Is It Time To Redefine Evil? Take 2

The Death of SatanIn my most recent News and Views article (November 2014), I critiqued a portion of Andrew Delbanco’s argument in  his book, The Death of Satan: How Americans Have Lost the Sense of Evil. Delbanco argues that once a view of evil has been superseded by history, it is wrong to try to return to it. For example, uncontrolled female sexuality cannot be called evil after technology broke the cause-and-effect relationship between sex and pregnancy. It was the consequences to the individual and society that made uncontrolled sex wrong. I argued that Delbanco’s argument was not correct. While his argument is coherent and largely accepted by our modern culture, it is based upon the assumption that a consequentialist theory of morals and ethics is a right and true theory. I argued that a consequentialist theory of morals and ethics is not the true theory of morals and ethics; rather, a “duty” theory of morals and ethics is the true theory because it is the one assumed in the Scriptures. Uncontrolled sexuality is not wrong because of its consequences; it is wrong because it disobeys the commandments of God that a person is duty-bound to obey. Consequences are not the basis for deciding whether an action is right or wrong. In this post, I will examine a second way that Delbanco’s argument could be understood. Here is the relevant text:

…Everyone wants to live in a world in which evil can still be recognized, have meaning, and require a response.

When this desire takes the form of an effort to get back the sense of evil in ways that have been superseded by history, it can’t succeed. Sin and sexuality, for instance, will never be reconnected as they once were, because the original linkage doubtless arose as a means of establishing social stability at a time when sex could not be separated from pregnancy. Morals do not have genealogies, and like an infertile family, a particular moral idea can reach a point where the linage comes to an end. For most of human history, uncontrolled female sexuality was deemed sinful because it had a calculable social cost. It was incompatible with the patrilinear family and, later, with the whole social organization of bourgeois society. It was taboo, or sin, whose rationality needed no defense. But when the technology of modern contraception broke this chain of cause and effect between sex, pregnancy, and morality, it broke it permanently. To try to get back this shattered ideal of chastity as virtue, as some well-meaning people are trying to do, is to tinker with the fragments that cannot be reassembled into their old integrity. Our understanding of evil needs to be renewed, not restored. (The Death of Satan: How American’s Have Lost the Sense of Evil. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, New York 1995, p.16.)

In the second way of understanding Delbanco’s argument, a consequentialist theory of morals and ethics is assumed to be true, but it is not the individual that believes it; rather, it is the culture that believes it. In other words, the specific argument is this: if the culture assumes a modern consequentialist theory, then an individual or a group cannot succeed in redefining a concept like evil as it was defined using a different theory of ethics at a different point in history. For instance, Delbanco claims that it is wrong for an individual or a group to try to impose the early Puritan definition of evil in modern America. To define uncontrolled female sexuality as evil using the Puritan concept of sin and evil will never be accepted by modern culture because it has accepted a consequentialist theory of ethics and technology has removed the consequence—the risk of pregnancy. So rather than try to restore the Puritan concept of sin and evil, a more successful strategy would be to start the dialogue from where we are now and try to develop a new theory of evil.

I agree that it is highly unlikely that America would ever return to a Puritan perspective on sin and evil as long as the majority of the culture accepts the modern concept of sin and evil, and a strategy to restore it is unlikely to succeed. There would be too much resistance to defining those concepts in our modern language. Furthermore, even if a duty-based theory of morals and ethics is true, if the culture at large accepts a consequentialist theory, it is unwise to try to impose the true theory by trying to change the language. Starting where we are now, however, and initiating a dialog to redefine evil and sin does seem like a reasonable strategy. If this is the substance of Delbanco’s argument, then I agree with him—with two caveats.

First caveat: I am not saying that Christians have no obligation to communicate the Gospel and its understanding of sin and evil to individuals in the culture. All Christians have that obligation, but that obligation is to the individual, not to the culture at large. It is not the case that all Christians ought to be working to impose a Christian understanding of sin and evil on the vocabulary of modern American culture. I believe that the trajectory of American language and concepts is in God’s hands, not ours.

Second caveat: I am not saying that God may not give some people the job of influencing the culture at large. He may grant some individuals—writers, for example—a unique platform to directly influence the concepts and meanings of words in the culture. God may call them to use this platform to communicate biblical concepts, such as sin and evil, to the culture in words not commonly understood. In most cases, however, their task is not to impose their concepts and word meanings on the culture but to bring these concepts and meanings to cultural consciousness. I would not absolutely rule out the possibility that God might call such a “prophet” to confront the culture with a biblical concept of sin and evil; however, I do not see this scenario as one that God has commonly used in America recently.

In summary, Delbanco’s line of reasoning can be understood two ways. I analyzed the first in my News and Views article. With the exception of my two caveats, I largely agree with the second way of understanding his argument, namely that in a culture which accepts a consequentialist theory of morals and ethics, it would be unwise for a minority to think that they could impose concepts of “sin” and “evil” on the culture at large by trying to define those words within their own language and not the culture’s.


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