A Map of the Dark

What is evil? Most of us can provide an assortment of frightening examples, but when pushed, have difficulty describing exactly what evil is. Observing the War in Ukraine, we can agree with Paul Chalaux, author of Why All People Suffer: How a Loving God Uses Suffering to Perfect Us, that “suffering is a detector of evil.”

Theologians have studied evil for centuries but curiously enough, there seems to be no discipline outside of theology that studies evil academically, or as a separate discipline within the Humanities. Many philosophers and theologians have described evil as a deficit of “the good” and we will examine this idea. Using an assortment of intellectual tools from the past, coupled with modern wisdom, a map of the darkness caused by evil can be charted.

A critical notion, ignored by many, is the role of the human will in making bad choices. We can say that the will, like a heat-seeking missile, is attracted to and motivated by anything that appears to be good, unvetted as it were by cultural constraints and intellectual considerations. Let us use a crude but compelling example. A fifty-year-old man may be attracted to a beautiful sixteen-year-old girl. His will apprehends a certain “good” relating to his own sexuality and hers, but his intellect, if properly informed, will tell him to steer clear of sexual entanglement and help her to achieve her potential, by not engaging in acts that properly belong to romance, marriage, and the long horizon of her childbearing or professional years. Disregarding long-term “goods” in favor of the gratification provided by short-term “goods” can have negative social consequences that reverberate through generations. Sexual predators, such as Hugh Hefner, Bill Cosby, Matt Lauer, Harvey Weinstein, Bill Clinton, and Jeffery Epstein, for example, probably ruined the lives of countless young women by turning the natural instincts of these women from long-term commitments to short-term gratification.

This deficit of the will, in terms of not immediately grasping the social dimensions, and long-term political, and other consequences of unvetted bad choices, began to be addressed scientifically, and in a creative manner, when Andrew M. Lobaczewski, a professor of psychiatry, and a group of psychologists in Poland, developed analyses of the methods of those who oppressed Communist society in the 1950s and 60s. Lobaczewski spent his early adulthood suffering under the Nazi occupation of Poland, closely followed by the brutality of Soviet occupation after the war. His experience of these horrors led Lobaczewski to develop the concept of Ponerology (from the Greek word poneros meaning evil). Ponerology is the study of evil, particularly from a political, social, and psychological perspective, rather than a religious judgment.

His book, Political Ponerology: The Science of Evil, Psychopathy, and the Origins of Totalitarianism, describes the genesis of political and social evil. He describes the origin of what he calls macrosocial evil, which tends to come about when psychopaths and sociopaths, under various political systems, take charge of governance and create pathocracies. Joseph Heller described one extreme aspect of this ponerogenic process in his book, Catch-22:

“It was miraculous. It was almost no trick at all, he saw, to turn vice into virtue and slander into truth, impotence into abstinence, arrogance into humility, plunder into philanthropy, thievery into honor, blasphemy into wisdom, brutality into patriotism, and sadism into justice. Anybody could do it; it required no brains at all. It merely required no character.”

“In ponerogenic processes, [notes Lobaczewski] moral deficiencies, intellectual failings, and pathological factors intersect in a time-space causative network to give rise to individual and national suffering.” 

We see this ponerogenic process at work today in Ukraine, Russia, and the United States. The half-truths and lies that Lobaczewski defines as paralogical, meaning they have the appearance but not the substance of logic and reason, have become endemic in almost all modern societies.

The recent restrictions in Europe and the United States over the COVID pandemic are the specific result of paralogical thinking. Some of the policymakers are simply hypochondriacs, who should never have been allowed to influence public policy, but others may be psychopaths.

“Ian Hughes pointed out in his important book Disordered Minds, [that] the whole point of democracy is to try to protect the mass of people from this pathological minority. This was the central idea of the American constitution and the Bill of Rights. Democratic principles and institutions were established to limit the power of pathological individuals.” 

Lobaczewski described the psychological and pathological characteristics of sociopaths, long before Putin and COVID arrived on the scene but unfortunately does not, like many of those who are concerned about political and social ethics, clearly define good and evil.

The answer to the question of what evil is may lie in an astonishing quote, written on a blackboard in Rome fifty years ago, by Fr. Jubal Cain, professor of scholastic theology: “Evil is the absence of a ‘good’ that could and should be present.” I never forgot that line and daily employ it like a knife to cut through the ridiculously unclear media chatter about what constitutes right and wrong action.

If we understand evil as something that is missing, rather than as something positive, then the nature of evil becomes transparent. What is morally “good” is something that “could and should be present” in actions and choices. Langston Hughes wrote:

“I am so tired of waiting.

Aren’t you,

for the world to become good

and beautiful and kind?

Let us take a knife

and cut the world in two—

and see what worms are eating

at the rind.”

When we ask ourselves about moral and intellectual goodness, we are invoking a scale, which involves choices between good, better, and best in terms of choice of action. Put into the simplest, ethical terms, how we define goodness falls into two radically different categories. One is theistic with God as the source of goodness. The second is atheistic with goodness based on processes merely related to stochastic (meaning random and relativistic) relations between molecular, quantum, and other physical structures.

There are, of course, many principles that atheistic ethicists and religion-based ethicists can mutually agree on, but the fundamental differences should not be glossed over. There are moral grey areas on both sides but no honest discussion between advocates will be served by pretending both sides believe in roughly the same principles -- they don’t. 

The older notions of virtue and vice, distinguished from a religious association with the diabolical and sin, might function as a secular map of the darkness of evil. The notion of a separation between moral, intellectual, and spiritual excellence (virtue) can do much to illuminate the culturally estranged territory of good and evil. Theodore Roosevelt noted that “educating a man in mind and not morals was to create a monster.”

Ideologies, or power structures opposed to schemas of virtue and vice, are merely symptomatic of ponerogenic processes that seek to obscure the consequences of evil. Political structures that understand that the Divine inclines us in the right direction, and that evil inspires us in the wrong direction, need to codify this understanding more clearly without endorsing any specific religion.

The adoption of ponerology by major universities would mark a large step in the right direction in developing a new set of political principles, ordered towards “the good,” for the third millennium. A larger explanation of these principles may be found at www.founderscodeusa.com

Image: Pixabay

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