In the World in Shadow series, I have written about some of the terrible natural evils that afflict humans. My primary purpose in writing this series is to illustrate the strength of the atheist’s argument from evil, that the existence of vast amounts of undeserved and random suffering disproves the existence of a powerful, benevolent deity.
However, there is another reason I write this series, and that is so I am not accused of excessive optimism. I am, as I will readily admit, an optimist, and I have a great deal of hope for the future of humanity. The vast amounts of moral progress our species has already made through its history, combined with the existence of many devoted and dedicated social reformers who are ahead of the curve of conventional wisdom, working to raise awareness of moral errors not yet generally recognized, give me confidence that human beings have great achievements still ahead of them. In addition, the fantastic and gloriously complex beauty and enlightenment that are to be found in this world already convince me that it is a good thing to be alive, and give me reason to believe that existence can be meaningful and desirable even without supernatural fantasies.
But optimism must always be tempered with reality, lest it become mere dangerous naivete. We should not fool ourselves into thinking that everything will turn out well no matter what we do, as many varieties of theism believe. There is still a truly vast amount of pain, suffering and horror in this world, and it will never be alleviated without our compassion or our diligent effort. We must do it, for if we do not, there is no one else who will.
It is all too easy for a person who cares about others to take the weight of the world on their shoulders. We would not truly be human if we did not respond with compassion to the suffering of others, regardless of whether those others live in one’s own neighborhood or on the other side of the world. All human beings are of equal intrinsic moral value, and the suffering of all people counts for the same, so it is only natural to wish it all eliminated. But there is a great sea of need out there, far more than any one person can alleviate, and no moral demerits accrue for not trying to do it all. It is only rational that we cannot be morally obligated to do what we are not capable of doing. A person who tried to eliminate all the evil and suffering in the world would necessarily have to spread their effort and resources so infinitesimally thin that they would make no perceptible difference to any one area, and would therefore achieve less actual good than a person who chose one task or one cause specifically to focus on, though there may be others equally worthy.
There is an important lesson here, which is that instead of trying to do everything and failing, and thus achieving nothing at all, we should choose one or a few areas in which we can do the most good for our fellow human beings and concentrate on those areas. And I firmly believe that one of the best and most important things any person can do is to set a positive example for others, so that they will be inspired to do likewise in turn.
We all know people of the kind I am speaking of: the noble and generous souls who would help a stranger in need and ask nothing in return; the bold and principled leaders who labor for us and ask only our happiness as reward; the steadfast friends and loved ones who fill our lives with light and laughter and bear our troubles with steadfast strength. We all know people like this, people whom we love and welcome as the weary traveler welcomes the inn where they can take refuge from life’s troubles; but we should strive to be people like this. We should want to live the sort of life that touches the lives of those around us and fills them with joy and love, because multiplying the happiness of others is good for its own sake as well as for the happiness it brings to us.
Despite the moral progress we have made, we have a very long distance left to travel through the night before the coming of a greater dawn. As yet, the world sleeps in darkness, and only the faintest glimmers are visible on the horizon. But in the meantime, in a world of shadow, we can create sheltered oases of light where travelers can take refuge. We can fill our own corners of the world with light, beauty and music, in order that it may shine out the more brightly and kindle a new light in the lives of others in turn. It will take many torches carried forward to bring on the dawn, but each one of us has the potential to light at least one new one.