Brian’s Reflection: Monday, June 21, 2010
Evil is the product of the ability of humans
to make abstract that which is concrete.
Jean Paul Sartre, philosopher,
born on this date, 1905
Governments or organizations or corporations tend to make policies based on abstraction. Churches and religions do too – though I would say that hopefully churches and religions lose sight of concrete individuals less than governments, organizations, or corporations. Alas, I am not so sure of this in our present World situation.
Prejudice is, by the way, a form of discriminating by making an abstraction of persons or characteristics. In terms of Humanity, all human brings are concrete ….. and I suppose everything is, right? Abstraction, generalization, caricaturization – all permit us not to “see” the horror of suffering inflicted, and to commit Evil more easily.
Here, I think, is one good reason for seeing suffering. No body bags shown returning from Iraq – to me a sign that the Bush administration understood the evil they were perpetrating. They understood that seeing the concrete results of aggressive militarism would diminish the ability to ignore Evil by abstraction. While I disagree theologically with the overplaying of the suffering of Jesus, Who is reported to have undergone the gruesome death of crucifixion, this powerful symbol of the Suffering Christ does challenge us not to fall into the sin of Abstraction, not to forget that every individual is uniquely and equally loved by God, that causing suffering (as the Buddhists understand) is contrary to “God’s will”, that is, contrary to a fundamentalist Principle at the heart of the Mystery of Being.
You can think of loads of examples that illustrate Sartre’s principle. I would say that this principle is at play in the BP oil spill disaster. In pursuit of (needed) energy and of Mammon/money, we/BP have abstracted Mother Earth, and the sea creatures and the birds and the wetlands and the people who fish, which “allows” us to commit Evil by avoiding the concrete potential suffering. It is good therefore that we can see the dead porpoises and the devastated seabed and the oil-socked pelicans and chicks and the depressed and angry people. Abstraction allows Greed to inflict suffering – which is why Greed has long been considered a “mortal sin”.
We do, in making decisions, often have to think in “broad terms”. That is the challenge at the heart of the ethical puzzle often posed, “If you could destroy one terrorist-hijacked plane so that only a few would die rather than thousands, would you?”. As the Bible posed the question, is it “more expedient that one should die for the people”.
This dilemma will be with us until the end of Time. I wonder if Truman ever morally and emotionally reconciled with the decision to drop the atomic bomb.
Sartre is, I believe, correct, morally speaking. Once we being to abstract, begin to ignore the suffering we can cause, we are on the path to Evil. We must live with that Truth, and not seek to avoid it, at our peril.