There's two kind of peopleThe question of evil came up in the comments on another post. To be honest, I've never thought about evil much in my life. Not in a philosophical way that is. I tend to think that evil will always be a part of human life but that has mostly played out in my political views. One of the many reasons I am impatient with progressives and liberals is that they keep acting as if evil can be engineered out of our culture.
I just can't stand
And a lyin' man
Don't you lie to me
Now don't you lie to me
Because it makes me mad
Evil as a man can be
Ironically, my certainty that evil will always be with us comes from my having grown up in an old-style east coast environment where everyone was unfailingly polite to one another, where family members loved and supported one another and really bad things hardly ever happen to anyone. And yet, even there, evil things were done.
But what sort of thing is evil?
That may be a deceptive question. It tends to bias us towards a Platonic approach. We ask "What is Evil?" and assume that there is a "thing" that corresponds to the word. A very useful word "thing". We can use it to describe things without getting too specific about what they are. If I asked, "What sort of substance is evil? you would immediately know I'd said something stupid for if we know one thing about evil it is that it isn't a substance.
That said, we never wonder that evil doesn't seem to have any substance and that is odd.
To think of evil as a thing is also to unconsciously assume that it is always and everywhere the same thing.
A more useful approach, I think, is to approach the problem like analytic philosophers and ask ourselves how the word is used. In that case it is a superlative used to describe badness outside the realm of ordinary badness. And we have a whole lot of words to describe badness: immoral, naughty, unkind, cruel, callous, uncaring, destructive .... These words, as Iris Murdoch would remind us if she were here, describe a rich palette of human behaviour and that is important to remember, as she would insist, because we tend to impoverish our vocabulary when we put our philosopher hats on.
Evil then is the word we reach for when words such as immoral, naughty, unkind, cruel, callous, uncaring, destructive and many, many others no longer seem enough to describe the degree of, well, evil we see. When we want people to know, for example that Angela wasn't just careless about the sexual relationships she and others were in but that she was so to a superlative degree, we say she was "evil".
It's also the word we use to describe when we are lying about people we want to defeat. The temptation to paint political opponents as evil is often irresistible as we saw just recently as proponents of gun control unleashed their hatred on Wayne Lapierre whom they saw as evil simply because he stands in the way of what they want to do.
When we think of the ways we use the word "evil" instead of thinking of it as a sort of "thing" we can also see that one of the odd paradoxes about the word is that it can be used as a compliment. We can, and I have, say to someone that they are evil when they have understood us better than we understand ourselves. When we say this we recognize a power to seduce us and we play it as highest compliment because the idea of being seduced by this person fills us with pleasure.
And keep that in mind because the thought of an enemy understanding us better than we understand ourselves would not be pleasurable at all. That would be frightening in a way that few things in life are.
To go back to what I originally said in the comments to the previous post, I can think of two broad approaches to the problem of evil:
- We could treat the decision to be good instead of evil as some sort of fundamental choice a person makes. This is the view we get in the world of graphic novels. Batman and The Joker are relatively similar in terms of their "virtue", the difference between them is that Batman has made some fundamental choice to fight on the side of good and The Joker on the side of evil.
- The other avenue we might take is to think of evil in the same terms that the Catholic church thinks of a depraved conscience. That is to say that every time we willing choose to do what we know is wrong or choose not to do good we degrade ourselves. Do this long enough and I will reach a state where I am so depraved that it would make sense to call me evil.
Another thing I would add is that otherwise virtuous people can allow themselves to go so far as to be evil in one aspect of their lives. We have seen, for example, thanks to Twitter, that people who are otherwise civilized will say vile things of people about whom they know nothing other than that they have different views about public policy.
Perhaps the most disturbing example of this is racism. In literature and movies, racist hate is always shown as part of an entire package—the hater is evil in every way. In real life, racism shows up in people who are well-mannered, kind to children and puppies and often braver and more thoughtful than is the norm in our culture about just about everything except their attitudes towards people of certain races.
I could say much more but I won't.