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Why not evil?

By Peter Sellick - posted Thursday, 18 March 2021

Boris Johnson, commenting on the decision to raise the number of nuclear warheads in the UK, stated that "the UK would have to "relearn the art" of competing against countries with "opposing values". (BBC 17th March) To be topical, do we now describe the rapist as one with "opposing values"? Do we describe the planners of the Holocaust as people with "opposing values"? Johnston is referring to China when using the phrase. Perhaps it is our skittishness about China that had diluted our speech about what is essentially evil. Clive Hamilton and Mareike Ohlberg in their book Hidden Hand tells us that the Siemens CEO Joe Kaeser argued:

...that Germany should "balance its values with its interests: "When jobs in Germany depend on how we deal with sensitive topics, one should not add to the general outrage but carefully consider all positions and measures in all their aspects.

I am sure Don Watson would describe these and Johnson's words as weasel words. What could they possibly mean? The Chinese Communist Party has won. Our economies are all now so intertwined with China that we dare not upset them because we fear their power to damage us. Australia has already been put on the naughty step because of Morrison's suggestion that the origin of COVID 19 should be investigated. China has sent a fourteen-point complaint that does not seem to realise that we are a sovereign state, and we allow a free press. It is particularly alarming when we hear of the CEOs of German industrial giants toadying to China on the most trivial issues like displaying a map of China that did not indicate that Taiwan is a part of China. Have the German people forgotten how Hitler grasped power and lead his country to destruction?


Ethics cannot be based on values because they are entirely subjective i.e., they may be held by a subject without any reference to other human beings or reality. This is the ultimate "turn to the self" in which individuals may make up their own values according to what suits them. The language of rights does not help because they can, similarly, be conjured out of thin air. The CCP may proclaim that they have a right govern their country as they see fit and that any protest at Genocide is their business and no one else's. Framing ethics in terms of right and wrong offers little help because it lacks any solid foundation and is liable to again fall back on a discussion of values.

I think that we should reclaim the concept of evil. Ronald Regan earned much scorn for describing the Soviet Union as "the evil empire" but, as much as I deplore the evangelical bible thumping context of that speech and its easy patriotism that relies on "our way of life" he was on to something. We don't have to buy into a Manichean division of the world into good and evil or the existence of the devil to have a sensible discussion of the existence and origin of evil. Nor do we need to label individuals or nations (contrary to Regan) as evil or any natural event. Evil is insubstantial, it has no substance. Neither does it exist as a supernatural force. Evil was not created in the first creation story when God announced at the end of the third to the sixth day that "it was good". Thus, according to the Hebrew scriptures, the universe is wholly good. Natural science would concur. The mass death caused by earthquakes or other natural disasters cannot be called evil because they are the products of natural processes that lack intent.

"We give the name of "evil" to that process in which good is lost." It is thus appropriate to name as evil anything that disrupts the good creation, whether that be the environment or the equal standing and freedom of people. Evil is always connected to action and behind that action lies distorted desire that ignores the other. When we celebrate the individual, who acts in his or her own interests while ignoring the effect of his action on the other, then we open the door for evil. Similarly, when a national leader desires dominance for the nation he or she leads the nation into evil. This is the process by which the good is lost.

Self-directed desire is the beginning of evil and as such is universal. Everyone, apart from Robinson Crusoe before the arrival of Friday, struggles with their self-assertion in the face of the person next to them. In the case of totalitarian nations, the personal becomes the national. But to call a nation evil is inaccurate because it ignores the origin of evil i.e., the distortion of personal desire. This was Regan's mistake for which he was rightly pilloried. Of course, China is on everyone's mind now. We are beginning to see a disturbing subtext to Chinese rhetoric of peaceful and prosperous co-existence; the push for global dominance in which the CCP will rule the world. Our problem is that much of the world economy, including Australia, relies on China and any one corporation or nation cannot afford to stray from China's line. We obviously need to present a unified voice that China cannot afford to ignore.

To get back to values. Those peoples who have inherited from Christianity the conviction that each person stands before God as being made in the image of God and thus is a free entity, as God is, cannot dismiss that as a mere value. It goes to the essence of what it means to be human. It is the basis for our whole society, our laws, institutions, education and national philosophy. We believe that there is something basically good in such notions and that the destruction of that good will inaugurate the kind of living hell we see in totalitarian regimes in which there is no rule of law, no respect or freedom for the individual. Let us not, then, talk in terms of values. We are facing an implacable foe who will lie and cheat and misrepresent and bully in order to assert its supremacy. We can only hope that, as China leads itself and the world to the brink, that cooler heads will arise and bring the rule of Xi Jinping to an end. His double game of friendship and bullying cannot succeed.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences.

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