Jeffrey B. Russell
Professor of History
University of California Santa Barbara
(a homily given at the Unitarian Church, Santa Barbara, CA 1995)
Evil is very much in our minds these days with Oklahoma City, Bosnia,
Rwanda, and Zaire. And I'm afraid that when those places get better, other
places will get worse. Now I've written five books on the problem of evil,
focusing on the history of the Devil as symbol of evil. I don't want to
rehash old thoughts for you, so I'm going to stay away from philosophical
classifications of evil and also from the figure of Satan himself. I'm
through with him--even though he may not be through with me.
Rather I'm going to talk about two social tendencies today that have great
potential for evil. One is radical authoritarianism, and that's what comes
to mind when we think of Oklahoma or of right-wing militias. It's easy
for open-minded, educated people like us to see the dangers in that direction.
It's always easier to condemn somebody else's faults. For example, I don't
smoke, so I can get selfrighteous about smokers, but I do like a drink with
dinner, so I can get vehement about the virtues of wine. So I want to emphasize
the danger opposite to authoritarianism; and that is relativism.
To understand evil, we must understand good. If Evil does not exist, neither
does Good. No Radical Good, no Radical Evil. I am going to argue for the
True and the Good and the Beautiful, and then I shall argue that Radical
Evil exists as well as Radical Good.
In questioning relativism, I am not talking about the moderate cultural
relativism that suspends judgments between Mozart and Ravi Shankar, or between
Japanese haiku and Italian terza rima, let alone between sushi and pizza.
I am talking about a growing and frightening tendency to radical relativism.
I first encountered radical relativism in a classroom in the early 70s,
when I was showing pictures and photographs of violence. Among the pictures
was one of a soldier kicking a little boy to death. One of the young women
in the class argued strongly that we had no right to make a value judgment
about the soldier's act. After much time in discussion, she finally allowed
that the soldier's act might have been wrong--but NOT because the boy was
suffering. Rather, her reason was that the soldier "might have enjoyed
the boy's company if he had got to know him." She allowed that from
the boy's point of view things probably looked different. But the only judgment
she would make on the soldier was on the basis of the pleasure he might
have deprived himself of. There is no GOOD; there is only feeling good.
The pleasure principle. Good and evil depend on how you happen to feel.
Note the phrase "Happen to feel."
A few years later, at UCSB, while teaching philosophy of history, I encountered
another variety of radical relativism. I tried in vain to get the class
to admit that the Sistine Chapel was better than a stick figure I scrawled
on the board, that a Bach cantata was better than my toneless humming, that
King Lear was better than Roses are Red, Violets are blue. No way. Some
people, they replied, might prefer the stick figure or the greeting card
sentiments. One young woman in the class was particularly bright and later
went on to a successful career as a lawyer. She was an oboe player in the
Santa Barbara Symphony. She had been practicing oboe for seven or eight
years. I had never done more than look at one. I challenged her to bring
her oboe, and we'd see whether it was possible to determine whose playing
was better. "Some people might prefer the way you played," she
responded. Then why practice at all, let alone seven years? At the end
of the term, the young woman turned in the best paper in the class. I gave
her an A, of course, and she was delighted. But what if I had taken her
at her word? What if I had told her, "You are getting a C along with
everyone else, because there is no basis on which to judge one paper better
So there is no quality, no Beauty; it's all how you happen to feel.
So much for the Good and the Beautiful. Now let's get rid of the True.
Historians come across infinite variations of relativizing the True. All
evidence crumbles before the statement "I happen to feel," often
pronounced with righteous indignation. For example, "I happen to feel
that Christopher Columbus was motivated only by money and power;" or
even "I happen to feel that extra-terrestrial built the pyramids."
So there is no Good, no Truth, no Beauty. And this is the view held by
many--perhaps the majority--of professors, journalists, and other intellectuals.
People don't think this way without being taught to. People have to be
taught to be silly. People HAVE TO BE TAUGHT something so counter-intuitive,
so opposed to the way they actually act. The bright young woman in my classroom
in reality thought, and acted as if she thought, that she deserved the A.
She did not act, did not behave, did not live, in accordance with the silly
notions she professed to believe.
People have to be taught this sort of silliness because a moral imperative
exists inherent in the human mind. We know that by observing children.
Children early on know, instinctively, the concept of fairness, the distinction
between right and wrong, truth and lies. They have to be educated out of
it. They have to be carefully taught. It's what's called trained incapacity.
Who is training people to be morally incapable? Misguided parents and
teachers, especially in high schools and universities, and especially in
the humanities and social sciences where I hang out. And, above all, the
media. To whose advantage is it that kids should think that the only ultimate
value is what you feel like owning, having, using? To retailers, wholesalers,
This relativism is everywhere. One reason why juries are so impressionable
is because the law is currently so removed from justice. Rather than determining
right or wrong, the jury is asked to decide on the basis of law, mostly
statute law, legislated law, and much it enacted on behalf of special interest
groups. Fortunately enough shreds of natural law (the law derived from the
Creator) cling to us that we still outlaw raping children (though the tolerance
of pornography is undermining even that) and murder (though the complex
inconsistencies of the legal system is undermining even that).
The current dismissal of Reason is depressing, as the results of such a
dismissal were foretold during the eighteenth century. Many philosophers,
such as Thomas Jefferson, still firmly declared that the rights of life,
liberty, and the pursuit of happiness were rights precisely they came from
Nature and Nature's God. The great philosopher Immanuel Kant constructed
a moral system of universal validity based, not upon revelation, but upon
reason. But some Enlightenment writers emphasized the human origin of human
knowledge, law, and morality. The implications of this were seen, and shown,
quite clearly buy none other than the Marquis de Sade, a brilliant writer
as well as the originator of sadism. Sade took relativist assumptions to
their logical extreme. If there are no moral absolutes, then there are
no moral absolutes. If you prefer having a good dinner at a restaurant
to raping and killing children, that is your prerogative, fine, and I don't
judge you, but if I prefer raping and murdering children, what grounds do
you have for judging me? The Enlightenment philosophers fell over one another
disowning Sade, particularly since he practiced much of what he preached,
but he was dead right. If there are no absolutes there are no absolutes.
One Relativist reply is: don't worry. Societies make social contracts
that prevent fundamental evils. Oh? Says who? What authority determines
what these fundamental evils are? Or, don't worry: no society would form
values allowing the raping and murdering of babies. Oh? Such societies
have existed and do exist. Absent inherent, absolute values, who indeed
is to say what is what is right? Sixty years ago, German society supported
Hitler, and there are still a lot of Russians who honor Stalin. Human nature
is basically good. Says who? Say the victims of Timothy McVeigh? Of Hitler,
or Pol Pot, or Stalin, or Genghis Khan, or of holy inquisitions and holy
wars? Relativists may object to torturing babies or exterminating Jews,
but on what basis? Because they happen to feel that it isn't nice? You
must not bomb synagogues? Says who? You must not discriminate against
African-Americans. Says who? You must not legislate what a woman may do
with her body. Says who? Every moral statement a Relativist makes, whether
others agree with it or not, falls when confronted with the simple question,
says who? "Says I" is the only ultimate response a Relativist
can make. And the reply to that is pretty quick: "So what?"
Another response is that most people who call themselves Relativists don't
really, at bottom, think that way. I think this is true. Fine. Then let
us stop pretending to believe what we do not.
In intellectual circles today it is difficult to assert the existence of
timeless truth, or to distinguish clearly between right and wrong, good
and evil, because then one runs up against a cherished assumption of late
twentieth-century intellectuals, namely, that we humans are morally autonomous
beings who have every right to act by our own standards. This belief floats,
vaguely, somewhere above the logically preceding assumption that human nature
is basically good. This popular, wacky assumption is original to post-Enlightenment
Romanticism, and it goes against everything that the historian--or indeed
that the newspaper reader, or that the living human being--knows from experience.
The evidence is in, and the verdict is that human nature is essentially
In the University, Relativism has become, not an option, but a tyranny.
Have you ever noticed how intolerant Relativists can be? They have to
be intolerant, because the ultimate basis of their assertions on any subject
is their feeling that they are right. This feeling, being personal, and
being a feeling rather than a thought-out opinion, cannot be subjected to
reason, argument or discussion, because there are no intellectual or moral
standards by which anything can be subjected to reason. To what then do
Relativists have recourse? The only thing that they CAN have recourse to
is POWER. If you cannot persuade me to your view, why then you can coerce
me--by yelling, by scorn, by lawsuits, by legislation. And so power blocs
have attained enormous influence. Pro-choice or pro-life, pro-gun control
or anti-gun control, pro-tobacco and anti-tobacco: there is no common ground
for rational discernment of values; the result is the use of power to determine
who wins, and whoever wins is by definition right.
The lack of absolute values creates a situation in which those who are
able and willing to use power most ruthlessly and most cynically will inevitably
win the day. They will do so by forming alliances with those who happen
to feel the same way about this or that issue, and they will use intimidation,
mockery, and political machinations to achieve their goals, and they will
do so relentlessly and ruthlessly BECAUSE THERE ARE NO HIGHER VALUES than
their own goals to refer to.
Relativists, who ought to be the first to acknowledge that every view is
precarious, are usually the last to do so, because they have nothing to
rely upon save their assertions. Now the natural objection to me is: "Your
own views are precarious." I know that, I know it deeply, I feel it
deeply, and I freely admit it. Let Relativists do the same. My values
are at least constructed upon a self-critical evaluation of human behavior
throughout the ages, not on some passing intellectual vogue or political
The existence of radical evil, once we put trained incapacity aside, is
known from experience. We in fact do know that certain actions are evil:
the Oklahoma City bombing, the Nazi death camps, Stalin's forced labor camps,
napalming a village, infecting prisoners with deadly bacteria, kicking a
child to death. We know these things to be evil by direct intuition. We
also know from our experience that we have willed evil and done evil to
others. Anyone over the age of ten who is unaware of this badly needs to
look more deeply within.
The first place to look in attempting to accept the reality of evil is
within ourselves. So we experience evil done by us. And we also experience
evil done to us. (That is of course easier to recognize and to remember.)
The experience of evil done by individuals is universal--everyone has experienced
it, and it can be denied only by denying the validity of universal experience.
It is clear that we may speak of evil deeds. It is somewhat less clear
that we can speak of evil persons, but it requires an intellectual effort
to deny it. A person who chooses evil over and over again becomes habituated
to it and cannot stop. I have known a person like this; you may have; if
not, we can refer again to McVeigh, Jim Jones, Hitler, and Stalin.
The next question is whether evil goes beyond individual choice. Is there
transpersonal evil? John Steinbeck's In Dubious Battle has a character
who is a Communist organizer and who stirs up a group of workers into an
angry mob. He is appalled by the effects of his own work: these people,
he says, have ceased to be people; they have become one big animal, capable
of doing anything. Think of this: would all the evil inclinations of your
life put together urge you to shove a living prisoner into a crematorium?
Would all the evil inclinations of your own worst enemy bring about the
Holocaust? Evil on that scale seems to be qualitatively, not just quantitatively
different. It is a transpersonal evil, capable of anything. [QUOTE ON
THE MYSTERY OF EVIL AND HITLER]
Be that as it may, our chief responsibility is for the evil in ourselves.
Evil comes from both nature and nurture, from DNA to our family upbringing.
But it also comes from free will. We are never compelled by evil or to
evil. We recognize evil by a natural moral sense given us, if I may return
to Jefferson, by Nature and Nature's God. Says who? Says God. Or else
God, or at least Reason, help us.