Wednesday, December 03, 2008

"good" & "evil": cultural construction or existential reality?

Here's an excerpt from the paper I'm working on--it's still a rough draft but it's what I'm thinking about. The current title of a paper is "Self-Transcendent Societies: Ideal Societies & Non-traditional Sources of Power, a case study of Gandhi's movement and implications for the Christian church."

Emile Durkheim states: “there are no false religions....all respond, if in different ways, to the given conditions of human existence” (Durkheim 4). Human beings create religions to address felt needs, because, as Thomas Hobbes puts it, apart from society, “the life of man [is] solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” (Hobbes, Leviathan). Each individual's conception of “good” and “evil,” say Hobbes and Durkheim, really is generated out of our understanding of what is good for the self, rather than through objective truths (Hobbes; Durkheim 15-17). Apart from civil society individuals are in a state of perpetual war, each person against all others: each of us does what is best for ourselves in the moment and there is no authority who can state what is best for all (Hobbes). This is why, they posit, we form societies: to act as that overarching authority mediating between various individuals' conceptions of what is “good.”

Human cultures almost universally conceive of life on two levels of existence: present reality as opposed to the dreamed-of ideal, or a physical versus a spiritual world. Durkheim suggests that these correspond, in human thought, to the individual and collective ability to discern what is “good" (Durkheim 18). We ascribe to the spiritual level our ideals and also the authority to enforce our ideals, which are carried out in the world through our society (including governing authorities), and perhaps somewhat separately on a spiritual level by gods or spiritual forces. Durkheim says these two levels are actually “an individual being...and a social being that represents within us the higher reality of the intellectual and moral order that we know through observation—by which I mean society” (Durkheim 18). We need this duality because it keeps us from either acting in a perfectly utilitarian manner with no thought for ourselves, or a completely selfish manner, because we are conscious of the collective need of humanity to live together, requiring some form of moral responsibility to one another.

In short, “truth,” “good,” “evil,” and all moral terms are social constructs that really mean “what is good for me/us.” As we extend alliances out further and further the pool of individuals included in our qualification of what is “good” increases. And yet, we form these societies in order to first ensure that our own needs are met, because others then have a moral responsibility to do what is “good” for ourselves (Hobbes).

Durkheim's theory is difficult to refute because one can neither prove nor disprove the existence of a god or force that defines “goodness,” “truth,” and in contrast, “evil.” Perhaps all we can say for certain is that the best way to envision “truth” and “the good” is as ethical action that ensures life for all people and the natural world, where no individual must worry about meeting their basic physical, emotional and spiritual needs. “Evil,” then, is unnecessary or pointless death. All things must die—this is part of life. But fearing death to the point that one places one's own needs or the needs of one's society (be it a family, clan, nation, race, or what have you) above the life of others has the effect of creating “evil” for another individual or group, and therefore is evil. Although I disagree with Durkheim that society is the source of all understanding of good and evil, perhaps we can agree that it is within society (in which I include the natural world) that good and evil find meaning. Apart from expression in reality, all things are “morally indifferent.” It is only when an action occurs in a specific context, using specific methods, that it it can be discerned whether it is “good” or “evil” (Aquinas, Summa Theologica I-II.1.3).

Even though I can make this compromise with Durkheim, my intuition tells me that perhaps there is something toward which all our visionary ideals point (We will not here discuss from whence “intuition” comes, although this is a worthy (and related), but will assume readers have a knowledge of this internal, inexplicable certainty.) Perhaps Plato is right about his Forms, and Tillich is right about his Ground of All Being, and Levinas is right about our responsibility to God in the face of the Other, and people of faith in all times and places are right in their yearning for something looking like what Christians call the Kingdom of God. Could it be that all these idealistic desires point to an essential Reality, a spiritual plane of self-transcendence where truth, justice and love coexist in interdependence and joy? This may not be a place per se, whether present, past or future, in this or another world. Perhaps this is a state of being, a living-in-relation to one another and to the Ultimate. Perhaps it is this state of being in which the individuals mentioned in the introduction lived, an interior knowledge of the Ultimate that orients their exterior lives toward existence in the ideal society here and now.

In my own life I have a deep sense of the reality of this Ultimate. It is an impression of Truth in the pit of my stomach, at the very core of who I am and the way I view the world. As I understand my Christian tradition, God is a God who is overwhelmingly for creation—not in the sense that God's purpose is to serve creation, but that God is on the side of creation, wants what is best for those individuals and things God created. In this sense, ultimate truth and good, then, are synonymous with what is best for individuals and the world. God is a Being with whom we can relate, and our relationship with this Ultimate has everything to do with our relations with one another. This is why societies are so important: they provide us a framework in which to relate to one another, a space in which we can all live as whole persons, attending to the truth and reminding one another of our responsibilities to each other through being grounded in Essential reality.

I believe we need one another not only for our basic needs of food and shelter, but because we remind one another of what it means to be human. We confront one another with the spiritual truths of trust, humility and love, as well as our own selfishness and fears. In an ideal society we would continually be humbled and lifted up by our interactions with one another and the Ultimate: humbled as we realize how much work we have yet to do, and lifted up by the fact that we are given the opportunity daily and moment-to-moment to act in truthful ways, and we can choose to do so.

This is not a rejection of the physical world in favor of a spiritual existence, divorced from the body. Instead it is a life of intention where we seek through our lived relationships to enact truth and love. We connect with others and the Ultimate “face to face,” as Levinas suggested, or spirit to spirit—not only in theory but also in reality. This spirit connection reminds us of our responsibility for the Other, which can only be lived out in physical reality. This is not the Utilitarian ideal of the most good for the most people, but it is doing that which provides the most good for the individual standing before me, and the individuals around the world in the network of influence woven between us. It is this spiritual connection with the Other that provides our lives with meaning and encourages us to seek preservation of all life.

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