The Good, the Bad, and the Evil: Repairing Our World & Reconciling with Our Limits – Scott Remer

Scott Remer is an MPhil student in Political Thought & Intellectual History at the University of Cambridge. As an undergrad, he studied Ethics, Politics, & Economics at Yale University. His interests include political theory and contemporary politics, epistemology, metaphysics, psychology, literature, and Chinese philosophy.

Civil rights march on Washington, D.C., 1963 via Wikipedia

The Good, the Bad, and the Evil: Repairing Our World & Reconciling with Our Limits


Action and how best to take it

The philosopher Peter Singer argues passionately and compellingly that a life transcending narrow self-interest is the best source of meaning in this world. He proclaims, ‘People who take on the point of view of the universe may be daunted by the immensity of the task that faces them; but they are not bored’ (Singer 222).[1] The implication of this quote is that activists might temporarily feel overwhelmed, but that they’d quickly plunge into their chosen task. I think Singer’s too quick to breezily dismiss the psychological hurdles attached to living a life committed to social justice.

As the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr astutely observes, ‘Our dreams of bringing the whole of human history under the control of the human will are ironically refuted by the fact that no group of idealists can easily move the pattern of history toward the desired goal of peace and justice. The recalcitrant forces in the historical drama have a power and persistence beyond our reckoning’ (The Irony of American History).[2] The journalist Susie Linfield speaks of the importance of recognising about past injustices that ‘what is gone can not be retrieved, that what is done can not be undone, that there are losses in this world that can never be redeemed’ (Linfield 412).[3] There is a tragic element to the human condition. We can easily imagine a utopia where all are free from pain and suffering, but know that we as individuals cannot will this dream into existence.

This disjuncture is painful – and it can be debilitating. We excel at criticizing and deconstructing present unjust systems, but there’s a real danger that critiques of power will just curdle into cynicism. Mozi, a Chinese proto-utilitarian philosopher, condemned fatalism because he recognised this pernicious tendency of reformist and revolutionary impulses to sour when frustrated. In the Phaedo, Plato has the idea that philosophy is a practice for dying and death. He holds that detaching from one’s bodily senses and contemplating human mortality is a salutary practice for living one’s life well. To a certain extent, I agree that reflecting on the brevity of human existence can illuminate what’s most important and redirect us back onto the right path if we’ve strayed from upholding our most deeply held values and convictions. But if you zoom out too much to regard everything sub specie aeternitatis, you run the risk of concluding, as the author of Ecclesiastes seems to, that nothing matters at all: ‘Utter futility!… Utter futility! All is futile! What real value is there for a man in all the gains he makes beneath the sun?’(Ecclesiastes 1:2-3)[4] If our lives are but pinpricks of light, twinkling for an instant before being extinguished, then why is suffering bad? Why is pleasure good? All sensations eventually end, after all. Without conviction in an afterlife or something beyond this universe, the temptation of unbounded nihilism looms, and it is undeniably seductive.

This frightening conclusion points to the drawbacks of abstraction. When taken to an extreme, musing about the transience of all things from one’s armchair becomes pathological. As rational beings, we can consider the vast sweep of geologic or astronomical time, but such air is too rarefied to breathe for long. The proper response to nihilism is to come back down to Earth, to return to specific people, places, and ideals that one holds dear. Incidentally, this is the solution to the ennui that sets in with an excess of theory and a deficiency of practice. Psychologist and pragmatist philosopher William James rightly observed that ‘too much questioning and too little active responsibility’ can engender ‘melancholy and Weltschmerz’ (James 39).[5] Malaise sets in either when someone lacks purpose or when they have a purpose but suffer from learned helplessness or the perception that they as an individual are powerless to effectuate meaningful change. But as the Daoist philosopher Zhuangzi pragmatically declares, ‘‘[W]orry never solved anything” (Zhuangzi Ch 4);[6] the ‘artificial commiseration’ and ‘extreme sympathy with misfortunes which we know nothing about’ (Smith 183)[7]  that some moralists argue that people should feel out of solidarity with those who suffer is unproductive and serves only to make the person who practices it unhappy. Once someone has lived in the world long enough to have ‘big fears, loves, and indignations’ and a love of ‘one of the higher fidelities, like justice, truth, or freedom’ (James 211), it is time for action.

Even if one has made up one’s mind to take action, the question is what kind of action to take. The philosopher Susan Neiman passionately gives voice to the dilemma we face: ‘What good are small steps when my life is entangled in large evils? My taxes support unjust wars, my clothes support sweatshops, my life depends on machines that produce carbon. And if I really face the fact that thousands of children die every day for lack of $2, giving less than all I have seems churlish’ (Neiman 426).[8] There are many different types of suffering, and suffering occurs on such a huge scale. Where and how should one start? How does one avoid paralysis? For millennia, a debate has raged between partisans of universal love or agape and people who think that, as particularistic beings, we have special duties to people who are emotionally and geographically closer to us. The Confucians denied that there was a stark dichotomy between the particular and the general. They advocated starting with the particular and expanding one’s circle of empathy to the world at large. Mencius writes, ‘Treat your elders as elders, and extend it to the elders of others; treat your young ones as young ones, and extend it to the young ones of others; then you can turn the whole world in the palm of your hand’ (Mengzi 1A7).

Likewise, it makes sense to deny the all-or-nothing dichotomy between total moral purity/asceticism and a life of unfettered hedonism. As Neiman forcefully asseverates, ‘The best lives combine both the great and the good. You can work for global responses to economic inequality while giving something of your own to make up for what your government does not. You can work to force your government to act on the environment while turning down heaters and leaving your car at home’ (Neiman 426). Something is better than nothing. As the example of the town of Le Chambon, whose inhabitants sheltered Jews during the Holocaust without even pausing to consider the threat to their own wellbeing, and their pastor André Trocmé’s essay on the perils of theorising demonstrate, ‘[T]he habit of compassionate helpfulness may be more important than thinking’ (Vogel 22).[9] Making virtue into a daily practice improves one’s surroundings in a real way and needn’t unduly detract from the quest to enact larger, systemic change.[10] Despite the Bhagavad Gita’s claim that ‘[f]ull of Goodness, a surrendered man / will never hate unpleasant work’ (Bhagavad Gita 18:10),[11] we are human and need positive reinforcement. Seeing one’s work come to fruition on a small scale gives one strength for longer-term, less gratifying fights. The Chinese saying ‘Many littles make a lot’ is apropos; reform and revolution aren’t foes.

From an ideal standpoint, ethics encompasses all actions whatsoever, which is another way of saying that all actions, even those that on the face of it don’t involve ethics at all, have ethical content. But pragmatically, I think we can divide all human actions into three classes: moral, immoral, and amoral. And if Peter Singer is right that ‘[e]thics is practical, or it is not really ethical’ (Singer 172), then this pragmatic division is correct. If we believe that all people are created equal and that all people count equally, then it follows that no individual matters more than any other person, but it also follows that the individual matters just as much as any other person. Thus, while the ideal of the bodhisattva who completely sacrifices herself for the good of all is socially appealing, it doesn’t accurately reflect the ontological status of the individual with respect to other individuals. People have a right to enjoy non-moral spheres of life. If those who suffer the horrendous injustices and inequities of our world were to switch places with us, even they wouldn’t attain to Buddhahood; they too would allow themselves space and time to simply savour existence.

If we take the Aristotelian and Confucian idea of the Doctrine of the Mean seriously as a prescription for the good life, then we might be concerned with the possibility of being overzealous in our attempts to repair the world. Philosopher Susan Wolf writes eloquently and cogently about the defects of the ideal of moral sainthood. A moral saint would be earnest and exceptionally nice – but she would be ‘strangely barren’ (Wolf 421)[12] and one-dimensional as a result. She couldn’t be cynical or sarcastic or enjoy humour at the expense of others; certain aesthetic or cultural activities and hobbies like gourmet cooking or fashion would simply be off-limits to her (Wolf 422). She would be ‘too good’ to be fully human in the sense of having a fully-formed individual personality. As Wolf puts it, ‘[T]he moral virtues…are apt to crowd out the non-moral virtues, as well as many of the interests and personal characteristics that we generally think contribute to a healthy, well-rounded, richly developed character’ (Wolf 421).

Non-moral virtues like intelligence and one’s ability to exhibit joie de vivre are in fact virtues, and we oftentimes cherish a person especially because of his or her idiosyncrasies. Arendt and Kant hold that ‘spontaneity is essential for rational life’ (Vogel 15), but spontaneity and individuality imply that a person is able to extricate herself from the ceaseless maximisation of the general happiness long enough to act unexpectedly, and moral sainthood forbids this. Wolf indicts the moral saint ideal for ‘the lack or the denial of the existence of an identifiable, personal self” (Wolf 424). Legal scholar Robert Burt concurs. The moral saint seeks perfect justice, but as Burt notes, ‘In psychological terms, this pursuit [of perfect harmony and justice] inevitably involves the dissolution of boundaries between self and other and thereby connotes the destruction of everyone’s individual self’ (Burt 347).[13] South African freedom fighter Albie Sachs’ experience testifies to the very real harm that can be done to individual personalities by a collective will. As he recounts, he and other members of the freedom moment ‘suppressed real sides of ourselves’ (Sachs 222)[14] and found that their capacity to savour romance and beauty in the world had been injured by their immersion in the cause. This supports the ethical ideal that Wolf advocates: a person who has ‘specific, independently admirable, non-moral ground projects and dominant personal traits’ counterbalanced by high but not impossible moral standards (Wolf 423). The author of Ecclesiastes would applaud Wolf’s formulation of the human ethical ideal, as he championed something quite similar in response to the lack of temporal justice: ‘[D]on’t overdo goodness and don’t act the wise man to excess, or you may be dumbfounded. Don’t overdo wickedness and don’t be a fool, or you may die before your time….one who fears God will do his duty by both’ (Ecclesiastes 7:15-18). The American philosopher Henry David Thoreau emphasizes the non-moral side of things, proclaiming, ‘I came into this world, not chiefly to make this a good place to live in, but to live in it, be it good or bad’ (Thoreau 274),[15] but one senses that he would also assent to Wolf’s concept of the ethical ideal. I would say that Candide’s call for us as individuals to ‘cultivate our garden’[16] in Voltaire’s gloomy yet moderately meliorist conclusion to Candide also accords with Wolf.


The good life

What are the lineaments of the ostensibly non-moral or amoral portion of the life well lived? Luckily, every philosophy, religious or nonreligious, in human history has offered an answer to the question of what the good life consists of. The author of Ecclesiastes, chastened by the limits of human wisdom, concludes after considering many possibilities – power, wealth, knowledge, virtue, and wisdom itself – that the summum bonum for humankind is a tempered ‘enjoyment’ (Ecclesiastes 8:15); man ought to ‘eat and drink and get pleasure with all the gains he makes under the sun’ (Ecclesiastes 5:17). The Confucians agree that, within the bounds of propriety and coupled with rituals to regulate and set limits on desire (Xunzi Ch 19), food and drink are positive goods. They add to these the pleasures of music, dance, study, and companionship: Confucius stirringly limns his vision of the good life by saying, ‘Taking joy in regulating yourself through the rites and music, in speaking well of others, and in possessing many worthy friends – these are the beneficial types of joy’ (Analects 16.5). The Aristotelian notions of potentiality (dynamis) and actuality (energeia) are also useful in thinking about the good life. A life of eudaemonia entails the actualisation of our physical, social, emotional, mental, and political potentials.

Friendship and love are crucial to a life well lived. Paul Kahn contends that romantic love is a direct response, and perhaps the ultimate antidote, to evil. The comfort friendship, romance, and community bring in the face of the angst and existential despair that one is liable to feel about the world’s brokenness is not to be underestimated. At their best, they give us a taste of perfection in the midst of the imperfect.

So too does religion, which even that hard-boiled atheist Marx calls the ‘heart of a heartless world’ (Neiman 95). Access to transcendence can be attained through organized worship or by actively practicing a religious attitude – mindfully inhabiting the present moment, seeing and truly admiring the beauty in nature, appreciating sublimity. The Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh describes the process of cultivating such an attitude thus: ‘[W]alk in mindfulness, making peaceful, happy steps on our planet. Breathe deeply, and enjoy your breathing. Be aware that the sky is blue and the birds’ songs are beautiful’ (Hanh 59).[17] Beautifully simple, this prescription underscores how crucial it is to shake off routine ways of seeing and view the world anew. The path Hanh advocates is undeniably helpful, but for those who need a specific, well-delineated set of steps, meditation, yoga, and prayer can all help in the personal spiritual battle to achieve a well-ordered soul.

We haven’t yet answered the practical question of how exactly to balance the non-moral and moral components of one’s life. Unfortunately, it’s not the kind of question where one can outsource one’s deliberations to an algorithm or equation. Given the moral licensing effect and our penchant for rationalising away our flaws, it seems prudent to give extra weight to morality (as a way to correct the natural tendency to value the self over the other).

At any rate, the division between non-moral and moral isn’t nearly as well-defined as it might seem. In some sense, the non-moral/amoral aspects of life are really just indirectly moral. One orders one’s own soul in order to more fruitfully engage with the world. If done properly, the process of tending to one’s spiritual and emotional health (through enjoying friendship, love, natural and artistic beauty, music, food, dance, and other delights of existence) can spur us to reproduce that beauty by performing morally beautiful acts and interacting compassionately with others.

The philosopher Philip Hallie makes this connection explicit: by enjoying ‘ecstasies of love, of food, and of music’ (Hallie 275)[18] and then reflecting upon them, we can arrive at an appreciation of just how miraculous and precious our individual lives are. From there, it takes just one step of empathetic projection for us to come to an ‘imaginative perception of the connection between the preciousness of my life and the preciousness of other lives’ (Hallie 277). Veteran freedom fighter Albie Sachs serves as an example of this process in action. He perceived the world as being ‘spiritualised and full of awe and wonder’ (Sachs 219) and conceptualized his anti-apartheid activities as being an extension and magnification of this beauty, likening them to an act of prayer or worship. This relationship also works in reverse: by assuaging our conscience, working to improve society can better equip us to experience beauty in our private lives without guilt.

Although we can think of the relationship between non-moral and moral pursuits as being a chronological progression where enjoyment of the non-moral realm of life leads one to become involved in the moral realm, it is better to think of them as coexisting interdependently. Since ordering the soul is the endeavour of a lifetime and can’t ever be permanently accomplished, the non-moral and moral must be pursued simultaneously. And as we’ve seen, they tend to be mutually reinforcing.

As the intimate connection between the non-moral and the moral suggests, the supposed metaphysical opposition between self and other (and consequent conflict between self-interest and altruism) isn’t as stable or pronounced as Western individualism would have us believe. Metaphysically, we are all connected. The boundaries between self and other are much fuzzier than is commonly assumed, as Buddhism and Hinduism suggest with their shared doctrine of anatman (the nonexistence of an independent, autonomous self). Materially, besides the aforementioned capacity to enjoy life’s non-moral aspects without feeling quite so guilty, the individual reaps very direct benefits from being part of a group that struggles together for a commonly shared ideal. Religion is a prime example of the way that a sense of meaning flows from membership in a group working for a communal goal. Nietzsche marvels at how religion provides people with a way of life that ‘work[s] as a disciplina voluntatis while at the same time removing boredom’ and offers a vision of a life that’s ‘illuminated by the highest worth’ (The Gay Science 211).[19] Albie Sachs writes passionately about the spiritual enrichment he experienced during his participation in the anti-apartheid movement:

What had given honour and dignity to our lives was precisely the fact that we chose to combat injustice without thought or even hope of receiving personal benefit. The reward was in the endeavour, the comradeship, the fervour of human interaction, the sense of living an intensely meaningful life that engaged fully with the world while establishing a distinctive personal space for each one of us (Sachs 221).

Through subsuming himself in the collective, Sachs found a life that was ‘incandescent with purpose.’ The struggle enlarged and illumined his world, providing a vision of the latent explanation that we intuit lurks behind the surface of a world riven by division. As Sachs attests, for members of the resistance, ‘[P]articipating body and spirit in something meaningful [and]…overcoming the barriers that kept human beings apart’ ultimately ‘made sense of our lives and justified everything’ (Sachs 222). By striving for ideals that he genuinely believed in, Sachs reached a state of harmony or transcendence that nearly restored him to the original state of completion that Burt writes of. Peter Singer, an activist himself, writes eloquently of the ‘real happiness’ one achieves – the sense of having ‘noble character, a good reputation, and an easy conscience’ (Singer 192) – from throwing one’s body and soul into the struggle for justice.

Rabbi Hillel famously wrote, ‘If I am not for myself, who is for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?’ (Pirkei Avot 1:14) This aphorism encapsulates the tightrope walk we all must make in this life. We need to tend to ourselves. We need to take care of others. The world is broken. Although it is not beyond fixing, at least in principle, the magnitude of the challenges we face is enormous. It is very likely that we as individuals will not live to see the day that justice flows like water and righteousness like a mighty stream (Amos 5:24). Nonetheless, we must try to cultivate amor fati and fight evil the best we know how. Rabbi Tarfon said it best: ‘It is not incumbent upon you to complete the work, but neither are you at liberty to desist from it’ (Pirkei Avot 2:21).



[1] Singer, Peter. How Are We to Live?: Ethics in an Age of Self-interest. Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 1995. Print.

[2] Niebuhr, Reinhold. “An Excerpt from Ch 1, The Irony of American History.” University of Chicago Press. University of Chicago Press, n.d. Web. 02 May 2015. <;.

[3] Linfield, Susie. “Trading Truth for Justice?: Reflections on South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.” Boston Review, Summer 2000, 408-414. Print.

[4] Berlin, Adele, and Marc Zvi. Brettler, eds. The Jewish Study Bible: Jewish Publication Society Tanakh Translation. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2014. 1602-1618. Print.

[5] James, William. The Will to Believe, and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy. New York: Longmans, Green, 1905. Print.

[6] Ivanhoe, P. J., and Bryan W. Van Norden, eds. Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy. Indianapolis: Hackett, 2003. Print. All subsequent quotes from Chinese philosophers are from this text.

[7] Smith, Adam. The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Washington, DC: Regnery, 1997. Print.

[8] Neiman, Susan. Moral Clarity: A Guide for Grown-up Idealists. Orlando, FL: Harcourt, 2008. Print.

[9] Vogel, Lawrence. “Eichmann in Athens: Hannah Arendt, Emmanuel Levinas, and the New Problem of Evil.” Transcript of talk delivered on April 18, 2008, St. John’s College, Santa Fe, NM.

[10] An important caveat is the danger of falling into the trap of the moral licensing effect. If a person does some small-scale act of good, there’s the possibility that she will feel as if she’s freed from her moral obligations and can simply rest on her laurels. The small-scale practice of virtue can motivate one to seek larger-scale change, but it needn’t necessarily do so. Further, since we have limited time, energy, and attention, regular, smaller-scale actions will necessarily consume at least some small portion of one’s resources, a portion that could have been going to larger-scale change. However, smaller-scale actions are certain to make a difference, whereas political action has an uncertain payoff, so if we did an expected-value calculation, things would likely end up being a wash. It’s the 100% certainty that attaches to the outcome of small-scale, personal good deeds (as opposed to the uncertainty of larger-scale good deeds) that explains the following advice from the Talmud: ‘Say not, ‘When I have free time I shall study’; for you may perhaps never have any free time” (Pirkei Avot 2:4).

[11] Parrinder, Geoffrey, trans. The Bhagavad Gita: A Verse Translation. London: Sheldon, 1974. Print.

[12] Wolf, Susan. “Moral Saints.” The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 79, No. 8 (Aug. 1982), 419-439.

[13] Burt, Robert. In the Whirlwind: God and Humanity in Conflict. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2012. Print.

[14] Sachs, Albie. The Soft Vengeance of a Freedom Fighter. Berkeley, CA: U of California, 2000. Print.

[15] Thoreau, Henry David. Walden; And, Civil Disobedience. New York, NY: Signet, 1999. Print.

[16] Voltaire. “Candide.” The Online Literature Library. N.p., n.d. Web. 05 May 2015. <;.

[17] Hạnh, Thich Nhat. Living Buddha, Living Christ. New York: Riverhead, 1995. Print.

[18] Hallie, Philip P. Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed: The Story of the Village of Le Chambon, and How Goodness Happened There. New York: Harper & Row, 1979. Print.

[19] Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Gay Science, With a Prelude in German Rhymes and an Appendix of Songs. Ed. Bernard Williams. Trans. Josefine Nauckhoff. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2001. Print.

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