By Roger Scruton
New Humanist, May/June 2010

Edited by Andy Ross

The Uses of Pessimism
Roger Scruton
Oxford University Press

The belief that humanity makes moral progress depends upon a willful ignorance of history and of our selfishness. At any moment the veil of illusion might be swept away, revealing the bare truth of the human condition. Human beings are neither as good as the optimists pretend nor as bad as curmudgeons paint them.

To see and love human beings as they are, we need a dose of pessimism in our plans and aspirations. Hope without faith or historical wisdom is dangerous.

Pessimism is needed to protect the belief in human uniqueness. To dismiss humanity as a plague on the face of the earth is to undercut our values and wrongly equate us with animals like rats and worms.

I say we differ from the other animals. We are rational beings who relate to each other "I" to "I". Freedom, individuality, accountability and the moral life all result from this. It is not because we are non-rational that we are subject to illusions and fallacies but because we are rational.

We make the life of reason easy for ourselves by ploys and fallacies that feed our false hopes.

One fallacy is that human freedom is a natural gift. We are born to enjoy it but we lose it through the laws and restrictions of social life. But the truth is that human freedom is an artifact. Our laws, institutions, and disciplines enable us to live freely. The belief that we are born free invites us to discard all knowledge that it is painful to acquire. It leads to the loss of discipline and culture.

Another fallacy is the zero sum belief that every benefit for one person is a loss for another. Hence all goods must be paid for, and the art of society is to pass the cost to someone else. But social cooperation is not a zero sum game. The art is to discover how your good is my good too.

Such fallacies lead to false hopes. Many hopes fizzle out but hope springs eternal. A striking new false hope is the transhumanism of people like Ray Kurzweil. The transhumanists believe that we will replace ourselves with immortal cyborgs, who will emerge from the discarded shell of humanity like the blessed souls from the grave in the Last Judgement.

The transhumanists don’t worry about Huxley’s Brave New World. They promise increasing power to vanquish the long-term enemies of mankind. But why should we work for a future in which we won’t exist?

We rational beings depend on love and friendship. Our happiness is one with our concrete freedom, not the abstract freedom of the utopians. We are rooted in our mortal condition. We solve our problems and live in peace with our neighbors through compromise and sacrifice. One use of pessimism is to warn us against destroying our roots. We should be gloomy. Our happiness depends on it.


By A.C. Grayling
New Humanist, May/June 2010

Edited by Andy Ross

On Evil
By Terry Eagleton
Yale University Press

Terry Eagleton says there really is such a thing as evil. He says liberals and leftists regard talk of evil as merely a way of describing extreme forms of moral badness. But I agree that evil exists, in the sense that there are people and acts that exemplify it. How could anyone deny this?

Eagleton implies that evil is more than a mere egregious degree of badness. He thinks it matters to say so because the down-playing of evil renders one impotent to deal with it.

Accordingly he sets off like a pinball bouncing among a thicket of pingers, from William Golding to St Augustine, Macbeth to Pseudo-Dionysus, original sin to the Holocaust, Shakespeare to Freud, Satan to Thomas Mann, Arendt to Aristotle, and so on, to tell us what evil is. But Eagleton has been too long among the theorists to risk a straightforward statement.

Were the Nazis evil? Eagleton says only Hitler himself was "authentically so". Was the 9/11 attack on the Twin Towers evil? No, it was wicked but explicable. There is nothing rational about evil.

Evil is a non-rational "condition of being". But it is a kind of non-being too. Evil acts are those that destroy. Freud's death drive, Schopenhauer's gloom, the despair of the alcoholic, all help to show that evil is monotonous and banal. So though we do not bump into evil every day, it is connected to the ordinary.

In his essay "The Concept of Evil" (Philosophy, 2004), Marcus Singer demonstrates the strength of the liberal view. Eagleton's literary resources and passing references to the Holocaust pale in comparison to the examples of horrible behavior Singer reports to evoke the depth of moral revulsion that makes "evil" the right word.

Wicked things can be done by people supposing themselves to be serving a good end. Nazis saw racial hygiene where their opponents saw mass murder. But even here intention enters. The Nazis saw that to realize their aim they had to do cruel and destructive things.

People sometimes use "evil" hyperbolically, as a vent for shocked responses. This points to its focal use to mark what goes beyond the limits of moral conceivability. Eagleton's excursions into literary hermeneutics and such theological absurdities as original sin add nothing to this understanding.

Eagleton is anxious to rewrite theology. God is not to be regarded as rational. Eagleton: "To ask after God's reasons for allowing evil … is to imagine him as some kind of rational or moral being, which is the last thing he is." With one bound, God is free of responsibility for evil even though "he" is CEO of the company that manufactured its perpetrators.

Eagleton has spent his life inside two mental boxes, Catholicism and Marxism. Neither are ideologies that loosen their grip easily. The result is strangulation: the ideology always wins.

Only a Catholic or a Calvinist would even remember the concept of original sin, let alone bring it into a discussion of evil. But Eagleton does, and at length. Original sin is a great idea. Compare: a pharmaceutical company tells us that we are all born with a disease that requires that we buy their product all our lives long, and that if we do it will cure us after death.

The Catholic Encyclopedia defines evil as what ought not to exist, and as the sum of opposition to the desires and needs of individuals, resulting from the action of created free will. This, near enough, is Terry Eagleton's view.

AR  I like Scruton's views, even though I disagree with some of them. I dislike Eagleton's views, even though I agree with some of them. Grayling ... is a liberal.