The basic meaning of evil is to be found, not in fantastic images of the satanic, but in the plainer, more down-to-earth matter of doing harm, whether by aggressive assault or more passive disregard for human life and well-being. I said “human” because our attention has been focused most often upon the evils people do to each other, and upon reflection, we should add the damage people do to themselves because when evil is understood as harm, self-destruction may be considered evil, also, without necessarily becoming a matter of blame. Is cruelty inflicted upon earth’s non-speaking creatures not, then, evil? Indeed it is, whether done as the kind of brutality and neglect visited upon pets that makes for raging headlines and public outcries for punishment or as the routine destruction of animal environs that quietly kills off species. If, through biblical knowledge or other ways of thought that lead us to a sense of our stewardship responsibility for this planet, we are moved to see ourselves as care-takers for the earth rather than privileged overlords, then harm done to ecosystems as such may rightly be called evil also.
What, then, do I mean by “the current evil”? I am seeking to identify a source of great harm being done on earth these days, a contemporary evil with powerful and pervasive destructive force doing widespread and increasing damage to life on earth. As usual, evil so great and powerful must be couched in terms that make it sound reasonable and right, even inevitable in the course of human development. Such great evil must sound proper if not downright good and virtuous.
The two words are spoken as a command but also as a reasonable and well-recognized goal, a given elevated beyond question. They are: “maximize profits.” Not “make a profit” or even a nice profit. Not even “increase profits,” although that’s a step closer, sometimes. It’s not hard to imagine, though, a certain desperation even in that phrase when it speaks of a pressing concern, as in, “We must increase our profits soon, or we will not be able to stay in business.” No, the word that pushes the business necessity of making money over the line is “maximize.”
Human commerce, of course, has a long history of corner cutting, cost shaving, and price inflating. Some twenty-seven hundred years ago, Israel’s prophets railed against the harm being done by business people who cheated their suppliers (farmers), then cheated their customers as well using rigged scales and padding satchels of grain with inedible filler (“the sweepings of the wheat”), and even lending the farmers money at exorbitant interest rates in order to foreclose on the farms and force the former owners to carry on their labor as serfs, thereby cutting supply costs considerably. People with power in society have demanded slaves in one form or another for as many centuries back as our histories take us. So, in a sense, the new evil is not new at all, but in a profound sense it is new, for as Tolkien’s wizard puts it in the Lord of the Rings, “Always after a defeat and a respite, the Shadow takes another shape and grows again.”
The computer, which is neither good nor evil in itself but only a tool, has enabled the Shadow to assume new shape that gives the ambitious new power to order, govern, and control human life, thereby enslaving millions through quite reasonable and even benign-looking means: metrics for driving labor (doing the work of countless slave drivers and crew chiefs), globalization for seeking the cheapest and most readily exploitable workers as wage-slaves and sometimes quite literal slaves, incredibly high speed stock trading for legally robbing ordinary investors of returns, avoiding regulations for the preservation of our ecosystems, stashing money in havens overseas, and now taking over and regimenting the training (no longer to be education) of our children for power and profit.
Let me clarify. The evil does not come from the word “profits” by itself. Who can stay in business without making profits (acknowledging them as such on tax forms may be another matter)? It is the word “maximizing” which identifies the evil at work. It is a word of idolatry, of giving far too much and even supreme importance to something that should not matter so very much to human beings. To maximize anything is to squeeze out other concerns and considerations. To maximize is to worship. It is to subordinate all else to one concern, one goal, one end in life. Oh, to be sure, at first we allow other considerations, such as people and fairness to them, to modify our maximization processes, but there’s nothing like a computer algorithm to make it all seem like “nothing personal.” “There, see on the screen or in the manual, it’s just the policy, the operating procedure, that has incidentally but most impersonally, without malice, crushed you and your family, stolen your pension, dried up your hopes for the future, and discounted your very existence.” Nothing personal. Nothing personal at all.
And that is the very nature and definition of sin: the denial of relationship and of relational responsibility. “What am I, my brother’s keeper? My sister’s guardian?”
In reply to the wizard’s observation that always the Shadow takes another shape and grows again, the frightened little Hobbit moans, “I wish it need not have happened in my time.”
The wizard responds, “So do I, and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”