You yourself are participating in the evil, or you are not alive. Whatever you do is evil for somebody. This is one of the ironies of the whole creation.
—Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth
I ended my last post with the dreary thought that we cannot help harming others. Almost inevitably, a system we must operate within—be it the economy, the school system, or a company we work for—will have undesirable consequences: it will exploit the disadvantaged, increase inequality, reinforce the status quo, or any of the other ugly things our social systems do.
Apart from this, it is worth considering that, even if we were operating within a relatively just and fair system, we could still unintentionally harm others. What if I take the job you had your dreams set on? Or if I marry the girl you’ve always had a crush on? Or take the last spot in your ideal university? A promotion, the lottery, the last chip in the bag—all these are limited resources, of which you deprive others by using.
As long as we live on a finite world with infinite wants, as long as our desires outpace our means, we will inevitably have to compete for some resources; and this competition will make us get in the way of each other’s happiness.
It is easy to get angry or depressed about this. The gazelle who has just been tackled by the lion probably thinks that life is monstrously unfair, and that the lion is being very unjust. The lion, for her part, probably thinks that it is perfectly fair that she eat this gazelle, since he was the slowest in the herd.
And I think they’re both right. From one perspective, life is horribly unfair; and from another, life is fairness itself. As long as there is limited gazelle meat in the world, there will be some competition for its use—the gazelle for its body, the lion for its food.
To be alive means participating in this struggle for resources; and in that respect, being alive means harming others, since any resources you take for yourself are unavailable for others. And if inflicting harm means doing evil, this means that, to some people, sometimes, you are evil. Being alive means participating in this basic, universal evil.
So if evil is inevitable, what does it mean to be moral?
Well, as I’ve discussed elsewhere, I think that morality is a system of behavior that allows individuals to live safely within the same community. This system consists of interpersonal rules: how you need to act towards others. For example, a safe community isn’t logically possible where theft and murder are considered permissible; thus moral rules prohibit these behaviors. These rules are enforced by the community through punishments. This way, behaviors incompatible with safe communal living are discouraged and diminished, allowing each member to live in relative peace and security.
Provided that these communal rules are not flawed (and historically they often have been) then by following them you are a by definition a moral person. Accepting a promotion—and, by doing so, depriving a coworker of the same promotion—may be “evil” from your coworker’s perspective, but it is not strictly immoral, since granting and accepting promotions are morally allowable actions. (By “morally allowable” I mean that these actions don’t inflict any harm, other than the unavoidable harm of allocating limited resources; and that they don’t make an exception of anyone, in that they don’t violate anyone’s rights.)
Moral systems (and their offspring, the concept of rights) are how we have learned to negotiate the crisscrossing pattern of desires, the unavoidable conflicts of interest, that exist when any two creatures inhabit the same space. By having general guidelines of conduct, we have an impartial, communally approved standard of deciding what is fair or unfair, a standard that treats every member of the community equally. In a way, a moral system is a way of imposing order onto the tragedy and comedy of all creation. It is a set of rules that tells you what desires you can or can’t satisfy—where, when, and how it is appropriate to obtain what you want. Moral systems legitimate some desires and delegitimate others.
And the beauty of moral rules is that, by curbing some desires, and disallowing certain actions, it actually benefits for each community member in the long run, since it is these rules that make the community possible at all. Without them, the community would disintegrate into chaos, or at the very least would need oppressive force to hold it together, both of which are undesirable situations.
The problem is that any moral system, however well-constructed, cannot make life fair. Morality makes social life fair, but not life itself. No matter what, some people will be born with certain talents, some people will be born into wealthy families, some people will be born into privilege, and others will be cursed with abusive parents or struck down by disease. Aside from the accident of birth, luck intervenes at every important junction: relationships, careers, school, friendships, everything.
The omnipresence of luck—the enemy of fairness—and the finitude of life, makes unhappiness unavoidable, even in a perfectly constructed utopia. Our desires will always outpace our means, and reality will always baffle our attempts to control it. We want the impossible. We want to live forever with all our friends and family, eating wonderful meals five times daily, never feeling any pain or discomfort, bedding every attractive person we see. Of course we know this can’t happen, and so feel little bitterness, usually, that life is very different.
Nevertheless, how often do we feel that life is treating us unfairly? How often do we resent those around us for taking what we want, or shake our fists at the injustice of the universe for giving other people all the luck? This feeling of injustice most often results in anger; indeed, I think anger is the ego’s defense against the feeling of impotence. When we can’t get what we want, and things aren’t going our way, we naturally grow resentful and feel that the situation is somehow wrong. It is not our desires that are wrong—to the contrary, the universe should be cooperating, since the universe created me with these desires!—but the universe that is wrong. Right?
This is the reverse-side of Campbell’s point: Not only will you be evil to somebody, but somebody will also be evil to you, even when everyone is abiding by the dictates of morality. The wise course, I think, is to try to keep the whole in perspective, to realize that what seems unjust to you may seem perfectly just to others, and vice versa.
From up close, life is tragic, since we can never get everything we want, or even a fraction; but from a distance, seen as a whole, life is also comic, because we want the impossible and don’t appreciate what we have. This double-aspect of tragedy and comedy is, indeed, one of the ironies of creation.