Evil

-->
big picture stuff, Bush Administration, holiday

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.

WaPo‘s “On Faith” site has some commentaries on Halloween. I like especially the Rev. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite’s post. See also “The Real Meaning of Halloween.”

Share Button
24 Comments

24 Comments

  1. moonbat  •  Oct 31, 2007 @2:09 pm

    ..I don’t like people who talk about other people’s evil but won’t accept responsibility for their own.

    That was the first thing that shocked me about BushCo, years ago, when they first got into the White House – the childish, black and white thinking, the outrageous statement that countries x, y, and z are evil – and by implication we, of course, are not. I guess St Ronnie started it with his talk of the “Evil Empire”…

    A discussion of evil is a good place to begin, but it soon leads to why righties, the worst of them, are congenitally unable to see their own evil, their blatant refusal to acknowledge their own dark deeds and impulses and to see how they simply project this onto others. The amount of self-righteousness (and self-delusion) these people carry around is staggering. It’s tied into their defining trait of lack of empathy toward others. They cannot admit that the evil they see in others is also in them, and often in spades.

    We have to be ever ready to hold up the mirror to these people, since they are determined to be blind and unwilling to do this themselves. This used to be what journalism was about.

    You posted yesterday about how righties are incapable of admitting that America could be in decline, and I thought about adding the following thought to that thread, but it applies here as well.

    Righties (ideologues actually) always start with the conclusion, and then try to fit the facts to it. For example, they begin with the conclusion America is perfect, and what follows is simply all the various ways they deny or distort contradicting data to fit this a priori conclusion.

    This is completely unscientific. Science starts with the data points and from them, it inducts a hypothesis or a conclusion. Righties turn the scientific process on its head, because they start with the conclusion first. This is why their policies are often unpractical, unscientific, and make a good case for why the country is going downhill.

    As for the subject of evil, a hard core rightie can never willingly admit blame or imperfection, and so they begin with the conclusion that I, the rightie am perfect. And so the rest of the world must be evil / responsible. Their willful blindness to their own real nature requires them to project their own evil onto others. They will fight tooth and nail any data that challenges this a prior conclusion.

    Put a bunch of these people together, and you’ve got right wing America.

  2. The Bobs  •  Oct 31, 2007 @2:11 pm

    Heat and cold are not opposites, hot and cold are. In thermodynamic terminology( I’m a Chem.E.), heat is considered to be a process, and therefore a verb. Cold and hot are adjectives.

    I do agree with what you said though. In my opinion, the only people that I might apply the term “evil” to are literally insane, like Charles Manson.

  3. Longhairedweirdo  •  Oct 31, 2007 @2:13 pm

    Actually, I do feel that evil is the absence of good.

    Evil comes from taking action without regard for the consequences. Sometimes, it’s more malicious – willful murder – and sometimes it’s less (vehicular manslaughter while driving drunk), but the key is taking action without concern for the consequences.

    If you have concern for the consequences (“but if I kill that person, that person will be dead, and that’s not right”/”if I don’t call a cab, and something happens, I could cause an accident; that’s not right”) then you can’t perform the action.

    Obviously, this excludes harmful action taken in true ignorance (as opposed to willful or reckless ignorance), and I think that’s how it should be.

    I don’t think evil *is* seductive; I don’t think it sucks people in. I think it’s just easier. It always takes some effort to try to do right (but maybe that effort has been trained into you where it would take effort to undo that training – e.g., being polite to people), and thus, some folks will forgo the amount of effort needed.

  4. maha  •  Oct 31, 2007 @2:35 pm

    Evil comes from taking action without regard for the consequences.

    I can think of circumstances in which people have thought about circumstances but were mistaken, or delusional.

    I don’t think evil *is* seductive; I don’t think it sucks people in.

    Evil is among the most seductive things humans experience. It will suck you in every time if you aren’t careful. Consider all the evil done in the name of retribution, for example. Turning the other cheek can take an extraordinary act of will. Egos want gratification, and ego will lie to you and tell you it’s OK to commit such and such a malicious act.

  5. Gordon  •  Oct 31, 2007 @2:55 pm

    It argues that because darkness is the absence of light, and cold is the absence of heat, that light and heat do not exist. Huh?

    My guess is the unstated premise of the argument is that “God is omnipresent”.

    I believe that if Hell is real, it has one and only one occupant – Mani himself.

  6. maha  •  Oct 31, 2007 @3:07 pm

    My guess is the unstated premise of the argument is that “God is omnipresent”.

    The point was that cold and darkness are not things-in-themselves but the absence of things. Heat is a thing-in-itself, but cold is not-heat. Light is a thing-in-itself, but darkness is not-light. Put another way, darkness is created by taking light away. But you can’t create light by taking darkness away, because there is no-thing to take away. There is either light or no light.

    Even if that’s a valid argument — and maybe it is — it’s still a pretty big leap to say that evil is the absence of God. If God is omnipresent, then evil wouldn’t exist. But the whole God/evil paradox is for the monotheists to worry about. I don’t have a dog in that hunt, as they say.

  7. Gordon  •  Oct 31, 2007 @3:25 pm

    Um, sorry to fuss about a distraction, but did you mean to write “that light and heat do not exist”?

    [I’ve personally passed an enjoyable evening flummoxing a questioner about what “belief” is, what “God” is, and why the two should have anything to do with one another. Nothing on the line for me, either.]

  8. Longhairedweirdo  •  Oct 31, 2007 @3:33 pm

    I can think of circumstances in which people have thought about circumstances but were mistaken, or delusional.

    Sure; and if they were mistaken or delusional, they were hardly evil. If good and evil mean anything, they have to refer to reasonably foreseeable results from your actions. If you’re deluded about the results of your action (assuming it’s not willful entertainment of the delusion), then what you do can hardly be ascribed to evil… stupidity, perhaps, but not evil.

    Evil is among the most seductive things humans experience. It will suck you in every time if you aren’t careful. Consider all the evil done in the name of retribution, for example. Turning the other cheek can take an extraordinary act of will.

    Oh, I think there are a lot of evil *things* that are seductive, sure. You’re right; turning the other cheek takes an extraordinary act of will. And simply saying “I want what is my due, no more, no less” takes an effort of will, as well.

    But it’s not “evilness” that makes people want retribution… it’s something else. What makes a person evil is that they don’t expend the effort required to, e.g., refuse to engage in unjust retribution.

    Isn’t this how Buddhism considers both pleasure and pain to be risky things? Because you might do something wrong to obtain pleasure, or to avoid pain, whereas once you can step aside from either, you no longer can be driven by those desires. It’s desire that drives evil behavior, and the evil is the lack of effort to prevent action on those desires.

    All MHO, and all.

  9. Lizzy L  •  Oct 31, 2007 @3:34 pm

    I’m a Catholic — we’re taught that we are all sinners and all in need of transformation and redemption, and that we do wrong and fall over and over again, all of us, even the saints. I agree with you, evil is intentional, and the more evil you commit, the more your moral nature suffers. It’s poisonous, it corrupts.

  10. Chet Scoville  •  Oct 31, 2007 @4:57 pm

    The idea that evil is the absence of good and therefore does not literally exist is very old; it goes back at least to the 6th century Roman philosopher Boethius, and probably a lot further back than that.

  11. felicity  •  Oct 31, 2007 @5:01 pm

    The semanticist argues that language affects behavior and even effects human thought and culture. In English, we say I am sick, I am crazy, I am cold – implies permanence and beingness. In French, we say I have sickness, I have craziness, I have cold – implies impermanence and no beingness. There is a huge difference between the expressions. He is evil/He has evil? Big difference.

    I wonder if ‘evil’ would be one of the noumena since it is not in itself perceivable – rather like ‘dark matter’ that fills the universe but is not perceivable – at the same time as its effects in the universe are quite perceivable.

  12. Bill in OH  •  Oct 31, 2007 @5:11 pm

    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 (sic) that exists in others, we absolve ourselves of evil.

    This is an important point, Maha. I would add that righties in general and fundies in particular tend to objectify evil into actual objects as well. For example, For the last twenty-odd years we have been fighting a war against drugs, because drugs are evil!.

    This objectification of evil is just childish thinking. It is an attempt to both remove volition from one’s own actions (“it’s the booze talking”) and to establish an unassailable objection to any kind of common sense or science-based approach to dealing with difficult issues. After all, if something or someone is intrinsically evil, then the only option that can ever really be available to us is total eradication. Never mind that eradication is probably not possible nor even desirable. This is exactly the kind of woolly-headed nonsense that has lead to any number of idiotic, unwinnable “wars”.

  13. maha  •  Oct 31, 2007 @5:19 pm

    Sure; and if they were mistaken or delusional, they were hardly evil.

    Once again; evil is not a quality that a person can possess. The person who initiates the cause that leads to an unfortunate effect is not intrinsically evil. The evil is in the cause/effect.

    If good and evil mean anything, they have to refer to reasonably foreseeable results from your actions.

    That assumes we have perfect clarity about what we are doing and why we are doing it, and that’s rarely the case. Most of us stumble through life in a cloud of delusion and bullshit, rationalization and greed. Even when we mean well, nearly always there are ego-attachments to what we do. That’s why “good intentions” don’t count as much as one might think. It’s very common for people to rationalize acts committed with maliciousness as justified or serving some greater good.

    But it’s not “evilness” that makes people want retribution… it’s something else. What makes a person evil is that they don’t expend the effort required to, e.g., refuse to engage in unjust retribution.

    Again, it’s not the person that is evil. I’m trying to push past the idea that people do evil things because some people are intrinsically evil. There is will and action, there is cause and effect.

    In Buddhism, what makes people do “evilness” is bound into the teaching of the Four Noble Truths, and I’m not up to giving that whole lecture right now. But essentially, the Buddha taught what screws us up is tanha (thirst, desire, greed) and that originates from avidyå (ignorance; failure to perceive the true nature of self-and-other). Until true nature is perceived, we’re all being jerked around by our egos, desires, and fears.

    evil is the lack of effort to prevent action on those desires.

    Unless you can arrange to keep yourself sealed off from the rest of humanity, your thoughts, words and deeds are going to have an effect on everyone else, and sometimes those effects are going to be harmful. This may be unconscious on your part, but that indicates lack of mindfulness and understanding. So, no excuses.

  14. Dan S.  •  Nov 1, 2007 @1:15 am

    Evil’s entropy.

    I mean, no, not really, but that’s one way to look at it.

    – In Sherri S. Tepper’s book The Visitor, God (well, sortakinda) doesn’t see intention, only result. Interesting way to put it.

  15. c u n d gulag  •  Nov 1, 2007 @6:36 am

    As for evil, I’ll take the Supreme Court approach on pornography:
    I can’t define evil; but I know it when I see it.

    Interesting post, Maha. And interesting comments, all.

  16. Swami  •  Nov 1, 2007 @11:22 am

    I can’t define evil; but I know it when I see it.

    Don Rumsfeld…

  17. Swami  •  Nov 1, 2007 @11:24 am

    Yeah, you torture the innocent Iraqi cab driver you have, not the al Qaida suspect you wish you had.

  18. Eric Finley  •  Nov 1, 2007 @1:13 pm

    On the physics, by the way – physicists do not identify ‘cold’ or ‘darkness’ as phenomena. You can’t measure cold, or darkness. You can obtain a low reading on a temperature scale (lack of heat), or you can have a comparative temperature difference, but you can’t measure coldness.

    This (in the context of the Einstein misquote), interestingly, posits a somewhat different model of evil. One I’m not sure I wholly dispute. It would be the affirmation that we measure, and achieve, good. That one might be able to say that any act or instance has goodness, has merit, in the same way that any object has a temperature. Evil is a comparative – it is what we say of something which possesses less merit either than some normative baseline, or than a specific other thing. Seen in this light, moral relativism is both unarguable (“cold” means something different outdoors in Canada than it does on the beach in Puerto Vallarta) and unobjectionable (because the very definition of evil in these terms, like coldness, can only be parsed as a comparative).

  19. maha  •  Nov 1, 2007 @1:51 pm

    Evil is a comparative – it is what we say of something which possesses less merit either than some normative baseline, or than a specific other thing. Seen in this light, moral relativism is both unarguable (”cold” means something different outdoors in Canada than it does on the beach in Puerto Vallarta) and unobjectionable (because the very definition of evil in these terms, like coldness, can only be parsed as a comparative).

    Hmm, well, I’d say good and evil are comparatives of each other. I don’t think it’s correct to define evil only as an absence of good. If Mary makes up her mind to murder John, and does so, that would be, like, a plus (as in quantity) evil act as opposed to a minus good act. Or something. It’s rare for an act to be pure good or pure evil. Everything we do sets off a sequence of causes leading to multiple effects, and rarely are all of those effects going to be entirely beneficial or entirely harmful.

    Regarding moral relativism, since I’m quantifying “good” and “evil” by the harm or benefit of an act rather than the act itself, I guess that would fit common definitions of moral relativism. To me, the relativity depends on what you’re measuring.

    In Buddhism and some other religions/philosophies, the ideal is not to follow some external set of rules but to act with selfless compassion, or loving kindness. An act “pure” of ego attachment or selfish ends will (the teachings say) generally turn out to be beneficial, whereas an act defiled by ego attachment or selfish ends probably will turn out to be harmful. This way of understanding morality is not unknown to western thought — I believe Saint Augustine might have agreed with it — but because it can seem ambiguous American conservatives hate it. They want a list of one-size-fits-all-circumstances answers to all moral questions, and they call this “moral clarity.” I say it’s more often a kind of faux morality.

  20. Longhairedweirdo  •  Nov 1, 2007 @3:22 pm

    evil is the lack of effort to prevent action on those desires.

    Unless you can arrange to keep yourself sealed off from the rest of humanity, your thoughts, words and deeds are going to have an effect on everyone else, and sometimes those effects are going to be harmful. This may be unconscious on your part, but that indicates lack of mindfulness and understanding. So, no excuses.

    Let me just focus on this to try to make my point (which you are, of course, free to disagree with – I’m just trying to make sure my point is clear.

    I agree about harming others; there are debates over the Wiccan Rede, which says “an it harm none, do as you will”.

    Some folks insist that it means “Harm none”. I say that’s impossible. You can’t go through life harming none. Plus, that interpretation ignores “an it”.

    I say that this is merely a statement of freedom: if no one is harmed by your actions, you are unconstrained in how you act.

    Anyway: point is, yes, you will harm people going about your business. You can’t help this.

    But I say that this is not evil… it’s wrong, harmful, and often the result of stupidity or foolishness (or delusions) or impure motives… but it’s not intrinsically evil to harm someone.

    See, I base my moral reasoning on what I call the fundamental theorem of morality. If you’ve made the best choice you can make about the morality of an action, you should follow that choice. Note that I’m begging the question a bit on what “best” means, and also recognize that you can never know what another person’s best choice is.

    Nevertheless, think of the implications of this. What if that rule was not being followed? It would say that, even if you’ve brought all of your resources to bear on a question, sometimes you *still* shouldn’t do that.

    Note that I’m not saying that this means the choice is *okay*… you might find out that you were wrong, later. You might do something horribly destructive that you didn’t (couldn’t – or it wouldn’t be your best choice) anticipate. It might be a learning experience in the unhappiest sense of the phrase. It might be a terrible thing you’ve done, but it’s not an evil action for you in that moment.

    (It might be evil for almost anyone else… if an insane person thinks I’m a demon who is going to destroy the world, and tries to kill me to save the world, well, that action would be evil for everyone but that one person.But within that person’s perspective, it’s the right thing to do, and they’re following it as best as they can.)

    Evil must come in, then, when you have not taken sufficient care to make sure the choice is good enough. (Being human, we can never make our best choices all the time.) Somewhere between “you’ve investigated it as best as you can from all angles” and “you did whatever the hell you felt like, with no concern for the harm it might cause” is “evil.”

    I’m not trying to excuse unintentional harmful behavior. If you feed a kid a peanut butter sandwich, and the kid goes into anaphylaxis, you’re still on the hook for taking care of the harm you’ve caused (however inadvertantly). And you’re even more on the hook if your action was more obviously dangerous. But it’s not evil to cause harm accidentally. Where evil comes in is whether or not you’re striving to learn the lessons from the effects of your actions.

    This is a bit complicated because, obviously, any morally mature individual strives to avoid harming others. But my feeling is that evil comes in the lack of striving, not the lack of harm.

  21. felicity  •  Nov 1, 2007 @4:05 pm

    Kant said, rephrased, that something we do is ‘right’ (good) if we do it for the sole reason that it is ‘right’ (good). Takes some heavy-duty introspection to determine if what I am doing is right for no reason other than it is right. And, what often turns up is I am doing it for a reason, or reasons, which have nothing to do with whether it’s ‘right.’ (Remind anybody of the ‘Eight (?)fold Path?’)

  22. maha  •  Nov 1, 2007 @8:01 pm

    Some folks insist that it means “Harm none”. I say that’s impossible. You can’t go through life harming none. Plus, that interpretation ignores “an it”.

    I say that this is merely a statement of freedom: if no one is harmed by your actions, you are unconstrained in how you act.

    Anyway: point is, yes, you will harm people going about your business. You can’t help this.

    But I say that this is not evil… it’s wrong, harmful, and often the result of stupidity or foolishness (or delusions) or impure motives… but it’s not intrinsically evil to harm someone.

    You’re defining evil purely as a value judgment, and that’s valid. It’s not a tangible thing, but just a concept, and one concept is as valid as another. I’m just conceptualizing it differently, more along the lines of karma. Karma — “volitional action” — is cause/effect. The cause/effect are not two separate things, so you can’t separate the cause from the effect. If the cause/effect is harmful to anyone, then it’s evil. Of course, the same cause/effect might be helpful to someone else. It’s not a simple binary thing. It’s also important to recognize there is no first cause, because any act has been preceded or caused by other acts. Round and round and round. And all us sentient beings are in this mess together.The point is not to go around feeling guilty, but to acknowledge that we’re all responsible for each other.

  23. Fledermaus  •  Nov 1, 2007 @9:42 pm

    Shorter maha:

    I watched with glee
    While your kings and queens
    Fought for ten decades
    For the gods they made
    I shouted out,
    Who killed the kennedys?
    When after all
    It was you and me

  24. Longhairedweirdo  •  Nov 4, 2007 @9:47 pm

    And all us sentient beings are in this mess together.The point is not to go around feeling guilty, but to acknowledge that we’re all responsible for each other.

    Whatever other debates about the nature of evil we might have, about this, we’re in perfect agreement.



    About this blog

    About Maha
    Comment Policy

    Vintage Mahablog
    Email Me
















    eXTReMe Tracker













      Technorati Profile