The devil’s greatest trick, the adage goes, is convincing the world he doesn’t exist. His second is duping humanity into believing that poison both tastes good and is good for us. The ruse goes all the way back to the moment just before the fall, when Eve, prompted but not coerced by the serpent, beholds the fruit that God had directly warned would be fatal if consumed:
The woman saw that the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eyes, and the tree was desirable for gaining wisdom. (Gen. 3:6).
Eve succumbs to the temptation and bites. Adam, who the text implies has been watching the whole time, sinks his teeth in as well. As forewarned, the joint act of defiance—gratuitous and easily avoidable (God had given them the freedom to eat of every other tree in the garden)—leads to their eventual death, releases chaos into creation, and corrupts every subsequent generation by passing on a taste for moral toxin.
Catholicism holds, however, that though human nature has been corrupted by the fall, it has not been destroyed. We retain the vestiges of natural goodness and original sanity. One indicator comes in the form of moral disgust, an emotional and, often, physical recoil to evil, even if its presence is not an immediate threat. It was disgust, for example, that famously led President Theodore Roosevelt to pass the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act after reading about the abuses of the meatpacking industry in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. Disgust helped turn the tide of the civil rights movements when, in 1965, millions of Americans watched the brutality inflicted upon peaceful marchers in Selma, Alabama. Disgust at witnessing the extermination of an unborn child and seeing the room where abortionist staff stacked and catalogued dismembered babies’ bodies compelled Abby Johnson to quit Planned Parenthood and become a pro-life advocate. A sign of good moral health—just as good physical health—is a revulsion to what causes us and everyone else harm.
The devil knows we have this defense mechanism, and so he’s found a deviously clever way around it: if we can be convinced to obfuscate the meaning of words, breaking the connection between reality and language, then our moral perception can be altered. Because of the serpent’s lie about God’s motives and the consequence of eating the fruit (“You certainly will not die!”), for example, Eve begins seeing differently: rather than poison, she now perceives the fruit not only as attractive but as a positive good—a tool for gaining “wisdom.” A cancerous syllogism thus buds in the fallen mind:
It is desirable (good) to gain wisdom.
Wisdom includes knowing evil.
Therefore, it is desirable (good) to know evil.
This is the great algebraic inversion of sin, the black hole that human beings, with the assistance but not compulsion of the devil, rip in the fabric of moral reality: good = evil and evil = good.
This may sound abstract, but take a look around and you’ll see the sophistic reversal everywhere in secular culture: human rights include the right to kill innocent humans; being healthy includes condemning fitness; being a man includes an entitlement to be a woman; racial justice includes practicing racism; saving humanity from a climate apocalypse includes decimating humanity; saving the natural world from environmental destruction includes destroying the environment; being a good parent entails appropriating babies from their birth mothers. Ugly is the new beautiful. Children are the new consenting adults. Censorship is the new free speech. Machines are the new (improved!) humans.
Evil is often portrayed with grotesquely frightening imagery. That may get the underlying reality of evil right, but not its operational strategy. Evil propagates most effectively under the guise of the good. That’s why abortion, transgenderism, the suppression of speech, racialist employment and admission policies, and no less than totalitarian climate change initiatives (like banning private cars) all sell themselves under the banners of “health,” “safety,” “freedom,” “love,” and “justice.”
How, then, can we tell the difference between the ersatz good and the authentic good? How can we distinguish between what is beneficial for us, even if, like medicine, it may go down hard, and what drags us into the dark, even as it lights up every pleasure sensor along the way?
One tool is to conscientiously activate our reason, critically examining everything we hear about what’s good, bad, right, and wrong to determine which of it is true. To be sure, our first parents failed this test miserably, which should have been the easiest act of due diligence in human history. They knew, as directly as one can know, that God is real and that he desires nothing else than their complete happiness. Yet they didn’t think things through, missing the obvious answer to the question, “Is it a good idea to disobey the Creator of the universe?”
Yet we continue to do the same thing. How many drug addicts have said, “Sure, smoking meth led everyone else into a living hell, but I’ll be the exception”? How many broken families has the statement “It’s just a fling—and, besides, she’ll never find out anyway” produced? More broadly, how many nightmarish autocracies were birthed in the declaration, “We need to temporarily suspend these rights for the good of the people?” To paraphrase (and alter the calculations of) Thomas Edison, virtue is 10% rumination and 90% perspiration. We usually know exactly what we need to do. We just don’t want to do it, and so find a way to think ourselves out of it. We rationalize rather than reason.
Which points to the second tool for sifting the moral wheat from the chaff: the smell test. Sometimes sin has so scrambled our reason that we not only whistle past the graveyard but organize a whole parade to dance by the tombs (and demand everyone celebrate with us). Yet notwithstanding what philosopher Peter Kreeft has called our “spiritual insanity,” we all remain creatures created in the image and likeness of God who, as such, have both an attraction to good and a repugnance to evil embedded in our spiritual and physical nature—a nature that we can suppress and mutilate, but never extinguish.
So, do you feel queasy seeing men “chest-feeding” infants or dressed like clownish prostitutes gyrating in front of children? Does righteous disdain well up at the sight of an effete boy in a one-piece swimsuit gleefully perched over two girls on an award podium? Does a stab of noble contempt accompany hearing that talented workers are being denied jobs and promotions because of the color of their skin? Did your eyes squint, jaw clench, and stomach tense up upon reading that 20+ armed FBI agents were sent, raid style, to arrest a peaceful pro-life advocate in front of his wife and children while the same government permits and even encourages violent anarchy in the streets?
Grab that feeling and follow it all the way down. The devil may hoodwink our minds into pretending that all is well, but our guts know better. Time to spit that poison out.