Why is evil seen as evil?

How bad is the bad?

Perhaps you have to get involved in a pinch of immorality in order to lead a happy life. About the good, the bad and the in-between.

Opposites can be mutually exclusive, but they can also complement one another or overflow into one another. Are good and bad opposites like warm and cold, white and black? From Parmenides and Heraclitus to the present day there have been many attempts to think through the problem of opposites. Hegel's dialectic and the contrast between thesis and antithesis, which ultimately leads to a synthesis, show that opposites can also condition one another. For Hegel the dialectical movement of being takes place through opposites, negating and mediating them.

So is good really the opposite of bad? Do we need evil in order to know good? Can we remain caught up in a black-and-white way of thinking that extends from fairy tales - the fairy godmother, the wicked witch - to politics, where the world has only recently been divided into an axis of evil and a realm of good?

“Evil is always and everywhere” is the saying in the proverb and in the triviality of pop music. What is evil - and where does it come from? Religion, philosophy, science and art have been concerned with this question again and again since the beginning of human culture. Where does the fascination with evil come from, which evidently attracts us more than the rather boring good? But where does the horror and disgust come from when we are confronted with aggression, violence, assassinations and inhuman wars?

If evil is not a concept, but just a name (Rüdiger Safranski), just an idea that haunts our heads, where does the power that emanates from evil, a power that attracts and repels at the same time? Why does evil attract our attention much more than the virtuoso and the protagonists of the good? Why is the villain in crime or wild west films more fascinating than the good guy, who in most cases wins over his adversary?

Numerous attempts to determine evil and to explain its origins pervade human history. Religion, philosophy and ethics have tried to find answers just as much as the sciences in our day, from behavioral research to psychoanalysis, genetics and brain research. Whether from the theological point of view the biblical fall into sin stands at the beginning of the genesis of evil or whether philosophy places evil in our free will and in our decisions, as was attempted above all in the philosophy of the Enlightenment and in German idealism: evil depends deeply together with our freedom. That is why the rationalizations of evil in science are also linked to an attack on the bastion of human freedom.

Mythologies and religions do not provide any rationalist explanation. Above all, the monotheistic religions have their difficulty in allowing evil and in connection with an all-benevolent and all-powerful Creator of the world and of man. With the myth of paradise, the fall of man and the serpent, Christianity developed the fall of man syndrome that continued through the centuries. When the apple is eaten, evil, the malum physicum, breaks down on people: mortality, illness, pain, catastrophes, need.

Why did God allow the tree of knowledge to be eaten? Where does evil personified come from, the devil? For theologians have no easy game with the devil. The devil or Satan, Lucifer, the father of lies and fallen angels, who rebelled against God and was therefore banished to hell, may no longer be taken very seriously in the present, but the origin of evil in human apostasy of God and the possibility of evil in man, God's creature, persists through original sin. The dilemma that arises here, how God can be acquitted of complicity for evil or how man, who is now burdened with the burden of the decision, should survive in this struggle, remains a fundamentally unsolved problem. Where does evil come from and how is it compatible with God?

Polytheistic religions have it easier here, they do not derive evil from a single god, but from two cosmic primordial forces, a god of light and a god of darkness, whose struggle extends far into human life. All attempts at the so-called theodicy, that is, to justify God from evil and from evil, have failed since the baroque philosopher Leibniz. The connection and the softening of the opposites do not help here either: According to Leibniz, evil and evil contribute to producing a good that otherwise could not be realized. God allowed evil, so to speak, to prevent worse, and the gifts of reason and freedom are part of God's plan of creation.

There is probably a tendency towards evil, a radical evil, which can, however, be overcome through reason and freedom, because what a person is or should become in the moral sense, good or bad, he has to do for himself. Of course, the accusations against God will continue in the history of thought: God is repeatedly challenged, whether in Dostoevsky, Camus or even in Job, and called to justification, so to speak. So is evil anchored in our creature, which at the same time also means a creature to freedom? Is it up to us to freely choose for good or bad?

No, say the sciences - and not just them. Schopenhauer already denied the freedom of human will. He uses the model of the distinction between freedom of action and free will and takes the view that, although you can do what you want, you cannot want what you want, and therefore you can only want something very specific. His formulation fits this: "If a god made this world, I don't want to be the god, your misery would tear my heart apart."

With the behavioral research of Konrad Lorenz and the belittling of evil to “so-called evil”, a campaign against human freedom begins, which will then culminate in the theses of brain research. According to Lorenz, the instinct for aggression is implanted in our biological structures, so evil is necessary in order to guarantee the survival of the individual and the species, even if the associated evolutionary research begins to distance itself from biological determinism. Although the archaic elements of our behavior represent a considerable component of our life, evil must be seen with the cultural factor and the dynamics associated with it. It is this cultural factor that gives us a set of norms that we can observe or violate.

Sociobiology argues similarly, which is close to social Darwinism with its biological-evolutionary explanation of our moral behavior. Here, too, there is an obvious tendency towards reductionist biologism, although sociobiology does not necessarily follow Darwin's principle of natural selection. An evolutionary explanation of selfish and altruistic behavior falls short, the biological roots of our morality contain neither a justification for evil nor a guarantee for good.

Ever since Richard Dawkins' sensational book "The Selfish Gene", genetics have also been involved in questions of the origin of good and evil. Although Dawkins' view that we are survival machines, robots, programmed to preserve selfish genes, has now been overtaken by epigenetics, the dictates of genes still determine our behavior, even if genes do not dictate. The sense of good and bad ultimately develops between our genetic makeup and the influences of the environment. None of our characteristics is determined exclusively by genetic makeup or just as exclusively by the environment, such as socialization and upbringing. Because our genes are not static, they are in motion throughout life, and the underlying "packaging" of our genetic material, the epigenetic code, shows itself to be an important influencing factor for the development of the individual.

Genes are regulating factors, so to speak; they have to be read as scores and not as blueprints. The egoistic gene and the self-protection associated with it are ultimately not sufficient to provide an explanation for our questions about good and bad. The genes act on this side of good and evil and follow the laws of nature on which they are based. Certainly, from the perspective of a deterministic position, the emergence of morality can be seen as something that is in the interests of species conservation and reproduction, but morality and thus the question of good and bad are more than a collective illusion.

The sharpest attack on freedom and thus on our ability to do good or bad comes from brain research. Freedom is frankly referred to here as an illusion (according to brain researcher Gerhard Roth), at best it is a cultural construct. The attacks on the old philosophical thesis of free will refer to experiments such as that of Benjamin Libet, which showed that conscious decisions for or against an action only take place fractions of a second after the onset of the neuronal processes in the brain.

Even if Libet himself speaks of a kind of “veto function” of the ego, which is able to refrain from or prevent certain actions, and points out that there is an inexplicable gap between physical and subjective phenomena, this hardly impresses the hardliners among neuroscientists. We are determined, our brain plays a game of neurons in which the self has no say. Yes, the ego is also an illusion that we fall for through the neural processes.

Brain research rejects the fact that, in contrast to brains, humans do not act for causes, but for reasons. Because we act, as Gerhard Roth put it succinctly, for reasons, but we explain this act with reasons. It is obvious that this undermines our existing moral system, the distinction between good and bad. Our traditional concepts of freedom, responsibility, guilt, punishment and atonement are being mixed up and not only our moral systems but also our legal systems are shaken. “Normal” and “deviating” take the place of good and bad, because “nobody can do anything other than he is” (Wolf Singer), which, however, also determines the activity of the brain researcher himself.

On the part of psychoanalysis, too, the ideas of good and bad are relativized. Freud's model of id, ego and super-ego assigns the latter the generation of moral norms, whereby these moral rule systems inhibit and sublimate the aggression drive and the pleasure principle. The ego, locked between the outside world, id and super-ego, tries mostly in vain to free itself from this interlocking, whereby according to Freud ethics is understood as a therapeutic attempt to achieve through a command of the super-ego what other cultural work cannot able. Evil thus appears as the insight into the failed good made possible by the consciousness of guilt. Freud's philosophical reception referred primarily to the repressive structures of the social system that emerges from a culture that is instinct-suppressive and hostile to pleasure. Philosophy has always defended itself against all these attacks on freedom, most decisively in Jean Paul Sartre's philosophy of freedom, who sees no difference between being human and being free. Not “No one can be different from what he is”, but “Man is nothing other than what he makes himself”. This means that there are no given values ​​by which we can orientate ourselves, no once and for all fixed good or bad, we are forced to create our own values ​​and to decide between good and bad.

As Sartre puts it boldly, we are condemned to freedom, but at the same time we are burdened with a responsibility that can overwhelm us. Nevertheless, this transfer of good and bad into the freedom of man is to be seen on a different level than the freedom given by God to man, which ultimately threatens to break with God's omnipotence.

But don't we encounter evil everywhere that we cannot get rid of in our acts of freedom? Isn't it a demon, an evil that has run into people, that tempts him? Isn't it greed, never having enough, that confronts us in the frauds and risky businesses of "Homo oeconomicus" as it has since spread across the globe? Perhaps the former President of the USA, George Bush, should not have sought evil in Iraq, but on his own doorstep on Wall Street. Or is evil, as Hannah Arendt claims, a very banal evil, as she tries to show with the example of Adolf Eichmann?

The banality of evil can be more frightening than the demonic and make us think about what people are ready for in certain situations - be it the famous experiments of Milgram or Zimbardo, in which people caused physical or psychological pain to others at the direction of an experimenter. Weren't the inquisitors of the Catholic Church equally convinced that they were doing good by torturing and burning alleged witches? Do not the terrorists, for religious or political reasons, also invoke a good aim when they carry out their attacks?

Not only the utopians who wanted a better world tried to fight evil by annulling human freedom. From Karl Marx to Aldous Huxley and George Orwell, examples abound. Not to forget the question of whether a virtuous life, a renunciation of harming others, also makes us happy. Philosophy as an art of living with the claim to lead a happy life can very well rub against moral precepts. Because happiness is not the same as virtue, nor does it automatically bring about a happy life. Perhaps you have to indulge in a strong pinch of immorality to live a happy life.

But perhaps we are making it too difficult for ourselves and should listen to the tradition that considers feeling to be essential in making moral decisions. In the area of ​​moral feelings, it is not a question of respect for the moral law, but of that "esprit de finesse", in which Blaise Pascal saw a core element in deciding on the good and on altruism. Recognition, esteem and respect, but also justice, can serve as guidelines. Together with the principle of conscience, which must undoubtedly be taken seriously, in the interweaving of good and bad, they could guide us to do good and to leave bad.

If virtue can become problematic with regard to good and bad, wouldn't it be better to say goodbye to good and bad? Perhaps not in the sense of the beyond of good and evil, as Nietzsche propagated, also not in the sense of a this side of good and evil and the replacement of herd morality by master morality, in which the will to power and the creation of values ​​are the focus, but to free oneself from moralism by replacing good and bad with good and bad or good and bad? Morals and, above all, ethics are more than obedience to a system of rules, as Michel Foucault once put it.

Black and white painting with regard to good and bad has hardly brought us any further, despite so much effort, so much brooding and theorizing. Perhaps, contrary to traditional opinion, the good is the absence of evil. It will be of no use to substitute right and wrong or good and bad for good and bad. Even if there may be no “inherently bad” or “inherently good”, but only good and bad people, we have to hold on to good and bad.

The thought that good and bad are opposites, but intertwined opposites, that there is a good in an evil and a bad in a good may still surprise us. Evil can be done to achieve a good goal, but the shadow of evil always resonates with the intention of doing good. We should not, of course, be deterred from doing everything we can to reduce evil and promote good, even if, in our finite freedom, we can never be sure that we will achieve this. ■


This year's “Carinthian Dialogues” move “in the field of tension of opposites”. From July 29th to 31st, topics such as "Loyalty and infidelity from the perspective of a biologist" or "Duality as a counterpoint in music" will be negotiated in the Carinthian Bach Castle.More at www.carinthische-dialoge.at.

Peter Kampits' contribution is the short version of this year's opening lecture.

("Die Presse", print edition, July 23, 2011)