My friend Richard Handler (see photo) is CBC's "The Ideas Guy," an erstwhile moral philosopher who sometimes presents himself as a psychologist, sometimes as a sociologist, sometimes a theologian. This week he’s a theologian. In an essay discussing the theories that have been concocted to explain away bad deeds, he starts off with a theological invention, the claim that “the devil made me do it.” Then he considers some alternative theories that place blame on social or psychological factors – Marx’s economic determinism, Freud’s unconscious motivations, and Pavlov’s behavioristic causation — before he settles upon the initial theory. There is evil in the world, he says — wrongdoing that goes beyond the level of mistakes that decent people perpetrate — and the “devil” is as good an explanation for it as any other.
He set me thinking. It seems that he’s dealing with two different variables here: (a) the morality of the deed – good or bad – and (b) whether the actor acknowledges being the source of it or claims to be controlled by some powerful external influence. Here’s a four-fold table showing the moral status of persons, according to these four conditions.
|Bad Deed||Good Deed|
|External force||Devil made me do it so I'm not to blame||God's grace led me so I deserve no credit|
|Free choice||I am a sinner||I am a normal upright person|
The upper row consists of deeds that we do not claim authorship of – actions that we may say are shaped by a powerful, external spiritual force. The lower row consists of actions that we claim to have caused and for which we accept responsibility.
This latter distinction is important — between acts that we acknowledge having caused freely and those that we do not – but Handler only notices one of the possibilities: those involving bad deeds, not good ones. He depicts our attempt to fob the blame for wrongdoing off onto the devil, or onto our economic circumstances, or our unconscious mind, or our conditioning, as the case may be. But he does not consider the possibility of denying responsibility for actions that are good.
Of course, he is mainly right, for we usually only try avoid blame; we usually crave respect for our good deeds. Nevertheless, there denial of responsibility for good deeds is a logical possibility. Moreover, if the devil is supposed to exist as the origin of evil, he must have a counterpart — God— who is the origin of goodness. God and the Devil are external spiritual powers to whom we occasionally assign responsibility if we cannot give a reasonable account of our own actions. Fortunately, if pressed, we can give an account for almost everything we do. Ordinarily, then, we stay in the lower right hand cell of this table where morally upright human beings spend most of their time. Only when we do wrong and blame ourselves for it are we located in the cell for self-declared “sinners.”
This fourfold table represents the theological model we have inherited in Western culture for describing our moral condition. It refers to human actors who perform deeds for which they may or may not feel responsible. If they don’t feel responsible, it is almost always for some deed that they regret having performed because it was immoral. However, on rare occasions a person may be surprised at herself and unable to explain her own good actions, so she may attribute them to God — a transcendent figure who intervenes in the ordinary chain of causality to bring about a miraculous outcome.
In this Western model, there are two categories of events:(a) those caused in the usual ways, according to the ordinary laws of physics and human psychology, and (b) those produced by a transcendent external force that interrupts the ordinary chain of causality and takes possession of human beings, forcing them to perform miraculously excellent or supernally evil actions.
If this table maps our inherited Western theological assumptions, there are alternative views in Eastern religion that are worth considering instead. Most Buddhist philosophy, for example, offers quite a different perspective. First, it does not allow us to distinguish sharply between good and evil — and therefore not between the devil and God, if such beings can be said to exist at all. (“Evil" events can give rise to "good" events, which in turn may give rise to "evil" ones, so it is impossible to say whether any particular evil is "really" evil or whether it is merely a preliminary phase of some good event. Or vice versa.)
Second, Buddhist philosophy does not allow us to distinguish between those events that are caused routinely (as in the everyday workings of nature and society) and those resulting from the occasional eruption of supernatural forces. Thus the line between the two columns is erased and so is the line between the two rows. Everything is now inside one big box – a single cell. The universe operates in the same way all the time. If there is a god (or, for that matter, a devil) he or she works with and through causality, not by interrupting it. Hence there is no way of distinguishing between acts that we did cause and those that we didn’t. Everything in the universe is causally connected to everything else. Everything has causes and everything has effects. God does not stand outside the universe, creating it, interrupting it, and finally destroying it. If God is here, it is in everything, all the time — and always was. God is not making the system work; it is the system at work. It is you and me. It every neutrino, every quark, every nebula, every galaxy. It is in every gesture of love and every genocidal massacre. Everything that exists constitutes a great system in which no part — not even the tiniest or the most evil part — is surplus.
Your move, Richard.