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Intelligible Religion by Philip H. Phenix


Philip H. Phenix was educated at Princeton University, Union Theological Seminary, and Columbia University. He was formerly Dean of Carleton College, and was professor of Education at Teachers College, Columbia University. Published by Harper & Brother, New York. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Chapter 9: Good and Evil


One of the persistent themes of religious thought has been the problem of good and evil. This problem has not, of course, been the exclusive concern of those who are called religious. In one form or another every person and every group has necessarily faced this question, for all human action involves some standard, whether implicit or explicit, of what is good. Similarly all judgments which are made on the conduct of persons, either ourselves or others, require some ethical measure. This universality of the problem suggests a connection with the universal experiences described in Part Two, upon which a basic definition of religion was constructed. Judgments of good and evil spring from the experience of value, which is one of the fundamentals of religious experience as we have described it.

We therefore have a two-fold reason for considering good and evil as religious problems: first, because historically virtually every religion has had a central concern for the problem, and second, because they are directly related to one of the elements of what we have chosen to call religious experience. Non-religious problems about the good would then arise either because of a context not customarily called religious or because the questions raised were not driven deeply enough to bring out the implications called religious in our sense of the word. Thus, for example, if one takes good to mean simply the customary, there is no real relation to value and the resulting ethic is of a non-religious character. The following discussion deals with the problem on a religious level.

From the standpoint of an intelligible religion, the problem of good and evil is crucial, for in no other area has there been more difficulty in establishing mutual understanding. There is little sign of any relaxation in the tension amongst the warring parties, either as to theory or as to practical solutions. Any discussion aimed at universal intelligibility must therefore suggest some answer to the problem of the good or at least some constructive way of dealing with the conflicts which arise.

Appeal to experience is the basis for intelligible discourse. In discussing the good it is the experience of value to which appeal must be made. By experience of value we mean either the total attraction or the repulsion exercised on the subject by the object or within the situation experienced. Value, as explained in Chapter VI, is some function of the congruity or incongruity of subject and object, resulting in various positive or negative reactions between the two. There are many kinds of values, important among which are those usually called "good" and "evil". The "beautiful" and the "true" are other kinds.

What is a "good" ? In the simplest sense, a good is something which a person desires. Desire is here to be understood not merely as physical appetite, but as a total positive response involving "mental" and "spiritual" as well as physiological components. But this simple test for the good must clearly be modified, because there are things which people desire which are said not to be good. For example, a drug addict may desire the drug, but know and admit that it is not good. A different case would be that of a person desiring a piece of food which he did not know was poisoned. Clearly the food would not be good, but the person would desire it. How must the analysis then be modified to take care of such examples as these ?

As to the first example, we must observe that a thing may be good in some respects but not in others. Thus, the drug is good for the addict in respect to the feeling of exhilaration or whatever else he seeks from it, but it is not good with respect to many other factors such as cost, resulting sickness, and unfavorable social standing. This suggests that goodness is not an unqualified property of an object, but is an aspect of the relation of that object to a specified person in a given situation. Probably no thing has a simple and unqualified relation to any given person. Every human reaction is to some extent mixed and self-contradictory. There are both positive and negative components in every human response. In the psychologists’ language, human beings are incurably "ambivalent". When, therefore, someone says he desires something but knows that it is not good, he is not really disproving the assertion that the good is what a person desires. He is merely saying that his response is a mixed one -- that in certain respects he desires the thing, while in other respects he does not, i.e., that in some ways it is good and in other ways it is not good. That which is good about any particular thing to a certain person is still that which he desires from it.

Consider the second example, of the poisoned food. The food is not good, even though it is desired. Here we are confronted with the problem of error. The food is not what it appears to be. Food eaten in the past, similar in appearance and proving satisfactory, is the basis for the judgment, "This food is good". If the poisoned food were eaten and its ill effects experienced, the judgment "This food is good" would no longer hold. Therefore every statement about the good must be based upon full experience of that appraised. The good is what a person desires when he has complete knowledge of what is involved in experiencing it. This means that every actual judgment of a good must be to an extent tentative, for the full implications and consequences of experiencing it can never be known. For instance, the long range destructive effects of certain kinds of diet or of certain kinds of activity might not be observable except over several generations.

If good is a function of desire, in the broad sense, and assuming the qualifications indicated, it is clear that judgments of good will depend upon the detailed character of the persons and situations in which they arise. That is to say, goodness is relative to persons and situations. As pointed out in Chapter VI, this does not mean that the judgment of good is "purely arbitrary" or merely "subjective". It does represent a natural fact arising out of the inter-relation of valuing subject and valued object. It is the variety of such interrelations which gives rise to the problem of the good. Good is a problem only because there are disputes concerning it. One person’s judgment of what is good may differ diametrically from another person’s judgment. Or there may be within the same person two conflicting judgments about what is good in given situations. The basic question here for an intelligible religious view is how to resolve such disputes.

To answer this question, we must observe once again that two kinds of value may be distinguished: instrumental values and intrinsic values. Conflicts between judgments regarding these two kinds of value have different bases and must be resolved in different ways. In the case of an instrumental good, conflict arises because of different conclusions regarding the effectiveness of the good as a means to a specified end. For example, there are differences of judgment regarding the relative effectiveness of laissez-faire capitalism or of a specified kind of socialism as means of securing the economic well-being of a nation. Or there is an argument as to whether strict or relaxed sex standards contribute most to emotional stability within a given society. In such disputes the question concerns the efficiency of means to yield agreed-upon ends. The resolution of the conflict is therefore a matter of securing adequate empirical knowledge. The conflict arises because of insufficient knowledge of the facts. Either one or the other of the alleged goods is actually more efficient in yielding the agreed-upon ends. Thus the basis of disputes in such cases is lack of information and the solution of it is further empirical inquiry.

Disputes over intrinsic values have a different basis and resolution. Their basis is a difference in character of the disputants. The structure of the personality of the two judges is different. What is good for one person may not be good for another person, because they are different people. For example, for certain persons in certain situations solitude is an intrinsic good, while for other persons in the same situation social intercourse would be intrinsically good. When there are such differences, it is foolish to attempt to resolve them in a theoretical fashion. They can be resolved, if at all, only by a process of actual personality change. Education, growth, and new experience may bring about changes in one or both of the parties to the dispute, of such a nature that differences in ends are overcome. There may be a re-education of the pattern of desires, so that there is essential agreement in matters formerly under dispute.

This is not to imply that it is necessary for disputes over the good always to be resolved. There is room for much diversity within even the same society and much more within a world of many different societies. One of the lessons derived from this view of the nature of value is that there is no universal catalogue of the good. Recognition that ultimately there are as many judgments of good as there are persons is essential. This does not mean that concurrences of judgment are lacking, but merely that the plurality of the world of persons and things may not be denied.

However, there arise occasions in which individuals and groups do seek for a basis of agreement and where interrelations are of such a nature that fundamental differences in judgments of the good become sources of dangerous social disorder. Examples from the contemporary world crisis could be multiplied indefinitely. The purpose of our analysis is to show what the nature of the disagreement is and what must be done if agreement is to be reached. Obviously where there are differences in intrinsic values, it is only through the process of sharing common experiences that the necessary growth on both sides may take place.

The problem of conflict in judgments concerning the good is important not only as between different individuals or groups but, as suggested above, even within the individual person. Where there is inner conflict, the situation is analogous to the conflict between persons. Here also the distinction between instrumental and intrinsic goods applies. How is the person inwardly torn, the person who cannot "make up his mind", to resolve the inner conflict? In the case of instrumental values, he must secure more information. He must examine the alternatives with respect to their demonstrated efficiency in achieving the end he desires. While this may not be easy in practice, at least it is clear in principle and gives direction to the search for a solution.

In the case of conflict over intrinsic values, the difficulty is more deeply rooted. The conflict means that there is division within the character-structure itself. In the language of popular psychology, the person is not "integrated". He is not a whole, but possesses a nature with multiple opposing factions. The person who experiences basic conflict of values must therefore seek for a reformation of his character structure. This can take place only through a process of growth, education, and new experiences which are of a unifying nature. Disintegrated persons are products of disintegrating experiences. Healthful experience is that which produces whole persons. The psychological hazards of living, as a child, in a broken home in contrast with the benefits in terms of stable personality through growing up in a happy home illustrate what is meant by unifying experiences. Education in the good is largely a patterning of desire in such a way that deep inner conflicts do not occur.

Disagreements over what is good do not usually take the form of direct antitheses, but generally center around discussions of "better" or "worse", i.e., are concerned with judgments of comparative worth. But comparison is possible only on the basis of some standard. From this it follows that only instrumental values can be compared, because comparison implies the judgment of the values in relation to some one assumed value to which they are both relevant. Intrinsic values cannot, as such, be compared, because by definition an intrinsic good means something good-in-itself and not in relation to some other standard. Therefore intrinsic goods can be compared only when they are treated as instrumental to some other good. No resolution is possible unless some value agreed upon by both parties can be found to which the disputed intrinsic values are relevant. One such common value would be the good of shared experience itself. A common adoption of this good may lead to a re-orientation of character on both sides of such a nature that the new value situation will be better than the old -- "better" in terms of effectiveness in contributing to the assumed good of mutual understanding.

The introduction of the idea of "better" at once presents us with the problem as to whether there is some sovereign good in terms of which all other goods may be judged. Or is the nature of things such that we can only speak of the multiple goods for particular persons in distinct situations? Are there goods which are inevitably and permanently incommensurate so that no ultimate "better" or "worse" can be applied to them? Or is there some fundamental unity in the nature of things which supplies a common standard against which every good may be measured? Is there some ultimate intrinsic good to which all other goods are instrumental ?

In relation to these questions there occurs one distinction between a religious and a non-religious view of the world. The non-religious view emphasizes the particular and incommensurate nature of values. The religious view is based upon the universal applicability of comparative judgments, i.e., upon the existence of some intrinsic good by which all others may be measured. One such good has been suggested several times already -- namely, community. According to this every good may be judged by reference to the contribution it makes to community, in any of its many forms, such as rational, social, or aesthetic. Community then becomes the "absolute" good to which all other goods are relative. Whether or not community is actually such an ultimate standard depends upon whether or not there is in the world process a discipline of desire in the direction of community. Are the warrings of incompatible desires ultimately destined to be resolved by the more persistent desire for community?

A case can be made for the ultimacy of community by pointing out that desire itself, the ground for all judgments of good, is intrinsically in the nature of a tendency towards community. Desire is the expression of the binding force or attraction of compatibles. It is the motivation for establishing the unity of distinct entities. But this is also the basis for community.

Thus the urge towards community may be seen as the ground for desire which in turn determines the nature of the good. One good is "better" than another to the extent that it fulfills the goal of all desire -- the establishment of community. Every good may be judged as instrumental to its contribution to community.

Such an analysis shows the sense in which the goodness of God is to be understood. This does not mean that there is a being called God who is the supreme object of desire. It means that within the central and universal experience by which God is defined the direction of maximum fulfillment of desire is found. It means that the very experiences that determine awareness of the good and of the better towards which desire tends are the experience by which God is defined.

The same general analysis applies to the question of evil as to the good. Evil is what one does not desire. But, again, evil like good can be thus defined only within the context of a specified person or group of persons, under stated conditions, and in particular respects. Just as we cannot speak intelligibly of good-in-general, so there are particular evils. There may be evils which turn out with fuller knowledge to be good, and there may be persons who so change in fundamental nature that what was once evil becomes good, or vice versa.

Just as good involves fitness or congruence, evil involves incongruity or disharmony. This leads in turn to a feeling of repugnance for the evil thing. It follows from this that no one ever really desires evil. To speak of desiring evil would be a contradiction in terms, since evil is defined as what one does not desire. Of course one may desire what another person regards as evil -- or he may with one aspect of his nature desire what he repudiates with another part of his being. But he cannot directly and unambiguously himself desire evil. So-called "desired evil" is really apparent good.

The existence of evil has led to one of the persistent problems in religious philosophy, namely the so-called "problem of evil". The problem arises from an attempt to explain how with a God who is both all-powerful and all-good there can be evil in the world. Various approaches have been adopted in attempting to solve this problem. One is to deny the reality of evil -- as in Christian Science or in some eastern mysticism. A similar approach is to assert that good and evil are due to the partial human perspective, and that God is beyond such distinctions. Both these attitudes violate the universal witness of the human race to the reality and importance of the distinction between good and evil.

A third approach is to deny that God is wholly good, though all-powerful. The trouble with this is that it violates the fundamental religious demand for a deity with whom one may have a relationship of trust and confidence. A fourth, and perhaps the most common traditional approach, is to declare the problem an insoluble mystery, born of the incomprehensible greatness of God’s purposes. This is surrender to irrationalism and cannot but do violence to man’s basic rationality. A fifth approach is to deny the omnipotence of God. This is regarded as heresy by the orthodox because it limits the sovereignty and authority of God.

From the standpoint of empirical analysis it is difficult to see how any "problem of evil", strictly speaking, arises. There is no incompatibility between God defined in terms of our five basic experiences and the existence of evil. As a matter of fact, God cannot be defined according to our method without including the fact of evil -- for the experience of imperfection is based upon an awareness of the better possible and therefore, comparatively speaking, of the worse actual. In comparison with the desired ideal possibility, one does not desire the present actuality. Nor is this at variance with a carefully interpreted idea of the divine omnipotence. This should mean only that the experience of God is by definition the experience of how everything possible comes into being. To require that the coming of anything into being be without evil would be to deny the universal perfectibility of all things. In conclusion, it appears that the historic "problem of evil" stems from an unwarranted interpretation of the idea of divine omnipotence.

It is sometimes said that evil is simply the absence of good. Usually this is accompanied by the view that existence is good and that non-existence is therefore the nature of evil. Against this theory is the view that evil is a real and destructive power. According to this view there are genuine "demonic" agencies at work in the world. One way of analyzing these alternative theories is to observe that all evil is dependent on good. Whatever it is that is regarded as evil, there are certain excellences and certain powers that give the "evil" thing its special character. And within its own proper sphere these are good. Thus, a robber gang is evil from the point of view of law-abiding citizens. But there is an excellence of organization, of skill, and even perhaps of purpose in the gang itself. There is a sense in which the worst criminals are the best criminals -- i.e., those who perform their nefarious tasks with the greatest skill. This insight shows that both of the theories mentioned above are true. Evil is a real destructive power. And it is such by virtue of the presence of one kind of being and the absence of another kind of being. Thus the gang has one kind of being which is evil because out of relation to the larger social unit within which it lives. It is the anti-social character which constitutes the evil of the gang.

Evil thus may be regarded as a perversion of the good. The greater the good the greater the evil which may result from it. Good, according to our belief, consists in community. When one degree or form of community is fixed upon in such a way as to prevent further realization of community, it becomes evil -- a "demonic structure". The higher the degree of community achieved, the more power it has to block further realization of community. Evil, therefore, is not only the absence of community. It is the frustration of more complete community by partial achievements of community.

It is sometimes assumed that evil is a result of man’s physical or material embodiment and conditions of existence, while good is due to his spiritual or mental nature. This view must be rejected. It arose primarily because of the obvious conflict between physical desires and rational demands. But it is equally true that there are mental or spiritual evils -- such as hate, jealousy, unrestrained ambition, and pride -- which have little to do with bodily desires. Actually the worst causes of human disorder are not physical, but mental or spiritual. Matter itself is neither good nor evil in itself. It becomes good or evil only in relation to human attitudes and uses. Therefore good and evil are not functions respectively of mind and matter, but of the relation between the whole valuing personality -- including mental and material factors -- and the whole configuration of mental and material factors in whatever is valued by him.

Evil is usually divided into two kinds -- natural evil and moral evil. Natural evil is that lack of community caused by such factors as disease, accidents, and various catastrophes in the physical or biological world. Moral evil, on the other hand, is caused by wrong human choice. Of the first kind of evil all that needs to be said is that it exists and has to be accepted as part of the natural situation in which human life pursues its course. For the second kind some discussion is required. Moral evil is traditionally called sin. There is sin only in terms of some standard of obligation, i.e., some code of moral conduct. Usually the standard of conduct is socially determined, so that sin is infraction of what is socially approved. What constitutes sin therefore varies in accordance with the differing standards of right and wrong adopted by various societies.

But this is not the whole story, or even the most important part of it, because socially approved standards are constantly coming under the criticism of persons who have an idea of a "better" standard. What we have called the universal experience of imperfection, applied to the sphere of moral conduct, is evidence of this critical process. This means that there is some standard of the morally good which is not a matter of social approval. It involves an ideal which is beyond the actual achievements or even the corporate ideals of the social group. In such a case the prophetic personality may feel obliged to sin against the law of the group in order not to sin against the ideal law which has captured his imagination and loyalty.

Considerations such as these lead to the concept of "sin against God". To us this does not mean infraction of particular rules which are laid down by a sovereign God -- though this is the meaning usually assigned. It rather means that under the universal experience of imperfection there is no action which is not seen to be less than perfect or incapable of being improved upon. This implies that any conduct, however high in purpose, stands under some higher judgment. Just what that judgment is it is not always necessary to specify. But that there is in every situation a higher order, a better possible way of conduct, is the meaning of the statement that human action involves sin against God.

It is further apparent that there is no act which does not involve sin against God in this sense. It is possible either to obey or not to obey the laws set down by human societies. But by definition it is not possible to avoid sin against God -- because by this we refer to the inevitable imperfection from which every actual act suffers. Thus there is an essential difference between sin against society and sin against God. This difference does not result from the difference in two sets of laws, one of which can be obeyed and the other of which cannot, but from the essential difference in the way in which "society" and "God" are defined.

If we take community as the ultimate standard by which good is measured, it follows that the basic sin is destruction of community. Another way of putting this is to say that love is the fundamental law of life and that hate and estrangement are the fundamentals of sin. In traditional Christian thought pride has been regarded as the basic sin. Pride means acting as though the self and its concerns were the ultimate good. This means the setting up of a partial good as though it were the final good. This is precisely the definition of a demonic structure as discussed above. And it is this because it is destructive of community. The sinfulness of pride therefore consists in its frustration of community.

Another traditional doctrine is that of "original sin". This is commonly thought to refer to a taint inherited from the original human pair, Adam and Eve, who "fell" through disobedience to the divine command. We do not today accept the story of the Fall as an historical account but as an explanatory story in a pre-scientific age. The purpose of this story is to point out that human beings are by nature prone to self-centeredness. They are from the beginning of life governed by impulses to self-preservation, self-justification, and self-gratification, with more or less disregard of the needs of others. There are inherent within human nature tendencies towards the demonic destruction of community. Pride, as the summation of self-centeredness, is therefore a fundamental or "original" aspect of human nature. This is the meaning of the doctrines of Original Sin and the Fall. They provide a statement of the chief reasons for the failure of the impulses towards community to be more effective than they are. They also help to explain why in every situation the consciousness of imperfection is present, for there is no actual situation in which tendencies destructive of community are not seen to operate.

Sin was defined as wrong moral choice. This means that there must be both freedom and responsibility. There has been a tendency in recent decades to "explain" sin in terms of purely external environmental factors, such as an unfavorable childhood situation. There is much to be said for such conditioning and predisposing factors, but they do not fully cover the case. For every human personality is what it is not only because of its environment but also by virtue of its own nature at each stage of growth. The human person is free because it is not determined wholly by external factors but also by its own self. Freedom is self-determination. Two persons in an identical environmental situation may react differently because they are different persons. It is this determination of conduct by what one is that constitutes free choice. Freedom is the peculiar use of what one is confronted with, on the basis of what he is. And this means that one is responsible for what he does. Sin, then, is free, responsible acting against the law.

The effect of sin is to produce a feeling of guilt. Guilt is an inner division resulting from the contrast between the consciousness on the one hand of the law and on the other of what has actually been done. There may be an unhealthy kind of guilt if the law disobeyed represents an unreasonable demand upon the human personality. On the other hand, there are guilt feelings which are healthy in that they provide inducement to return to modes of life which accord with the best interest of the individual and society. The name given to the consciousness of the moral law is "conscience" or the "super-ego". Conscience is in part a product of education, by which the socially approved patterns of behavior are, as it were, written into consciousness. Conscience is therefore no more infallible than those who engendered it in the growing personality. Thus there is no certain "inner voice" by which one may be surely guided in moral choices. On the other hand, there is also an element in conscience which goes beyond social conditioning. This arises from that sense of prophetic judgment on everything actual, in what we have called the experience of imperfection. Corresponding to this somewhat indefinite and higher conscience there is inevitably a more profound sense of guilt, stemming from the recognition of sin not against society but against God.

Real sin, or moral evil, always leads to frustration, disappointment, and destruction of the values of life. This is because evil is, by definition, that which persons do not desire. Of course what is called sin may not really be so, and this will not lead to frustration. It is a common notion that sin is really pleasant and good unpleasant. This idea stems in part from the identification of sin with the breaking of certain quite inadequate customary laws of morality, and in part from failure to be fully aware of the consequences and implications of acts which are "pleasant" in the short run but may not be so in the long run. Real sin is eventually frustrating and therefore tends towards its own undoing. It leads to an attempt to restore a constructive mode of activity. Therefore, in spite of the selfish impulses in human nature, a certain optimism is in order regarding the human situation. For sin is self-defeating in the long run. It is a major function of the cultural heritage to transmit from generation to generation a knowledge of the perils of sin and the good fruits of righteousness as learned through the experience of the race.

The restoration from sin involves several steps. First, there must be contrition, the recognition of sin as sin, an actual awareness of evil as not desired, through a full understanding of its consequences and implications. This contrition requires an act of the whole self, which depends upon the unification of the personality in a total renunciation of the evil thing. Next follows repentance, a looking forward to new activity to replace the old. A third step is confession. Since sin involves broken relationships and the destruction of community, it is necessary by confession to share the sin with others and thus re-establish the connection. A fourth step is restitution, or the reparation of damage done in the act of sin. Next comes the response of those sinned against, as forgiveness, opening the way to the re-establishment of community, which is consummated in reconciliation and atonement (the establishment of unity between those formerly estranged).

All of these steps may be interpreted either in respect to relationships between persons or, somewhat differently, in respect to God. What does it mean to be restored from sin against God? It is summed up in the meaning of divine forgiveness. To understand this we must return to the fundamentals of religious experience by which God was defined. One who is unforgiven has an awareness of imperfection without a corresponding awareness of grace (in the experience of dependence). To know God’s forgiveness means to respond thankfully to the continued outpouring of the gifts of life from the sources of our being, even while we live in ways which constantly bear the mark of imperfection. Thus while in relation to God we are constantly guilty (experience of imperfection) we are simultaneously eligible for divine forgiveness (experience of dependence).

Furthermore every response to goodness is an act of atonement (at-one-ment) by which breaches are healed. Some of the breaches are within man himself (the divided personality), some are between persons, and others are between man and the non-human world. These breaches are all results of sin (destruction of community). To be at one with God is to experience divine forgiveness, and this is possible when one is dedicated to the progressive realization (through the grace of the sources of our being) of the ideal of community.

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