At the Guardian web site, Theo Hobson writes,
I’d like to see Halloween develop a more serious aspect, alongside the kids’ stuff. I’d like more grown-up reflection on the question of evil, and on how art and religion seek to confront and banish it. We should also reflect on the serious danger involved in the artistic representation of evil – that we might start celebrating it for its own sake, rather than in the context of its overcoming. So let’s develop a Halloween for grown-ups too.
If we’re going to contemplate the nature of evil, we ought to come to some agreement as to what it is, or even if it is. There’s an urban legend easily found on the Internets that claims a young Albert Einstein told an atheist professor that just as darkness is the absence of light, evil is the absence of God, and therefore evil does not exist. Albert Einstein didn’t say this, but it’s an interesting story anyway. It argues that because darkness is the absence of light, and cold is the absence of heat, that darkness and cold
light and heat do not exist. But I believe — I could be mistaken — that physicists consider darkness and cold to be phenomena, or observable features of matter and energy. Philosophers, it says here, consider phenomena to be anything that can be perceived, and this includes perceptions of the mind. Evil may not have observable matter and energy, but it can be perceived. Therefore, philosophically speaking, it is.
It’s common to objectify evil and think of it as if it had weight, substance and even fixed positions. Evil lurks. It dwells. The ever exasperating David Brooks once said (pretending to be President Bush), “Some liberals have trouble grasping evil, and always think that if we could take care of the handguns or the cruise missiles or the W.M.D., our problems would be ameliorated. But I know the problem lies in the souls of our enemies.” Some people are just bad, so it’s OK to shoot ‘em.
Once you start thinking of evil as a substance or quality or attribute that some people have and others don’t, you’ve just given yourself permission to do terrible things to eliminate the evil ones. As Glenn Greenwald says,
Those who have become convinced that they are waging an epic and all-consuming existential war against Evil cannot, by the very premises of their belief system, accept any limitations — moral, pragmatic, or otherwise — on the methods adopted to triumph in this battle.
Efforts to impose limits on waging war against Evil will themselves be seen as impediments to Good, if not as an attempt to aid and abet Evil. In a Manichean worldview, there is no imperative that can compete with the mission of defeating Evil. The primacy of that mandate is unchallengeable. Hence, there are no valid reasons for declaring off-limits any weapons that can be deployed in service of the war against Evil.
Thus, evil wins again.
I argue that evil is a volitional act with harmful consequences. Evil is as evil does. I argue further that the volitional act is not necessarily a consciously malicious one. In fact, it’s very common for people to persuade themselves that the harm they do is somehow in the service of a greater good.
Los Angeles County officials announced today that the recent California fires were started by a boy playing with matches. The child may not have intended to burn 38,000 acres and destroy 21 homes, but carelessly playing with fire is a volitional act, and it sure as shootin’ had harmful consequences, so the act fits my definition of “evil.” However, I am less interested in casting blame or handing out punishment than in impressing upon people to take care. Not taking care is a volitional act.
I argue that volition is what sets evil apart from other kinds of misfortune and makes it human responsibility. A wildfire started by lightning may be horrific but not evil. On the other hand, if global climate change did play a role in the fire, then willful neglect of the planet by a great many people — arguably, all of us — was responsible.
Theo Hobson mentions artistic representation of evil and worries that we might celebrate evil for its own sake. Artists know — even if David Brooks doesn’t — that evil is seductive. It promises some kind of gratification. In novels and films, “bad” characters often are beautiful, fun, wealthy, glamorous, and powerful. Plots turn on a main character slowly discovering that the seductive Other is evil. At the climax of many a horror movie the attractive villain is unmasked and revealed to be ugly.
We want “good” things to be fresh, sweet, and lovely. We want “bad” things to be decayed, repulsive, and ugly. When Hannah Arendt saw Adolf Eichmann at trial, she observed he was not an utterly loathsome beast but an ordinary man. By describing him as he was Arendt offended readers and even lost friends. But evil has no form, sound, smell, taste, or tactile qualities. It doesn’t “dwell” anywhere, nor is it a a quality anyone possesses. When we objectify evil and identity it as someone that exists in others, we absolve ourselves of evil. And that’s a foolish thing to do, because all of us do or say things that cause harm, even if unintentionally. Yes, there are people who choose to do harmful things, which is why there is a legal system. What someone else does doesn’t relieve us of responsibility for what we do.
I’m not saying we should all go about feeling guilty. The concept of sin comes into play here and complicates matters. Our culture encourages us to think that people who go about doing evil are sinners, and sinners are bad. We speak of people as sinful, as if transgressions exist as matter. And we are supposed to feel guilty about sin. The point is not to feel guilty but to take care, pay attention, and accept responsibility. I don’t like people who talk about other people’s evil but won’t accept responsibility for their own.