The Addiction to Victory
Concluding the Pentenary

Evil Unmasked

What, then, is the root of all evil? It is certainly not a gene, for there can be no gene for evil, nor for selfishness, nor indeed for any moral notion. Morality begins with social animals whose instincts support co-operation and reciprocity, and flourishes once imagination can attain ideals, and form concepts and words to express them. There is no evil until there are ideals of the good against which it can be contrasted. We view the Holocaust as evil because we hold as good the innate value of all human beings, and the brutality conducted by the Nazi regime and other totalitarian institutions does not merely fail to live up to our moral standards, it violently transgresses them.

We do not agree on our moral judgements, but there is nonetheless tremendous common ground. Despite this, there is a tendency to focus on the dividing lines – to break humanity into separate and opposing camps – and to squander most of our energies in conflicts. It is all too easy to declare an enemy and commit to ideological warfare, and far harder to work together irrespective of differences in belief. Once battle lines are drawn, it is hard to erase them, and when institutions fixated on a mythology of the future are built around these skirmishes great evil can be brought about by people who believe they are doing what is right.

The instigators of evil need not be evil themselves: Jesus was a good man; his ministry still inspired unforeseen institutional evils. Nietzsche and Marx had their own conceptions of good, and although (like Jesus) they could not have conceived nor endorsed what was done with their philosophy, they nonetheless helped to instigate the worst institutional evils the world has seen. Richard Dawkins is likewise not an evil man; he has helped non-believers to forge a collective identity. It is unfortunate that this process has – quite unlike feminism, civil rights, or the liberation of sexual identity – focussed on fighting an enemy, rather than the attainment of what is good. When one advocates the pursuit of imagined ends over the task of nurturing values there is always a risk of unleashing institutional evil.

In blaming the problems of the world upon other people we obscure our responsibility in what goes on around us. We have acted as if there is either one correct ethical system or none at all, and as a consequence failed to live up to those moral ideals we hold, many of which we share with other people with wildly different beliefs. All too often, we have abandoned the people who need help in favour of the dogmatic pursuit of arguments, many of which may be insoluble. By action or inaction, we have all contributed to the appalling destruction of the global environment we depend upon for life. Evil is not a description of people wholly unlike ourselves – it is a part of human nature within us all. Behind the mask of evil lies our own face.

Part 23 of 23 in the Pentenary series.


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I tend to think "evil" is a static consruct grasping at something more primal: pathology confronted existentially, through finitude (extinction, or pre-extinction/pain).

Great post!


Michael: I believe I know what you are gesturing at, but I am wary of deploying the hermeneutic of disease to moral questions.

While I do not deny the merit of considering certain conditions as 'disease' or 'sickness' the modern medical perspective by which all deviations from normality are 'sickness' is to me a profoundly immoral exercise - the invention of an imaginary 'norm' that ensures everyone is 'sick' because no-one can possibly match that norm serves to trade on the dignity of people in order to make money for a medical establishment which, as Ivan Illich has critiqued, has become a major threat to health.

But despite this objection, I do concur that the construct behind the term 'evil' gestures at something more primal... it begins at selfishness and ends with brutality, and this capacity rests within us all.

Thanks for your thoughtful comments and discussion throughout the Pentenary serial - much appreciated!

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