Thursday, February 25, 2010

Is it better to suffer evil or to commit evil? {Part I of II}

This is the main question of Plato's Republic, and he answers unequivocally that it is better to suffer evil than to commit evil.

This moral principle is a foundation stone of Western culture, accepted universally by Jew and Greek and Christian alike. And there are similar arguments made in Indian and Chinese philosophy as well, even if they did not achieve quite the same dominance there.

Now, one of the justifications that some give for permitting or even promoting torture is essentially that it is better to commit evil than to suffer it. Their argument is a direct rejection of this foundational principle.

But, since I'm not one to take a principle just because it's old, I thought I'd explore just why it is better to endure evil than to commit it.

What makes me happy?

Does anyone not want to be happy? Isn't happiness exactly what we're after when we ask, "Is one thing better than another?" Don't we really mean, "Which will make me happier?"

Nor are we just talking about individual happiness: justice in a society is, among other things, what allows the members to pursue happiness and to be happy together.

And happiness is not simply pleasure. We grow tired of pleasures, even if we move from one to another. Happiness is not merely a state of well-being. Such states come and go. Neither is happiness an emotion. I myself have felt very sad at the same time as knowing deeply that I was happy. Indeed, sometimes the certainty of happiness comes in times of pain, of sickness, of sorrow - exactly because we can see that what we have is worth any of these other things.

So, what is it that we have?

St. Thomas defines happiness as the knowing possession of the good. Nice and abstract, that definition. What he means, in 21st century terms, is that we both have what is good for us, and we know that we have it.

And what is good for a human being is whatever makes us to be more human, to be more ourselves. As Christians, we say, it is to be who God made us to be, and to answer his call. In a word, what is good for humans is Love.

What does suffering evil do to us?

Now, if the goal of life is to love, then what are the obstacles to that? What can keep us from being happy in this full sense?

Already, I've mentioned that physical or emotional pain cannot take away happiness. They cannot prevent us from giving or receiving love. But I've said elsewhere that torture can break a person's will, can damage his or her ability to think clearly, to use reason - essentially, to be human.

This state of brokenness can sometimes permanently render someone incapable of loving in the full sense. The mind may never recover, or the ability to empathize may be damaged beyond healing.

Another kind of permanent suffering is death. A dead person cannot act in any way, so cannot love or be happy.

Obviously, the Catholic doctrine of resurrection to life with God answers that neither of these sufferings are truly permanent. For that matter, Plato's notion of the transmigration of souls and the similar idea of reincarnation prevalent in some Eastern religions give essentially the same answer.

But I think they can also be answered in a way that atheists could accept, without recourse to specifically religious belief. This post is already too long, though. So I will finish the argument in a post tomorrow.

Here's {Part II}!

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