“Is evil rational? If it is, then how can we depend on reason alone to make a better world?”
This question is posited by Dennis Prager of the PragerUniversity YouTube channel in one of his videos.
What is “Evil”?
In his video, Mr. Prager never actually defines evil. If he had, then perhaps his thinking would have been clearer and he would have reached a different conclusion. Unfortunately, without knowing how he defines evil we cannot tell whether or not his argument holds up internally.
Dictionaries are often quite unhelpful in philosophical matters because for words pertaining to such issues they often use subjective and unspecific definitions.
The most specific dictionary definition of evil I have found is this: Merriam-Webster defines evil as “morally bad” or “causing harm or injury to someone”.
What is “morally bad” is up for debate, but “causing harm or injury to someone” is less vague. This definition is close to my own, which is even more specific:
“Evil” is a subjective term for what a particular individual views as extremely undesirable and revolting, and specifically pertains to behaviors and feelings that have intent to cause suffering or which disregard the suffering they cause. (And what is “good” of course, would be the opposite)
I think my own definiton of evil is accurate to how people use the term, and is actually, as far as I can yet determine, the only possible way to define it which maintains its implied connotations.
Reason is a means to an end
To say that either evil or good is inherently “rational” for its own sake would be incoherent and nonsensical.
This is because what is “rational” entirely depends on the goal that one desires to achieve (Mr. Prager even acknowledges this in his video). We can make an analogy to solving a problem that requires mathematics. The rational way to achieve the answer – that is, deciding what mathematical formulas to use and what numbers to apply to them – depends on what information is available and what we are trying to learn.
Reason is a method to accurately discern the most effective ways to achieve a goal. So no action can inherently be “rational” or “irrational” in and of itself, or for its own sake. It is like a compass: it does not dictate to you where your destination should be, but it informs you of your position such that you can decide what direction to turn in order to reach it.
Humans have evolved such that most individuals feel strong empathy and community loyalty and we all wish to be happy and content. So when these feelings form the deepest goals and desires we wish to satisfy, then reason helps us determine the most effective way to achieve those ends.
And it must be understood that goals like vengeance and satisfying feelings of hatred are not our deepest desires. Rather they are irrational means by which people try to achieve contentedness. They are irrational because we can learn that they do not work as well as other practices, and in fact generally cause more problems for both ourselves and others.
Furthermore, in the video, Mr. Prager assumes that self-preservation is inherently rational. But since our feelings are not only about personal survival, decisions that make self-preservation the top priority would not always be rational. Sometimes such decisions could be downright irrational and would logically be given low priority compared with one’s other goals. For example, this would be the case regarding people who helped Jews escape during the Holocaust. Their empathy for others in danger was a feeling that needed to be satisfied, so their other goal of self-preservation did not hold top priority.
We should also ask how rational it is in general to put self-preservation above all else. We are going to die no matter what, and our lives aren’t even that long. So reason would inform us that mere survival would not be worth making top priority, since it could come at the expense of satisfying other feelings such as happiness and empathy.
Making self-preservation a top priority is not even rational from an evolutionary perspective. Although evolution is driven by survival, the qualities that get passed on as a result of survival include much more than just selfish self-preservation. Since genes are most successfully passed on when more individuals with those genes survive, traits that aid group survival like cooperation, loyalty, and empathy are selected for in the process of natural selection. That is why we see many creatures evolved exhibiting many behaviors that we characterize as caring, brave, and selfless.
Utilizing reason rather than irrationality and superstition can help us correct our behaviors to be more productive to those ends. It can prevent us from becoming misguided and engaging in belief systems that prevent us from accurately understanding the real situation (such as accepting that being gay is not a choice and that atheism will not bring God’s wrath upon us).
Consider this: “Right” and “wrong” would be arbitrary and meaningless terms if we had no reason for calling something “right” or “wrong”. So the question is, what is your reason for declaring anything right or wrong?
Is your reason based on the harm that an action causes to living beings? Or is it based on something else, like commands written in a book or the subjective belief that one heard God speaking to them? Does that “moral” reason necessitate that you favor actions that disregard the harm they cause to living beings?
If the welfare and mitigation of suffering for living beings is not your basis of right and wrong, then in what sense is something “good” or “evil” to you? And if your system uses anything but reason as the way you achieve it, then you must concede that your judgments are more likely to result in unnecessary suffering and that holding to such a belief system means that the suffering of living beings is not a priority for your moral system. Is that something you consider good, or evil?
To summarize: Morals are based on feelings, not just reason. Our feelings provide us with a general desire, and then reason helps us meet that desire effectively.
Now we must also ask, what options do we have besides reason?
The people posing the question/argument mentioned in the opening of this article are generally religious; specifically, fundamentalist Christians such as Dennis Prager.
In his video he argues that the only reason he can think of that would qualify as a reason to say that killing a disabled baby is wrong is a “belief that all human beings are created in God’s image and are therefore infinitely precious.”
But there are numerous problems with this:
1. It is a non sequitur. There is no logical bridge from his premise to his conclusion, and he does not explain his reasoning at all. We could just as easily make the argument that “all human beings are like dirt compared to God and his glory and are therefore utterly worthless.” (Note that many Christians in fact argue that this is the case in order to justify why God can kill people and still be moral)
2. If Christianity is true, then everyone actually lives forever. So if you kill a baby then it just goes to heaven. To the baby that would be preferable. So we would have no reason to consider this life precious at all.
3. In the Bible, God’s followers are destroying life all over the place at God’s command: from killing entire cities of adults, to children, babies, and fetuses. God himself even kills millions of people directly. And the Law of Moses commands death for myriad violations. How is any of that holding life to be infinitely precious? Furthermore, Christians believe that God will send tons of people to Hell. How is that holding life as inherently, infinitely precious? If life is precious and destroying it is immoral, as Mr. Prager asserts, then God and the Bible are immoral and do not view life as precious.
4. By bringing up an example where he shows that people naturally want to justify human life being valuable, he undermines his own argument and instead supports mine. Consider: If human life were indeed valuable only if God exists, then why would it bother Mr. Prager if God did not exist? Under his logic, it would just mean that he would know that life was actually not valuable, so what would it matter in that case and why should we care?
But Mr. Prager is trying to come up with a reason to justify life being valuable. In fact he takes it is a forgone conclusion that you want to have a reason to consider life valuable no matter what. In other words, he only offers a belief in God’s as a means to consider life valuable!
And that supports my position, because it reveals that our ultimate basis for morality is not a belief in God, but rather, is our emotions. And I believe these emotions are fundamentally based around empathy for another’s suffering. So if we were to kill a disabled baby then we would be causing suffering to the baby and its parents. If this suffering would be greater than if the baby lived, then it would be immoral from the viewpoint of a person whose morality is centered around feelings of empathy for others’ suffering.
5. In the part of the video where this issue of killing a disabled baby was raised, Mr. Prager had said: “Asked if he would kill a disabled baby, a distinguished professor of philosophy at Princeton University responded ‘Yes, if that was in the best interest of the baby and of the family as a whole.'”
Prager assumes that this is a bad answer and that we should find a reason for it to be wrong. I have already explained that the reason we consider life precious in general is our emotions, but now let’s consider the Professor’s answer. If killing the baby were genuinely in the best interest of the baby and the parents, then how would it be right to do the opposite? If your moral system dictates that you ever unnecessarily act contrary to the best interest of others, then in what way is your system of morality good or desirable for anyone?