A Professor's View
On the evening of Thursday, 30th March 2000, I attended a lecture by Professor Paul Wilson at Bond University advertised as Evil In The New Millennium. From the start of the talk the learned criminologist confessed that he did not know how to define evil, but this did not prevent him from immediately classifying some acts as evil, with genocide considered an ultimate evil. This was illogical but it reflects the contemporary (circa 2000) popular approach to this subject, people cannot say what evil is but they know it when they see it. This is an admission that evil is felt rather than recognised, with the nature of an event decided by emotion rather than reason.
A Rational View
No decision should be dictated by emotion, only by reason, otherwise it is likely to be wrong. If evil is to be correctly diagnosed it must be by applying a disciplined understanding. The Dean of Humanities claim that genocide is evil does not withstand historical consideration. Genocide has been used to establish a rule of law among savages for it was only by mass slaughter that Julius Caesar was able to extend Pax Romana over Gaul. And it was this technique that extended Roman civilisation throughout the world. For the Romans the use of genocide was not evil but essential for securing and protecting their property and lives, and therefore a good act. Certainly the fall of Rome can be directly ascribed to Roman failure to inflict genocide upon the Goths, for these tribes eventually ravaged the Latin empire. And they only did so because the Romans failed to countenance the mass slaughter of their enemies. Trapped between the advance of the Huns and the river Danube, a natural boundary of the Roman Empire, the Gothic nation faced extinction. Their attempts to force entry into the empire had already been repulsed with heavy losses, so they begged for, and received, from the emperor Valens, permission to enter the Roman world. This act of mercy, the admission of a huge number of unconquered tribes of barbarians into the precincts of the Roman empire, lead inevitably to the destruction of the empire and the fall of Rome. So it is untrue to state that the act of genocide is always evil, just as it is untrue to say that the act of mercy is always good. No act is evil or good in itself but must be judged on the circumstances.
War Between Cultures Unavoidable
While the mass murder of barbarians could be considered good by the Romans, it was certainly considered evil by the unfortunate victims. To some Hindus it is right to burn the still living widow upon the funeral pyre of her dead husband, but to many other cultures this would be an abominable crime. To some adherents of Islam the correct punishment for theft is the amputation of a limb, but to others such a penalty is more evil than stealing. Deciding which is good and which is evil can only be the decision of a culture and this decision can only be upheld against other cultures by violence, or its threat; which makes war between cultures the only way such conflicts can be resolved. A fact that explains the past failure of "The League Of Nations" and the present (circa 2003) futility of the "United Nations".
Defining Good And Evil
Defining Good and Evil is not a simple task, and getting it wrong means either punishing the good or rewarding the evil, both furthering evil. As humanity is only effective as a group, the judgement of good or evil must be the recognition of what is good and what is bad for the group. Hence:
Wisdom Is The Sane Use Of Knowledge
Wisdom is the application of beliefs about cause and effect to achieve the aims dictated by beliefs about right and wrong. As the pursuit of right is sanity, then wisdom must be the sane use of knowledge.
The Importance Of Religion
Hence to be wise is to be sane, but communal sanity is based upon a shared set of beliefs about right and wrong, which is the controlling beliefs of the community, which in turn is the Religion of the community. Hence the religion of the community is the sanity of the community, thus the role of the church is the upholding of communal sanity by dictating what is right from what is wrong.
The Practical Achievement Of Church Teachings
It is the church's prerogative to tell citizens what behaviour is good, or virtuous, and what is sinful, or evil. The church's commandments are presented as divine instructions on how to avoid a private eternity in hell after death, but are in fact practical directions for the best way for citizens to improve their life.
By being good, that is by being virtuous, individuals are improving the lot of their society and so improving their own and everyone else's life. While being sinful (evil), does not just threaten the wellbeing of their souls but the wellbeing of their community and hence themselves. (See the example of the family).
The Decline Of A Community Is Its Descent Into Evil
All the institutions, customs and manners that make up the tradition of a community are inspired by its communal understanding, which in turn is guided by its recognition of good from evil. So a society that is extending and refining its traditions is extending its ability to distinguish good from evil, and prospering. While a community that is corrupting its traditions, discarding, or reversing the nature of, its manners, customs and institutions, is not only losing wisdom and facing dissolution, but it is embracing evil.