Some people in modern American culture do not seem comfortable with the concept of labeling actions as "evil," or even using the softer word "wrong." I have less trouble, which leads my mother to often charge me with wanting simple solutions to complex problems. While I agree that in life, there are many shades of grey, there are behaviors and actions that I have little problem with labelling right or wrong. Granted, I have more trouble with right. For that, see the problems of unintended consequences, meddling, and the winners writing the history books.
However, the concept of evil for me is more sharply defined than Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s definition of obscenity – famously, "I know it when I see it" (1964). To paraphrase another quote, this time by modern fantasist and novelist Terry Pratchett (no accredited ethicist but a sharp observer of human nature), evil begins with treating people as objects and goes on from there.
I certainly agree that ethics and social mores (important rules, or taboos) differ in societies. I had my Intro to Anthropology class at Berkeley to get me started on decades of survey, after all. So while I am on some lesser matters a moral relativist, I draw my lines somewhere. I very badly want to start talking now about Buffy Summers and Batman’s moral justifications, but may lose my audience if I do so.
My Dad, on the contrary, doesn't think there are objective moral standards, or at least will not be pinned down on them in a conversation. Last time I tried to debate this, he quoted "When in Rome, do as the Romans do" (390 AD. St. Augustine quoting St. Ambrose), and went off to do the dishes. But it can be hard to figure out when Dad really believes something, and when he just would rather do the chores.
St. Ambrose's sentiment, of course is that if you want to fit in and get along, adopt the customs of local society. So different places will have different laws as well. I also observe that the Great Watchmaker (God) does not weigh in on the issue with a loud voice and obvious miracles anymore. If He speaks to us now, he is more subtle than ancient times.
Sometimes I wonder what Dad actually took away from Sunday School way back when as a Baptist in Warrior, Alabama, beyond a dislike of preachers preaching hellfire and damnation... He's what some would call "cynical."
Mom's recent comment regarding both of us: "Do you have to question everything?"
My answer: "Why yes, yes we do..."
God may or may not have given various ancient tribes commandments of morality and how to live (see Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, for instance). If He did, there’s certainly a lot of heated debate about what he actually said and meant. Therefore, despite officially being an Episcopalian, I tend to argue instead the concepts of “natural law” and “the social contract.” Since the definition of natural law is almost as mutable a concept as that of “justice,” I shall stop here and continue in another essay.
Re: the Wed. BPL Holocaust speaker:
Riva Hirsch was seven years old in 1941 when the Germans occupied her village in Bessarbia. She was arrested and sent to several work camps, including Luchinetz and Tolchin in the Ukraine. From Tolchin she was rescued by partisan troops and cared for by nuns in a convent, hidden in bunkers from 1943-1945 and finally liberated by Russian troops. Join us to hear her amazing story. Wednesday, March 21, noon, Central Library's Arrington Auditorium.
Remembering the Holocaust is produced in cooperation with the Birmingham Holocaust Education Center.