Thursday, January 3, 2013

Evil as a man can be

There's two kind of people
I just can't stand
Evil-hearted woman
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
The 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.

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:
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
At this point I would add what was perhaps already obvious and that is that I favour the second approach.The notion of a fundamental choice about evil is only possible if evil is something that is easily defined and, not incidentally, homogenous. That is why a morally ambiguous character such as Don Draper is a more useful foil for discussions of virtue than Batman. It's also why people who hate Don Draper feel obliged to paint him in the starkest moral terms possible.

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.


  1. 1) I think that the gradual-depravation account applies well to most people in normal societies, in which you can assume that society’s values are more or less good. You cheat a little today, it benefits you and you’re not hurting anyone, you do it a little more tomorrow, and pretty soon you are accustomed to being a cheater and to disregarding society’s conception of good and bad.
    2) As for “choosing evil” as in the supervillian situation, yes, there are some people who seem just to choose to carry out evil actions like random shootings. It’s hard to understand such a person and it’s certainly tempting to call them crazy or beyond comprehension. I’m not sure that virtue ethics can say much about this kind of person. Or you can have people who are megalomaniacal or filled with resentment and grandiosity who want to carry out a conspicuous act of violence to draw attention to themselves. How much this is driven by a mental illness in the medical sense, and how much by plain badness or moral evil is hard to judge.
    3) Now if in #1 I said that society’s values are basically good, it’s also possible to imagine a society whose rules and norms are bad. No society has perfect norms, but some are better than others, and some could be said to be evil. For example a person who was an upstanding and devoted member of the Communist establishment in the Eastern Bloc. He or she may have been personally virtuous and skillful, kind, devoted, hard-working, etc., but all of this virtue and excellence was aiming at a corrupt end. This “evil” isn’t the 180 degree opposite of good, it is more like a corrupt or slightly-off conception of the good that has serious effects. Now as I said no society is perfectly matched up with the good, so this kind of evil is present in every society, but to varying degrees. Now this might have a vague resemblance to the gradual-degradation view since it implies that you are socialized into a set of values. (My ideas about a society’s morality and values is shaped by ideas like mentalité, worldview, and discourse. As for “corruption” I’ve drawn this from the novel The Kindly Ones, whose ex-Nazi narrator says, “my sincerity was betrayed and placed at the services of an ultimately evil and corrupt work.”)

  2. 4) Then we have qualities like cruelty, anger, etc. which I’d say are definitely latent in all people, and are usually held in check by society’s rules, and yes, by moral training and virtue. But I think that under extreme circumstances a person’s normal inhibitions can be broken and they can do especially cruel or vengeful (etc) things. Wartime atrocities are a good example of this. One could respond that this is what virtue is all about, training yourself to be a certain kind of person so that you will act properly in extreme situations, but for some reason I’m not fully satisfied by this rejoinder.
    5) Finally, if we already looked at people whose values are shaped by their society, there are also people who consciously set themselves apart, or in opposition. Idealists, romantics. The irrational and dissatisfied part of ourselves which wants something more and better, is, I think, really strong. And I don’t think it’s necessarily bad or crazy, I mean I think that this is also the source of religious feeling. I think we have a tendency to give these people, or this urge, a free pass from morality. There are a lot of different types which could be associated with this urge. The grandiose, people who feel that they need to communicate some important insight… you have your religious prophets, political writers, loners, you have traces of this in writers like Camus, who writes that “everyone lives as if no one knew” [about death and absurdity]. Then there are heroic individuals, artists, conquerors, seducers, explorers, whose accomplishments seem to be great even if they are not good. Even if I dislike Napoleon in rational terms he still has a special fascination and mystique. Or when reading about political revolutionaries it’s hard not to feel a kind of admiration for their total commitment, even if you oppose them politically. I’m not sure exactly how I’d link this irrational, romantic aspect of human nature to evil, but I think there is a connection. Again, I don’t think that this is merely fantasy or self-delusion, I think that this urge to devote oneself to something great is always present and can be good or bad. In fact maybe this is the closest we get to “choosing good or evil.”

    1. You've given me a lot to digest here. I tend to agree at first reading, although there is one point I'd like to make a bit more precise. I'll give a longer response after some thought.