After reading and reflecting upon “The Problem of Evil” by Fyodor Dostoevsky, it struck me that he would devote his full attention to some of the most egregious crimes against humanity by focusing on the brutality of those who have tortured children in front of their mothers for pleasure. One can’t help but plea for love in this world when hearing of such moral depravity. Why is there evil in this world and is it possible that evil can co-exist with God?
Jesus promised us that we would have troubles in this world, yet he also offered us a lifeline. He said, “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble at heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:29).
We have an innate moral sense that calls on us to love, and through that calling and our duty to love, we grow closer to God. As C.S. Lewis said, “if we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.” Accordingly, the intention of this blog is to identify the source of our morality and whether evil and God can co-exist.
The Heritability of Personality and Attitudinal Traits
Research has supported the heritability of personality traits. Among these are the heritable traits of cognitive ability and the Five Factor Model of Personality (openness to experience, agreeableness, conscientiousness, emotional stability, and extraversion), along with attitudes towards religion and a variety of job-related variables (see Ilies et al., 2006, for a review). In other words, children are likely to share some of the traits that are characteristic of their parents: extraverted parents may have extraverted children; parents with high cognitive abilities may have children with high cognitive abilities; and so on.
These findings demonstrate that the way we interact in the world is partially attributed to our genetic composition. Our genetic predispositions offer probabilities for our actions and behaviors. For example, agreeableness is one of the Big Five personality domains that is multifaceted (Costa & McCrae, 1995). One of its facets is altruism, so people who score highly on agreeableness are likely more altruistic than those who score lower. Extraverted people are more pro-social than their counterparts, while highly conscientious people are more industrious and achievement-oriented. Within all societies, we find people at all ranks on the Five Factor Model of Personality, however, suggesting the above findings are most applicable at the individual or dyadic levels, helping to explain variations within societies and between people. Furthermore, such findings demonstrate that those with preferable variations (such as altruism) are likely to live in populations with their more selfish counterparts.
Between Society Variations in Values
Numerous cross-cultural scholars have indicated variations between societies in the values and preferences they rate highly (e.g., Hofstede, 2001; House et al., 2004). For example, preferences for individualism, in-group and societal collectivism, power distance, nurturing behaviors, assertion, and uncertainty avoidance vary as a function of one’s society. The GLOBE Study of 62 societies identified values that were representative of what “is” in a population (i.e., current value preferences), which contrasted with what populations felt the values “ought” to be (House et al., 2004). In no populations did prevalent values perfectly correlate to the values societies thought ought to be prevalent.
Why is that? Why is it that the United States population values self-enhancement (such as hedonism and immediate gratification) while populations in Southeast Asia value self-transcendence (such as benevolence and universalism) (c.f., Schwartz, 1992; 1994)? Yet most people in the United States realize that the latter values are more desirable and Godly than the former. While evolution can partially explain how we came to possess some of the traits we possess, it does not explain how we came to appreciate the selfless traits that many do not possess.
Furthermore, why do humans universally possess a “norm of reciprocity” in which we feel called to give back when someone has given something to us? Why do (all sane) humans possess the innate sense that helping behaviors, benevolence, and empathy are more desirable than selfish behaviors, malevolence and apathy? Why is it that almost all desire to do what is “morally right?”
Paul has shared the answer in Romans 2:15. “They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.” Since we know an objective set of moral values and duties exists, we know a moral lawgiver exists that transcends time and place: God.
Objective Moral Values and Duties
In his book “Critique of Pure Reason,” Immanuel Kant proposed that our values are innately wired within us a priori. In other words, we have objective moral values and duties that transcend our cultures, generations, and opinions. The standards of truth, equality, justice, equity, and love stand as the benchmarks against which we judge our actions and behaviors. If we want to assess our honesty, for example, we measure it against the standard of truth. If we want to assess a kind action, we assess it against the standard of love. These values cannot be culturally contingent as they withstand the test of time and can be applied to judge past, present, and future generations. Truth has always been the truth and will be the truth a thousand or a million years from now.
Immanual Kant further indicated that the standard of truth is such that people must always tell the truth under any situation. I disagree with this point, as I don’t think the standards should be viewed in silos. They should instead be viewed as a composite in the search to determine what is “morally right.”
Let me explain with an example. If a German household decided to hide a Jewish family to protect them from the Nazis, this action is brave and commendable. They were acting out of the standards of equity, equality, and love. If they decided to lie to the SS soldiers to protect the family, consideration of the other three standards trumps consideration of the truth. Determining what is morally right requires a symbiotic assessment of all of the standards.
Is it possible that we have no standards or ultimate source of guidance? Is it possible that our moral values are culturally contingent? No. If values were merely culturally construed, we would have no means with which to judge the Nazi atrocities – as the Nazis were acting in ways their culture deemed acceptable. We would have no means to judge the Canaanites, Sodomites, or those living in Gomorrah either. We would be living in a world of moral calamity.
Some atheists argue that our morality is subjective or relative to the culture in which we’ve been raised. Some think that we have “decided” on the socially acceptable set of morals with our rules, laws, and regulations. Some seem to think that each culture draws up its own appropriate guide for what’s right and what’s wrong, applying ethical relativism. Yet such assertions offer no moral grounding.
Can a culture offer the moral grounding? Would it be reasonable to assess the morals of all the world against the prevalent values of those in Tibet or India? This would not be reasonable, because no cultures contain perfect humans who set the standards of equity, equality, justice, love, and truth. Each has a portion of good people and each has a portion of bad, though the proportions do vary. So we are still left with the challenge of establishing an objective framework against which we can assess morality across humanity.
Let me explain the difference between objective standards and relative values with an example from my field. Consider performance appraisals that are typically used in larger organizations. Human resource managers may adopt either a standards-based assessment in which an employee’s performance is assessed against a well-defined set of standards, or criteria OR a relative assessment in which an employee’s performance is ranked against other employees. An example of the latter form is the “forced distribution system,” (a.k.a. Bell curve), which was advocated by Jack Welch of General Electric and was highly successful during his tenure there. Employees were “forced” into A (10%), B (70%), or C (20%) categories – and two consecutive years of C assessments earned employees a termination. Other companies copied General Electric and adopted their own “stacked” or “rank and yank” assessments (remember Enron?), but then human resource managers noticed that neither managers nor employees liked such systems. The systems reduce organization citizenship behaviors, since employees are essentially competing against one other for the “A” grades and highest raises. Systems of relative rankings simply don’t work (c.f., Thomason et al., 2018). Instead of striving to meet a well-designed and understood standard, employees must compete against one another, so helping behaviors are decreased and goalposts keep shifting.
Imagine three countries, each representing a distinct set of morals and values: one country is Nazi Germany; a second is Saudi Arabia, and a third is the United States. The Nazis favor discrimination, annihilation, and the elevation of the “Aryan” race; Saudi Arabia adheres to the Quran’s claim that women have half the value of men, so female rights are set accordingly; and the United States is characterized by individualism, income inequality, hedonism, and self-enhancement. Each of these societies is flawed, but against which objective measure can we make this assessment? If we set the standards at equality, equity, justice, love, and truth, we can assess whether the practices in these societies measure up and can determine whether “morally right.”
This is not to completely discount moral relativism, as we should understand cultures within their contexts. Yet cultural values should not be viewed in silos – or as stand-alone systems – against no common standard. Relative moral standards should be viewed in the context of an objective moral framework.
In conclusion, I present four summary points that I hope you will consider: (1) certain personality and attitudinal traits are heritable and these help us to explain the current state of affairs within our populations; (2) values vary between populations and no populations’ current situation matches precisely with that which they consider ideal or desirable; (3) the current and ideal moral values and duties within and between populations can be assessed using our objective moral standards of love, equity, equality, justice, and truth; and (4) these standards do not change over time or based on our relative opinions: they transcend time and place and are consistent with the essence of God.
Evil and God can indeed co-exist, because through the essence of God and His objective moral standards and duties, we can walk more closely in the footsteps of Jesus, mitigating the evil both within and outside of us. Just as darkness can never overcome the light, evil can never overcome the power of love.
Thank you for your time.
Costa. P.T. & McCrae, R.R. (1995). Domains and facets: Hierarchical personality assessment using the Revised NEO Personality Inventory. Journal of Personality Assessment, 64(1): 21-50.
Hofstede, G. (2001). Culture’s Consequences: Comparing values, behaviors, institutions, and organizations across nations. 2nd ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
House, R.J., Hanges, P.J., Javidan, M., Dorfman, P.W., & Gupta, V. (2004). Culture, Leadership, and Organizations: The GLOBE Study of 62 Societies. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
Ilies, R., Arvey, R.D. & Bouchard, Jr., T.J. (2006). Darwinism, behavioral genetics, and organizational behavior: A review and agenda for future research. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 27: 121-141.
Schwartz, S.H. (1992). Universals in the content and structure of values: Theory and empirical tests in 20 countries. In M. Zanna (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 25) (pp. 1–65). New York: Academic Press.
Schwartz, S.H. (1994). Are there universal aspects in the content and structure of values? Journal of Social Issues, 50, 19-45.
Thomason, S.J., Brownlee, A., Harris, A. & Rustogi, H. (2018 – in press). Forced distribution systems and attracting top talent. International Journal of Productivity and Performance Management. Accessible at: https://www.emeraldinsight.com/doi/abs/10.1108/IJPPM-06-2017-0141