Our Uncertain Moral Nature

By Peter Georgescu

It should be clear now why “the problem of evil”—the bland phrase applied to it by the philosophers—became one of the central obsessions of my spiritual and intellectual life for nearly fifty years. I kept asking how my faith in God could be squared with the reality of evil and human suffering, and also how manifestly good people not only suffer evil but often either commit it or set it in motion, unwittingly. It’s easy to forget that the man who kicked my grandfather to death may have been a loving father of half a dozen children.

The problem may partly be the word “evil.” It’s been invested with so much significance that merely uttering the word is often a complex kind of behavior in itself. It’s a way of branding an enemy. When evil is out there, in opposition to you, it can be quite vital and energizing. There’s nothing like an honest fight against the bad guys to make you feel good and alive. We’ll probably never quit telling murder mysteries and detective stories and tales of dragon slayers, James Bond villains, and G.I. Joe because all these myths reconfirm a comforting vision of the world: Evil is out there, and it can be defeated. It was my vision of the world, as a child with Jesus Christ as my G.I. Joe. But there’s another reason those stories keep coming back: When we tell them, we’re saying evil is most definitely not inside us.

This was my worldview in Romania. In some ways, with my suffering and deprivation during those years, I was surrounded by more evil intent than at any other time of my life. Yet I retained my most unsullied experience of good. I believed in it, I prayed to it, and it saved me. I was surrounded by evil, but it was all outside me, in other people. The good guys won, and I was one of them. As a result of that victory, both geopolitical and personal, I arrived in America just in time to make a generous living from the greatest period of industrial growth in history. But I hadn’t left evil behind, in Europe. It was waiting patiently for me in America, having assumed a more insidious, problematic form. The ones I had to watch out for here didn’t thump into the conference room in jackboots. They wore double-breasted suits and quiet leather brogues. They worked hard. Half the time they were doing something I admired, setting the right tone for a client call, getting us to work all night on a pitch, or helping me earn a nice year-end bonus. But eventually the moment arrived, under pressure, when nothing much in the way these people looked or sounded had changed, and yet everything was different.

Unlike the perennial myths that urge us to believe in the good and stand up to evil, my encounters with the dark side of American life were often hardly distinguishable from the productive routines that enabled me to buy a home and fly to the Caribbean for a vacation. To just see evil as it happens and know it for what it was: I began to realize this was the greatest challenge. Especially when it was in my own heart.

It was more than just seeing through the camouflage of social conventions. The whole notion of evil became hard for me to pin down and understand. At all stages of my life there were destructive psychological forces all around me, but calling them evil didn’t seem to illuminate them or make them any easier to resist. We think the word evil describes something we instinctively understand—bad, destructive behavior—in an objective, impartial way. It’s just a noun, clear and familiar as daylight, the use of which seems essential to our survival as a civilization. And, up to a point, you can’t argue with that. Evil signifies what we oppose, all the behavior we consider wrong and antisocial and disruptive and unjust. It describes behavior we prohibit, as a society, to ensure order and happiness.

That’s certainly part of it, but in the West, it comes with centuries of religious connotations that make the word more of a weapon than a noun. You aim it at people to shame them and control them. In our Western culture, we use it to stigmatize practices, not just prohibit them with rules and statutes. The word itself carries the weight of divine judgment. With the word evil, we say, “You are wrong, and I am right.” For many people, the banishment of Adam and Eve resonates in that word. And so we see a story about a serial killer or a pedophile on television, and we brand them as evil to reenact, emotionally, that moment in Genesis, when an angry God disowns and exiles his two sinners. For those who use the word this way, evil can become a malignant spirit or force personified by the devil or some other dark spiritual entity. Fundamentalists aren’t the only people who accept this view. C. S. Lewis believed it. Even someone who for most of his life behaved as if he were pals with some kind of mischievous devil—Norman Mailer—seemed to endorse this view, in old age. Evil, or the devil, is simply a way of personifying or objectifying a fundamental force in human action.

There’s little room in this for an understanding of “evil” behavior as simply unproductive, self-defeating, and in some ways, built into our nature as human beings. Socrates believed that evil was the by-product of ignorance. Those who under- stood good would simply shed their wrongful behavior. St. Augustine believed evil was the ontological absence of good, a kind of void within the world and the human heart. Yet in the Hebrew Bible, the word for sin actually means to make a mistake—to miss the mark. You’ve taken aim at happiness and goodness, and your arrow has slightly or completely missed its target. There’s an assumption of forgiveness and hope, and practice, no less, built into that understanding of the word. It’s almost a practical term.

As a child, my perils were only about to begin. I had begun as a witness to evil, a little boy who could only stand aside and watch as other members of my family suffered. Now I was about to be drafted as a player into this contest and struggle and become an active opponent, in my own childishly Christian way, of the people who were destroying my family.

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About Peter Georgescu:
Peter A. Georgescu arrived in America in 1954, after years of forced labor as a child in communist Romania. Today, he is chairman emeritus of Young & Rubicam Inc., which has more than 300 offices around the globe, vice chairman of New York Presbyterian Hospital, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and a graduate of Phillips Exeter Academy, Princeton University, and Stanford Business School. His life long quest to answer the question “Why does evil exist?” led him to ongoing philosophical and spiritual study and an integrative view of morality, religion, and our power to do good to change the world.