Posts tagged with: evil

Accessible IconIn this week’s Acton Commentary, “Disability, Service, and Stewardship,” I write, “Our service of others may or may not be recognized by the marketplace as something valuable or worth paying for. But each one of us has something to offer someone else. All of us have ministries of one kind or another. Our very existence itself must be seen as a blessing from God.”

During a sermon a couple weeks ago at my church, the preacher made an important point about common attitudes toward old people (to listen, click the “Launch Media Player” here and listen to Rev. David Kolls’s message, “Following God Through Transitions” from July 28, 2013). In the same way that we often view those with visible disabilities as passive objects of pity, we often think of those who have reached a certain age as having nothing to offer. This is simply wrong-headed.

We all are important to God. “God don’t make no junk,” as the saying on the T-shirt reads. This isn’t to deny the reality of brokenness and sin. But in the face of these evils, God still affirms and preserves his creation. Life itself is a blessing from God, and mere existence is proof enough that God values people and has purposes for us. Every one.
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National Catholic Reporter writer Michael Sean Winters has a message for the United States Catholic Bishops: become complicit with evil or toll the death knell for the Church in the U.S. Unlike the Amish, who choose to live in a manner ny rallyoutside of modern culture, Winters exhorts the bishops to not only engage the world, but realize that being part of evil is simply part and parcel of that engagement:

I bring up the Amish for a reason. They are lovely people and their commitment to living a Christ-like life challenges us all. But their model is not our Catholic tradition. We do not shut out the world; we engage it. And it seems to me that the approach of many bishops in recent years has been to mimic the Amish, to construct walls around a ‘faithful remnant’ of Catholics, close the doors in the face of those who evidence ambivalence, and denounce the culture for its moral turpitude. Setting aside the fact that those denunciations tend to be ideologically one-sided, this dour, pessimistic, denunciatory stance toward the culture is a death sentence for the church…

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Blog author: kspence
posted by on Friday, June 24, 2011

Jeffery C. Pugh has landed every blogger’s dream: the book deal for a best-of collection of his musings. Devil’s Ink: Blog from the Basement Office is an answer to the question “What if Satan kept a blog?”—one of several (the opportunity to pun is apparently irresistible) all of which immediately invite comparison with C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters. Pugh anticipates that comparison in his book’s preface, saying he offers “another way of looking at evil,” a modern way that reflects how the “locale of evil has changed,” and confronts particularly its rise in popular culture.

He certainly offers a different perspective on evil; so different, in fact, that rather than avoiding comparison with Lewis, he forces it. Pugh presents only one kind of “evil” in his bloggings from the throne of Hell—and such is the nature of a blog that the action of evil can be nothing else than as he presents it. That evil is not the personal sin that Lewis explored in Screwtape’s letters on the art of temptation, but a kind of corporate, structural sin based on a view of human history as class conflict.

Pugh offers some insightful entries on pride and on spiritual community, but he is continually caught up in the idea that evil is found in the structures of society rather than in men’s sinful hearts. In fact he rarely uses the word sin, preferring the more ambiguous “evil.” Post after post deals with war, human suffering, and the vulgarity of popular culture—all of which are valid subjects of reflection, but which totally consume the author’s ethical thoughts.

One sees flashes of Lewis in postings like “Spiritual but Not Religious,” when he warns that “Spirituality pursued without the community of faith is easily dealt with and dispersed. Discipline pursued in the community of faith makes them stronger and less susceptible to us.” But the community is not the basic moral unity—that unit is the individual person, and when Pugh says in his preface that “it is difficult sometimes to see evil when one lives in the midst of it; it is usually in retrospect that one sees how evil manifested itself,” it becomes clear that he does not realize where evil—where sin—is first of all to be found. The Screwtape Letters draws the reader to look inward; Devil’s Ink lets him off the hook by directing his meditation at society.

This confused ethics comes from Pugh’s view of history as a narrative of class warfare. As he writes in a post about Utopia (in which he reveals a real misunderstanding of Thomas More’s work), the Devil scores a big victory when man ceases to see revolutions as “the historical eruptions of the masses who want more and desire what the other has.” Pugh is not the writer that Lewis was, and so it is often difficult to find his voice in the Devil’s, but in this case the context makes it clear: the author’s embrace of history-as-class-warfare leads him away from a proper understanding of personal sin.

A recent post on the Devil’s Ink blog illustrates Pugh’s confusion. He is right that attention paid Kim Kardashian, Lindsay Lohan, and Anthony Weiner is attention distracted from worthwhile pursuits, but he cannot resist seating evil in the popular culture that promotes those three. “The ways [humans] construct their society, the type of human beings those environments create, and the material effects of those communities” are the Devil’s prime victories, not the corruption of men’s souls. Such a view is not fundamentally different than those of Marx and Lenin, with Christianity sprinkled over the top.

What is to be recommended in the book? Some of Pugh’s irony is indeed funny, as the blurbs on the back cover note. Jabs at public figures are often landed to humorous effect, although each laugh is a reminder of the author’s search for moral fault anywhere but the self. Stanley Hauerwas is quoted on the back: “Pugh’s devil is indeed deadly serious, but in this hilarious and wise book we learn to laugh at Satan. Pugh teaches us how important it is to defy evil with humor.” One is instantly reminded of Screwtape’s advice on counterinsurgency: “The fact that ‘devils’ are predominantly comic figures in the modern imagination will help you.”

It is a commonplace in discussions of environmental economics to consider so-called “negative externalities,” a technical term for the bad or damaging consequences of an activity that affects those outside the realm of economic decision-making.

For instance, I can make the choice to plant a tree in my yard on my own (presuming there are no regulatory hurdles to jump). A negative externality for my neighbor might be that my tree dumps a lot of leaves into his or her yard and they need to be cleaned up. Typically this level of external consequence is not given a concrete cost…we simply rake up whatever leaves happen to land in our yard, whether they are from trees we do or do not own (I got to thinking about this lately because I had to rake up a bunch of leaves this weekend. Thankfully I caught a relatively warm day after the rain had mostly dried up and the snow had not yet fallen). But if a branch or limb falls from my tree onto my neighbor’s property and causes damage, there may be a level of liability there that would allow for some sort of claim for economic compensation.

It is also a common part of this discussion for environmental economists to observe that we almost never place any concrete costs on positive externalities. I have no ability to charge my neighbor for the pleasure he or she receives from looking at my beautiful tree. I might be able to restrict this positive externality by building a fence and obstructing the view of my tree, but the beauty of the tree is a natural benefit that cannot be commodified in any usual sense.

Oftentimes these two observations, regarding the costs associated with negative externalities and the inability to commodify many positive externalities, are made with a somewhat grudging attitude. After all, thinks the economist, it seems unfair that a person be liable only for the bad things that happen because of their economic decisions but don’t stand to benefit because of the good things that happen. So from the economist’s perspective, there’s a bit of inconsistency there.

Common sense intuition runs the other way, however. We ought to pay for the harm that our actions cause, but it’s also appropriate that I can’t charge my neighbor for all the good my actions may do for him or her. In brief here’s a theological reason why the typical view is correct and is right to dominate both people’s thinking on these topics in general as well as the shape of public policy: Good is more fundamental and basic than evil.

This is a view typically associated with Augustine of Hippo, and in summary it simply means that evil is a departure from the good. The world order as created was “good,” for God made it and declared it such. Thus, the good of positive externalities is in some sense more basic than the evil of negative externalities. The harm caused by negative externalties is an evil resulting from the fact that things in a fallen world are simply not the way they are supposed to be.

Our conception that positive externalities are more basic than negative harms is an indirect witness to the priority of the good creation over the corruption of sin and evil. We can abuse the blessings of God’s goodness when we take these gifts for granted, too. But our sense that some norm of justice has been violated when there are negative externalities (and that the gracious order of natural blessings is more basic) is a moral intuition that the world was created good and in some radical way has departed from that original state.

Voltaire had a saying: “The perfect is the enemy of the good,” or, “Le mieux est l’ennemi du bien.”

It’s often repeated, especially in public policy circles, that the perfect the enemy of the good, implying that you should favor the realistic good that can be done rather than the unattainable perfect ideal.

And now you know why. Because “good” beats “perfect” in a Google Fight, and by a rather handy margin.

HT: Seth’s Blog, which compares “unique”, “best”, and “finest”.

Oh, and one more thing. Dark Helmet was wrong when he said, “Evil will always triumph, because good is dumb.” See for yourself.