Friday, October 24, 2008

The Nature of Evil

Book cover of Book cover via AmazonWhat is evil? Evil acts have perpetrators and victims. Evil is behavior without a moral code. So does behavior that is self serving for the individual, when devoid of a moral code constitute evil? Doing harm to others is evil.

I believe that the most ghastly acts of evil are never without rationalization and justification within the mind of the individual that perpetrates that evil.
The power to rationalize and justify our behavior is what differentiates human beings from animals. Actions by animals might appear to us to be evil but animals lack self consciousness. Animals just do whereas humans have a choice. We rationalize then act out on that thought.

It seems to me that many evil actions can be justified but remain evil. We could call them "necessary evils". For example the bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima can be justified but still remain acts of evil. Carpet bombings of cities during WW11 is another example of "necessary evil". The torture of suspected terrorists which is always discussed in terms of human rights versus national security might eventually end up also becoming a "necessary evil".

Issues of necessary evil might be debated as to their ethical or unethical value but in the end they are perpetrated and justified by rational arguments.

Today, in a world of logical, rational pragmatism, we are capable or justifying evil actions because we lack the focus of the ethical approach.
It seems to me that the Australian Philosopher Peter Singer has been single handedly campaigning for an ethical approach to issues that deserves more attention.

Whilst lawyers and legislators battle with issues that seem to be increasingly dominated by religious lobby groups, we have forgotten that there is another way to find the right path. The way of ethics.

You could read Truman Capote's In Cold Blood to get a chilling insight into the mindless and pointless actions of individuals who commit evil. But that is a view without any psychological insights. Can it be possible that humans commit evil without any internal psychological reasoning to justify their actions?
Do those of us who commit evil do it purely out of instinct? I doubt it. Even the most disturbed mind has its own internal logic.

It seems that evils exists not because we as human beings are inherently evil but because we have the power to rationalize and justify our behavior.
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Jeannie said...

I think there is a tendency in some people or perhaps all of us, to enjoy the pain of others.

Little boys (and little girls to a lesser extent on average because they are more often victims), if you notice, enjoy doing damage. They love to tease puppies, burn ants with magnifying glasses, annoy or harm little girls, mercilessly bully the weak or different. Some of them never learn compassion. Is it the instinct to dominate everything? (Wonder what George Bush was like as a kid)
Evil is just extreme self-centredness - egotism. The justification is simply I care more about what I want than anything else. I will do whatever I think I can get away with or whatever is worth the price I may pay. I think much of the "justification" is a smokescreen covering the simple enjoyment people get out of being the winner - whatever that means to them.
This is the dangerous part of religion. True people of faith in any "religion" are usually very compassionate - they are the ones who do not move up the hierarchy of power because that is not what is important to them.
It is also the dangerous side of politics - it's doubtful that the best people ever get to lead at all.

Lexcen said...

Self gratification as an instrument of evil seems right to me. There is certainly a lack of conscience or guilt that allows for evil behavior.On the other hand, I can't see evil being mindless,pointless without reason or purpose. For that reason I see evil as stemming from within humans rather than as an external source.

Anonymous said...

The ethics of infanticide, yes I guess we can rationalize away anything....

Anonymous said...

Erratum - infanticide. (bad link)

Anonymous said...

I don't think you can really equate "pain" with "evil". After all, some people's sensitivity to pain is MUCH less than that of others...

Nietzsche, "Genealogy of Morals"

With these ideas, by the way, I have no desire whatsoever to give our pessimists grist for their discordant mills grating with weariness of life. On the contrary, I want to state very clearly that in that period when human beings had not yet become ashamed of their cruelty, life on earth was happier than it is today, now that we have our pessimists. The darkening of heaven over men’s heads has always increased alarmingly in proportion to the growth of human beings’ shame before human beings. The tired, pessimistic look, the mistrust of the riddle of life, the icy denial stemming from disgust with life — these are not the signs of the wickedest eras of human beings. It’s much more the case that they first come to light as the swamp plants they are when the swamp to which they belong is there — I mean the sickly mollycoddling and moralizing, thanks to which the animal “man” finally learns to feel shame about all his instincts. On his way to becoming an “angel” (not to use a harsher word here), man cultivated for himself that upset stomach and that furry tongue which not only made the joy and innocence of the animal repulsive but also made life itself distasteful: — so that now and then he stands there before himself, holds his nose, and with Pope Innocent III disapproves and makes a catalogue of his nastiness (“conceived in filth, disgustingly nourished in his mother’s body, developed out of evil material stuff, stinking horribly, a secretion of spit, urine, and excrement”).*

Now, when suffering always has to march out as the first among the arguments against existence, as its most serious question mark, it’s good for us to remember the times when people judged things the other way around, because they couldn’t do without making people suffer and saw a first-class magic in it, a really tempting enticement for living. Perhaps, and let me say this as a consolation for the delicate, at that time pain did not yet hurt as much as it does nowadays. That at least that could be the conclusion of a doctor who had treated a Negro (taking the latter as a representative of pre-historical man) for a bad case of inner inflammation, which drives the European, even one with the best constitution, almost to despair but which does not have the same effect on the Negro. (The graph of the human sensitivity to pain seems in fact to sink down remarkably and almost immediately after one has moved beyond the first ten thousand or ten million of the top members of the higher culture. And I personally have no doubt that, in comparison with one painful night of a single hysterical well-educated female, the total suffering of all animals which up to now have been interrogated by the knife in search of scientific answers is simply not worth considering).

Perhaps it is even permissible to concede the possibility that that pleasure in cruelty does not really need to have died out. It would only require a certain sublimation and subtlety, in proportion to the way pain hurts more nowdays; in other words, it would have to appear translated into the imaginative and spiritual and embellished with nothing but names so unobjectionable that they arouse no suspicion in even the most delicate hypocritical conscience (“tragic pity” is one such name; another is “les nostalgies de la croix” [nostalgia for the cross]).

What truly enrages people about suffering is not the suffering itself, but the meaninglessness of suffering. But neither for the Christian, who has interpreted into suffering an entire secret machinery for salvation, nor for the naive men of older times, who understood how to interpret all suffering in relation to the spectator or to the person inflicting the suffering, was there generally any such meaningless suffering.

In order for the hidden, undiscovered, unwitnessed suffering to be removed from the world and for people to be able to deny it honestly, they were then almost compelled to invent gods and intermediate beings at all levels, high and low — briefly put, something that also roamed in hidden places, that also looked into the darkness, and that would not readily permit an interesting painful spectacle to escape its attention. For with the help of such inventions life then understood and has always understood how to justify itself by a trick, how to justify its “evil.” Nowadays perhaps it requires other helpful inventions for that purpose (for example, life as riddle, life as a problem of knowledge). “Every evil a glimpse of which edifies a god is justified”: that’s how the pre-historical logic of feeling rang out — and was that really confined only to pre-history? The gods conceived of as friends of cruel spectacle — oh, how widely this primitive idea still rises up even within our European humanity! We might well seek advice from, say, Calvin and Luther on this point.

At any rate it is certain that even the Greeks knew of no more acceptable snack to offer their gods to make them happy than the joys of cruelty. With what sort of expression, do you think, did Homer allow his gods to look down on the fates of men? What final sense was there basically in the Trojan War and similar tragic terrors? We cannot entertain the slightest doubts about this: they were intended as celebrations for the gods: and, to the extent that the poet is in these matters more “godlike” than other men, as festivals for the poets as well. . . .

Later the Greek moral philosophers in the same way imagined the eyes of god no differently, still looking down on the moral struggles, on heroism and the self-mutilation of the virtuous: the “Hercules of duty” was on a stage, and he knew he was there. Without someone watching, virtue for this race of actors was something entirely inconceivable. Surely such a daring and fateful philosophical invention, first made for Europe at that time, the invention of the “free will,” of the absolutely spontaneous nature of human beings in matters of good and evil, was created above all to justify the idea that the interest of gods in men, in human virtue, could never run out? On this earthly stage there was never to be any lack of really new things, really unheard of suspense, complications, catastrophes. A world conceived of as perfectly deterministic would have been predictable to the gods and therefore also soon boring for them — reason enough for these friends of the gods, the philosophers, not to ascribe such a deterministic world to their gods! All of ancient humanity is full of sensitive consideration for “the spectator,” for a truly public, truly visible world, which did not know how to imagine happiness without dramatic performances and festivals. And, as I have already said, in great punishment there is also so much celebration! . . .

Lexcen said...

I think Nietzsche sees in terms of either God exists or not. To me God doesn't exist and is irrelevant.

Evil in terms of human psychology is a more insightful approach than evil understood within the confines of a philosophical agenda.

To quote Epicurus,
"Either God wants to abolish evil, and cannot; or he can, but does not want to. If he wants to, but cannot, he is impotent. If he can, but does not want to, he is wicked. If God can abolish evil, and God really wants to do it, why is there evil in the world?"

Anonymous said...

I don't think Nietzsche sees existence in those terms...

1067 (1885)
And do you know what "the world" is to me? Shall I show it to you in my mirror? This world: a monster of energy, without beginning, without end; a firm, iron magnitude of force that does not grow bigger or smaller, that does not expend itself but only transforms itself; as a whole, of unalterable size, a household without expenses or losses, but likewise without increase or income; enclosed by "nothingness" as by a boundary; not something blurry or wasted, not something endlessly extended, but set in a definite space as a definite force, and not a sphere that might be "empty" here or there, but rather as force throughout, as a play of forces and waves of forces, at the same time one and many, increasing here and at the same time decreasing there; a sea of forces flowing and rushing together, eternally changing, eternally flooding back, with tremendous years of recurrence, with an ebb and a flood of its forms; out of the simplest forms striving toward the most complex, out of the stillest, most rigid, coldest forms toward the hottest, most turbulent, most self-contradictory, and then again returning home to the simple out of this abundance, out of the play of contradictions back to the joy of concord, still affirming itself in this uniformity of its courses and its years, blessing itself as that which must return eternally, as a becoming that knows no satiety, no disgust, no weariness: this, my Dionysian world of the eternally self-creating, the eternally self-destroying, this mystery world of the twofold voluptuous delight, my "beyond good and evil," without goal, unless the joy of the circle is itself a goal; without will, unless a ring feels good will toward itself--do you want a name for this world? A solution for all its riddles? A light for you, too, you best-concealed, strongest, most intrepid, most midnightly men?-- This world is the will to power--and nothing besides! And you yourselves are also this will to power--and nothing besides!

858 (Nov. 1887-March 1888)
What determines your rank is the quantum of power you are: the rest is cowardice.

...and jeannie is right, Thanatos (the death instinct) is just as powerful as Eros (the life instinct). Thanatos dominates the SuperEgo and torture the soul. He represents the source of "repressive" power within man's "conscience".

Anonymous said...

The ability to be "cruel", that is the privilege of the "powerful". To execute the criminal. To attack the enemy. To dedicate a Roman gladitorial contest in the name of one's ancestors at their funeral...

The world is will to power, and nothing besides.

Our Father who art in heaven
hollowed be Thy name
Thy kingdom come, thy will be done
on earth as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread
and forgive us our trespasses
as we forgive those who trespass against us.

And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil
for Thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory, forever...

Lexcen said...

If evil doesn't inflict pain (emotional as well as physical) then what is evil?

Even the most insignificant human being can inflict pain on others and that is an exercise in power and it is evil.

Lexcen said...

The quote from Nietzsche, he sees the world the same way as the scientist where survival of the fittest replaces the notion of "good and evil".

Anonymous said...

Biblically speaking, man was exiled from "paradise" for eating of the "tree of knowledge of good and evil". And once he did so, he was forever banished so that he could not return and thereafter eat of the "tree of life".

I'm not sure, but if you were to ask me today, evil/badness is a form of willful ignorance.

Anonymous said...

Of course, Nietzsche postulated that the "criterion of truth was an enhancement of the feeling of power."