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Think. Discuss. Act. Ethics

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Review: Reflections On Evil

Claffey, C.E. Reflections on evil: In Texas, scholars scrutinize ‘a deep and fundamental part of human and spiritual reality.’ (1987, November 4). The Boston Globe.


Is goodness just the way we describe things we consider noble, or does it speak of a cosmic reality? Does goodness flow from a divine being who is good and made goodness something to be recognized as the way things should work?

Is there such a thing as evil? Does evil have reality or is it merely an absence of good? Is it just the way we describe bad things, or do terrible acts flow out of a cosmic reality? Is there a tendency toward hurt and destruction to which human beings can give in?

In the fall of 1987, psychiatrists, scientists, and scholars gathered in Salado, a tiny town in central Texas. This gathering was sponsored by the Institute of Humanities located there. Speaker M. Scott Peck (The Road Less Traveled and People of the Lie) commented: “The world is a lot more likely to be saved from Salado than it is from Washington.”

Gathered to consider the nature of evil in a world racked by the despair of nuclear disaster, poverty, violence, and AIDS, attenders heard a keynote address: a filmed interview with English author, Sir Laurens van der Post. “The greatest problem of our time is not only to understand evil, not only to recognize the fact that evil is not merely an absence of good, but that evil is a deep and fundamental part of human and spiritual reality.”

Psychoanalyst and author M. Scott Peck sees evil as “opposition to life. It is that which opposes the life force. It has, in short, to do with killing. Specifically, it has to do with murder-namely, unnecessary killing, killing that is not needed for biological survival…Evil is…that which kills spirit.”

Peck decries the fragmentation and isolation of our times. Our politeness is often dictated by fear and hinders us from coming to grips with our brokenness and sin. He encourages us to recognize the need for the transcendent and for holistic approaches to life. Our society needs God. “We cannot introduce ethics into schools without having a higher power, so our children grow up knowing we are HOMO ETHICUS.”

Professor Raul Hilberg (University of Vermont), an expert on the Holocaust, explained evil systematically as it works through bureaucracy. “I’ve always believed it was a vast bureaucracy…One cannot destroy a people without employing all the institutions in the society.”

Professor Jeffrey Burton (University of California, Santa Barbara) admitted he believed in a devil as source of evil. That designation may be literal or symbolic, the professor explained, but we must acknowledge “radical evil exists in all of us,” and we must understand something of its transcendent power. Burton sees mankind’s worst sin as cruelty. “There is darkness and there is love. Love pierces the darkness. That is what I know and that is all that I know.”

Philosophy professor Philip Hallie (Wesleyan University, Connecticut) was dubious of “high abstractions” in explaining evil. But he agreed with Burton that cruelty is a central theme of evil. “Cruelty is easier to identify than evil. It has an empirical authority.”


  1. Our world and this society face a moral crisis. We cannot face that crisis isolated from humanity and fragmented in our thinking and in the way we order society. There can be no ultimate separation of church and state-such is completely counter to the intentions of the Constitution’s authors and a majority of Americans today. There can be no separation of media and morals, of politics and truth, of education and ethics.
  2. Evil role models are continually presented to the children of our society (hose minds operate with “concrete logic”) These children constantly see evil rewarded. Their minds and hearts, however, are still receptive to good role models, to moral axioms, and to stories that praise “the good.” Our culture searches for some basis for that good.
  3. Adolescence is a great time for discussions of “good and evil.” Teenagers are entering a stage of formal operational thinking, and young adults are considering right and wrong in the world. They are asking ultimate questions. They are highly sensitive to ethical issues. They desire philosophical resolution. The topic of evil interests students-neither teachers nor religious leaders should avoid discussing it. Quotations from this article can be a source for such thinking and discussion.
  4. Examples of the Holocaust, of nuclear destruction, and of other ethical issues determined by your surveys will provoke young people. Discussions of media and this article, presentations from Holocaust survivors or oppressed minorities, and panel discussions and Bible studies are all effective methods for inspiring positive convictions among the young.

Dean Borgman
© 2018 CYS

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