Philosophizing in a Cold Room

Recently, I was thinking about good and evil (I use both words advisedly, as I do not attribute to them any religious significance) in humankind. I wondered why, when we as humans generally agree that good is the preferable of the pair, we have not collectively erased evil from the species. Perhaps the only way we can define any given condition in our experience is to contrast it with its opposite. For example, can we understand and appreciate the comfort of warmth as a pleasant experience only when we can compare it with the unpleasant experience of cold?  Neither warm nor cold nor good nor evil are precise. All occupy spaces along a spectrum with no endpoints.

But I don’t think that reason, even if it explains the survival of evil, has ever been made consciously and collectively. Yet people have long written about evil as the yardstick against which good is measured, so the idea is not new.

Shifting gears: would it be possible for us to “breed evil out of the species” through a program mimicking the way in which new breeds of dogs are bred to exhibit certain traits and eliminate others? The very idea of controlling human traits through breeding is anathema to us, thanks to monstrous experiments conducted by the Nazis in Germany and our own scientists in the forties and fifties. And others. But what if any such programs were made voluntary? Would selective breeding be so offensive then? The arguments against even allowing such an idea to enter my head are filling the streets of America even as I type this sentence. How dare I even entertain the idea?! I can hear the chants now: “People who allow their minds to go to THAT dark place should be shackled and chained in dungeons!”

I suppose the idea of actually “breeding evil out of the species” is one for ethicists to debate. Given the entrenched attitudes about life, when it begins and ends, and the extent to which we (the collective we) should control it, the argument will never end. (We can’t even agree whether we ought to control diseases through vaccinations against them, for God’s sake.) But back to the original point. Not that it matters. Even if we could “breed evil out of the species,” would it last? Would the absence of evil make it, then, impossible to understand good, inasmuch as the concept would have no counterpart against which it could be compared? And would that, then, lead to humankind creating a counterpoint to our goodness? I think we would, indeed, figure out a way to manufacture “evil” as a means of assigning value to “good.” I believe that’s essentially what humankind has done over the eons in manufacturing gods. By creating gods who articulate what constitutes good and evil, we assure ourselves that the necessary contrasts will always be available to shore up the morality we can’t maintain on our own.

And that’s enough philosophizing in a cold room for this morning. I have yet to finish my now cold first cup of coffee, make breakfast, and shower, shave, and get dressed in preparation for my thirteenth radiation therapy session. Just two more sessions and I’ll be half way through radiation. And, after next Monday’s chemo session, I’ll be half way through chemotherapy. Even though I feel much less fatigue than I felt just a week ago, the minor but constant pain is beginning to wear on me mentally. Will it ever end? I worry that it won’t and that I’ll just have to get used to it. And that is a very depressing thought. In a Zen moment, though, I am telling myself to settle in to the experience and accept what is now and not worry what will be, for there is nothing but now which which to be engaged. The key to this conversation with myself is this: do I believe what I’m telling me?


About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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