Column by Jim Davies.
Exclusive to STR
It's fairly clear what “evil” is, we know it when we see it. But what is its opposite, goodness? And are human beings basically good, evil, neutral or something else?
It's important to understand that, because if for example mankind is marred with a bias towards evil, the case for a restraining government, as Paine and others have counseled, is hard to overcome. He wrote in his Common Sense that “Society is produced by our wants, and government by our wickedness; the former promotes our happiness positively by uniting our affections, the latter negatively by restraining our vices.” So he saw humans as “wicked” and “vicious,” being afflicted with original sin.
Paine was right in line with the Judeo-Christian view of the matter; for example, “rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil” (Romans 13:3). That “justification” for the existence of government therefore has ancient roots. Is it well founded?
If it is, the case for anarchism is pretty well destroyed and we might as well all go home. To advocate the abolition of government is to say no government is needed, for people are not so evil as to be in need of restraint; that Paine was wrong and that the Bible is wrong. Those who oppose us on the grounds that “anarchy means chaos” or leads to chaos, have this dark view of human nature in mind. And I'd have to agree; if man were intrinsically evil, to let people behave the way they want would spell doom.
That would still leave the paradox that the only possible way of constituting government is with human beings, and if they too are evil then evil would be “restraining” evil, for which arrangement I'm unaware of any logic to show how goodness could result. The “solution” offered in Romans 13 alleges the existence of a just and benevolent God who “ordains” governments and so presumably oversees them to limit the evil they do. As well as being impossibly flimsy, that explanation suffers from thousands of years of actual history, in which governments have wrought vastly more evil, misery, destruction and mayhem than any individuals could possibly have brought about. It simply doesn't wash.
Conclusion so far: humans are not evil, tales of serpent and apple notwithstanding.
Evil certainly gets done, however, so clearly we have the capacity for evildoing, and I've suggested from the case of the Bolsheviks that evil may be activated when a person acquires power over others. That's not to say it always is so activated, for many times such power is possessed and no harm is done; for example, a parent wholly controls his young child, yet very seldom hurts him. So the condition of having power over someone is necessary for evil to happen, but not sufficient. Another ingredient is needed: malice.
Goodness, however, prevails almost everywhere we look. Almost anyone we encounter, casually or more closely, exhibits kindly or at least harmless behavior towards us, in their capacity as individuals. It's as if they instinctively know that our company has some value to them, at once or potentially, hence courtesy is appropriate – just as it will be in a free society. Only when someone acts in his capacity as a criminal or government officer (forgive the redundancy) is that benevolence replaced by menace. I've encountered IRS agents, for example, who are perfectly sociable in the normal courtesies of life before discussion about taxes begins, but who then become sinister and malevolent. It's the mantle of power that introduces the evil – that takes over an intrinsically good person.
Updated conclusion so far: mankind is intrinsically good, until handed power over others.
Now let's probe a bit what that “goodness” is. It does consist of the kind of respect that leaves people alone to run their own lives, their own way, but that's just a kind of negative goodness – an abstention from interfering. Is there more to it?
It's at this point that rational ethics parts company again with prevailing cultural values, based as they are on Judeo-Christian religious teaching. The latter holds that altruism is the goal or nature of goodness: living for the benefit of other people, or self-sacrifice; and doing so on the basis of external authority – a “thou shalt,” or shalt not as the case may be. The Decalog is not presented as the Ten Suggestions. “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” it says in the Old Testament (Lev. 19:18) and in the New, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).
It's not at all necessary for a person to be a fundamentalist in any of the three Abrahamic religions to have absorbed those standards as values describing “goodness.” They have deeply penetrated the culture over two or three thousand years, for 55% of the world's population, and perhaps of much of the remaining 45%.
That's the religion-based ethic of self-sacrifice, and it's amazing that its deadly absurdity has not been more widely observed: by that standard, to be “good,” one must sacrifice oneself for the benefit of someone else. Therefore, the “someone else” can not be good! -- including those needing help through no possible fault of their own, such as those born with a physical or mental disability. Further: goodness depends on a continuing supply of people in need, and to the extent that kindly assistance succeeds, that supply will shrink and so the possibility of being or becoming good – never higher than about half the human population -- will shrink also. Conversely the self-sacrificers may work so hard as to exhaust themselves or die of literal sacrifice, as in Dulce et Decorum Est, Pro Patria Mori; then, the residual world will be helpless and entirely evil. Obscene, either way.
So, the conventional ethics which saturate everyday life worldwide are founded upon the authoritative decrees of an entity for whose actual existence there is not a shred of proof and for whose nature there is no known definition, and which make it impossible for more than a small and shrinking number of people to aspire to goodness. It fairly reeks of myth.
In contrast, rational, objective ethics begins properly with the axiom -- the undeniable premise -- of self-ownership, then reasons that goodness must be what enhances the self, not what abnegates it. Even though many of their practical actions and outcomes may be closely similar, such rational ethics are opposed directly to the altruist ethics of sacrifice. There is no moral obligation on anyone to help anyone else; there is, however, an obligation on everyone to help himself.
The nature of goodness, therefore, is to enhance one's own enjoyment of life by whatever actions one judges will do the job, and so 100% of everyone has ample access to virtue.
Experience will quickly teach that such enjoyment springs from self-respect, and that in turn can come from many sources, including the pleasure derived from helping someone anonymously, so that nobody but the donor alone knows it was provided; the pleasure resulting from doing so confidentially to donor and beneficiary alone; the pleasure derived from helping someone publicly (though not of course boastfully – that brings blowback) with resulting reputation enhancement; the pleasure of becoming known as a reliable and trustworthy trader; the pleasure of simply accomplishing some objective, and so on.
It will also teach the importance of evaluation in the long term, not just the short one. Such experience will show that breaking one's word, for example, is not consistent with a desire to expand any business requiring trust. That frequently getting stoned does not help concentration on the building of wealth – or of a family. That generosity wins friends and brings a good reputation. That refusing to accept a fair but adverse court verdict, in the case of some dispute, will swiftly diminish one's career prospects. And so on.
This is such a radical reversal of conventional ethics that it's hard to get one's mind around it at first; it may be objected that ordinary, everyday acts of kindness are best done without thought of any return they may bring in terms of enhancing one's reputation, etc. Actually, that objection serves not to counter my case but to support it. All of us practice goodness in such forms every day without such calculation because it's normal human behavior! -- because ordinary experience tells us it brings satisfaction. That's to say that rational, self-first ethics is what humans naturally practice, and that the irrational, altruistic, religion-driven ethic of self-sacrifice is what's unnatural.
Lastly consider love; a vital component of goodness. Is love excluded from rational ethics?
Very much the contrary. The meaning of the word has again been twisted by long association with sacrifice, as in John 15:13 above, but it really has to do with the intense pleasure we each derive from the company or contemplation of another person. To say “I love you” means “I want to have you near me, always” or “I don't know how I could live without you.” It's altogether to do with enhancement of one's own happiness in life. Magic happens when the person so addressed reciprocates!
In his excellent article The God Slide, author Tzo gives some powerful reasons why faith in a supposed God is hard to reconcile with a serious commitment to voluntaryism. These thoughts have, perhaps, added one more: All frequently encountered religions preach that mankind is morally bad and needs God (and his hand-picked representatives, of course, along with their powers to forgive, punish, promote, excommunicate, etc.) to come to the rescue. Hogwash. For all his tendency to perform wickedly when holding power over others, man is by nature good and when institutional power over others is eliminated, in the coming free society, that goodness will flow unhindered.