The Oddity of Theodicy

For many years, Google’s unofficial mantra was, reportedly, “Don’t be evil.” This sounds simple, and is a great aspiration, but is a) too low a bar (note the double negative, it’s not “be good”), and b) presumes that a bunch of computer scientists and business leaders are also fairly sophisticated philosophers who have a robust sense of what actions are recognizably evil. But evil is a complex thing; we might all agree that certain horrific acts are evil: torture and murder for profit would seem to clearly qualify. But what about torture of a suspected terrorist with the intention of obtaining information that could save lives? That gets trickier, and even if we feel that it’s wrong, we’d be harder-pressed to describe such a government operative as “evil.” If the motivations therefore influence the good (or evil) of the act, what are Google’s employees’ motivations? It’s a for-profit company, that also is on the forefront of research and knowledge. The (well-intentioned) slogan winds up permitting way too much, allowing employees effectively to say “well, I’m not being EVIL, I’m just tracking data/figuring out how to predict behavior” without interrogating the resulting societal loss of privacy (or worse, manipulation of people).

If we believe evil exists in the world, how do we reconcile its existence (or that of good people suffering more broadly) with the notion of a benevolent, all-powerful god? The atheist’s answer may be that we can’t, and that therefore God must not exist. The Zen answer may be that evil does not exist as a separate entity; that all things are as a function of their relationships to others. Both of those feel like a form of dodging the question to me. David Birnbaum’s God and Evil: A Unified Theodicy makes a valiant effort to resolve this paradox within the context of Orthodox Jewish belief, starting from the premise that miracles used to be more commonplace and are less so now, and linking less divine interference in human affairs to our greater freedom and opportunity to be good, but therefore also additional potential for evil. Birnbaum uses the analogy of a parent to illustrate his point: when children are young, parents intervene frequently, preventing them from making mistakes that could harm them. As they grow, they are allowed greater freedom, even though the parents know that they may make mistakes, so that they have the opportunity to make the right decisions on their own and be their highest selves. Similarly, Birnbaum claims, God has reduced his intervention to allow us to become our highest and best selves, even though this means that we will have to deal with human evil in the world. Birnbaum addresses two other arguments for the existence of evil: the “we just don’t understand all of the connections” in which a small evil exists for the sake of a greater good (e.g., I miss my bus but therefore I’m not on it when it drives off a cliff), and the “God’s wisdom is greater than ours” rationale in which something or someone who appears evil is in fact good by divine standards.

Though I find this a more satisfying proposal than simply “divine inscrutability,” I still struggle with the magnitude of the Holocaust or ethnic cleansing; unless God is bound by some sort of divine inertia or entropy such that once he grants humans liberty beyond a certain point he could never retract it, surely it would have been worth the loss of some free will for a decade in the 1940s to prevent so much destruction.

The very term “evil” has a simplistic, childish feel to it. I’ve been reading fairy tales to my daughter, and the “wicked stepmother” or “evil king” is a trope that is best-suited to that genre. We don’t know (or particularly care) why the villains are evil, they simply are, and exist to serve as foils for our protagonists. This strikes me as an unhelpful worldview. It discourages understanding and explanation, but rather seeks to typecast others into pre-scripted roles. Early Christians may have done the same to Judas, according to Hyam Maccoby’s Judas Iscariot and the Myth of Jewish Evil. In the earliest texts describing the life of Jesus, Judas had no particularly sinister role to play. In many pre-Judaic traditions, blood sacrifices sanctify the land, and require a betrayer who is both tragic and evil. Judaism had inverted this set of beliefs: Abel’s blood polluted the land, rather than ensuring its fertility, and Abraham is stopped from sacrificing his son Isaac, unlike other local Semitic religions that endorsed child sacrifice. Christianity, from this mythic lens, is a reversion to earlier styles of worship and thinking: Christ’s blood is so beneficial that the Eucharist celebrates it. Maccoby argues that as early Christians wished to define themselves in opposition to the Jews, they adopted the mythic type of the betrayer (e.g., Loki/Baldur in Norse myth) and ascribed it to Judas, whose name was conveniently a homonym for the Jewish people. Judas is a tragic figure because he is destined to betray, just as Jesus is destined to die. To an extent, he and Jesus are mutually complicit in the inevitable crucifixion, and equally essential. For the mythic Judas, who he is and what he does are indistinguishable. He is the betrayer, the evil one, and therefore his evil can be inherited by the Jews, his namesakes and spiritual descendants, such that they also must be separated and punished. This, in turn, justifies pogroms and other intolerance down through the millennia. Our myths and archetypes have power; once we label something (or someone) evil, one cannot negotiate with it. If our definition of evil is overbroad, this leads to an existential crisis (and violence, pogroms, etc.). If it is not broad enough, we can allow ourselves too much leeway (as Google has, in my opinion) to do things that are ethically questionable, but not outright evil. I’ve known many people who felt they were good people simply because they didn’t do bad things. While that’s a start, I’d argue that goodness requires affirmatively good actions, not simply non-harm (though that’s a good place to start). Our aim in life ought to be to try and do better, to actually fix our broken world and not just not make things worse. In that vein, as I try to teach my daughter myths, right, and wrong, I hope to focus on the good actions that are emulatable, and not simply the identities of good/evil characters.

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