The notion of evil intersects with that of time in three main areas: with regard to the thesis of moral relativism, to the question of our moral responsibility for the future, and to the problem of metaphysical evil.
According to moral relativists, there are no universal moral values; rather, what is good or evil is relative to social environments, cultures, and the like. An important aspect of this view is that what is good or evil changes over time; morality is thus rather like the rules of a game. For example, the over in the game of cricket was originally four balls long, then was changed to five, and then to today’s six; it would be absurd to say today that the result of a match in 1850 should not count because only four balls were played per over. Similarly, say relativists, slavery was not evil in ancient Athens because it was in accordance with the moral system of that time and place; in contrast, it is evil in the modern world because it offends against the moral systems now in place.
This analogy between morality and games is weak, however. In the case of games, there are two systems of values: the rules within each game and the moral system, which includes the notion and status of following those rules. The notion of cheating, for example, is the same in the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries: It consists in deliberately breaking the rules, whatever they happen to be at the time, usually in order to gain an advantage. The rules may change across the centuries, and thus which actions constitute breaking the rules will be different at different times, but the view of cheating remains the same: It is wrong.
In the case of morality, however, relativists must avoid appealing to a similar two-level structure; if they do, they are distinguishing between a local morality that includes rules about slavery, and so on, and a universal morality that asserts the wrongness of breaking local moral rules. In the case of games, people are justified in expressing disapproval of a 19th-century cricket cheat who bowled six balls in an over, even though that would today be perfectly correct; moreover, if someone were to condemn as a cheat a 19th- century cricketer who bowled only four balls in an over, people should say that they were wrong to make such a judgment. Relativists, however, must not only deny that people are justified in condemning ancient slavery but also must avoid saying that it is wrong to condemn it; to do so would be to make a universal claim and hence would involve self-contradiction. Moreover, if relativists in one culture, such as that of the United Kingdom, say that their compatriots should not judge the behavior of citizens of another culture, such as that of Saudi Arabia, they must surely be committed to saying that people in Saudi Arabia should also not judge the behavior of people in the United Kingdom; they are therefore doing exactly what they said must not be done—imposing on the Saudis their own view of what should be done, their own relativist moral theory.
In an attempt to develop a more sophisticated form of relativism that avoids problems such as this, Bernard Williams has appealed to what he calls a “relativism of distance.” He argues that the problem with “vulgar relativism” is that the conclusions it draws are not simply within morality but about morality; hence he develops an appraisal-relativism, which focuses on the conditions under which individuals can appraise their appraisals in terms of genuineness (using “genuine” in an absolute sense).
The core of this approach is the claim that talk of right and wrong with respect to moral outlook need apply only if a society is sufficiently close to one’s own. Williams distinguishes between two types of confrontation with belief systems: real and notional. A real confrontation between a society and another belief system at a given time occurs when it would be possible for the society rationally to adopt the belief system without losing its hold on reality. The confrontation is merely notional if the society could not rationally adopt the belief system; it is too far from its view of the world. Making clear the difference between this and vulgar relativism, Williams stresses that it is not that one society cannot judge or interfere with another, but that it would lack any rational basis for doing so.
Put another way, a confrontation is notional between our own moral outlook and another, such as one in the past, in the sense that the other is not a real option for us. We are not in a position to make an assessment or appraisal, because the moral point of view from which such appraisals are made is no longer our moral point of view. The fact that we do not share or no longer hold that point of view makes it impossible for us to make or continue to make such assessments. We have lost or no longer share the concepts and the point of view from which we can make such assessments; we can still understand and learn about the culture, history, and social world of the other moral outlook or moral concepts, and see that in some sense these circumstances warrant or entail the truth of their moral judgments, without sharing their moral outlook or these judgments, in much the same way as a historian can understand and learn about a society or an outlook that he or she does not share. Thus, our own moral concepts, appraisals, and moral judgments get no purchase on the other outlook; we can assess its internal consistency, but we cannot claim that it is incorrect; we must simply leave it unjudged and unappraised.
Williams’s approach is reminiscent of Thomas S. Kuhn’s account of paradigms in the philosophy of science (and it is interesting to note that Kuhn denied that his was a relativist theory). Two scientific paradigms are incommensurable, for they make different assumptions; use different standards, definitions, and concepts; and use language in different ways. Rational comparison of paradigms is prevented by the fact that one must judge one paradigm from within another; there is no neutral or privileged viewpoint. As with Williams’s sophisticated moral relativism, though, this makes no claim about the possibility of one paradigm actually being better (closer to the truth) than another; it merely claims that we can never be in a position to know this.
With respect to many questions, however, in particular with questions of justice, Williams admits that people find it difficult not to treat the confrontation between opposing sets of belief as real rather than notional. Also, John McDowell has pointed out that there is an urgent question about the coherence of the relativism of distance: If an outlook conflicts with one’s own (a condition of the problem to which relativism is supposed to be a response), how can one coherently combine one’s recognition of the conflict and standing by one’s own outlook with a disclaimer of any interest in, or even possibility of, making some negative assessment of the other? The fact that going over to the other outlook is not a real option makes no obvious difference to this.
Responsibility for the Future
Is it possible for an action to be evil because of its consequences for future victims? There are various ways in which such a question arises; in one sense, after all, most if not all actions have consequences for future victims, because an action’s effects are in the future by definition. The assassin’s finger squeezes the trigger shortly before the bullet hits its target and perhaps days before the victim dies, by which time both assassin and victim are, in many ways, different people. The temporal aspect of such examples, however, seems to raise no real extra moral problems. We are here concerned with more straightforward cases in which the effect significantly postdates the cause, especially with cases in which the thing or person affected does not yet exist when the action is performed. For example, in the sociopolitical context many kinds of behavior have implications for future generations. Environmental ethi- cists are concerned with this issue, but the most direct example is raised in the field of political philosophy.
A dilemma is raised for believers in democracy by the existence of political parties whose platforms include the dismantling of the democratic system. If the people of a state vote for such a party, and thus choose to move to a dictatorship, tyranny, theocracy, or the like, what should the committed democrat think? On the one hand, the democratic will of the people has been made clear and should surely be honored, but on the other hand the result goes against the democrat’s central principle. One way of resolving the dilemma is to point out that democracy involves the right of the citizens of a state to choose their own government, not that of other people. If, for example, one state invades and overthrows the government of its neighbor, it is no excuse to say that the invasion was the result of a democratic referendum or that it was carried out by a democratically elected government. If we are not entitled to take away our neighbors’ freedom by invading them, why should we be entitled to take away that of our children or grandchildren by installing a dictatorship? That they are separated from us by time rather than by space surely makes no difference morally.
The main objection to such a position depends upon the view that the future, having not yet come to be, is not real. Future generations, therefore, do not exist, and we cannot have moral responsibilities toward what does not exist. In response, it can be argued that there is an important distinction to be drawn between individuals and classes: Whereas we can have no obligations to a nonexistent and therefore indeterminate individual, we can have obligations toward a class whose members are all in the future, for such a class can be determinate. For example, we know exactly which criteria will allow us to determine the members of the class of people born in the year 2027, even though we cannot yet identify any of them, but we have no independent criteria by which to pick out a particular member of that class, even in principle.
Such considerations also affect other moral questions concerning the role of time, such as abortion, contraception, and celibacy. To what extent is the future person who would (or might) have existed a genuine object of our moral concern? Can it be a moral object as an individual, or merely as a member of a class? For example, it might be argued that universal vegetarianism is not clearly desirable even from the point of view of our moral obligations to animals, as the suffering and deaths of the animals killed for food has to be set against the fact that millions of future sheep, cows, pigs, and so on, which would otherwise have been bred for the table, would no longer be needed and would thus lose their chance at any sort of existence. If a short life is better than no life, then it would seem that universal vegetarianism would deprive millions of future animals of their lives and that this would outweigh any good done.
This reasoning, however, makes the assumption that the members of the class of future animals are determinate individuals with moral status. It is true that future animals that would be killed for their flesh can be treated as such, for if we continue to breed animals for food, our actions will create individuals to which harm can be done. If, on the other hand, we decide to stop the breeding process, then no animals (determinate or otherwise) are created by our actions; an animal that is never born is not an animal at all; it does not (and never will) exist in order to suffer harm. The same reasoning is relevant, mutatis mutandis, in other areas of practical ethics, such as abortion and euthanasia.
The notion of metaphysical evil arises primarily in the context of theodicy and involves the fact and effects of contingency, that is, issues such as death and the shortness of life. In fact this usually involves talk of time when what are actually at issue are temporal processes—changes occurring within time. This sort of confusion is most obvious with regard to utterances such as “time is the great healer” or “tempus edax rerum” (“time the devourer of things”); strictly speaking, time has no causal powers, either of healing or of destroying, but what we really mean to refer to is the succession of causally related events occurring within time (note, however, that whether time is in fact something in itself rather than merely the relationship between events is one of the main questions dealt with in the metaphysics of time).
In pre-Islamic Arabic thought, time was viewed as the controller of human destinies (usually impersonal), setting the outcomes of our actions rather than the individual actions themselves, and in particular determining the time of our deaths. This role was taken over by God in Islam (though with deep disagreements concerning the degree to which God determines events, especially with regard to the human will).
Systems of thought such as those of Hinduism and Buddhism have responded to aspects of metaphysical evil by developing the notion of reincarnation (or, in Buddhism, rebirth). According to such accounts, it is true that the individual human life span is short and that there is great unfairness in the distribution of goods with which we are born, such as health, intelligence, social status, and so forth; this, however, is placed in the context of an existence that spans many lifetimes, either through the passing of a changeless atman from one incarnation to the next, as in Hinduism, or the causal chain of deaths and births, as in Buddhism.
For theologians such as Saint Augustine of Hippo, our existence in time is both symptom and condition of our imperfect nature; God is not in time but rather is eternal, creating time in his creation of the world. This view can be traced to influences on Augustine from the Manichaeism of his early life, before his conversion to Christianity. A similar approach can also be found in Zoroastrianism, though its account is particularly complex, involving two types of time: boundless time and the bounded time of the world as we know it. There was originally only boundless time, but Ahura Mazda created bounded time in order to constrain Ahriman, the evil one, and to enable his ultimate defeat. The notion that time is both a worldly imperfection and the means to the overcoming of that imperfection can be found in much of the later theology of the Abrahamic religions.
See also Angels; Bible and Time; Devils (Demons); God and Time; Satan and Time; Sin, Original; Time, Sacred
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Shermer, M. (2004). The science of good and evil: Why people cheat, gossip, care, share, and follow the golden rule. New York: Henry Holt/Times Books.