Let’s Make The World A Better Place!

Let’s Make The World A Better Place!

Presenter: Dr. Paul Kamill

January, 2015

“What I should like to discuss in this Café is precisely the idea that in us all there is the tendency towards both good and evil.” -Paul Kamill

Proposed reading:  http://www.theguardian.com/news/2014/oct/21/-sp-the-truth-about-evil-john-gray

“Scientific views end in awe and mystery, lost at the edge in uncertainty, but they appear to be so deep and so impressive that the theory that it is all arranged as a stage for God to watch man’s struggle for good and evil seems inadequate.”  –Richard P. Feynman

Last week, by accident, I came across a ‘long read’ on the Guardian website, written by John Gray, a philosopher who is, I think, often irritating (as am I). But is this a good thing? I think that it is, as he often makes me think. The essay happens to be about ‘evil’, and how we conceive this. To put it in context, Gray wrote this at the time when we talk of “Evil Empires”, and call Saddam Hussein an “evil man, or politicians speak of an “axis of evil”, and we are currently in conflict with ISIS who are “evil”.

Everybody, who I know, but there may be others with different ideas, considers the Nazi regime to have been thoroughly bad, indeed “evil”. In the essay Gray contrasts Churchill’s pragmatic alliance with Stalin to destroy the Nazis as “supping with the Devil”. Communism, under Stalin was equally nasty.

John Gray introduces the idea of “meliorism”, with which I had some vague acquaintance, but had never actively explored. We are all, that is those of us in the VSHA, ‘aware’ of the idea of Meliorism. Here is a quotation from an academic critique, from just after the Great War, of the idea, which is explanatory.

“Never were cynical pessimism and generous optimism more indissolubly wedded than in that interesting philosophy of life known as meliorism. For in the same breath this theory scathingly condemns the existing world as “a sorry state of affairs,” and affirms with confident assurance the ability of human intelligence to make it over. With unquestioning, if not naive and childlike faith, its advocates have adopted the practical motto: “Let us make a better world!” Meliorism is militant. Abetted by the propaganda of the numerous humanitarian organizations which naturally sprang up during and immediately following the world-war, it has won to its support representatives in almost every walk of life.”  -Robinson 175-94

Ninety years on, we all know of these “humanitarian organizations”, and I should think that there is not one of you who does not subscribe, in some way to at least one of them, in the belief that our efforts can make the world a better place. BUT wait a moment! What do we mean by “better”? In the intervening years since the Great War has the world become a better place?

Not long ago John Pope, our moderator, circulated a website that indicated that the USA had been at war for all but six years since it was constituted! What makes this world a better place when the last century was peppered with wars, and weaponry that enabled killing on an industrial scale?

A more recent analysis of meliorism states:

“American meliorism remained largely a private affair, taking the form of missionary and educational work, international charity, and proposals for world peace. None of these activities were peculiarly American; few achieved their declared objectives.”  –Graebner 20-37

I ask you to at least try reading John Gray’s essay, which is admittedly difficult, but makes some telling points. Are we both good and evil, does the evil within us often win out? And are we deluding ourselves?

You all, will probably have read, or seen, at some time in your life Shakespeare’s Tragedy of Julius Caesar, and Mark Anthony’s funeral oration for Caesar. “The evil that men do lives after them; The good is oft interrèd with their bones.” Shakespeare contrasts Cassius and Brutus with Anthony. “Yon Cassius has a lean and hungry look. He thinks too much. Such men are dangerous.” Both sides believe good is what they conceive. In Anthony and Cleopatra we later see how the hero of Julius Caesar is in some way defective. And so on…

Here is your mission, should you accept it… and let the better man win? Do humans really have the BEST in mind for ourselves (selfish) or a broader view that we are ‘tinkering’ with nature, and we really are interfering busybodies in our own and the whole world’s ecosystems to our own and other species’ detriment?

Reference List

Graebner, Norman A. “The Limits of Meliorism in Foreign Affairs.” Virginia Quarterly Review 76.1 (2000): 20-37.

Robinson, Daniel Sommer. “A Critique of Meliorism.” International Journal of Ethics 34.2 (1924): 175-94


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