This Dark Age

A manual for life in the modern world.

By Daniel Schwindt

This Dark Age is now available in paperback on Amazon. The print version is MUCH cleaner than this online version, which is largely unedited and has fallen by the wayside as the project has grown. If you’ve appreciated my writing, please consider leaving a review on the relevant paperback volumes. The print edition also includes new sections (Military History, War Psychology, Dogmatic Theology).

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Moral evil is always personal

At the level of moral experience, we can say that evil is situated in the hearts and minds of human actors, and not in any non-human thing. The Bubonic Plague was an expression of physical evil insofar as it destroyed many lives, but the plague itself cannot be called morally evil. Likewise, a false ideology, which amounts to a lie, is said to be evil in the sense that it represents a departure from the truth, but the lie itself cannot possess a moral quality. The moral evil that is associated with the lie is situated in the liar himself, and not in his deceptive speech, which merely conveys the evil and gives it external, verbal form. The distinction seems trivial, but trivial mistakes in judgement have significant consequences in action, discernment, worldview, and public policy.

It does not matter whether we are considering the suffering that results from disease or famine or the pain of torture or the grief of the survivors of a terrorist attack. In every case, it is inappropriate to try and situate moral evil within the material order, which would amount to a confusion of two separate categories of evil. Nature as such is always morally neutral. The weather cannot be morally good or evil. Even our own bodies, when they seem to betray us through disease and pain, cannot be good or evil in the moral sense.

To be clear, this does not mean that all moral discernment is subjective; it only means that all external phenomena are morally neutral until their consequences cross the threshold of human consciousness and produce certain effects in the heart of man, and only at this point can we accurately speak of good or evil.

We can see the truth of this in the starkly different ways people deal with earthly suffering: one person might interpret his disease as a cosmic injustice and become spiteful and bitter; another person might transmute his suffering into an opportunity for spiritual purification. In one case we can speak of evil, in the other we can speak of goodness and the nurturing of virtue, and both in relation to the same material phenomenon.

Even in systems that emphasize objectivity, every moral question cannot fail to take into account the orientation of the will. Taking Catholicism as an example, it is said that there are certain acts which are intrinsically evil, which is to say, evil without our having to analyze the intent knowledge of the human actor. Abortion is one example of an intrinsic evil, since it is evil always and everywhere.

But what is really being expressed by this manner of speaking? It seems that the concept of intrinsic evil acts as a bridge-concept between physical evil and moral evil and this keeps Catholic morality from spiraling into either subjectivism or a cold, mathematical morality. It essentially makes the point that a human action that realizes a definite evil of the physical order (for example, the taking of an innocent life through abortion) is evil and that this act remains evil regardless of the condition of the will of the individual.

This concept allows Catholic morality to continue to situate moral evil in the human heart while at the same time acknowledging that this situation does not nullify the whole concept of physical evil, and that when human action brings about death and destroys human flourishing, that this is always evil, even while the Church goes on to say that, if the individual did not understand what they were doing or were perhaps being compelled to an extreme degree, then they might not be completely culpable, deserving of blame, for this evil. Thus, the gravity of the evil in its physical aspect is admitted into the moral system, saving it from one-sidedness.

Thus, what we have said about moral evil being situated in the human heart and not in the natural world remains in effect, because the culpability of the individual is dependent on their knowledge and willful participation in the evil they made manifest. We could say that moral evil occurs when the will (subjective) cooperates with some physical evil (objective). Thus, abortion presents itself as an aspect of physical evil because it destroys the life of the unborn, but its subjective-moral dimension is determined (in part) by whether or not the will of the physician was cooperating with or consenting to the realization of an objective evil.

This complexity also allows us to see why it is short-sighted to assume that certain physical actions are evil in and of themselves. Using the case of the physician, it would of course be absurd to situate the evil of abortion in the mere sequence of physical motions executed by the surgeon, such as the wielding of the surgical instruments or the dissection of flesh, which would be nonsense, since these actions also part of many beneficial medical procedures.

Additionally, the concept of intrinsic evil permits us to speak of moral evil without direct reference to specific events or actors. It allows us to generalize about things that are not immediately susceptible to generalization. For example, we can say that murder is intrinsically evil, but we must always remember that this is an abstracted manner of speaking, valid in itself, but in actual reality, there is no such thing as a generic ‘murder’, there are only specific murders involving specific people. There is no such thing as murder that is not first and foremost the work of a murderer, even though we speak of ‘murder’ as if that depersonalized concept were an existent thing possessed of moral qualities. So it is with all intrinsic evils.

We therefore find that even objectively evil actions bring about personal blame only because of the inner states that may or may not be involved. It must be so, since it cannot be imagined that a good will could accomplish murder and then be judged guilty of moral wrong-doing after-the-fact as a kind of punishment based on an external classification, or according to some kind of imposed standard. In order for one to be guilty of murder, the will must be severed from alignment with the good, and the accomplishment of the evil act becomes objective witness of this divorce.

Ivan Ilyin wrote that ‘evil begins where the person begins.’[1] We can appreciate his point, but we must add that he failed to make the proper distinctions between moral and physical evil and tended to oversimplify things by ignoring the latter. Again, we know that natural disasters build up virtue in some people while turning other people into veritable monsters. Thus, it is not the natural disaster but its consequences in the human psyche that become morally good or evil.

We conclude by saying that moral evil cannot take up residence in this or that external thing, it can only be realized as a certain psychospiritual deviation from truth. The devil does not generally inhabit guns, knives, bacteria, or the weather. He manipulates the hearts of men.

[1] Ivan Ilyin, On Resistance to Evil by Force, p. 13.

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