child might be “torture” from the point of view of the child. But long-term, it is enormously in their best interest, and of benefit to the community at large. So we do this without question.

        Child abuse gives no benefit to the child, enormous permanent harm, and only at most a temporary tiny benefit to the abuser. Net is tremendously bad, so we don’t allow it.

        ” And if it’s good for someone and not for someone else, who are we to condemn them? Isn’t that just us imposing our beliefs on them, which again not hypothetically is something that non-religious people are consistently crying out against? Who are we to judge, if there is no clear-cut answer to what is good and what is evil? ”

        We are the only judge available. We do the best we can. This isn’t about imposing beliefs, this is about regulating behavior so we can co-exist. I don’t care what you believe about hitting kids being good or bad. I care what you DO about what you believe.

        “There’s a difference between having things under one’s control and actually causing it. I have my daughter under control from leaving the house, but I am I causing her to not leave?”

        You don’t claim omnipotence or omniscience. So I don’t this this example really applies. Now if you created a computer simulation of reality, then anything that happened in that simulation would be caused by you. You might have programmed something deliberately, it might be a glitch, it might be a careless oversight on your part, but all was caused by you.

        But if god exists and is a perfect being (which I hear from believers all the time) then there should be no glitches or oversights. Unless you think your god makes mistakes.

      • Vaccinating a child might be “torture” from the point of view of the child. But long-term, it is enormously in their best interest, and of benefit to the community at large. So we do this without question.

        That’s disingenuous. We both know what I mean. Nice try knocking down a straw man. What I’m asking is the unnecessary torture of a child, can that be seen as good or evil depending on perspective? That seems to be your argument on abortion.

        We are the only judge available. We do the best we can. This isn’t about imposing beliefs, this is about regulating behavior so we can co-exist. I don’t care what you believe about hitting kids being good or bad. I care what you DO about what you believe.

        And why do you get to decide whether what I do is bad? And why does society? As I said in the other thread, what is the basis for that authority?

        You don’t claim omnipotence or omniscience. So I don’t this this example really applies. Now if you created a computer simulation of reality, then anything that happened in that simulation would be caused by you. You might have programmed something deliberately, it might be a glitch, it might be a careless oversight on your part, but all was caused by you.

        There’s no free will in a computer simulation, so is that what you’re comparing us to? If there’s no free will, nothing can be evil, because we have no say in whether or not we do something, so there’s no moral choice. Is this the belief you wish to espouse — that’s there’s no evil?

        But if god exists and is a perfect being (which I hear from believers all the time) then there should be no glitches or oversights. Unless you think your god makes mistakes.

        I don’t think God makes mistakes, but on what authority do you judge God’s actions?

      • As you mentioned, this isn’t a hypothetical. People will disagree on some moral topics. I can decide that abortion is immoral, so I don’t have an abortion. Someone else may decide that it is not immoral, so they might. If people disagree, they should present their reasons for why they think whatever they think and convince others.

        It’s not my opinion, it’s how many believers believe. Is it not how you believe?

      • So you’re saying truth is determined by a majority vote? Something is evil if enough people believe it’s evil?

      • No, that’s not what I’m saying. I’m saying that the rules of a democratic society are determined by majority vote. Do you disagree?

      • If the rules of a democratic society determine what is actually right and wrong, then truth is determined by a majority vote, and I disagree.

  3. I would slightly modify that to say most people are good, with the evil being caused by the few who are not. Also no one may be responsible. For example the Great Famine caused huge suffering in Ireland but no one was to blame as it was caused by a blight. It is only a question of how we react to the event.

    Reply

    • So you believe some people are inherently good and some people are inherently bad? How does that jibe with evolution?

      Reply

      • Well I think its irrelevant to evolution. Evolution is about survival, it has nothing to do with morality. I would believe its 30% nature and 70% nurture that accounts for people’s personality, good or bad. However I do not believe in absolutes, by which I mean no person is absolutely good or absolutely bad.

      • Evolution is irrelevant. Evolution is about survival not morality. I do not believe in absolutes, in that no one is absolutely good or absolutely evil. I believe personality is about 70% nurture and 30% nature.

      • Robert,

        Two questions:

        1) Where did morality come from if not evolution?
        2) Do you think the statement “I do not believe in absolutes, in that no one is absolutely good or absolutely evil.” is absolutely true, or is just relative?

      • Why would morality come from evolution? It comes from society, family, friends and the way we are brought up.

        In your second question you are just being smart, not actually asking a question

      • Robert, where did society, family and friends come from if not evolution?

        And perhaps if you would actually answer my second question honestly, you would see the absurdity of the position.

        PS Sorry for the delayed responses. For some reason your comments keep showing up in my spam!

  4. Posted by Doctor Bad Sign on July 19, 2012 at 5:05 PM

    I am what you might consider a humanist, though I don’t use the label myself. I’m just curious to know where you get the assumption that humanism is predicated upon a belief that humans are essentially good?

    Personally I think as a general rule humans are good to one another and cooperative, because its the best way to build a functioning society. However I do not think it is an intrinsic human quality to be good 100% of the time, or for 100% of the population to be good. We are extremely tribal, nationalistic, we fear outsiders, and we are greedy for resources – all of which cause a great deal of evil in the world. Then there are also those who are naturally more aggressive, or suffer from psychopathy. Also some people simply disregard others, for a whole variety of reasons.

    Its also worth noting as an aside that humanism and religion aren’t mutually exclusive positions, there are various traditions of religious humanism.

    Reply

    • As I said to a different commenter, perhaps I am in error in the notion that humanism is predicated on the belief that man is basically good. I was always taught that in school growing up, so perhaps I have a pre-conceived notion that is inaccurate.

      It still doesn’t answer the question though: why is there evil in the world on humanism? Are humans inherently evil? Or are they inherently good?

      Reply

      • Posted by Doctor Bad Sign on July 20, 2012 at 2:50 PM

        To your first question, I would say that it comes down to several factors; we still maintain vestiges of our tribal past despite living in a global society – this tends to lead to an ‘us vs them’ mentality which is one cause of aggression. An example of this might be racism, or strong nationalism whereby members of one group who feel some kind of kinship or connection with each other, and their hatred and fear is directed at a different group towards whom they feel no connection or kinship. Another cause of evil is greed, the wish of an individual to achieve their aims at the expense of others, or the wish of a group of individuals to obtain the resources in the possession of another group. Power, the desire of individuals to subdue and control others… The list goes on. As far as I am aware there is no part of humanism that claims humanity is flawless or without inclination towards evil – in my view humanism is more about attempting to transcend these things.

        I wouldn’t say that humans are either inherently good or inherently evil, for the most part we are social, and cooperative because if this weren’t the case a functioning society would not be within grasp. There are of course humans who have a complete disregard for others and act in a self-serving and malicious manner. Among human beings there are good individuals and bad individuals and some who are in between – I don’t view our species as being inherently one way or the other.

      • But I think the question still remains given your answer; if humans aren’t inherently good or evil, and nature is amoral, then why is there evil?

        And how can we call something someone else does “evil” if we can’t base it on our own nature, since we’re not inherently evil? These are the questions I’m wondering if humanism can answer.

  5. Well I don’t see humans as being inherently good. We are simply survivors and the best course of action for the most amount of genes to survive and pass on their traits is to be what we call good. It would hardly do to have everyone killing each other so no one survived.
    While 99% of people will do good things, say helping out the group and having trust in each other, there will be 1% who decide to use that to their advantage to advance their own means rather than take into account the wider situation. Sometimes it’s a misfiring of judgment, sometimes a result of brain chemistry. It’s an imperfect system but nothing is perfect.

    Reply

    • Thanks Emma. Your point brings two questions to mind:

      1) Why would we call the passing on of genes “good”?
      2) Why do we call someone sacrificing their life for someone else “good,” when it limits the amount of genes available to pass on their traits? Why is self-sacrifice good on humanism?

      Reply

      • Posted by ubi dubium on July 20, 2012 at 11:26 AM

        Organisms that have a desire to propagate do so in larger numbers. (Nothing succeeds like success!) So all the organisms alive now got here because their ancestors had a drive to reproduce and survive. Therefore we do too. So we consider survival “good”. If we didn’t, we would not be here.

        Self-sacrifice might be good evolutionarily if it is making it possible for your descentants or your relatives to pass on their genes, which you share. As in “I’d sacrifice myself for two brothers or eight cousins.”

        But it goes farther than that. We are interdependent with our social group. If your group fails, then so do your descendants. So sacrificing yourself for the welfare of your group can make sense, since you are contributing to the success of your genes by strengthening their support system for the future.

        In our modern world, we are not only dependent on just our immediate family or our village, or even just our country anymore. Humanity has become so interlinked that all of us depend on all of us. There is no more room to divide humanity into “us” and “them” anymore. We are now one big “us”, and need to start behaving that way.

      • But without no way of knowing that your self-sacrifice will ultimately benefit the whole, it’s a pointless endeavor it would seem. It would also make an adult who is sacrificing his/her life for a single deformed or diseased child guilty of a bad act, because the evolutionary advantage rests with the healthy adult, not the sick child. So self-sacrifice would actually be evil in this sense. Do you see what I’m getting at?

        And why is survival good? This means we should be OK with the survival of other things like viruses, bacteria and disease. If you limit it only to the survival of humans, where does nature draw that distinction? I thought nature doesn’t care about that kind of stuff.

      • Posted by ubi dubium on July 20, 2012 at 2:27 PM

        Nature doesn’t care. We care. Sacrificing yourself for a diseased child is a judgment call on the part of the person doing the sacrificing, as to how the benefit/harm balances out for them, their family, their social group, etc. If making that sacrifice meant that other children were left orphaned as a result, then yes, that might well be a net bad.

        We judge things from our human standpoint. That means we’ll focus on the survival of humans. Viruses will focus on the survival of viruses. (Nature draws no distinction, because nature is not a conscious force. It’s just a bunch of stuff that happens.)

      • But if we’re a by-product of nature, why should we care?

        Am I also correct in my understanding that you believe self-sacrifice can be evil, given your opinion that it can sometimes be a “net bad”? Just want to see what you’re willing to commit to here.

  6. Posted by Laurens on October 18, 2012 at 3:44 AM

    “But I think the question still remains given your answer; if humans aren’t inherently good or evil, and nature is amoral, then why is there evil?”

    Evil exists because there are a series of behaviours that humans have categorized as being so.

    “And how can we call something someone else does “evil” if we can’t base it on our own nature, since we’re not inherently evil? These are the questions I’m wondering if humanism can answer.”

    How can not inherently being something affect our ability to make decisions with regards to that said thing? Human beings are not inherently mathematical, does that mean we cannot decide whether 2 + 2 = 4 or not?

    Reply

    • “Evil exists because there are a series of behaviours that humans have categorized as being so.”

      Whose behavior? Sure sounds like you’re attributing evil to humans.

      “How can not inherently being something affect our ability to make decisions with regards to that said thing?”

      What I’m asking is this: what basis do we have for calling something evil or not? If we have no reference point from our own nature, then what is the basis by which we can judge someone else’s actions?

      Reply

  7. Posted by Laurens on October 31, 2012 at 9:07 AM

    “Whose behavior? Sure sounds like you’re attributing evil to humans.”

    Yeah I am, but that isn’t the same thing as saying that humans are inherently one or the other. I think as a whole humans are good because cooperation is evolutionarily advantageous and empathy is hard-wired into our brains, but there are some who do not possess these traits.

    “What I’m asking is this: what basis do we have for calling something evil or not? If we have no reference point from our own nature, then what is the basis by which we can judge someone else’s actions?”

    We can judge them by how they harm others, by how we would feel if they were done to us, the reference point is generally from our own feelings of what we would or would not like to have other people do to us.

    I can give a reasonable argument for why harming a child is evil: because children are not able to defend themselves, they are much more emotionally fragile, their experiences can affect them for their whole lives, therefore to harm a child unnecessarily is an evil act. The same kinds of arguments can be made for other actions without appealing to God.

    Reply

    • “Yeah I am, but that isn’t the same thing as saying that humans are inherently one or the other. I think as a whole humans are good because cooperation is evolutionarily advantageous and empathy is hard-wired into our brains, but there are some who do not possess these traits.”

      And how do we determine who has these traits and who doesn’t? What makes someone fit the “good” realm versus the “evil” realm? Sounds subjective to me, but it also makes it sound like humans are responsible for evil. Is that what you’re saying?

      “We can judge them by how they harm others, by how we would feel if they were done to us, the reference point is generally from our own feelings of what we would or would not like to have other people do to us.”

      I would prefer not to lose to you at chess, as I would deem that harmful to my pride. Does that mean if you beat me at chess you have committed an evil act? Because by your standard that would have to be the logical conclusion.

      Reply

  8. 1. “Why is there evil in the world?”

    First you should define what you mean by “evil” because I’ve noticed that many theists define their terms differently and so semantics always becomes an issue.

    2. “The reason I ask is because humanism is predicated on the belief that man is basically good. But if man is good and there is no God, then why is there evil?”

    If your second sentence you forgot to mention that man is “basically” good. So you started out saying “man is basically good”, then go on to say “man is good”. This creates your own problem because you go on to assume man is always good. But if “man is basically good” that means he can be bad or harm others – things we would consider evil. So your problem is self created.

    3. “And if man is good and all selections we make are not determined by us (determinism), then how could we determine to do evil if we’re basically good?”

    Perhaps you’re not familiar with compatiblism, but it says that if you don’t know what you’re determined to do, you can operate as if you’re making free choices. Kind of like as actor who didn’t know his words were scripted thinks his words and thoughts and actions are his own. I’m an agnostic on determinism so I’m not committed to its beliefs.

    I have a very practical view towards evil. Evil can be scientifically defined to be a quality that lacks empathy or compassion. In every evil situation you can think of, there will be a living being demonstrating a lack of empathy or compassion towards another. The living being lacking empathy and compassion must have the ability to empathize and be compassionate and the rationale to apply it. So when a lion tears apart a zebra, it’s not being evil because the lion doesn’t have the cognitive capacity to empathize with the zebra’s plight; the lion merely acts from instinct (and hunger). Since it’s recognized that human beings have the greatest capacity for empathy and compassion that we know of, it means that when we’re wantonly cruel and lack empathy and compassion towards the beings at our mercy, we are committing an act of evil. This also concludes that human beings have the greatest capacity for evil of all known species and thus the greatest moral responsibility.

    Reply

    • 1. I think this is more the humanist’s question to answer, isn’t it? Isn’t one of the humanist and/or atheist objections to God’s existence the problem of evil?

      2. Speaking of semantics, here is one case where you go a bit too far I think. And I think you’re using the term “basically good” to mean “mostly” or “sometimes” good. What I take “basically good” to mean is that intrinsically man’s instinct is to always do good, so there is really no capacity for doing evil unless man is eschewing his instincts. That line of thought would not make sense on either determinism or compatibilism, unfortunately.

      3. I think the view of “lack of empathy or compassion” isn’t really a good basis for determining something as evil or not. Let me give you an example that will bear this out. Suppose two MMA fighters are on the verge of being cut by their promotion (probably UFC, right? 🙂 ). The company pits them against each other in sort of a “loser goes home” scenario. Clearly the fighters won’t be having empathy or compassion toward each other as they try to beat each other senseless to keep their jobs. Does that make their acts toward each other evil? Of course not. However, on your definition of evil, it would!

      So you would have to qualify “lack of empathy or compassion” with something else, perhaps “being wantonly cruel.” But there is no measuring stick by whether we call something “wantonly cruel” or not. So there still is no real good basis for your definition of evil to stand on its own. At least that’s how I see it.

      Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: