What Is Evil?

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big picture stuff, conservatism

Here’s a blog exchange that gives me a chance to revisit a favorite theme — what is evil? Ernest Partridge argues that evil is the absence of empathy. And it’s a good argument.

Someone who is utterly without empathy is, by definition, a sociopath. I think there are degrees of empathy deficiency short of sociopathy, however. You’ve probably known people who could be empathetic to others in their same demographic group but utterly callous to “outsiders,” for example.

Partridge goes on to describe today’s American Right as “regressives” who lack empathy, versus “progressives” whose moral worldview is based on empathy. And I think that’s a valid argument, but perhaps not the whole enchilada.

I would argue that the difference between today’s “conservatives” and those I like to call “normal people” is also a difference in cognitive ability. And I don’t mean just “smarts.”

Righties have rigidly linear thought processes; they don’t see the interconnectedness of things. The Iraq War is a good example of linear thinking — Saddam is bad, taking him out is good. They were incapable of even considering how “taking him out” might change Iraq’s relationship with Iran, for example, or how the ancient Sunni-Shia feud might impact postwar Iraq. Even now they don’t seem to grasp how much the war has and is and will cost the nation, nor how the rigidly linear focus on Iraq actually hurts our overall anti-terrorism efforts.

Domestically, they don’t appreciate how allowing New Orleans to rot might impact the rest of the U.S., or how allowing big chunks of the population to fall into poverty because of health care costs or the mortgage crisis might impact the economy as a whole. They can’t see outside the linear “people dumb enough to take junk mortgages/not have health insurance don’t deserve to be rescued.”

I’ve met some far left-wing ideologues who seemed no more empathetic than their right-wing counterparts. The difference is in where their loyalties lie. As for the rest of us, I don’t know if “seeing the interconnectedness of things” is the result of empathy, or vice versa, or unrelated. I think probably it is possible for someone to have a keen intellectual grasp of interconnectedness but rank only average on the empathy scale.

John Hawkins of Right Wing News has a different view of Partridge’s post.

At the RightOnline summit at Austin, we actually discussed the nature of “evil” for a while. While most people think of “evil” as a greasy character, twirling his mustache while planning to hurt the innocent for the sheer joy of it, that’s not an accurate description of most evil people.

Saying that evil people lack empathy gets closer to the truth, but isn’t quite right. Even a person who isn’t very empathetic could be pure of heart, live by Golden Rule, and be a great person.

I don’t think so. Hawkins is leaving out the self-bullshit factor, or the lies we tell ourselves to give ourselves permission to do whatever we want to do, consequences be damned. Empathy is a wonderful moderator of self-bullshit. Without it, people inevitably rationalize why the injury they do to others to get what they want is somehow justified, even “moral.”

Hawkins continues,

So, what is at the core of evil? I’d say selfishness.

Selfish people aren’t empathetic and they don’t care very much about how their actions impact others because it’s all about them.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t see a distinction between Hawkins’s definition of “selfishness” and “absence of empathy.”

Oh, they may say they care about people and pretend to emphasize with them, but in reality, they do what they do only because it benefits them.

That’s classic sociopathic behavior.

…And regrettably, the “moral cornerstone of progressive politics” isn’t empathy, it is selfishness. Take that for what it’s worth.

What it’s worth? Since Hawkins doesn’t bother to explain why he thinks the “moral cornerstone of progressive politics” is selfishness, I’d say you’d get more value from a bucket of piss.

If you are talking about the moral cornerstone of progressive politics, I agree with Partridge — empathy, definitely. I argue that empathy — or, at least, good socialization — is the cornerstone of morality, period.

If you’re interested, I have an article about the Buddhist understanding of evil on the other site.

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30 Comments

30 Comments

  1. Michael  •  Jul 25, 2008 @1:54 pm

    Goodness flows from the understanding of the one-ness of consciousness, from this knowledge and to the degree it is internalized in ones interactions with others in full respect of their being oneself. All religions are at core trying to teach this truth, we are one. There is no evil as such, but there is lack of goodness insofar as this is not understood.

  2. Jack K., the Grumpy Forester  •  Jul 25, 2008 @1:55 pm

    …Hawkins charts a remarkably twisted course to arrive at the destination that he wanted to get to all along: “Progressives are evil!!” Unfortunately he fails your cognitive ability test early on by building ‘selfishness’ on it’s own foundation of “they don’t care very much about how their actions impact others because it’s all about them”. To establish this as the ‘foundation of core progressive principles’ is directly contrary to a fundamental complaint that conservatives have had about progressives/liberals for decades, which is that they are always trying to give “special access” and “special rights” to every little put-upon group in the world. That is the absolute antithesis of ‘selfishness’ that he himself establishes…

  3. Ann  •  Jul 25, 2008 @1:55 pm

    Scotty Peck made much the same point (about empathy) in The Road Less Travelled, and in more detail later in People of the Lie (which was subtitled The Hope for Healing Human Evil, I think). Dr. Peck is an Episcopalian, but also quite enthusiastic about the teachings of Buddha.

  4. PseudoNoise  •  Jul 25, 2008 @1:57 pm

    It’s an interesting question, and I’m not sure if this is a fallacy or not, but perhaps there are types of evil or evil people who do show empathy? Maybe that’s not quite right, but I’m thinking of what mentioned as the “us vs them”, that there’s no empathy for “them”, only “us”. Is it perhaps just an ability to treat others as less than human?

    On a lighter note, this example of evil might provide a rebuttal, having nothing to do with empathy or lack thereof:
    http://youtube.com/watch?v=aM_vh6KuGqo
    (That would be Celine Dion covering AC/DC’s “You Shook Me All Night Long”.)

    …and I find I can’t even make a joke — the first comment there is a death fantasy. *sigh*

    My new thesis is that evil is a lack of empathy & something to do with YouTube commenters.

  5. Ann  •  Jul 25, 2008 @2:26 pm

    After I posted the above, I decided to look up Dr. Peck’s website and discovered, to my sadness, that he died in September of ’05. He was a very lovely, and loving, man.

  6. felicity  •  Jul 25, 2008 @3:00 pm

    A few years ago I read a short bio on Cheney. The author had interviewed a few people who had known Cheney in his pre-political life. A friend from Cheney’s childhood, and on, said that Cheney was the only person he had ever known who was completely lacking in empathy.

    The English word ‘sin’ was used to represent the Hebrew idea of ‘the absence of good’ for which there is no single Hebrew word.

    It has been suggested that conservative anger is not directed at liberalism, but the person of the liberal whose very existence is an offense to the conservative. It’s interesting that synonyms for empathy all have to do with person-to-person relationships. Is it possible that the conservative lacks the capacity to understand, sympathize, have an affinity for (synonyms for empathy) other human beings?

  7. Kaleberg  •  Jul 25, 2008 @9:17 pm

    Progressives and conservatives measure good and evil on different axes. Progressives are concerned with harm and fairness. Conservatives are concerned with purity and authority. Evil to a progressive involves doing harm and being unfair. Evil to a conservative involves violating purity and flouting authority. We see this again and again.

    There was an article on this in Science, of all places, and I blogged about it on my Daily Kos diary at http://www.dailykos.com/storyonly/2007/5/31/12489/5019/445/341285

  8. Doug Hughes  •  Jul 25, 2008 @9:49 pm

    The models of ‘good’ & ‘evil’ on the right & on the left are based on dubious assertions. To the Randian Rightie ‘good’ is measured by creating wealth, since wealth is the measure of the contribution to society an individual has made. The model ignores monopolies, price ficing, unfair competition, etc. The rich man whose wealth is founded on a real contribution is the exception , not the norm.

    The communist model is also based on a myth: that the average guy can be conditioned to suppress hs own self-interest. What actually happened in Russia, up until the fall, is an example of how tragicly flawed that system is.

    So ‘good’ if such a thing exists, occupies a space in the middle, allowing the gifted individual to be rewarded, but imposing regulation to prevent corruption (Bush politics). And it recognizes the need to tax those who are wealthy to provide for the needs of the whole society. This is healthy & just. And will satisfy no one completely, which may be the best indicator of ‘good’ because if neither pole is completely satisfied, one has possibly acheived moderation – the middle ground.

  9. felicity  •  Jul 26, 2008 @9:05 am

    Doug H. -”The rich man whose wealth is founded on a real contribution is the exception…” reminded me of Adam Smith who recognized that laissez-faire capitalism would create massive wealth for a few, human nature being what it is. Adam’s misjudgement was his belief that people, because they were naturally sympathetic and kind, when they became very wealthy would turn around and help and provide for the less fortunate.

    Smith obviously missed the boat on that one.

  10. Comrade Rutherford  •  Jul 26, 2008 @9:46 am

    What if the House Judiciary Committee held hearings about Bush’s Imperial Presidency and NONE of the so-called progressive blogs even mentioned it?

    Is every one still high from the Netroots Nation parties to notice, or even care?

    I watched the whole thing and it was incredible! Why has no one said one word about this?

  11. Catherine Spaeth  •  Jul 26, 2008 @2:45 pm

    The film “Inc.” did such a great job of defining the history of the corporation as a sociopath. (Is this history of corporate America the mass expression of “cognitive disability”/delusions, or of an independent technology (“bad karma”) that has generated a subjectivity in its own image, an effect?) Also there is Eyal Sivan’s “The Specialist: Eichmann in Jerusalem,” a chilling editing of the trials that places an emphasis upon the effects of bureacracy. And for a different but not unrelated psychopathology there’s Peter Sloterdijk’s book, “The Critique of Cynical Reason.” (Art historians frequently refer to this – cynicism is our own difficulty, we seem to think.)

    I strongly believe in such broad cultural diagnoses, but I have to say that my Buddhism does make me question it – on occasion.

    Apart from the lack of it, I have seen empathy appear more like a neurosis in conservative culture.

  12. Michael  •  Jul 26, 2008 @7:30 pm

    I don’t think the third way of moderation is really coherent, it does not succeed in delivering fairness or justice. What has happened is we have been given a constrained set of taxable inputs, mainly income and sales, but there has been a virtual abandonment of taxes on real wealth.

  13. maha  •  Jul 26, 2008 @11:28 pm

    I watched the whole thing and it was incredible! Why has no one said one word about this?

    Possibly because we’ve been watching pretty much the same hearings for the past 18 months. Wake me up when they arrest somebody.

  14. priscianus jr  •  Jul 26, 2008 @11:43 pm

    “Evil is the absence of empathy.” Absolutely right.

  15. freD  •  Jul 27, 2008 @11:34 am

    Here’s for John Hawkins and his ilk:

    The reason the RightWingNews post is so, um… terse, is that he’s at least unconsciously, begun to realize the folly of American Christianity’s being wrapped around the axle of political conservatism. (“Take that for what it’s worth” – heh)

    Selfishness is innate and probably equivalent in all humans – logically coming from having a self-aware brain which constantly monitors the condition of its interconnected electrochemically reactive body.

    It would be other factors: such as good socialization and tribalism, innate harm avoidance, reward dependence, and conscientiousness (genetics), and possibly the quality of one’s religious discipline (based on the observation that most religion and materialism are polar opposites)

    - which would mitigate “selfishness”.

    Any “selfish progressive” need to ‘control through government’, is more accurately, an attempt by normal people to control those few who are unable to mitigate their innate selfishness – a check and balance against sociopathy, which IMO, God does not do.

  16. Unamerican Pinko Commie  •  Jul 27, 2008 @2:12 pm

    Interesting topic. You may be interested in Hannah Arendt’s excellent book (of some of her last essays and lectures) Judgment and Responsibility. One of the best books on this subject I’ve ever read, particularly the first two essays/lectures where she talks about conscience.

    For Arendt, its is about “thinking”– meaning a discourse between self and oneself. Conscience functions as a purely a negative operation. There much more nuance to her reasoning of course. Well worth reading…

  17. felicity  •  Jul 27, 2008 @2:38 pm

    freD – years ago I ran a shelter for homeless women. They came from diverse backgrounds. They ranged in age from 18 to 75. Their one commonality, other than poverty, was their lack of selfishness. They were generous, some would say to a fault since it was more often than not their selfless generosity that had landed them on our doorstep.

    So, and I don’t know, are poor people naturally less selfish, and does/can, in some circumstances, a lack of selfishness lead to poverty. Interesting that so many religions, and even Buddhists, speak of the poor with reverence.

  18. Chess Dinger  •  Jul 27, 2008 @4:06 pm

    “They were incapable of even considering how “taking him out” might change Iraq’s relationship with Iran…”

    That’s absolutely untrue and easily refutable. You trust your own intelligence to the point of absurd, idiotic arrogance.

    It should take you no more than 30 seconds to find pages of hits from a Google search that defy your statement.

    You must simply be too ignorant of search engines to think of the proper keywords.

  19. Swami  •  Jul 27, 2008 @6:32 pm

    “We weep, and we mourn” – George Bush

    Were emptier words ever spoken? No empathy,no power,no meaning, no truth. It should have been singular..then it might mean something.

  20. maha  •  Jul 27, 2008 @6:40 pm

    That’s absolutely untrue and easily refutable. You trust your own intelligence to the point of absurd, idiotic arrogance.

    The neocons and the White House certainly didn’t consider it, nor did all the righties who urged us to go ahead and invade Iraq. I argued with enough of ‘em back then to know that.

    So admit it … righties are idiots. Truth hurts, doesn’t it?

    Bye.

  21. Pat Pattillo  •  Jul 28, 2008 @2:10 am

    “Domestically, they don’t appreciate how allowing New Orleans to rot might impact the rest of the U.S., or how allowing big chunks of the population to fall into poverty because of health care costs or the mortgage crisis might impact the economy as a whole.”

    Or even how shipping National Guard to Iraq and paying Blackwater to keep the peach in NO might be counterproductive and not very cost effective.

    There is no end to examples of this kind and the resulting problems that are much worse than that the Bush administration claimed to be fixing.

  22. Nick  •  Jul 28, 2008 @10:32 am

    Evil is suffering.

    EMPATHY is the ability to FEEL and thereby identify with the suffering of others.

    SELFISHNESS results from the concern to safeguard oneself (food, shelter, esteem, etc.). It is innately human.

    Antisocial Personality Disorder types (commonly called sociopaths)
    are people who lack empathy and thereby lack the boundaries imposed by guilt in their actions affecting other people.

    Robert Wright, in ‘The Moral Animal’, his book on evolutionary psychology, nicely lays out how humans evolved to be both selfish and cooperative. These are the tensions playing out within most persons.

  23. maha  •  Jul 28, 2008 @1:16 pm

    Evil is suffering.

    I disagree with that. Suffering is suffering; no moral judgment required. Also, sometimes suffering can be useful.

    SELFISHNESS results from the concern to safeguard oneself (food, shelter, esteem, etc.). It is innately human.

    From a Buddhist perspective, selfishness arises from the delusion there’s a self to be safeguarded. I don’t know how “innate” it is.

  24. pluky  •  Jul 28, 2008 @1:32 pm

    In re 18 — yes, the contingencies that became eventualities were discussed, analyzed, and reported by the Iraq Study Group, a joint effort of the DoState and the Intelligence community. Unfortunately, the Rumsfeld DoD and the neo-con ideologues in the Office of the VPOTUS completely ignored its recommendations.

  25. maha  •  Jul 28, 2008 @3:21 pm

    In re 18 — yes, the contingencies that became eventualities were discussed, analyzed, and reported by the Iraq Study Group, a joint effort of the DoState and the Intelligence community. Unfortunately, the Rumsfeld DoD and the neo-con ideologues in the Office of the VPOTUS completely ignored its recommendations.

    Exactly.

  26. LongHairedWeirdo  •  Jul 29, 2008 @1:14 am

    One of the troubles of quantifying evil is determining what, exactly, you mean by it.

    e.g., I think drunk driving is evil. Do I mean that the action is evil, or that a person who does it is evil, or what?

    I generally think of evil as being taking an action without sufficient concern for the foreseeable consequences of that action. Driving drunk is evil because it’s obvious that you could have to react swiftly and precisely to avoid hurting someone. Barring unusual circumstances, then, it’s clear that driving drunk is acting without sufficient concern for the foreseeable consequences.

    This, of course, begs the question of how much concern one should have for those consequences. Obviously, it’s always easier to judge the extreme cases (sociopathic killer) over the mild cases (driving one-handed while drinking a cup of hot coffee).

    A lot of people confuse evil and malice, but I think they have to be separated. There have been times when I would have wished harm on someone, but where I wouldn’t have acted to cause that harm, and wouldn’t have failed to act to prevent it, if preventing it was within my power. So, although there was malice in my heart, I wasn’t evil.

    When someone is malicious and evil, it becomes pretty obvious… they want to hurt someone, and have no concern towards *not* hurting that someone.

    Which is a very long-winded way of saying, yes, I think that “a lack of empathy” is a fair-to-middling good description.

  27. maha  •  Jul 29, 2008 @5:30 am

    One of the troubles of quantifying evil is determining what, exactly, you mean by it.

    I’ve blogged about that from time to time, most recently in “Buddhism and Evil.

  28. LongHairedWeirdo  •  Jul 29, 2008 @11:21 am

    Re: 27, yes, I’ve got that queued up to read for when I’m not sleep deprived :-). But, to clarify, my “you” was generic, not “you, Maha”.

  29. Ethan  •  Jul 31, 2008 @12:03 pm

    Great post. Thanks.

    I wrote a article about dharma and politics here:

    http://onecity.wordpress.com/2007/12/03/the-dharma-is-always-political/

  30. Michael Sheridan  •  Jul 31, 2008 @7:26 pm

    Twenty years ago I took an ethics class at one of the California State Universities known for its strong business and nursing curricula. I was taking it just for fun, but it was a required class for a lot of people there so it was very well-attended with over a hundred students.

    The professor spent a couple of weeks going over the basics of some of the major ethical theories and told us that for the rest of the class each of us would have to speak and write defending the point of view of one single ethical theory, preferably the one closest to our actual beliefs. By far the largest group in the class, nearly half of the students, was made up of Ethical Egoists, holding that all people ought to take only such actions as are in their own best long-term self-interest. Two of the three next largest groups (of near identical size) weren’t much better: Act Utilitarians and Divine Commanders (followers of Divine Command Theory). The third of the secondary groups was the Rule Utilitarians, with whom I also disagreed, but who at least didn’t give me the willies. The smallest group in the classroom was the Kantians (there were 9 or 10 of us). According to the teacher, Kantians had been the extreme minority in his classrooms throughout his teaching career. Looking around that classroom and listening to the arguments propounded led to one of the most chilling realizations of my life, that large numbers of people really, actually live in terrifyingly different moral worlds from the one I had thought most people shared.



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