Does evil come from within, or without?

Adam Smith’s philosophy taught that those who always blame others, and are never able to accept moral responsibility, are morally deficient. In other words morality for Smith comes from an internal moral compass. To some extent the truth of this can be seen in primates. Although primates have no human moral conditioning, they do develop a sense of fairness, of right and wrong, of reward, and even of reciprocity. If morality (along with the concepts of right and wrong) was solely the product of nurture as opposed to nature i.e. if it came from culture and society, then how would it also exist outside of human culture and society?

Yet what Smith was saying wasn’t far from what had been taught in his Western Christian society for hundreds of years:

“For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, fornication, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a man.”

St. Mark 7:21-23

good and evilMedieval Christendom was built not primarily on the philosophies of Jesus, but more on those of Augustine. And it was Augustine from whom we get the concepts: of original sin as inherited guilt, of hell as endless punishment, of divine grace as the necessary remedy for original sin, of the moral necessity of human free will, and of individual election to salvation by eternal predestination (some would say the latter is a contradiction of course; Calvin argued that if God had pre-destined eternity then so too must He have determined who receives eternal damnation and who receives eternal salvation). In other words Adam Smith’s teachings on morality are built onto the Augustinian premise that evil comes from within.

This thought was a huge one in the history of thought. It was one of the primary drivers behind the development of Western philosophy in the last thousand years. The question of whether or not human nature is evil started off the works of Hobbes, Rousseau and Locke. Kant wrote that evil lies in “the wickedness of human nature or of the human heart”. And even modern day philosophers still base their work on the same assumptions. Maria Pia Lara for instance (author of Narrating Evil), who is dubbed a post-metaphysical theorist, agrees whole-heartedly with Kant’s above quote.

Yet what is evil? And would you say that Smith is still right today? If we go back to Socrates, he taught that no one acts with evil intentions. Aristotle took this further to suggest that in fact moral virtue was a guiding force for a great deal of human action. Therefore to Aristotle, ignorance was the guiding force behind evil. There was an extent to which Augustine’s thought was based on Aristotle’s however. Indeed I would perhaps go further and say that if Medieval Christendom was built on Augustinian thought, then Augustinian thought must have been built on Aristotelian thought; for Aristotle’s teachings are one of the pillars of Christendom. Aristotle assumed that evil people are driven by desires for domination and luxury, and although they are single-minded in their pursuit of these goals, they are also deeply divided. Their greed leaves them always dissatisfied, and ultimately Aristotle reasoned that the person who performed the evil deed would in time come to regret it, because it never fulfils their goals.

Thus where for Augustine and Smith, morality is internal, for Aristotle the morality of deed and person were in fact, to some extent, divorced from one another. And many philosophers have gone further than this. For example many Sophists argued that social custom was the chief source of moral values. And Protagoras, known as a moral sceptic, argued that: there is no universal moral truth; our individual moral views are equally true; the practical benefit of our moral values is more important than their truth; and that the practical benefit of moral values is a function of social custom rather than nature.

Adam SmithGoing back to the times of Smith, Thomas Reid criticised David Hume’s argument that:

“Reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.”

Both Hume and Smith argued that because emotions drive us, and develop the preferences and goals for our reason, then morality must be said to come from within. But whereas with Hume the central component of moral judgement/assessment involves the feelings of the moral spectator, for Reid true moral assessment is a rational judgment; our emotional reaction is almost like an afterthought.

What do you think? If evil exists, then does it come from within, or without?

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