Jeffrey B. Russell
Professor of History
University of California Santa Barbara

(a homily given at the Unitarian Church, Santa Barbara, CA 1995)

Evil is very much in our minds these days with Oklahoma City, Bosnia, Rwanda, and Zaire. And I'm afraid that when those places get better, other places will get worse. Now I've written five books on the problem of evil, focusing on the history of the Devil as symbol of evil. I don't want to rehash old thoughts for you, so I'm going to stay away from philosophical classifications of evil and also from the figure of Satan himself. I'm through with him--even though he may not be through with me.

Rather I'm going to talk about two social tendencies today that have great potential for evil. One is radical authoritarianism, and that's what comes to mind when we think of Oklahoma or of right-wing militias. It's easy for open-minded, educated people like us to see the dangers in that direction. It's always easier to condemn somebody else's faults. For example, I don't smoke, so I can get selfrighteous about smokers, but I do like a drink with dinner, so I can get vehement about the virtues of wine. So I want to emphasize the danger opposite to authoritarianism; and that is relativism.

To understand evil, we must understand good. If Evil does not exist, neither does Good. No Radical Good, no Radical Evil. I am going to argue for the True and the Good and the Beautiful, and then I shall argue that Radical Evil exists as well as Radical Good.

In questioning relativism, I am not talking about the moderate cultural relativism that suspends judgments between Mozart and Ravi Shankar, or between Japanese haiku and Italian terza rima, let alone between sushi and pizza. I am talking about a growing and frightening tendency to radical relativism.

I first encountered radical relativism in a classroom in the early 70s, when I was showing pictures and photographs of violence. Among the pictures was one of a soldier kicking a little boy to death. One of the young women in the class argued strongly that we had no right to make a value judgment about the soldier's act. After much time in discussion, she finally allowed that the soldier's act might have been wrong--but NOT because the boy was suffering. Rather, her reason was that the soldier "might have enjoyed the boy's company if he had got to know him." She allowed that from the boy's point of view things probably looked different. But the only judgment she would make on the soldier was on the basis of the pleasure he might have deprived himself of. There is no GOOD; there is only feeling good. The pleasure principle. Good and evil depend on how you happen to feel. Note the phrase "Happen to feel."

A few years later, at UCSB, while teaching philosophy of history, I encountered another variety of radical relativism. I tried in vain to get the class to admit that the Sistine Chapel was better than a stick figure I scrawled on the board, that a Bach cantata was better than my toneless humming, that King Lear was better than Roses are Red, Violets are blue. No way. Some people, they replied, might prefer the stick figure or the greeting card sentiments. One young woman in the class was particularly bright and later went on to a successful career as a lawyer. She was an oboe player in the Santa Barbara Symphony. She had been practicing oboe for seven or eight years. I had never done more than look at one. I challenged her to bring her oboe, and we'd see whether it was possible to determine whose playing was better. "Some people might prefer the way you played," she responded. Then why practice at all, let alone seven years? At the end of the term, the young woman turned in the best paper in the class. I gave her an A, of course, and she was delighted. But what if I had taken her at her word? What if I had told her, "You are getting a C along with everyone else, because there is no basis on which to judge one paper better than another?"

So there is no quality, no Beauty; it's all how you happen to feel.

So much for the Good and the Beautiful. Now let's get rid of the True. Historians come across infinite variations of relativizing the True. All evidence crumbles before the statement "I happen to feel," often pronounced with righteous indignation. For example, "I happen to feel that Christopher Columbus was motivated only by money and power;" or even "I happen to feel that extra-terrestrial built the pyramids."

So there is no Good, no Truth, no Beauty. And this is the view held by many--perhaps the majority--of professors, journalists, and other intellectuals.

People don't think this way without being taught to. People have to be taught to be silly. People HAVE TO BE TAUGHT something so counter-intuitive, so opposed to the way they actually act. The bright young woman in my classroom in reality thought, and acted as if she thought, that she deserved the A. She did not act, did not behave, did not live, in accordance with the silly notions she professed to believe.

People have to be taught this sort of silliness because a moral imperative exists inherent in the human mind. We know that by observing children. Children early on know, instinctively, the concept of fairness, the distinction between right and wrong, truth and lies. They have to be educated out of it. They have to be carefully taught. It's what's called trained incapacity.

Who is training people to be morally incapable? Misguided parents and teachers, especially in high schools and universities, and especially in the humanities and social sciences where I hang out. And, above all, the media. To whose advantage is it that kids should think that the only ultimate value is what you feel like owning, having, using? To retailers, wholesalers, and advertisers.

This relativism is everywhere. One reason why juries are so impressionable is because the law is currently so removed from justice. Rather than determining right or wrong, the jury is asked to decide on the basis of law, mostly statute law, legislated law, and much it enacted on behalf of special interest groups. Fortunately enough shreds of natural law (the law derived from the Creator) cling to us that we still outlaw raping children (though the tolerance of pornography is undermining even that) and murder (though the complex inconsistencies of the legal system is undermining even that).

The current dismissal of Reason is depressing, as the results of such a dismissal were foretold during the eighteenth century. Many philosophers, such as Thomas Jefferson, still firmly declared that the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness were rights precisely they came from Nature and Nature's God. The great philosopher Immanuel Kant constructed a moral system of universal validity based, not upon revelation, but upon reason. But some Enlightenment writers emphasized the human origin of human knowledge, law, and morality. The implications of this were seen, and shown, quite clearly buy none other than the Marquis de Sade, a brilliant writer as well as the originator of sadism. Sade took relativist assumptions to their logical extreme. If there are no moral absolutes, then there are no moral absolutes. If you prefer having a good dinner at a restaurant to raping and killing children, that is your prerogative, fine, and I don't judge you, but if I prefer raping and murdering children, what grounds do you have for judging me? The Enlightenment philosophers fell over one another disowning Sade, particularly since he practiced much of what he preached, but he was dead right. If there are no absolutes there are no absolutes.

One Relativist reply is: don't worry. Societies make social contracts that prevent fundamental evils. Oh? Says who? What authority determines what these fundamental evils are? Or, don't worry: no society would form values allowing the raping and murdering of babies. Oh? Such societies have existed and do exist. Absent inherent, absolute values, who indeed is to say what is what is right? Sixty years ago, German society supported Hitler, and there are still a lot of Russians who honor Stalin. Human nature is basically good. Says who? Say the victims of Timothy McVeigh? Of Hitler, or Pol Pot, or Stalin, or Genghis Khan, or of holy inquisitions and holy wars? Relativists may object to torturing babies or exterminating Jews, but on what basis? Because they happen to feel that it isn't nice? You must not bomb synagogues? Says who? You must not discriminate against African-Americans. Says who? You must not legislate what a woman may do with her body. Says who? Every moral statement a Relativist makes, whether others agree with it or not, falls when confronted with the simple question, says who? "Says I" is the only ultimate response a Relativist can make. And the reply to that is pretty quick: "So what?"

Another response is that most people who call themselves Relativists don't really, at bottom, think that way. I think this is true. Fine. Then let us stop pretending to believe what we do not.

In intellectual circles today it is difficult to assert the existence of timeless truth, or to distinguish clearly between right and wrong, good and evil, because then one runs up against a cherished assumption of late twentieth-century intellectuals, namely, that we humans are morally autonomous beings who have every right to act by our own standards. This belief floats, vaguely, somewhere above the logically preceding assumption that human nature is basically good. This popular, wacky assumption is original to post-Enlightenment Romanticism, and it goes against everything that the historian--or indeed that the newspaper reader, or that the living human being--knows from experience. The evidence is in, and the verdict is that human nature is essentially flawed.

In the University, Relativism has become, not an option, but a tyranny. Have you ever noticed how intolerant Relativists can be? They have to be intolerant, because the ultimate basis of their assertions on any subject is their feeling that they are right. This feeling, being personal, and being a feeling rather than a thought-out opinion, cannot be subjected to reason, argument or discussion, because there are no intellectual or moral standards by which anything can be subjected to reason. To what then do Relativists have recourse? The only thing that they CAN have recourse to is POWER. If you cannot persuade me to your view, why then you can coerce me--by yelling, by scorn, by lawsuits, by legislation. And so power blocs have attained enormous influence. Pro-choice or pro-life, pro-gun control or anti-gun control, pro-tobacco and anti-tobacco: there is no common ground for rational discernment of values; the result is the use of power to determine who wins, and whoever wins is by definition right.

The lack of absolute values creates a situation in which those who are able and willing to use power most ruthlessly and most cynically will inevitably win the day. They will do so by forming alliances with those who happen to feel the same way about this or that issue, and they will use intimidation, mockery, and political machinations to achieve their goals, and they will do so relentlessly and ruthlessly BECAUSE THERE ARE NO HIGHER VALUES than their own goals to refer to.

Relativists, who ought to be the first to acknowledge that every view is precarious, are usually the last to do so, because they have nothing to rely upon save their assertions. Now the natural objection to me is: "Your own views are precarious." I know that, I know it deeply, I feel it deeply, and I freely admit it. Let Relativists do the same. My values are at least constructed upon a self-critical evaluation of human behavior throughout the ages, not on some passing intellectual vogue or political fad.

The existence of radical evil, once we put trained incapacity aside, is known from experience. We in fact do know that certain actions are evil: the Oklahoma City bombing, the Nazi death camps, Stalin's forced labor camps, napalming a village, infecting prisoners with deadly bacteria, kicking a child to death. We know these things to be evil by direct intuition. We also know from our experience that we have willed evil and done evil to others. Anyone over the age of ten who is unaware of this badly needs to look more deeply within.

The first place to look in attempting to accept the reality of evil is within ourselves. So we experience evil done by us. And we also experience evil done to us. (That is of course easier to recognize and to remember.) The experience of evil done by individuals is universal--everyone has experienced it, and it can be denied only by denying the validity of universal experience. It is clear that we may speak of evil deeds. It is somewhat less clear that we can speak of evil persons, but it requires an intellectual effort to deny it. A person who chooses evil over and over again becomes habituated to it and cannot stop. I have known a person like this; you may have; if not, we can refer again to McVeigh, Jim Jones, Hitler, and Stalin.

The next question is whether evil goes beyond individual choice. Is there transpersonal evil? John Steinbeck's In Dubious Battle has a character who is a Communist organizer and who stirs up a group of workers into an angry mob. He is appalled by the effects of his own work: these people, he says, have ceased to be people; they have become one big animal, capable of doing anything. Think of this: would all the evil inclinations of your life put together urge you to shove a living prisoner into a crematorium? Would all the evil inclinations of your own worst enemy bring about the Holocaust? Evil on that scale seems to be qualitatively, not just quantitatively different. It is a transpersonal evil, capable of anything. [QUOTE ON THE MYSTERY OF EVIL AND HITLER]

Be that as it may, our chief responsibility is for the evil in ourselves. Evil comes from both nature and nurture, from DNA to our family upbringing. But it also comes from free will. We are never compelled by evil or to evil. We recognize evil by a natural moral sense given us, if I may return to Jefferson, by Nature and Nature's God. Says who? Says God. Or else God, or at least Reason, help us.