Is It Time To Redefine Evil?

by Charley Dewberry


Over the summer, I picked up a copy of Andrew Delbanco’s book, The Death of Satan: How Americans Have Lost the Sense of Evil. This book turned out to be one of my favorite types of reads. I have come to enjoy books that result in a significant Socratic dialogue between the author and me because, as I interact with the author, my understanding of the subject increases considerably.

Delbanco’s major thesis is that our concept of evil has been weakened to the point of disappearance in American culture today, while at the same time evil is more pronounced. Americans once believed in God and in Satan, Delbanco says; indeed, for early Americans, an individual’s concept of evil was intricately tied to his understanding of both sin and Satan. By contrast, today the idea that life is focused on an individual’s struggle with sin is largely absent from our culture. Satan also has a diminished role in modern culture, largely restricted to certain genres of literature. According to Delbanco, we are losing the vocabulary even to talk about evil, sin, and Satan.

In this article, I will “dialog” with Delbanco about a section from the introduction to his book:

Everyone wants to live in a world in which evil can still be recognized, have meaning, and require a response.

When this desire takes the form of an effort to get back the sense of evil in ways that have been superseded by history, it can’t succeed. Sin and sexuality, for instance, will never be reconnected as they once were, because the original linkage doubtless arose as a means of establishing social stability at a time when sex could not be separated from pregnancy. Morals do not have genealogies and like an infertile family, a particular moral idea can reach a point where the linage comes to an end. For most of human history, uncontrolled female sexuality was deemed sinful because it had a calculable social cost. It was incompatible with the patrilinear family and, later, with the whole social organization of bourgeois society. It was taboo, or sin, whose rationality needed no defense. But when the technology of modern contraception broke this chain of cause and effect between sex, pregnancy, and morality, it broke it permanently. To try to get back this shattered ideal of chastity as virtue, as some well-meaning people are trying to do, is to tinker with the fragments that cannot be reassembled into their old integrity. Our understanding of evil needs to be renewed, not restored. (The Death of Satan: How American’s Have Lost the Sense of Evil. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, New York, 1995, p.16.)

Much in Delbanco’s line of reasoning bears examination; however, I will limit my interaction to the following: chastity as a virtue, or what is morally and ethically good and right, can no longer be accepted because technology has undercut the foundational grounds for it.

According to Delbanco, once technology developed the modern means of contraception, it broke the link between sex and pregnancy. Uncontrolled female sexuality can no longer be deemed a sin. Why? Because the consequences of actions determine whether an act is good or evil. The consequences of an unplanned pregnancy are highly detrimental to both the individual and the society. Before technology broke the link between sex and pregnancy, chastity was seen as a virtue and morally good because it removed the undesirable consequences of unintended pregnancy. But since technology has removed the consequences, there are no longer grounds for claiming that chastity is a virtue and morally right and good. The individual is free to choose whether sex results in pregnancy or not. According to this line of reasoning, uncontrolled female sexuality is no longer evil and a sin. Delbanco’s argument is coherent and follows from his premises. In our modern times, it seems compelling.

Delbanco’s line of reasoning also has historical support. I was a college student in the 1960s. It certainly was the case that access to modern forms of contraception led to significant changes in sexual behavior. Without question, modern contraception changed the cultural perception of right and wrong. This change in the 1960s has been called the sexual revolution, and it looks to me as if our culture has never looked back since. As a culture, we find Delbanco’s argument compelling; very few people would find fault with his line of reasoning.

But I do not think that his argument is right. To explain why, I will begin by taking a cue from the study of ethics. In the discipline of ethics, a number of theories account for the link between actions and whether they are right or wrong. Delbanco assumes that the foundation for morals and ethics is the consequences of actions: if the consequences of an action are positive overall, then that action is deemed good; if the consequences of an action are detrimental, then the action is deemed bad or evil. This theory of morals and ethics, called “consequentialism,” predominates in our modern culture. Delbanco’s argument is only true if his premises are true, and one of those premises is that consequentialism is the true theory of ethics.

How do we decide whether a particular theory of ethics is correct? Like other philosophical pursuits, we use our reason and examine the system for coherence and whether it accounts for our experience. Often philosophers are also looking for counter-examples where the theory predicts something that is clearly not true. Therefore, critical examination of the theory and its implications tested against our experience is the time honored method for determining whether a theory is true or not.

However, individuals who believe that the Scriptures are the word of God have an additional source of information. They believe that the Scriptures reflect God’s perspective. As the Creator of the universe, God is in a unique position to provide information that either could not be obtained or would be difficult to obtain using only our reason and experience. Although the Scriptures are not exhaustive, they provide much information that we could not easily obtain otherwise, and one of the central themes of the Scriptures is the foundation of morals and ethics.

The theory of morals and ethics presented in the Scriptures is not consequentialism. An obvious objection that must be addressed is that the Scriptures often talk about the consequences of actions. This objection is undeniable, but my point is that the consequences of actions are not the most important thing in the Scriptures; they are not the real focus. My objective for the rest of this article is to point the way to help you begin to explore this issue if you are interested. Three places to begin are Genesis, the Hebrew laws, and the teachings of Jesus.

I will begin by examining a short section of Genesis to illustrate why I do not believe that the ethical theory taught in the Scriptures is consequentialism.

And the LORD God commanded the man saying, “From any tree of the garden you may eat freely; but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you shall surely die.” (Genesis 2:16-17 NAS)

On the surface, this looks like a consequentialist perspective. It sure appears that God is saying, “Do not eat the fruit because the consequences of eating it would be death,” but let’s take a closer look. Are the consequences of eating the fruit to be found in the direct action of eating the fruit? In other words, is it the case that the fruit is poison and leads to death? In this case, by consequences I mean this: does the action directly lead to the physical outcome because that is how nature works? This was the logic of Delbanco’s argument with regard to sexuality. But this is not the logic of the Genesis passage. God’s command to Adam not to eat the fruit was not given because the fruit was poison. In the context, the passage is showing God’s generosity to man in providing all the plant species for man to use as food. The passage emphasizes God’s generosity, but it also points out that man is a creature whose duty is to obey what God has commanded. In other words, God is telling Adam not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil not because the fruit is poisonous to him but because God commands it of him. It is Adam’s duty to obey because he is a creature and it is proper for him to obey God. To eat the fruit is wrong because it is wrong for Adam to disobey God. Eating the forbidden fruit does not accord with his duty as a creature.

Like consequentialism, the perspective I’ve just described is a recognized theory of ethics called a “duty” ethical theory. According to this theory, the basis of what is right is the duty a human being has been given to do—or not to do. An action is right if it has been commanded to do and wrong if it has been commanded not to do. Consequences are not the primary focus of a duty ethical perspective.

A further problem for a consequentialist interpretation of the Genesis passage is that the fruit was later eaten by both Adam and Eve, and yet neither one of them died. That is, neither one of them physically died as a result of directly eating the fruit. Delbanco argues that uncontrolled female sexuality was evil because a consequence of sex was pregnancy—that is, there existed a cause-and-effect relationship between the two. Once that cause-and-effect relationship was broken by modern contraceptives, there were no longer any grounds to call uncontrolled sexuality evil. Using this same logic, on what grounds were Adam and Eve wrong to eat the fruit? Since they did not die, there was no physical cause-and-effect relationship between eating the fruit and dying. So the logic of this Genesis passage must not be that of consequentialism. The logic of the Genesis passage is clearly different from the specific logic of the argument Delbanco made concerning female sexuality.

Examining the Hebrew laws and the teachings of Jesus will yield similar results to that of the Genesis passage. In the case of the Hebrew laws, some are undoubtedly given because of the consequences of the actions. For example, the prohibition on eating pork may have been given for health reasons. But an analysis of the laws will not result in all laws being based on the consequences of an action. The Hebrew laws are a set of commands about what to do and what not to do. It is clearly a duty-based ethic.

In the case of the teachings of Jesus, the analysis is more difficult. His focus is not on the consequences of the actions as much as it is on the condition of the heart of the one who does the actions. Jesus is claiming that God is commanding an orientation toward the things of God, not just doing the right actions. This orientation is man’s duty.

If my assertions about Genesis, the Hebrew laws, and the teachings of Jesus are right, then the ethical theory presented in the Scriptures is clearly not a consequentialist theory but rather a duty-based theory. God’s commands are given to man to inform him of what God expects from His creatures. They are to be obeyed because obeying them is our duty as creatures. To obey is right. To disobey is wrong.

From the perspective of a duty theory of morals and ethics, Delbanco’s argument is wrong. Just because technology broke the relationship between a particular action and bad consequences does not change the duty of an individual in the circumstances. It does not matter that modern contraceptives have broken the cause-and-effect relationship between sex and pregnancy because the basis for the action of sex being good or evil is not based on its consequences. Rather, the basis of a particular action being good or evil is based on whether the action accords with what was commanded.

While Delbanco believes that we need a robust notion of evil in our modern age, he also believes that we need to start over and build a concept of evil based on the consequences of actions in the modern age. Only then will we have a strong notion of evil to help us deal with a world that appears increasingly evil. He believes that to try to return to a notion of evil as presented in the Scriptures is flat out wrong because doing so rejects the true grounds upon which morals and ethics are based. For those who believe in God’s Scriptures, Delbanco’s argument is flawed because morals and ethics are not primarily grounded on the consequences of an action, but rather they are grounded on obedience to what God has commanded.

Copyright November 2014 by McKenzie Study Center, an institute of Gutenberg College.

Charley Dewberry