The Problem of Evil

A question asked on the conculture mailing list:

How do our various cultures — especially the non-human ones, and also especially the non-terran ones — view this Problem of Evil? Or do they even recognise it as a principle? Or do they see Good as the Problem…? Also, is Evil a “real thing” or a by-product of cultural evolution in a people?

Well, now.

The eldrae don’t really think of Good and Evil as contending cosmic principles.  Those would more accurately be described as Light and Dark – on the one hand, the Flame, the cosmic positive principle of volition, creation, excellence, and energy, and the Darkness, the negative cosmic principle of chaos, destruction, and entropy.  But while Dark may be Evil, in many if not all of its aspects, Light is not exactly Good (and nor is it, well, terribly nice – at least by human moral standards).  Unless you happen to identify the good really strongly with beauty, excellence, negentropy, obligation, the inevitable march of progress, and remorselessly enforced free will, anyway.

Neither of them is personified, strictly speaking.  Light arguably is in the form of the eikones (personifications of concepts) as a whole, but none of them represents the Light itself; they’re shards of it seen through a prism, individual colors derived from the light of the Flame.  Meanwhile, Darkness —

Well, that gets into beginnings.  The fundamental tenet of eldraeic theology is that the universe is fundamentally broken.  It obviously shouldn’t be, but something went wrong at some point, and we’re stuck with it.  (Explanations vary; the Church of the Flame doesn’t really have a consistent creation myth.  One common postulate is that it’s down to Aldéré, Divine Ignition, creator goddess of the eikones, being mad as a hatful of badgers inasmuch as creation is the only thing that matters, and what happens afterwards is “not her department”, which is why she coos every bit as much over the creation of say, Ebola, as the creation of a magnificent work of art; but there are many alternative cosmogonies.)  The Darkness is this brokenness; it’s entropy and its consequences, the reason we live in an imperfect universe in which energy dissipates, destruction doesn’t always lead to new creation, information can be lost, people die, flaws go unamended, and assorted other offenses against The Way Things Ought To Be In A Proper, Perfect Universe persist in happening.

(And that, of course, is just physical entropy.  Mental-spiritual entropy is also responsible for choice-theft and parasitism and envy and sloth and cacophilia and destructionism and humility and most of the other sins in the book.)

It’s almost gnostic, in a way, except that while the gnostics would claim that matter and the material world are inherently evil, the Flamics would claim that matter itself strives, self-organizing into stars and worlds and galaxies, crystals and snowflakes, and life, life everywhere, in one great outcry against the deathward fall of the universe, until eventually it produced sophont life, whose purpose, such as it is, is to continue to strive to make the universe better, and eventually fix it completely, restoring it to the flawless state it always should have had.

“Anything that is broken can be repaired.”

So, to return to the original question, evil (or Darkness, rather) doesn’t have an independent existence per se; it’s merely inherent in the flawed nature of the universe and everything within it.  In sophont terms, it’s that little inner voice that encourages people to take short cuts, to be satisfied with less, to be less than they can be, to bring others down rather than raise themselves up (relative status systems are, they would say, very entropic), to not strive, not achieve, not improve, and to prevent others from doing so.  That’s the hole in the world trying to suck out your awesome; good, or Light rather, consists of not letting it.  But it is a distinctly identifiable concept you can point to, and say “that’s it”.

(More on some related concepts at Blue and Orange Morality and Little Darknesses.)

Trope-a-Day: Black and White Morality

Black and White Morality: Depends on the angle you look at it, really.  Outside observers would argue that the Imperials, for example, must practice a black and white morality; after all, they have an objective ethics, or so they claim, and a mathematical calculus of ethics by which to measure everything…

But then, that’s an objective ethics, which is just the core of morality.  They do have several different moral systems, albeit that a very definite majority of them hew fairly close to the knowledge-and-beauty-good, entropy-bad clade that defines the moral mainstream.  More importantly, they are entirely capable of understanding the degrees of nuance in the universe that mean that (a) just because someone is mistaken does not mean that they are evil – and that can potentially be anyone with the possible exception of the Ephors of the Curia, who were designed as self-improving incarnations of Incorruptible Pure Pureness – and (b) there is not just good and evil, there is better and worse.  Reality, as you might have gathered from Morality Kitchen Sink, is much more “White and Pale Gray and Mid-Gray and occasionally Dark Gray” versus “Black and Dark Gray and Mid-Gray and occasionally Pale Gray” than it is White vs. Black.

See also: Blue and Orange Morality, Morality Kitchen Sink.

Trope-a-Day: Morality Kitchen Sink

Morality Kitchen Sink: The way the universe works, people being complex – sophonts can be found spread all over the moral spectrum from shiny white to deepest black, often at the same time in different contexts.  More importantly, bearing in mind the sheer variety of sophont minds despite the constraints placed upon them by sharing a physical reality-substrate, they can also be found in blue and orange, purple and red, green, yellow, brown, puce, taupe, and fuchsia.

Trope-a-Day: Incorruptible Pure Pureness

Incorruptible Pure Pureness: Not overwhelmingly more than any other reality (although the emphasis Imperial-style moral teachings put on self-integrity, importance of probably helps make people substantially more resistant to temptation).  And, of course, remember Blue and Orange Morality, which does, ahem, offer a somewhat different slant on the qualifications for what exactly the right thing, and indeed, the greater good are.

(This remains true even into the Transcendent era; the protections implicit in the collective consciousness ensure mutual loyalty and benevolence between its members; not necessarily towards the rest of the universe.)

Played straight with certain special types of minds: the Ephors of the Curia, for example, are essentially artificial intelligences constructed out of the law to judge the law, and are utterly, 100% loyal to the Fundamental Contract, the Imperial Charter, statute law, and precedent, in that order.  They can’t be corrupted, bribed, influenced, or swayed by emotional appeals.  The concept of higher motivations than The Law simply doesn’t exist in their mental universe.

The other example that leaps to mind is the use, in some professions, of specially-designed gnostic overlays – mental add-ons which supplement personality rather than replace it, and in these cases, specifically, plug-in values.  The constabular overlay is used by on-duty members of the Watch Constabulary, and those deputized and self-deputized, and includes those values deemed necessary for those members of society paid to and permitted to use necessary force, including strict adherence to the law, respect for the rights of their fellow citizens, incorruptibility, and so forth.

Another interesting one is the objectivity overlay, widely used among some journalists who are writing not for the editorial pages.  Plug this one into your head, and it suppresses personal opinions, interests, and assorted other emotional and subjective considerations, while leaving you still competent to do your job.  It guarantees your ability to write unbiased, fact-based stories, however appalled by yourself you might be when you take the overlay off.

Trope-a-Day: Beauty Equals Goodness

Beauty Equals Goodness: Very much averted in one sense, even by local standards (see: Blue and Orange Morality) of goodness.  It is perfectly true that the eldrae and the other Imperials are an extraordinarily Beautiful People.  But by the same processes, so are the Renunciates.  And so are the Renegades – even the Renegades who are very, very bad people indeed, by anyone’s standards.

Quite appropriate, really.  After all, even fallen angels are still angels.

In another: yes, one of the qualities they esteem is beauty, as a form of excellence.  But this does not imply, simple-mindedly, that the beautiful are the good.  Rather, the dogma holds that it implies that the good deserve to be the beautiful, and therefore that beauty ought to be promoted by the sophont in those places where blind nature and random chance got it wrong again.

Not Quite a Trope-a-Day: Values Dissonance

Posting this one out of order, too, because it may be useful to have it up here in future, and – well, because having fictional people and real people call each other names just seemed fun to me when I was writing it up.  So.

Values Dissonance: In-world, plenty of it, discussed and handled – as mentioned under Culture Clash – fairly often, because there’s really not much of an alternative in a polyspecific universe, and there are polyspecific and multicultural polities and colonies in which people essentially have to work it out.

Out-world, which is to say, between them and us, plenty of it too.  Look at all the values dissonance evident just from Blue and Orange Morality, for a start, starting with the section on propertarianism and working down.  Or, to put it the way that two people unwilling to take anything but the hardest line on values issues would put it:

They’re grasping and materialistic; we’re envious thieves and whinging martyrs.  They’re cold and uncaring; we’re testosterone-poisoned, bleeding-heart hysterics.  They’re self-centered bohemian insubordinate eccentrics; we’re conformist power-worshipping submissive drones.  They’re legalistic and rigid; we’re treacherous and unreliable.  They’re obsessive perfectionists; we’re sloppy incompetents.  They’re impossibly demanding; we just don’t care enough.  They’re mad scientists; we’re afraid to ask the hard questions.  They’re childishly enthusiastic; we’re boringly cynical.  They’re stultifyingly polite, formal and baroque; we’re as subtle as a brick to the face.  They’re stuck-up judgmental aesthetes; we’re appalling cacophiles who seem to think shock value is an adequate substitute for artistic merit.  Their sense of humor is overly intellectualized; ours is maliciously cruel.  They won’t even try to implement reasonable, effective, broad-based solutions; we’re discipline addicts pathologically incapable of leaving folks alone to work things out.

They’re environmental criminals for wanting to turn the universe into a garden; we’re environmental criminals for refusing to fix what nature got wrong.  They are morally outraged about our treatment of the prosapient species of our world, starting with the dog, dolphin and octopus and working down the list; we… can’t see what all the fuss is about, evidently.  At war, they’re ruthless killers who don’t “follow the rules” and embrace civis Romanus sum; at war, we’re soft-hearted idiots who can’t remember which side we’re on.  They’re gun-crazy madmen who even arm their children; we’re incredible hypocrites for pretending people have a right to defend themselves and then denying them any practical means to do so.

They hate the poor because they don’t give them everything they need and sneer at the downtrodden; we hate the poor because we choke off their opportunities, ignore their rights, and coddle even deserved failure.  They hate the disabled because they insist on fixing everything; we hate the disabled because we keep making more of them.  They’re cruel and inhumane because they execute violent criminals and brainwash the rest; we’re cruel and inhumane because we lock criminals up in prisons for years of pointless torture.  They are so permissive they can’t have any meaningful moral standards (and, yes, this is contradictory, but read moral standards as something like the modern US sense of “family values…in re sexuality, marriage, public modesty, guns, drugs, alcohol, gambling, etc., etc., etc.”); we are so restrictive we can’t have any meaningful notion of personal freedom (again… yes, but it’s a stereotype).

They’re outspoken and judgmental about (which they would call actually believing in) their sense of ethics and morality and intolerant when it comes to the people that offend their effete sensibilities; we’re so morally flexible (for which they would read lacking) we’ll skip lightly past any amount of suffering, oppression and rot as long as it’s happening somewhere we don’t have to look at it.

Oh, and for different reasons (they refuse to treat anyone differently for the sake of individual fairness, or give the notion of group identity any ethical weight; we think two wrongs can make a right and never generalize to the big picture), each party thinks the other is a bunch of howling (sexist | racist | everythingelseist) bigots.

All of which is not to say that individuals necessarily think all or even any of this, and indeed, as between any two societies people could often find each other pleasant, upstanding chaps, and indeed good friends, especially once individual variation is taken into account.  But there are certainly plenty of places to find said dissonance if you care to go looking…

(For more possible examples, well, look at the Ethnographical Questionnaire series on this blog, which has plenty of them already, and will have yet more.)