Park Bench Tales and other writings

Thoughts and writings reflecting the poet within and the activist

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Do we encourage students and others to find the values for meaning to their lives?

Very often the question that relates to a meaning for life becomes confused with the idea that there is some religious meaning for life, or there is some philosophy that gives us meaning, or that there is no meaning beyond that we choose to assign to life. Each of these views carries positive features, but equally a rigid adherence to any one view could also be a cause for conflict. A part of my youth was to attend chapel and listen to many sermons that informed me that the meaning to life was to be found in Christ’s actions and the guidance I could get from reading the bible. By the time I was in my twenties I had reached the conclusion that this ‘meaning for life’ carried with it some ideas that I felt distinctly uncomfortable with.

The bias that I received tried hard to assure me that there was a ‘true meaning for life’ and all other meanings were of little relevance. Many sermons actually devoted much time, and effort, into dissecting the religion of the Jews and telling me they were ‘wrong’, particular wrath seemed to be directed at Pharisees. These days with more communities having a wider ethnic mix, and a wider range of religious beliefs expressed, I sense a kind of ‘false acceptance’ of other beliefs. This is rather like having the view that we are all of the same family, but my views are the right ones, superior in some way to your views. A second problem that I had was that if the meaning of life were to be found in Christianity then I wondered how many people found that meaning before the life of Christ, and how many might find this meaning without ever having made contact with the teaching of Christ. In a sense there had to be ‘Christians’ before Christ if Christianity means living a purposeful life according to Christ’s teaching.

I think this a good starting point, for either we live our lives in a special enclosed room, suggesting we have found some meaning and you can only enter the room if you are willing to share this meaning, or we accept we should explore carefully what we are assigning to a ‘meaning for life’. The same point can be made with philosophy, choosing to accept that a particular philosophy is the one that provides us with meaning is an exclusive view, the only difference between this approach and the religious view is that we would end up in different rooms. We can go further and say that the atheist can also find meaning, but simply finds a different room. I make these points because I believe that you move forward in your thinking and your actions if you avoid locking yourself in one of these rooms and try and find an approach to discussion that favours being inclusive rather than exclusive.

There is one further viewpoint that can confuse, that is the one that claims there is no purpose or meaning to life, a kind of denial that life is anything other than a series of accidents. This I find hard to accept since if you choose to marry, to have children, to go on holiday, to change where you work or where you live, then each of those decisions could be argued as giving both purpose and meaning to life.

There is one particular quote from the Monty Python film on the meaning of life that I find useful as a starting point.

“Well, it’s nothing very special. Try to be nice to people, avoid eating fat, read a good book every now and then, get some walking in, and try and live together in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations.”

I don’t know whether the writer meant to be flippant or whether this was thought out as an answer, but there are important points that are raised. We carry out various daily activities that we regard as being meaningful, but we also think about meaning in wider terms. How do our actions affect others, and how do the actions of our communities, our nations, affect other communities and nations? Following a particular religion, or faith, may try and link these together so that what we do in our lives, our every action if you like, affects not only our lives but also the lives of others in our community, and in so doing will affect the lives of those in other communities. We tend to look for a meaning that goes beyond the self.

There is another view that deserves to be examined, mainly because this view raises a question about the difference that we show in our behaviour and the values that we claim are important to us. Many of us live in societies where the creation of wealth is openly championed as a purpose for life. Wealth itself then has to have a further purpose. What has been done over the years is to actually create a mirage of wealth that will give rise to a life of more leisure, more pleasure, a life in the sun, where our desires for new cars, large houses, and anything we wish for could even come true. Work is considered an unfortunate necessity to allow us to enjoy these pleasures, and children are needed to continue the species, but can be placed in nurseries, schools and colleges to avoid them becoming too much of an inconvenience.

I have slanted the view with deliberate bias, for many life is very different. Far too many people live in areas where life has little meaning other than to try and escape from conflict or from the threat of starvation, or both. The meaning of life becomes little more than a struggle to exist day by day in the hope that circumstances will change some day.

The importance then of asking what is the meaning of life is that we are also encouraged to consider the values that we really consider important in our lives. If the meaning for life centres on wealth creation alone then we should pause and ask many questions. How does such a view determine what is taught in schools and colleges? How does this affect how we prepare and treat a workforce? How does this affect how we treat each other, our views on healthcare, on old age, on those living in other countries?

Many of us will recall being asked at school or college what do we want to do with our lives? This was usually in the context of ‘careers guidance’ and really meant ‘where do you see yourself in the workforce?’. Our choice of study areas at college was largely determined by the answer to this question, particularly in the narrowing curriculum of the United Kingdom. The idea that we might be interested in life having a meaning was often considered to be answered by provision of religious studies in the curriculum, faith schools receiving rather more of this than non-denominational schools. I found this to be an interesting area to consider and study, but the reality was that a son of a farm labourer needed the qualifications to go further. I had no interest in spending my days as a manual labourer, though others did and I saw nothing wrong in that. In teaching we moved from inclusion of ‘General Studies’ to try and broaden the scope, in the USA the students were slightly more fortunate and the curriculum was not narrowed down until after school, sometimes not until after an Associate Degree.

I wonder if the reason that we are reluctant to explore the idea of a meaning for life at the school or college level is that this is seen as risky, that such an exploration might even challenge the wealth creation mirage that we are presenting. I am not arguing that the creation of wealth is wrong, this has been a part of human life ever since we first started to trade with each other. My concern is that there surely must be more to life than wealth creation. Having created wealth, how might this affect our values and form a meaning for life?

Then we have an assumption that once we are in the workplace the question no longer has any relevance. How many professional training days are devoted to considering the question of how the tasks we do give meaning to our lives? Are we ever encouraged to go on courses to explore such issues? How many managers spend time pondering the question, a question that affects how the workforce is treated, and how the products or services of the enterprise are used, how the industry affects the lives of others.

Perhaps the idea of encouraging people to ask questions about how the values they perceive to be of importance and how these values reflect the meaning they have assigned to their lives is considered far too dangerous an area to explore, in education, at work or in politics. Each of us has different experiences according to where we live and the dominance of particular cultures, but in the United Kingdom I have seen the last four decades produce politicians who have never attempted to encourage thinking about how values and meanings for life might affect others, the mirage of wealth has simply been presented as so bright that the light obscures anything else.

You cannot simply update your educational process with an add-on ‘meaning of life’ as if you were updating a computer. There has to be a radical change in colleges and universities that examines the values that are being given in our educational process to students. Without that examination we will continue to produce societies where corporations exist only to become larger, where politicians are more intent on holding power than improving the quality of life, where nationalism and patriotism, if wrongly interpreted, can lead to conflict and war, where hoarding of wealth increases inequality, and where religious beliefs divide communities instead of bringing them closer together.

The ‘meaning of life’ then seems to be related to our beliefs, and the values that make up that belief. How might this affect our education, our approach to the workplace, and our approach to how we see communities develop? Take a business course as an example and ask how the lives of others are considered. When a company decides to out source an operation is this done purely for the purpose of increasing profit, or do we encourage discussion to consider the effect on the existing workforce? Do we encourage consideration of possible exploitation of labour in other countries where the laws relating to a minimum wage or the number of hours allowed for working each week are poorly made and offer little protection from exploitation? When a company fixes netting to the outside of a building to stop workers jumping to commit suicide, does this sound like a company who has considered the value of life, or just the size of profit?

Provided we accept that education is not about filling empty vessels, called students, with carefully filtered ‘knowledge and facts’ and take a view that the education of students includes trying to encourage them to think and reason for themselves, then I believe we have to place within the system where that process can occur freely. Students need time and space to discuss the values they would like and how they provide meaning for life. This has to be as important as a foundation stone as mathematics, English or science education. How important are values in your college, or in your workplace?

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Is there meaning or purpose for life?


The usual question posed is rather different, that is the question ‘What is the meaning of life?’ To attempt to answer that question you have to make the assumption that there is a meaning for be found in the first place. We can then ask ourselves, why do we think there is a meaning for life? I would go back and start at a different point and ask is there a meaning for life?

From a purely biological perspective the idea that there is a meaning has one powerful argument. If there were no means of procreation then life could not continue for any living organism. So we could say that there is a meaning to continue life on the planet. Biology has also shown us that life does not continue through countless generations without any change. The changes may be small, but over generations become more obvious and may lead to organisms being classed as a new species. Some species can no longer continue and eventually die out and we say they are extinct.

Scientists such as Wallace, Darwin and Mendel were able to throw further light on the process of continuing life. Most of us now accept that a process we call evolution means that some characteristics are likely to confer an advantage to living organisms and these are the ones that are likely to survive through the process of natural selection. So does the process of natural selection have a meaning for life, is there a pattern, does the pattern have a meaning? It is hard to determine a pattern since if there were one then we should be able to make predictions about how the pattern will develop and emerge. We are able to make limited predictions from observations and they suggest there is a loose pattern. Any selection of characteristics that are favourable to survivable are also likely to be associated with an increased efficiency in some way. Given that some changes can be traced back to genetic mutations, which appear to be at random, then the idea of a pattern for evolution becomes rather more difficult as an argument.

Such an increase in efficiency applies across the range of living organisms. The development of canine teeth increased the efficiency of killing and eating meat for some mammals, the development of plants that can resist herbicides increased the efficiency of many we call ‘weeds’ to survive, and the ability of bacteria to mutate means their survival efficiency against antibiotics is increased. Looked at this way we might surmise that evolution has a meaning since there is development of more efficient forms of life.

How different is our evolution and our development from other animals that we are able to ask the questions that we do of ourselves? Again from an evolutionary perspective we are able to determine that our brains are larger than many animals, though not that much larger than some other primates. At some point in evolution of the brain a number of changes were taking place, though we have no idea in which particular order they might have occurred. The enlargement of the brain meant an enlargement of that part associated with memory, but we are by no means unique in having memory. We do see that the lower animals have only pre-programmed memory, reflexes if you like, and that some animals can develop memory to include more reflexes (Pavlov’s dogs are an example). What we appear to have is a great capacity for storage of information that relates to events, we can recall what happened many years ago, often in considerable detail.

As we evolved from primates we developed greater ability to communicate, firstly into speech, then using writing. Other animals also communicate, whales and dolphins for example, but we are able to communicate in such a way that decision making can be a process involving several people. We use objects as tools, but here is a big leap from other animals since we are able to think out and create new tools, and these tools have become more and more sophisticated through the ages. Life now has something additional, we are not simply trying to procreate and maintain the species through generations, we are also trying to maintain social structures and to develop more structure.

At some point in evolutionary development we seem to be crossing a line. The exploring of a purpose of life is an attempt to give a reason for being. Although there are other interpretations of the phrase ‘purpose of life’ I prefer to stay with the idea that we can build a foundation from scientific evidence.

The crossing of the line comes with this capacity to develop and use thought. There is no easy way to figure out when the line was crossed. When did our thoughts determine that we were different as a species? Sometimes it is easy to see a difference. Many animals will show behaviour to protect their young. Some birds will display a pattern to draw predators away from a nest, risking their lives in the process. Mammals such as mountain lions and bears will use aggression to respond to perceived treats to their young. We can say these actions could be largely innate. However, the actions of families fleeing from war and famine to protect their children is something more than innate behaviour.

An interesting observation was made during a study of chimpanzee behaviour when a group split into two groups and each group then proceeded to make ‘war’ against the other. The seeking out, beating up, and killing (murder) of members of another group cannot be explained simply by innate behaviour. At some point evolution produced a species capable of more thought. We cannot define that moment easily, but a useful way of considering the change is to accept that we reached a point where thought allowed us to question our own existence, not simply in terms of how we came to be, but also of why we are here.

The early attempts to answering how we came to be are seen in the various creation stories, but whilst we now have a more complete idea of that story we still struggle with the idea of why we might be here. Once we start to question our existence then we are trying to determine if there is a meaning to life, if so, what is the meaning of life. We need to accept that life has a purpose, real or imagined, and then the meaning is related to the values that we attach to that purpose.

The capacity for thought allows us to both speculate and reason, unlike the evolutionary story which is driven largely by external forces, the story now unfolding is that we have been altering those forces to direct what happens on the planet, at first at a simple level but more recently on a much larger scale.

The change we see is that whilst there might be an obvious purpose to life in biological terms, that is to continue the species, there is now more. There can be a purpose to an individual life, and there can be purpose to lives of communities, perhaps even of our species. We have added to biological purpose the idea that we can create a purpose of our own and direct that purpose.

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If we can automate 90% of the work we do, what is the future of work?

The estimate that, within the space of ten years, robots could be capable of carrying out 90% of the work we do today may refer more to their potential than to what will actually happen. However, the increased use of robotics still raises the issue of why we actually work?

For years we lived with the idea that labour was performed for useful activity, providing food, homes, infrastructure, health, services and other goods for consumption. Many of these activities we see as essential, but there are others that could be regarded in a different light. What is the real purpose of producing a new mobile phone every few months, a new car model every year, new fashions continuously, more goods designed to be discarded after a single use? Whilst accepting that some work is essential, we should be asking ourselves, how much is simply to satisfy a demand from consumers for the sake of consuming, and how was the demand created?

How did we arrive at a point where robots and other automated processes were capable of producing well beyond the needs of the population, and how did this affect people? The idea of automation replacing a need for large amounts of manual labour is nothing new. If you design a water wheel that is powered by a donkey then you only need one man to take care of the donkey, and there is no need for large numbers of slaves to carry water. Developing ploughs pulled by oxen reduced the need for large numbers who tilled the ground. Manumission, a way of giving freedom to older slaves, probably came about as a result of some automation. Older slaves were given freedom so that the burden of providing for them could be cast aside, their owners seeing no need for a welfare system.

Over the years further agricultural development in Europe meant bringing more land into production, so initially there was always plenty of work. As the efficiency improved so enclosure acts were used by the wealthy to drive out the small crofters. The potential for unrest might have increased to a flash point except for the industrial revolution. Suddenly automation was a good thing, machines were being developed for factories capable of producing more goods, cheaply and quickly. For a while there was no labour that was surplus to requirements. Although social conditions were, at times, appalling for factory workers, there were benefits. The goods produced were useful, the transport system improved, and eventually provision of water supplies and sanitation did improve.

There was even a ‘golden period’ where the wealth being created meant a considerable increase in disposable income for many in the developed countries. This fuelled a demand for cheaper goods, for ‘luxuries’ such as washing machines, refrigerators, televisions and even cars to be available to all. During the 20th century the advertising industry increased demand, and then when the cash available seemed to be dwindling, we created the idea of ‘credit for all’, made available so we could live beyond our means! Work was plentiful and the future seemed bright.

By the early 1960’s the process of automation was about to take a leap forward. In 1961 the first welding robot, Ultimate, was brought into use. By 1974 robotic arms were being used to assemble small parts, they were fast and did not make mistakes, they could be operated on a 24 hour basis for 7 days a week, if required. By 1988 robotics were used to produce other electronic components, driving down the cost of computers, storage of data, communication, and other tasks. Even tasks that once required labour were being replaced, the quality control robot, the ATM to replace the banking clerk at the counter, even the humble shop assistant.

At first the growing population seemed to indicate we would require more work to meet the needs, so there should always be work. The reality is that we can now automate so many tasks there simply is not enough work to occupy everyone. So what does happen when citizens can no longer contribute economically because their skills are replaced by robots? About two decades ago this was seen as a problem that faced the least skilled part of a workforce. Now, even highly skilled tasks can be taken over by computers serving as ‘robots’. We might even be moving towards a stage where the very low paid tasks which are still being carried out by manual labour are replaced by robots, and then even fewer unskilled people will be needed. The recent trend of creating low paid work is largely one that is not needed from a purely technical view, although the decline in the middle class can be attributed, in part, to this increase in low paid work. How serious is this? Within 10 years the number of people of working age in the USA who may have no economic value in production is estimated as being 40 million. They are only needed for the purpose of consumption. Consider the suggestion that robotics developing at the pace of about 1 IQ point per year could, by around 2050, leave over 90% of the workforce redundant!

The idea of humans only being needed for low paid work and for consumption creates a problem. Firstly, work is so often poorly rewarded in terms of wages or salaries that we now find even families with two parents are often struggling to pay bills for essential services, so we find ways of giving a subsidy. A subsidy is only a way of ensuring that production can continue , and the investments made by a small sector of the population can continue to produce a profit. With two parents working there is less time to shop, so fast food outlets and online shopping are used more frequently, yet both these sectors are also likely to be more automated in the future. Wealth is becoming concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. Secondly, consumption requires a means of exchange, currently this is called currency. Robots do not consume and do not have currency to purchase goods! If the only reason for production is to create wealth to increase profit then the only reason we demand a rise in the minimum wage is to consume, to help increase production.

A spin off from the trend of more automation and unequal distribution of work and wealth is that the work force that remains is also changing. Fewer people are able to retire at the age they expected to, older workers less likely to move from work they see as secure, fewer well paid jobs are being created. This has led to an increase in youth unemployment, particularly evident in many Western European countries. Automation will always drive down the cost of labour, but eventually we could find that the developing nations will also feel the effects as tasks such as making clothing become fully automated.

Technology will always displace workers; making work easier or unnecessary is not really anything we should fear. The displaced workers may be able to take advantage of new opportunities that can be created. So why are we nervous about robots and automation? If robots are doing jobs more efficiently then we need to create new jobs, otherwise all we are creating is a large number of people who will rely of ‘welfare benefits’ because employment is unavailable. Are we now reaching a point where the cost of labour has been driven down to such a point where welfare benefits exceed the minimum wage, giving little incentive to seek any work that is available? Welfare is a means of avoiding revolution whilst still keeping many people in poverty.

In theory you could keep ‘creating money’, we tend to use another term and call it quantitative easing, but being jobless is not just about having a need for cash to meet basic needs. Being unemployed for long periods of time brings social and psychological problems, in countries where there is little opportunity for employment this also means pressures for migration will increase.

Remember the dream, the idea that automation will give us all more leisure time? For many low wages and long hours have seen the dream become more of a nightmare, wondering how to make ends meet, whether they will have sufficient resources when they retire. Even for those with time, leisure is now largely an industry designed to make profit, raising the question about affordable it can be in the future. Even if pay were adequate, the increase in leisure time might come with consequences, such as further destruction of the environment.

So where are the new opportunities? Where are the jobs that can produce an attractive wage but are also associated with meaningful work? We used to hear the cry that the revolution in information technology would bring millions of new jobs. The opposite is taking place, although we do need more programmers they will not replace all the jobs lost.

There are jobs that robots cannot do at present, they often require a degree of empathy, human understanding, sympathy and compassion, and often friendship. These jobs are mainly in the fields of health and caring for others. The demands for doctors and nurses, both highly skilled professions, are going to increase in the coming years, as are the demands for care workers at all levels. Surprisingly these are areas where governments in many developed countries are reluctant to increase spending to meet existing and projected demand. Far from being viewed as ‘essential services’ they are areas now seen as being areas with potential for creating wealth and making profit. The deliberate demise of the National Health Service in the United Kingdom is seen as preparation to sell the service off as a business.

There are areas where technology could be developed, creating many jobs, to make social conditions better. Housing, transportation, communication in developed countries, and in developing countries we could add water supplies and sanitation. The potential to develop technologies for renewable energy supplies, and to slow down climate change, could provide new jobs. However, social issues are not top of the agenda, and the fossil fuel industry sees very little profit in moving to renewable energy sources. Developing goods that will last, rather than an obsession with disposable items, could require technology and would reverse current trends.

Whatever model for work we might come up with has to be capable of producing meaningful work and of being sustainable. The whole is a part of a larger model that also requires a meaningful life for an ageing population, and one where women who are now a part of the workforce should have equal employment rights with men.

Is work merely a mental or physical task, a labour designed to have an outcome, and if so then what is the outcome? In particular what is the outcome for the person carrying out the work? Is it merely the satisfaction of getting some money to meet basic needs, or should it have another purpose? A very few are fortunate to have employment (often self-employment) that gives satisfaction as well as provides for their needs, and often these are artists. For the majority of those working the ambition rarely goes beyond getting enough to meet needs and pay bills, with the hope of a few dollars left over for some sort of treat.

In universities and colleges across the globe we teach technology, economics and sociology as if these were three almost unrelated subjects. How much more meaningful our education would be if we could allow students to explore how changes in any one of these fields affects the others. A generation of students who will find the task of obtaining work become increasingly more difficult as they leave college should be given the chance to consider alternatives to the present way in which we think about work.

Instead of looking at robotics as a means of driving down the cost of labour we should look at technology as a way of creating more meaningful work that improves the quality of life for all.

To reword a former President’s speech: ‘Ask not what automation can do to us, ask what we can do with automation.’

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Good and evil, the question of Syria and war.

The United States of America, Russia and the United Kingdom all claim to be Christian nations. Syria, Saudi Arabia and Iran all claim to be Islamic nations. So why should one the most horrific conflicts in recent years be fuelled by the actions of these nations? Why should the idea of peace for the people of Syria be sacrificed for terms such as ‘ceasefire’ and ‘winning’? What do any of these nations who fuel war believe that ‘winning’ will bring?

There seems to me to be a poor understanding of what is good and what is evil? What is the nature of good and evil, and how do we determine if actions fall under these headings? I started to think about this with one simple idea in mind. There is a passage in older versions of the Bible that Christians will have read as ‘Thou shalt not kill’. A similar commandment occurs for Christians and Muslims, and the meaning seems clear enough to me. However, if you read more recent ‘translations’ you find the wording has been altered to ‘Thou shalt not murder’. Here is a puzzle for me. The original makes no exceptions, but the recent interpretation makes it clear we are now to view killing in a different way. We are now expected to agree that there will be times when killing can be justified. By doing this we are being told that war can be justified. For Christians I think the covenant has been broken. There is a good case for speculating that the original word used referred to unlawful taking of a life, but this also suggests that God endorses killing. I cannot say this view is found in the teaching of Christ.

How does this relate to good and evil? Are we to accept that killing can be good or evil, and it simply depends on who we are killing? When is it evil? Is evil a human concept, or is it something that can be used to describe the behaviour of other animals in particular circumstances? If there is a God who is all powerful and also all goodness, then why does evil exist? Some philosophers argue that if evil does not exist then God does not exist.

More to the point, we accept that it is appropriate to describe some actions as evil. To me, hurricanes, earthquakes, volcanos and tsunamis are not evils, they are merely events of nature that have bad consequences for many people, as well as other animals and plants. Moral actions determine what is evil, but then we have to determine when and how morality developed, and whether the idea is still developing, static or even regressing.

How has our thinking evolved? Why did we come up with up with ideas about deities in so many parts of the world? Where did the idea of conscience come from? How do we account for the development of ideas about goodness, about evil, about guilt, and even joy and happiness?

I do not think we are asking the question of does a ‘God’ exist, but what is the nature of the existence of good and evil? Can we get beyond any biochemical theory and into the nature of the way we think? What do we mean by spiritual existence? What is there beyond physical existence?

If evil is about the supernatural and the devil then maybe we should just use bad and wrong, but removing the idea of dark forces might also be taken to remove the idea of an opposing force to goodness, leaving the judgement entirely in the hands of man. This means we determine what is good and bad, but the flaw is that we might only be determining that for ourselves, or for our nation and thus are ignoring others, or the needs of others.

Is there some sort of scale, wrong , bad and evil? Maybe there is just a line that we cross where most of us would agree what we have done is beyond merely ‘bad’ but ‘evil’. An action that is deliberate and carried out with the intention of causing harm or pain, or even death, to another human being is evil in my opinion, and in some circumstances can be described in the same way if the action is carried out against an animal, such as beating a dog to death. Taking this view I believe that war has to be considered as evil since the intention is to cause harm or even death to other individuals.

The code that many nations seem to observe today is one of vengeance, such as the actions taken after terrorist atrocities. The action can be seen as following the old idea of ‘an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a life for a life’. This idea had nothing to do with Christianity or Judaism but is part of a very ancient set of laws known as Hammurabi Code and dates to around 1700 BCE. As politicians try and convince us this is the way forward I wonder if we are really developing in thought, or perhaps regressing?

The atrocities of the bombing of the Twin Towers in New York was followed by attacks on Iraq that included the dropping of cluster bombs in areas where children played each day, ignoring the consequences of death and mutilation, of disability for life. I regard both acts as evil. The latter is made worse because we attempt to whitewash our actions and call them ‘collateral damage’, all killing of civilians in a war zone tends to be referred to in this way. There is a saying that ‘an eye for an eye will make us all blind’ and this seems to describe our obsession for violence to be used as a solution.

At first we might think the idea of devils, demons, and even ‘evil witches’ was something that was popular in an uninformed time and that we have advanced since the Middle Ages. This is not true, we have worked hard to keep the idea of a supernatural force, a devil or a demon, as being useful if you want to depict others as opposition in such terms and maintain support for a war. This was certainly the case in the portrayal of the German soldier during the Great War (1914-1918). In Syria the west portrays certain Islamic groups in this way, as well as the Syrian government, whilst the Syrian government sees the west in similar terms, as do Islamic groups opposing both interference from the west and from Russia. Convincing our own nation that other nations are evil helps prevent an outcry when innocent people get killed, as in Afghanistan and Iraq. With Syria there is a problem since journalism in zones of conflict and better communications are able to present a picture which clearly shows that innocent people are the daily casualties of our actions, whether we are British, American or Russian is of little importance to the victims. We now have a conflict of conscience if we start to see that ‘evil’ actions are being carried out by all parties to the conflict.

During the Great War the problem of how to report war came to the fore. We used to report wars in terms of the numbers of ‘enemy’ killed we call this ‘progress’. However, to use such terms also shows that we place no particular value on the life of an individual. Eventually the numbers being slaughtered on both sides during the Great War became so large that people began to question the purpose of such killing. How would you measure the success of sending troops over the top in the Great War? Take the battle of the Somme, was it an ‘evil’ thing to do to send young men to their death in this way?

What really makes us think an action might be evil? Is there something that is innate, something that developed as we evolved which sees certain actions as being a particular threat, not just to us as individuals but to groups such as sects, tribes, ethnic groups, even nations? Our studies now suggest that violence and even ‘war’ occurs in groups of other primates such as chimpanzees. Jane Goodall observing a community of chimpanzees in the 1970’s noticed a division taking place into two sub-groups, northern and southern. These two groups, located in Tanzania, were described as Kasakel and Kahama. Over the four years from 1974-1978 the Gombe ‘War’ took place between these groups. Chimpanzees were murdered, captured and tortured and beaten up, behaviour which suggests that humans are not alone in carrying out atrocities against their fellows. If such atrocities are a response to holding and gaining territory , to ensuring the group has food supplies, then we might expect humans to show similar behaviour.

In fact humans seem to go far beyond this pattern of behaviour, the seizing of lands to create empires, or even just to enlarge a country, the desire to control resources such as oil, the attempts to impose a doctrine upon others such as communism, socialism or capitalism, have all resulted in conflict that extends beyond the conflicts between groups of chimpanzees.

In carrying out such behaviour we make use of the idea that ‘evil’ can be used to describe nations and ideas. How much harm was caused by using the label ‘axis of evil’ to Iran, Iraq and North Korea? Why should a person want to depict these nations in this way? All inhabitants of these countries cannot be seen as evil, by whatever definition most would use. So the term ‘evil’ can be abused, and this is something we are seeing in the Syrian conflict. If an opposition is labelled as ‘evil’ rather than the acts they do, then what are the likely consequences?

We can see how nonsensical some ideas are. Towards the end of World War 2 the Russian armies were making ‘great progress killing many Germans’, but afterwards the same Russian government and army was being branded as evil. When the events of 9/11 took place the hijackers who took over the planes were mainly Saudis, yet the response was to attack Afghanistan and Iraq. Making sense of war in this way seems futile, the 9/11 acts and the subsequent invasions could both be described as evil.

Evil carries the idea that there should be a harsh punishment, greater than most punishments, which may be why warmongers are so quick to use the term.

If in theology we accepted God as in charge of all goodness and Satan in charge of all evil, does that mean those who start and make wars are reflections of a personality we might term Satan? Where does that place those who started conflicts by invading Iraq and Afghanistan? The intention of overthrowing Saddam Hussein because of his use of chemical weapons glosses over which countries assisted in getting him those very weapons. The history of the United States glosses over actions taken against Native Americans, including providing them with blankets to spread small pox. If genocide is not an example of evil, then what is evil? During the American civil war the north was portrayed as fighting for heaven, the south for hell and the south for Lucifer, just another example of how the use of evil can generate and prolong conflict. There are numerous accounts of soldiers treating wounded prisoners in atrocious ways, but how much are their actions influenced by the propaganda that declares the enemy to be ‘evil’?

When a country takes action against an ethnic or religious minority to disadvantage them, and then finds the response is violent, the next step so often is a civil war. The practice of labelling the anti-government or opposition as ‘terrorist’ merely tries to present them as the ‘evil’ side, but should we not look at the motives of both sides in these situations. When a church blesses war, is it blessing evil? What about governments?

The investment in arms is as high as it has been since the second world war in countries like the USA and UK. To the arms dealer perpetual war is a necessity, it is not about justifying war. If weapons and ammunition are not used then the market becomes limited, so conflict is good business. But do the manufacturers actually promote or advocate war? When South Africa had 6 million people suffering from AIDS it spent $10 billion on arms, and later officials were found to have received $300 million in bribes from the arms industry. Over $30 billion were spent on the war in Iraq whilst a government official who had shares in an arms company was in a position of authority and was strongly advocating war. War has become big business. Limited and biased information was provided to the United Nations by the USA to obtain a ‘consent’ to start a war in Iraq. Was this deception an evil act?

A disturbing feature today, and an unintentional one, is to use the word ‘war’ too frequently. So we can have wars on poverty, wars on litter, wars on cancer, and wars on obesity. These are not ‘wars’ in the sense that they are not evil, the intention is surely the opposite, but the word ‘war’ suddenly seems to have a new meaning, making war on people seem far more acceptable.

The investment in strategies that might prevent war by reducing the likelihood of conflict is diminishing. Countries with dictators are often supported in order to agree trade deals that benefit western nations. Countries which rely on modern forms of slavery to produce cheap goods are supported for trade reasons. When there is a revolt the we find ourselves trying to justify war against ‘evil terrorists’ rather than trying to bring about improved social conditions in these countries. It is wrong to fail to support people who are trying to improve social conditions when we could do so, but it surely becomes evil when we are willing to support conflict to maintain the status quo in such countries.

Where then does the evil lie? I think this is where it becomes difficult, but greed, ambition, and selfishness do lead to hate and resentment and to conflict. So where does the evil come from?

Perhaps in politics there is no such thing as good or evil because the desire is simply to see everything in terms of materialistic gain, in terms of increasing wealth. How this is achieved seems often to be of little or no relevance.

Kant may well be close to an explanation when the worst of evil is determined to be actions carried out solely for self-interest, for selfish reasons, and therefore do not involve caring or compassion in any way. Then, if prisoners in war are tortured for the sadistic reason is that an evil worse than torture to obtain information or are both evil simply because they are torture?

As 2016 draws to a close I am aware that we are seeing the rise of groups whose attempts to portray others as evil, and as enemies, are very disturbing. The risk of conflict increases with such activity. Even the portrayal of migrants, often created by conflict or economic conditions, as being a threat allows their ethnicity to be labelled as ‘evil’ by some politicians. Refugees created by war are now being rejected, the rejection may be as evil as the act of war itself.

There have been three attempts to look for alternative ideals. The first The League of Nations failed because the outcome of the Great War was not a true peace, but a seeking of vengeance by the victorious nations, much to President Wilson’s despair as he saw how the Treaty of Versailles was evolving. The second, the United Nations has lasted for longer, but struggles to contain conflict and is dominated by a Security Council which simply hinders brokering of peace because major powers often have interests in being the victors in conflict. The nearest to success has been the development of the European Union which has prevented conflict between members during my own lifetime. However, even that is now threatened by selfish desires, not to take immigrants, not to share wealth, and to adopt the ‘what’s in it for me?’ approach. Will this too lead to a return of conflict in Europe? Are we already seeing evil in the refusal to take refugees that we have helped create by participating in conflict in other parts of the world?

There is no solution for Syria through war, no long term hope for refugees whilst the conflict is continued using the resources of major powers in an idealogical struggle, or the powers of global corporations trying to control resources, or various groups trying to justify war.

I believe we have to take the first step by declaring war to be evil, under any circumstances. We then have to look at how we can move forward in development to determine how wealth that is created can be shared in a manner that brings about better social conditions and eliminates disease, poverty and eventually inequalities. You cannot impose goodness through war, we need to be clear about that.

If we then declare war is evil, what are the values that we do want?