August 02, 2010
Discussion of evil has historically taken place within religious traditions, where the "problem of evil" has been principally a theological issue, namely how to rationalise the belief in God with the existence of evil in the world. This issue is only important to believers in God, however, and today believers in God must accept that there are many who do not use this concept (including the followers of many religions, such as key schools of Buddhism). This does not invalidate theology, it merely recognises its scope, and explains why theology is now excluded from science. Attacks against God as a concept, however, are also theology – and oddly, these are frequently tolerated in otherwise scientific discussion.
What is needed for a thorough discussion of evil suitable for anyone and everyone is to separate the metaphysical issues of theology and its rivals from the ethical issues of morality. Moral philosopher Mary Midgley has suggested this is possible by accepting a concept of natural evil, namely evil considered quite apart from any supernatural or metaphysical interpretation. Religious people can accept natural evil without giving up their personal beliefs, since these beliefs provide supplementary understandings that should not contradict the facts on the ground, and may even support them. We can judge an act evil independently of our specific beliefs concerning God, souls or immortality. Since beliefs on these topic differ so wildly among both believers and non-believers, focussing on natural evil facilitates a more productive discussion.
Tackling the modern problem of evil presents a special challenge, requiring discussion of science, history, philosophy and religion. It will involve exposing some of the problems inherent to the ideologies of certain infamous scientists, and in so doing I risk being labelled an enemy of science. Because I also support religious freedom and appreciate the value of spiritual traditions, I am liable to be dismissed as an enemy of reason. This situation is itself an interesting phenomenon, and a scientific understanding of how and why people declare others with different beliefs "enemies" is an important part of the story of morality that this serial explores.
Part 1 of 23 in the Pentenary series.
This post looks prospective to an interesting series. Let's nitpick from the start, then.
1. I'd agree that the address of evil can draw a lot from theological traditions. The likes of Iraneus, Augustine and Aquinas would have much to say, as well as Christian Scripture itself.
As non religiously exclusive peoples, it is an important insight to separate religious committment from theology. Doing so gives us insight from the wisdom of these historical traditions without committing to them. Similarly, something has been done from recent studies in metaphysics where we have learned much from the medievals who also were doing religious philosophy.
2. Relating to the first point. I'd think the use of the term 'metaphysical' equating or being synonymous with 'supernatural' is unfortunate, but understandable.
If we were to take a more 20thC take on the term metaphysics, we don't need to invoke a special world outside of our own but understand the terms of necessity or contingency; logical categories or other such philosophical baggage that we use to try to understand and describe the world.
3. A seperate point. I think I'm in agreement that 'evil' is a worthwhile term to use. While it's origins are religious in nature, we've been with it for so long that it has been part of western/northern/first and second world culture. I don't know if it exists in the so-called 'southern' world of Asian and Oriental traditions beyond Buddhism, or in the Africas. That's an interesting sociological question in itself.
I think however, a systematic justification is needed to allow us to use the term 'evil. What merit does it have to understanding human nature instead of say, not having evil as a concept? [A parallel question can be asked of the good, as well, of course, the good has a few thousand books on it, but not much comparatively on evil.]
I think I'm inspired to write a post on my own blog on this subject!
Posted by: Michael | August 02, 2010 at 06:40 PM
Michael: thanks for wading in! And also for sharing further thoughts on your own blog. Glad to get the discussion under way straight out of the gate. :)
Re: theology, I don't do much if any of this over the course of the serial. The point of flagging the idea of "natural evil" is to set aside a lot of these issues. But I do agree that theological discussions can still have bearing and merit on the issue. I have to say, reading Agamben's "The Open: Man and Animal" impressed me by its drawing upon this aspect of human discourse and still positioning it very much in terms of contemporary issues.
"Relating to the first point. I'd think the use of the term 'metaphysical' equating or being synonymous with 'supernatural' is unfortunate, but understandable."
Sorry, I never mean this. I mean by "metaphysical" merely "untestable". Supernatural elements may fall under the umbrella, but I see it as much wider. There is plenty of metaphysics in science, for instance, that would not usually qualify as supernatural. The "or" in "supernatural or metaphysical" was not intended to suggest these terms are synonyms. I deployed "supernatural" here largely for the benefit of people who would not immediately recognise what I mean by "metaphysical". Sorry for any confusion this might have inadvertently caused!
"I don't know if [the term evil] exists in the so-called 'southern' world of Asian and Oriental traditions beyond Buddhism, or in the Africas. That's an interesting sociological question in itself."
Regions dominated by Dharmic traditions frame such discussions in terms of karma, dharma and justice. The Pali words "Kusala and Akusala" are sometimes translated as "Good and evil", but in a way that diverges from the common understanding of the terms. Kusala is seen as that which removes affliction (intelligence, skill, contentment) and Akusala as the opposite. I believe this can be easily squared with a concept of "natural evil", and I believe that most religious traditions can identify something that would correspond with natural evil in at least some sense of the term. (It is perhaps weakest with the most ancient shamanistic traditions).
As long as evil is understood in a naturalistic sense, and not as a separate external force (as in Zoroastrianism, and the Abrahamic faiths it influenced), the term can be squared reasonably well in most cultures.
Eventually, however, I intend to be moving the discussion past evil as such and into the space of thinking about ideals and their relationship to morals, whereupon natural good and evil are recast in relationship to ideals. I will also make some contrasts with right and wrong, but this is a fair way down the line of the discussion at this stage. The conclusion does make a definitive return to the modern question of evil, though, so hopefully this part of the framework will prove its worth in practice. :)
Anyway, the point of bringing in natural evil is to focus discussion on common ground. I believe Midgley hit upon a useful way of grounding moral discussion in her concept of natural evil (from "Wickedness: A Philosophical Essay"), which I borrow from here.
"I think however, a systematic justification is needed to allow us to use the term 'evil. What merit does it have to understanding human nature instead of say, not having evil as a concept?"
Well my ultimate theme, of course, is the concept of "enemy" - and I believe natural evil is useful to understanding how groups are picked out as enemies. The merit to using "evil" I am going to claim is that its import is readily understandable to the audience I am writing for, because that audience have been culturally influenced by Abrahamic traditions. (If I expected to reach a predominantly Dharmic audience, I might well have framed this part of the discussion differently).
So my systematic justification is: can we understand what we mean by "enemy" without a concept of evil? Perhaps we could substitute a concept such as "harm", but isn't this ultimately just a neutralised synonym for "evil"? And given the realities of these kinds of discussions, do we really believe that choosing the more neutral words allows for more dispassionate debate? Because I am doubtful of this.
Plus, since "evil" is a term with common cultural currency - think of "Evil Empire", "Axis of Evil", and dozens of other media soundbites - I think exploring how this term is used can be an interesting exercise.
Once again, many thanks for wading straight in and I look forward to hearing your thoughts on the various areas explored across the serial in the weeks to come!
All the best!
Posted by: Chris | August 04, 2010 at 08:48 AM
Evil: Manipulation of another individual or group of indiviuals with the intent of total control. If total control is not achieved then destruction of other is mandated. Evil can be so mundane that it insinuates itself into one's life seamlessly and easily, totally unexepected and unsuspected.
Ultimate evil is too nebulous to define or to cope with in human terms. We encounter evil on a small-scale. Even Hitler's monstrous deeds multiplied in small increments, one person at a time either taking action, or not; and by doing something or nothing permitting evil to triumph. In most cases though it creeps in quietly as a tainted creature with petty, selfish goals and a complete absence of empathy.
These individuals are not the result of abuse or deprivation, they're merely deformed personalities who learn to mimic those around them thus appearing to be "human". In more extreme cases the "human" facade eventually is discarded as unnecessary once trust is gained by a potential victim.
On a large-scale the individual is often convinced that he is righteous and has no need to hide his intentions. Chaney and bin Laden fall into this category.
Posted by: Jessi Leigh King Trudeau | August 06, 2010 at 10:58 AM
Jessi: quite a strident view you advance here! :) You seem to want to equate evil with power in some way... but surely there are things we would call evil that would fall outside of your definition given here? In fact, your definition seems to be better suited for a term such as "domination", which I might be more inclined to see as a subset of "evil", although I'm sympathetic to your angle.
"In most cases though it creeps in quietly as a tainted creature with petty, selfish goals and a complete absence of empathy."
Surely not a complete absence of empathy - rather, a selectively applied empathy. Hitler did not mistreat his dogs.
"These individuals are not the result of abuse or deprivation, they're merely deformed personalities who learn to mimic those around them thus appearing to be 'human'."
I quite disagree with this claim - you want to assert that evil people are not human. I find this view both implausible and potentially dangerous, for if you criticise "evil people" for their lack of empathy, do you not risk the same by separating out a group of people you label "evil" and thus "not human"?
Evil people, I would contend, are still very much human. The contrary belief, which you seem to advance, was precisely why Abu Graib prison was the site of such dreadful mistreatment of its prisoners... believing in the inhumanity of its internees opened the door to evil.
"On a large-scale the individual is often convinced that he is righteous and has no need to hide his intentions. Chaney and bin Laden fall into this category."
While I'm certainly not going to defend either of these people's actions, I would say that I do believe bin Laden's motivations are understandable even while his actions are utterly reprehensible.
One of the tragedies of the modern Islamic world is that terrorism has made it harder for those outside that world to recognise the genuine injustices many are suffering for which the West simply turns a blind eye. In this respect, bin Laden's campaign has been tragically ill conceived. I wonder what would have happened had a campaign of non-violence been deployed instead of the techniques of terrorism...
Of course, where this kind of terrorism has imperialism as its tacit goal, I cannot be anything but appalled, but I can scarcely be surprised that the conditions of life for the majority living in (say) Saudi Arabia is conducive to terrorism. Bin Laden, like so many people of this ilk, is not devoid of empathy, merely selective in where he chooses to apply it. The Maquis of occupied France in World War II doubtless were the same, but we do not usually condemn them.
In respect of Cheney, obviously he is a highly politicised figure and it is perhaps impossible for a supporter of US Democratic party to find anything redeemable in him. While he certainly does not embody what I would want out of a politician, I am less keen to presume he isn't representative of what those who voted for his ticket wanted to see out of Washington.
I have severe criticisms of the way the business sector has infiltrated the political system in the States, but Cheney is at best a poster child for this... I see little reason to single him out except perhaps as an example of a far wider and more troubling phenomena. I certainly wouldn't choose him as a paradigm case of evil, unless the evil I wanted to expose was that of corporate oligarchy, and as I say, Cheney is at best merely an example of this problem.
Thanks for sharing your views!
Posted by: Chris | August 09, 2010 at 08:37 AM
My simplistic view of evil, as of late, has been this: Causing others to suffer in return for personal gain.
What is your opinion on my opinion?
Posted by: Dan | August 09, 2010 at 06:25 PM
I actually don't find "misguided righteousness" to equal evil, because I consider evil to be intention, not consequence.
Posted by: Dan | August 09, 2010 at 06:27 PM
Dan: Your concept "causing others to suffer in return for personal gain" seems to express a view somewhere between selfishness (gaining advantage at other people's expense) and a wider view of evil... While I think many of us would recognise this kind of behaviour as potentially evil, I'd like to suggest there is a lot of acts many would consider evil that falls outside of this conception.
Consider, for instance, someone who murders people because they believe they are an abomination. Such a person is not necessarily acting for personal gain, but surely many of us would consider their actions evil. As a case in point, I'm not entirely sure that one could argue that the Nazi holocaust was actually to the Nazi's benefit, per se (except, perhaps, as a political scapegoat), but in general most people do consider genocide to be evil.
As for "misguided righteousness" and the idea that evil should be judged by intention not consequence - doesn't this strike you as a dangerous path to take? It means that you would exclude any act from being considered evil just on the basis of what was intended.
While I concede that we often do allow intent a role in moral judgement of other people's actions, I wouldn't be keen to go as far as excluding from a judgement of evil any and all actions pursued under good intentions.
For instance, if we take as the intent of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki the ending of World War II and the prevention of the deaths of the many soldiers who would have been lost in an attempted sea assault on Japan, it is easy to excuse the horrors these bombings caused. But there is an argument that says that these bombs didn't need to be dropped on such heavily populated areas to have the desired effect of forcing Japan to capitulate. (Some argue that there were certain people who actively wanted to test the bomb on populated targets to gauge their effectiveness).
For me, good intentions do not excuse horrific outcomes - although they may mitigate them. There is certainly room for debate on all these issues, though.
Thanks for sharing your views!
Posted by: Chris | August 10, 2010 at 10:29 AM
Well my view is that evil can only be considered with respect to one's intentions. This is because I consider good/evil to be a moral issue, and morals are concerned with one person's principles and values, not the unintentional consequences of one's actions. In other words, I would consider the phrase "moral act" to be somewhat of a misnomer, unless it is used to describe the intentions of the action to be moral.
"Horrific outcomes" I would designate just like that - not evil acts, but horrific/terrible/sad acts.
"Misguided righteousness" such as murdering people because they are an abomination I would actually NOT evil, but a sign of psychological trouble - It is not a symptom of evil intention but of lapse of logic.
Many Nazis DID have a lot to gain from genocide. For example, the lowly soldier weighs the consequences of disobedience versus the life of the camp prisoners. Nazi officers deal with the same moral dilemma but also have the added benefit of promotion and power. Now, Hitler, I have actual doubts as to whether he was evil or he had deep psychological problems, due to all the failures he dealt with as a young adult and possible trauma during the first World War.
Posted by: Dan | August 10, 2010 at 05:19 PM
When you start a conversation about evil, it's only a matter of time before Hitler and the Nazis turn up. They seem to be the paradigmatic case. Why is that?
I have a rumination or two to share on this myself, however. Bertrand Russell claimed that if murdering all of Europe's Jews (and gypsies, gays and the congenitally disabled) had produced a sufficient boost to everyone else's happiness, it would have been justified. He considers the Nazis immoral because their actions do not satisfy a utilitarian calculation of the greatest happiness to the greatest number. Ever since reading this (and I cannot remember the source - it might have been one of the essays in "Why I am not a Christian") I have been convinced that *how* you achieve your ends is as important as what those ends are. I am not a utilitarian, in other words.
I think there is also an important point that nobody has mentioned here, which is implicit in Bertrand Russell's statement. The Nazis did have a morality, and they acted according to its dictates with ruthless consistency. So did the Inquisition. Another informative and paradigmetic case. The problem is we're all capable of being fooled by a belief system. If a fanatic adherent of an absolute morality crosses your path, the best you can hope for is that when it comes to the crunch, they don't have the courage of their convictions.
Let's hear it for cowardice, the unsung virtue!
Posted by: Theo | August 10, 2010 at 07:43 PM
Dan: I understand where you're coming from, and I think it is important to take intentions into account when considering moral matters, but I feel it cannot be the end of the matter. Good intentions are not much of a defence against causing harm, although they may be a mitigating factor in judging the person responsible.
"'Misguided righteousness' such as murdering people because they are an abomination I would actually NOT evil, but a sign of psychological trouble"
I feel there is great danger in assigning these kinds of behaviours to psychological abnormality... if Milgram's experiment shows us anything it is that perfectly normal people are capable of terrible behaviour under suprisingly simple conditions. I'm not convinced it's helpful to exclude moral judgement from people just because what we are judging is especially horrific, and thus we naturally doubt that the people involved are psychologically normal.
Thanks for continuing our discussion!
Theo: "When you start a conversation about evil, it's only a matter of time before Hitler and the Nazis turn up. They seem to be the paradigmatic case. Why is that?"
Perhaps because we deal in moral issues in part via stories, and the (hi)stories that are told in respect of World War II are an important part of the modern moral paradigm. If we did not have such easy paradigmatic cases to draw upon, discussions would often be sidelined by a lack of common reference points.
Or to put it another way, they no longer teach the classics, so we have to make do with more recent historical accounts. :)
"Bertrand Russell claimed that if murdering all of Europe's Jews (and gypsies, gays and the congenitally disabled) had produced a sufficient boost to everyone else's happiness, it would have been justified... Ever since reading this... I have been convinced that *how* you achieve your ends is as important as what those ends are. I am not a utilitarian, in other words."
I quite concur! Consequentialism (of which utilitarianism is a species) is not enough by itself to form a complete moral approach to life - not least of which because it asks that all actions be morally judged by outcomes, i.e. that we should all be able to predict the future. We all use a little consequentialism in our moral judgements, but it cannot be left to stand on its own - and especially not in politics.
"The Nazis did have a morality, and they acted according to its dictates with ruthless consistency."
Absolutely, there was an ethical code at work... but one does not have to acede the good to the right - this is a theme coming up later on... that one can adhere to an ethical code (and thus be right) but still cause evil (and thus not be good).
"So did the Inquisition. Another informative and paradigmetic case."
But very misunderstood! Let's save this one for later too, since it will come up in due course. (Sorry to be constantly shelving points, but I'm hoping this will allow the discussions greater focus... I might be wrong about this!)
"Let's hear it for cowardice, the unsung virtue!"
I'm not so sure it is unsung - isn't that kind of cowardice what we call "prudence"? :)
Thanks for continuing the discussions!
Posted by: Chris | August 11, 2010 at 08:53 AM
Chris, on your points, I would reply that terrible acts are not synonymous with evil acts. Remember that Milgram's experiments are very much psychological experiments, putting normal people into situations which while simple, putting the subjects into psychological turmoil.
You're right that good intentions don't mitigate harm, but why must harmful consequences be the indicator of evil? Just because a person is known to harm others does not mean he is evil. What if, for example, a very stupid person somehow becomes leader of a country, and ends up destroying the economy, destroying lives figuratively and literally. Is he evil, or just very stupid?
I guess it depends on what your view of moral philosophy is. If you are a consequentialist, then one's acts are the sole determining factor of one's morality. If you subscribe to deontology, then the act itself, not including intention or consequence, is what is judged. I am not nearly as philosophically studied as you are, Chris, but from my own philosophical musings throughout my life my view of morality is most similar to "virtue ethics": Morality is the rulebook that one consults to make decisions. Thus, in my mind, morality must be localized to intention, not consequence.
In morally judging a person, I can't solely consider one's acts or the consequences of one's acts, because because then I am bundling together both a person's moral judgment and his rational judgment. After all, it could totally be very illogical reasoning that leads one to perform terrible acts, but could you call such a person evil?
A good person can unintentionally do terrible acts, and an evil person can unintentionally perform beneficial acts, and I see nothing wrong with these statements.
I think Hitler is a paradigmatic case because (A) he committed very terrible acts that many consider evil - possibly the most remembered act within our living generations - but also that (B) he really, honestly thought he was doing good, as opposed to the cliche dictator that steals money from peasants and hoards it all for himself.
Posted by: Dan | August 12, 2010 at 12:09 AM
Another example: A man kills because he concluded through reason that certain people are evil, though they actually are not. If you criticize him, then you can only criticize his belief, which is born from improper reasoning. You thus end up criticizing his rational capability. So, if you judge him to be evil, then you are judging that lack of reason is in itself evil.
Posted by: Dan | August 12, 2010 at 12:28 AM
Dan: I certainly concede that all terrible things that happen are not necessarily proof of evil, and your example of the "stupid tyrant" is sound in this regard.
I would be inclined to say that virtue ethics, by its nature, leaves open the question of how to deal with intent... since its concern is in virtue, the question of intention comes down to how much intent figures into our notions of virtue. This to me seems to be quite variable from culture to culture.
"After all, it could totally be very illogical reasoning that leads one to perform terrible acts, but could you call such a person evil?"
Well this is precisely what is at task in our discussion, isn't it. :) One could easily follow this line of argument and eliminate all evil, though - what kinds of evil do you see as being logical i.e. what is "logical evil"? I'm not inclined to conflate the two, personally.
"A good person can unintentionally do terrible acts, and an evil person can unintentionally perform beneficial acts, and I see nothing wrong with these statements."
Where I would be inclined to diverge from your claim here is that I would be unlikely to characterise individuals as good or evil, per se, and more inclined to characterise actions (including the intent behnd them and their immediate consequences) as evil.
I don't believe it is that easy to sort people into good and evil, and indeed it can be dangerous to try to do so - once people are labelled evil, it becomes easier to justify causing evil against them.
I agree with the spirit of your claim, but I would rework it as "A person can pursue good and unintentionally cause evil, and a person can pursue evil and unintentionally cause good." You could substitute "terrible" for "evil" and "beneficial" for "good" in my version with no significant change in meaning... I think, for me at least, "terrible" and "evil" go hand in hand when a conscious agent lies behind what happens.
"I think Hitler is a paradigmatic case because (A) he committed very terrible acts that many consider evil - possibly the most remembered act within our living generations - but also that (B) he really, honestly thought he was doing good, as opposed to the cliche dictator that steals money from peasants and hoards it all for himself."
But here's the thing - according to your account, because he honestly thought he was doing good, doesn't that assuage his responsibility in some degree? His intentions, as you say, were good, at least by his own lights... Presumably your objection would be that while *he* thought his intentions were good, *we* would not judge them so. But if this is the case, where does this leave the notion of intent in moral judgement? We must draw our conclusions on other people intentions - which we cannot access - via our values? So doesn't this mean you are proposing we judge people by the stories they tell about what they do? (I'm open to this claim, since in some respects this is precisely what happens in the case of trial by jury).
Personally, I believe the three main schools of ethics (which you name-check in your comment) are complementary to each other. This theme will come out later in the serial, so probably best to hold that part of the discussion until later. :)
"Another example: A man kills because he concluded through reason that certain people are evil, though they actually are not. If you criticize him, then you can only criticize his belief, which is born from improper reasoning. You thus end up criticizing his rational capability. So, if you judge him to be evil, then you are judging that lack of reason is in itself evil."
Your example also presupposes that one *can* make a judgement that such-and-such a person is evil... else you cannot conclude that the man is *wrong* to judge that certain people are evil. This is a key part of your account that I have a problem with.
I have at least three ways to criticise this man which do not implicitly involve his belief:
(1) On a virtue ethics account, I can criticise his murder as unjust, immoderate, perhaps even savage. His belief is neither here nor there, for his actions display his lack of virtue.
(2) On a duty ethics account (i.e. deontology - ugly word I try to avoid), I can criticise murder as evil. (When killing is not an evil, we do not use the term 'murder'). Again, the man's belief does not necessarily enter into it.
(3) On a consequentialist account, I can criticise the death of these murdered people as an evil outcome. Once again, his belief is irrelevant.
That makes it look as if intent/belief has *no* role in moral judgement... but I think this is just a consequence of how you have structured your example.
The murderer's intentions would be relevant under virtue ethics if killing these people embodied some moral virtue e.g. perhaps they were murdered to save someone's life. Similarly under duty ethics the murderer might be shown to have some duty to act against the people killed for similar reasons to those just identified for virtue ethics.
(Consequentialism, being the least emotional stance, simply has to show that the consequences of murdering these people are preferable to not murdering them so intent won't enter into this view - an approach which in cases 'recommends' actions that would be reprehensible from the other two stances).
Ultimately, despite my objections, I feel your position that intent has a role in moral judgement does occupy an important role in the discussion of morality; my point about the distinction between "murder" and "killing" demonstrates your point that intent *does* have a role.
The only place we part company is that I am willing to judge actions and events as evil when caused by moral agents, while you are only willing to judge evil as a product of intent on the part of a moral agent. Between our two points of view is probably the entirety of the terrain of the subject of natural evil! :)
Thanks for continuing our conversation!
Posted by: Chris | August 12, 2010 at 10:53 AM