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Evil is an intrinsic part of humanity, and it seems almost impossible to erradicate it from society without simultaneously removing a significant part of our human character. There will always be individuals whom seek to gain advantage over others through harmful means. Evil can take on many forms, depending upon the definition one uses to encapsulate the concept. For instance, the popular definition includes elements of malicious intent or actions that are designed to cause injury/distress to others. But what of the individual that accidentally causes harm to another, or whom takes a silent pleasure in seeing other’s misfortune? Here we enter a grey area, the distinction between good and evil blurring ever so slightly, preventing us from making a clear judgement on the topic.

Religion deals with this human disposition towards evil in a depressingy cynical manner. Rather than suggesting ways in which the problem can be overcome, religion instead proposes that evil or “sin” is an inevitable temptation (or a part of our character into which we are born) that can only be overcome with a conscious and directed effort. Invariably one will sin sometime in their life, whereupon the person should ask for forgiveness from their nominated deity. Again we see a shifting of responsibility away from the individual, with the religious hypothesis leaning on such concepts as demonic possession and lapses of faith as an explanation for the existence of evil (unwavering belief in the deity cures all manner of temptations and worldly concerns).

In its current form, religion does not offer a satisfactory explanation for the problem of evil. Humanity is relegated to the backseat in terms of moral responsibility, coerced into conformity through a subservence to the Church’s supposed ideals and ways of life. If our society is to break free of these shackles and embrace a humanistic future free from bigotry and conflict, moral guidance must be gained from within the individual. To this end, society should consider introducing moral education for its citizens, taking a lesson from the annals of history (specifically, ancient Greece with its celebration of individual philosophical growth).

Almost counter-intuitively, some of the earliest recorded philosophies actually advocated a utopian society that was atheistic in nature, and deeply rooted in humanistic, individually managed moral/intellectual growth. One such example is the discipline of Stoicism, founded in the 2nd century BC. This philosophical movement was perhaps one of the first true instances of humanism whereby personal growth was encouraged through introspection and control of destructive emotions (anger, violence etc). The stoic way was to detach oneself from the material world (similar to Buddhist traditions), a tenet that is aptly summarised through the following quote;

“Freedom is secured not by the fulfilling of one’s desires, but by the removal of desire.”

Epictetus

Returning to the problem of evil, Stoicism proposed that the presence of evil in the world is an inevitable fact due to ignorance. The premise of this argument is that a universal reason or logos, permeates throughout reality, and evil arises when individuals go against this reason. I believe what the Stoics mean here is that a universal morality exists, that being a ubiquitous guideline accessible to our reality through conscious deliberation and reflective thought. When individuals act contrary to this universal standard, it is through an ignorance of what the correct course of action actually is.

This stoic ethos is personally appealing because it seems to have a large humanistic component. Namely, all of humanity has the ability to grasp universal moral truths and overcome their ‘ignorance’ of the one true path towards moral enlightenment. Whether such truths actually exist is debatable, and the apathetic nature of Stoicism seems to depress the overall human experience (dulled down emotions, detachment from reality).

The ancient Greek notion of eudaimonia could be a more desirable philosophy by which to guide our moral lives. The basic translation of this term as ‘greatest happiness’ does not do it justice. It was first introduced by Socrates, whom outlined a basic version of the concept as comprising two components; virtue and knowledge. Socrates’ virtue was thus moral knowledge of good and evil, or having the psychological tools to reach the ultimate good. Subsequent students Plato and Aristotle expanded on this original idea of sustained happiness by adding layers of complexity. For example, Aristotle believed that human activity tends towards the experience of maximum eudaimonia, and to achieve that end it was though that one should cultivate rationality of judgement and ‘noble’ characteristics (honor, honesty, pride, friendliness). Epicurus again modified the definition of eudaimonia to be inclusive of pleasure, thus also changing the moral focus to one that maximises the wellbeing of the individual through satisfaction of desire (the argument here is that pleasure equates with goodness and pain with badness, thus the natural conclusion is to maximise positive feeling).

We see that the problem of evil has been dealt with in a wide variety of ways. Even in our modern world it seems that people are becoming angrier, impatient and destructive towards their fellow human beings. Looking at our track record thus far, it seems that the mantra of ‘fight fire with fire’ is being followed by many countries when determining their foreign policy. Modern incarnations of religious moral codes (an eye for an eye) have resulted in a new wave of crusades with theistic beliefs at the forefront once again.

The wisdom of our ancient ancestors is refreshing and surprising, given that commonsense suggests a positive relationship between knowledge and time (human progress increases with the passage of time). It is entirely possible that humanity has been following a false path towards moral enlightenment, and given the lack of progress from the religious front, perhaps a new approach is needed. By treating the problem of evil as one of cultural ignorance we stand to benefit on a high level. The whole judicial system could be re-imagined to one where offenders are actually rehabilitated through education, rather than simply breeding generations of hardened criminals. Treating evil as a form of improper judgement forces our society to take moral responsibility at the individual level, thus resulting in real and measurable changes for the better.

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