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The lifetime of evil (part 1)

July 21, 2015

The lifetime of an evil may be defined as:

The time it takes for the negative consequences of an evil act to be made clearly manifest. Or,
The time it takes for an evil practice, policy, or organization to be abolished. Or,
The time it takes for the moral arc of the universe to bend, definitively and perceptibly.

These definitions can be taken to be roughly equivalent, since human language is quite imprecise by nature. Regardless of the exact words, I think that the lifetime of evil is an useful concept in trying to understand and evaluate the moral decisions we make.

Now, this time interval obviously depends on the exact nature of the evil in question. It can often be predicted to some degree, through the mechanics of the act or practice itself. For instance, if you punch a stranger for looking at you cross-eyed on the street, you're likely to quickly discover that this is a mistake - usually in a matter of seconds, in the form of a retaliating punch. This is a predictable outcome. In particular, you only need to consider the mechanics of the action in determining the time-scale of the consequences: throwing a punch and human reaction times are both measured in fractions of a second, and people react quickly to immediate threats to their bodily safety.

I'm sure we've all had the experience of overeating at a buffet, or having those extra drinks that you shouldn't have had. The consequences of such indulgences can be felt within the time-frame of minutes to hours, when you feel too full to walk or wake up with a hangover. Again, the time-scale of the consequences can be predicted by the mechanics of the action: the processing of food and drink by the human body, which takes place at a certain rate.

The short lifetime for these evil actions makes it clear that they are, in fact, wrong. This is so obvious that people would hardly call them "evil", preferring something like "mistake" instead. But as the lifetime increases, things become less cut-and-dried.

Say that a student didn't study for his final and flunks the exam. I hope that everyone can recognize this as a mistake. But there are rare students who are such fools that they cannot make the connection, who will blame the instructor or society or God for their failure. The confusion comes as a result of the longer time interval between the action (deciding not to study) and the consequence (flunking the test). This time interval can again be predicted purely through the mechanics at work: classes usually run on a quarter or a semester system. Final exams are given at the end of the class. The consequences for not studying can therefore be predicted to arrive in a few weeks or months.

The point here is not that "you should study for your final" or "you shouldn't overeat" (although these things are true). What I'm trying to do is draw attention to the lifetime of the mistaken or evil act. These lifetimes can be predicted beforehand through purely mechanical considerations. They may furthermore help us distinguish right from wrong, and decide how we should act. For instance, if you're a diligent student watching the foolish student neglect his studies, what should you do? Remember, the lifetime of evil involved here is weeks or months. You can therefore know that his current ease should not unduly influence you to follow his example. You can also pace your own studying schedule based on that time interval. Furthermore, you'll also know when you've been wrong - if your foolish friend is still neglecting his studies with no negative consequences well past the end of the semester, maybe the class was a so easy as to be a joke. At that time, you'll know to reconsider your opinions on your friend and on the class. All this is possible through understanding the time scale on which you can expect the consequences.

Now, the above examples have been trivially easy cases, designed to simply introduce the topic and get us used to thinking in this way. They have been easy, because their lifetime of evil has been short. Next, we will consider much harder questions, with much longer time-frames, and consider how to tackle them using the lifetime of evil. Many of these are some of the "big questions" in politics or history. For instance: what should we do about global warming? How should we deal with North Korea? Did we handled the Cold War correctly? What should we tell our kids about gender roles? How can we measure our progress in race relations?

Some of this will be addressed in the next post.


You may next want to read:
The lifetime of evil (part 2) (Next post of this series)
Human laws, natural laws, and the Fourth of July
The role of evidence in the Christian faith
Another post, from the table of contents

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