There is a popular but rather false anti-religious remark from Steven Weinberg that one often hears anti-religious atheists cite. I admit that the first dozen or so times I came across it, its superficial charms and its appeal to my prejudices lulled me into a nodding attitude of approval. But a friend last week remarked that the meme was ridiculously false and, even though he didn’t explain why he thought so, I suddenly snapped out of it and agreed with him and started coming up with reasons it was wrong. Sometimes that’s all it takes to reconsider an unexamined belief inconsistent with dozens of other your beliefs, as I quickly realized this one was.
This is the flattering falsehood that takes in some of the irreligious:
With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.
First, it’s difficult to define a “good” person from an “evil” person when we’re talking about two people who do evil. Apparently we are assuming that good is not just as good does, and evil is not just as evil does. I think that’s true. So, how can an otherwise good person do evil and how can we still consider them good even if they do some evil? What is making them still “good”?
Presumably we are talking about someone whose motives are not malignant. We are talking about someone who is generally conscientious about doing what they perceive to be good and/or someone who has a number of generally pro-social feelings and virtuous character traits that regularly contribute to moral behavior. So, someone who is generally compassionate, honest, fair-minded, courageous, sympathetic, empathetic, generous, dutiful, loving, self-disciplined, etc., etc.
What does it take for one of these people, motivated by a desire to do good and to be good, to wind up doing evil?
It’s simple. They need only misperceive the evil as the good. And you do not need religion for that.
For one thing, many people do genuinely evil (or at least bad or less desirable) things because they truly believe it is justified by a greater good. Moral people can disagree about which normally evil or bad behaviors or actions are justifiable by a greater good without any involvement from any religion.
Similarly, there can be cases in which two apparent moral duties conflict and we have to choose which one overrides the other. Sometimes this choice is made seriously wrongly, yielding a gross injustice or unjustifiably negative consequences. Religion is not inherently required for such errors either.
Otherwise good people can also be weak and do evil things for reasons we can sympathize with, if not condone morally. Sometimes with their backs against the wall or with someone they care about in trouble, they may make bad choices without becoming on net a basically evil person. While a morally better person would prove their moral mettle in precisely those challenging moments, basically good people with a number of virtues can sometimes simply spit the bit. Eventually none of us is perfect and so all of us, no matter how good we normally are, will wind up in this boat at some point or another.
Good people can also do evil under the sway of factors for which they may not be morally blameworthy. Mental illness, brainwashing, basic confusions over facts, deceptions from apparently reliable authority figures, and many other influences beyond someone’s simple will to be good or to be evil can all explain a good person getting it wrong and doing evil. While sometimes religions confuse people in some of these ways, and while various religions routinely exacerbate people’s natural weaknesses in unique, upsetting, morally culpable ways that we must vigorously criticize, nonetheless they are hardly the only cause of such errors.
And pervasive cultural conditioning, that only may or may not involve religion at all (or only do so to one degree or another), can also make some systematically evil things seem good to an overwhelming number of people in a given society. In such cases we might hold the average person in that society somewhat culpable for not figuring the evil out and opposing it. But it is really hard to judge everyone in that society to be basically evil and not, in the main, as good as any other average people relative to their culturally engrained moral consciousness. Any one of us may be systematically deceived and corrupted in some given area or areas by our culture’s abilities to overwhelming determine the contours of reality for us.
Don’t get me wrong, we can rationally and ethically criticize a morality that, on net, hinders rather than advances people’s well-being and thriving, regardless of whether the people adopting that morality, and even those affected by it, happen to think it’s a good morality. I’m not a relativist. (I’m a pluralist.) But even when a morality involves some things rightly worth calling evil, it is hard to call individuals basically evil when they are doing what is so universally seen as good to them, given their confused or corrupted culture’s conditioning.
And even should people have the best possible values and be the most morally conscientious, these people, of all people, might just be the most susceptible to the harmful vice of self-righteousness–precisely on account of their otherwise relatively scrupulous attention to goodness, itself. I don’t think this makes them basically evil or usually evil on net even though I think self-righteous is a particularly nasty and selfish flaw in someone’s moral character. In fact, we need to take seriously how much this bad thing can be correlated with a genuine love of the good and desire to be good and to advance the good, and not only manifest among indifferently selfish, callous, and insincere forms of hypocrites. Self-righteous people may do all sorts of terrible things or make all sorts of unfair judgments of others without being any less lovers of what is good and motivated by good outside of this glaring and counter-productive blindspot. And when (or to the degree that) the self-righteous are also committed to the wrong moral rules and values, the evil is just tragically ironically compounded.
As Nietzsche was wise to analyze in detail, moralism itself is one of the greatest temptations to immorality there is. It allows you to other, bully, and abuse the stigmatized immoral people, to distort the truth for the supposed sake of the good; and to do all of this not only with a clean conscience but with a conscience that is especially proud of itself. No religion is required for this. Just a black and white sense of political or moral rightness and wrongness and righteousness and unrighteousness.
Also some people are scrupulously dutiful to a moral fault. The excessively obedient person often seeks nothing but to be good and is one of the most effective instruments of evil in all of human history when he exercises disastrously poor judgment about who to follow and about what matters it is right to obey his leaders in. In many cases a flawed moral training that exacerbated, by overly praising, our conformist tendencies to unquestioningly defer to political, cultural, social, familial, or religious authorities, can account for the evil they do much better than any poverty of desire to be good or to do good. And does anyone with even a passing knowledge of history think that the only people who have exploited well-meaning obedient people for evil ends have been (or need be) religious leaders?
In fact, the Stoic psychologist in me thinks actions actually done from a desire for evil for evil’s own sake are very, very rare. Perhaps psychopaths and sociopaths are evil in the sense that they don’t care about the moral good. But it’s also important to note that they don’t seem to genuinely understand the difference between good and evil well enough to really be seen as doing things for their evil qua evil. And so it is hard to see whether they could care about being morally good or evil at all. They seem to do what just looks good to them, much as anyone else, and find the moral rules others demand of them to be wholly arbitrary conventions. I wouldn’t call these people “good” on this account, but they show just how hard it is to really find bona fide evil people.
Sometimes non-psychopathic people are motivated by the direct malignant will to inflict genuine harm for its own sake, fully aware that this is genuinely evil and not at all redeemed by any higher good or rationalized away in their minds by some weakness of will, etc. But if these acts of evil were all we had to worry about, civilization would probably be in fantastic shape. The vast majority of evil done in the world can be attributed to the garden variety misperceptions, miscalculations, ignorance, weakness of will, and/or self-deceptions of basically good and usually well-motivated standard issue human beings acting normally. Were these only problems when religions got a hold of them!
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