Human nature is evil, and goodness is caused by intentional activity.
In this chapter of Exploring Morality we will be discussing the concept of evil. And I have no idea where to begin. Seriously. I have 8 tabs opened on my browser and any one of them is a good starting point. You know what, I’m just gonna pick one at random. ….. O.K. Got it. Now for an official beginning.
On April 29, 1945 Allied Forces entered the newly liberated Dachau concentration camp. None of them were prepared for what they would find. As they searched the barracks they found over a thousand people crammed into each of the 20 buildings, which had a capacity limit of only 250. Many sick and injured, near dying, while others had long gone insane from starvation or intense trauma. The deeper they went, the worst it got. At a train station, just outside of the camp, they found box cars full of dead bodies. Many of them had only been dead a few hours. Massacred by fleeing German soldiers. They found one sub camp had been set on fire with a pyre of 400 bodies stacked in the middle. Many of the soldiers could not fathom what they were seeing. The initial shock and overwhelming horror quickly gave way to anger, which led to rage. Accounts differ on what exactly happened and how many were killed in the incident or before, but at some point several SS officers who had surrendered at the camp , were executed by American forces in an event known as the Dachau massacre.
As more camps were discovered and news of the atrocities committed there reached the world at large, new discussions on evil and the depths of human depravity began. Human history is full of accounts of mass genocide and barbaric slavery but, to the “modern civilized world”, this was an inconceivable act. The details were too much for many minds to process. Reports of medical experimentation and medieval style torture and dismemberment seemed almost like foreign concepts to most. Who could be capable of such evil? The fact it wasn’t just one person but an army who committed to carrying out these heinous acts, made many question the inherent good we believe to be attached to human nature. What got lost in it all, for many years, was the response by American soldiers at the camp. The massacre of the German prisoners. To many it was an equivalent evil. To others, including General George S.Patton who dismissed the later charges brought against the men, it was rightful retribution.
Evil is a difficult concept to tackle. Evil is defined as something morally reprehensible but that definition opens up more doors. Evil appears to be the opposite of whatever is moral but, as we have discussed before, what is moral is not a universal thing. Most societies accept murder, rape, and theft as great evils and highly immoral.
Kill one man and you are a murderer. Kill millions of men, and you are a conqueror. Kill them all and you are a God.
~Jean Rostand circa 1939
But let’s look at murder. Every definition of murder defines it as the “unlawful” premeditated killing of another person. Which is the way it has been pretty much since the dawn of civilization. Is murder wrong because it is immoral, maybe something we should know is wrong, or because it is illegal? It’s true that, even before religion or human laws, people felt taking another life was somehow wrong. Killing was still the only long term solution available for dealing with someone though. And not everyone killed for “the right reasons”. ‘Cause we have “good reasons” to kill, right? War, self defense, traitors, more stuff. But how evil is murder? I’m gonna get philosophical for a few paragraphs here and show you why I don’t often give my own opinion in my posts. If you prefer not to indulge, scroll down past the photo of Unimpressed Cat.
How much is a human life in comparison to everything that was, is, and will ever be? What greatness does civilization possess that is not immediately rendered inconsequential by the enormity of creation? We accept that killing another person is wrong but who cares? Maybe he was the next Hitler. So, is murder evil? I guess it all depends on whatever gets defined as a “good cause.” You can murder all day for a “good cause” and they’ll even give you a fucking medal for it. Murder once for yourself, and you’re a monster. Still, having said all that, I don’t see the point in taking a life. For any reason other than self defense. I’ve watched good friends put into the ground far, far too early and there was sadness in the void left by their absence. But it can only ever be temporary. Life goes on. Maybe the evil is in that void. Taking a life can be rationalized as less than evil in too many situations, but you can’t rationalize the empty space it leaves in so many that person left behind.
Rape seems clear cut to me. It is evil. Probably the most evil thing a person can do to another person. If evil is an act with “malicious intent” and “self serving purposes”, then rape is truly one of the most evil practices imaginable. At least with murder you don’t have to deal with the aftermath. You’re dead. The victim of rape will carry that with them for the rest of their lives. You may have forever wounded their soul. That is true evil. That cannot be suffered to stand.
We’ve had discussions on theft in the past. Many of you know I’m all cool with it. Theft is a complicated one to me. I can’t see inherent evil in it. People can steal for morally corrupt reasons, but theft itself is not immoral. Inequality quickly breeds thievery in large supply. Inequality has always existed. Theft is the natural counterbalance. Theft can be justified as wrong by many simply because it may negatively effects the people making use of the tools of inequality. Theft can be justified as right by many simply because they are poor and perceive the rich to be directly responsible for it. I find a happy medium somewhere in between. Of course the rich steal from us. Everyday it’s just take, take, take. The justification the rich use to rally you against stealing is the warning that it may negatively impact their ability to sell you useless junk at a low, low price. But is theft really evil in this instance or simply counterproductive to the consumer machine? Can a society lost in a sea of empty materialism provided by some of the most corrupt people in existence, really berate anyone who chooses to interfere with that system?
Whoever appeals to the law against his fellow man is either a fool or a coward. Whoever cannot take care of himself without that law is both. For a wounded man shall say to his assailant, “If I Die, You are forgiven. If I Live, I will kill you.” Such is the Rule of Honor.
And that ends the purely opinion portion.(and before you start, I did kinda warn you at the beginning) Back to business.
Looking around the world we can see many instances of clear active evil but perhaps the most deadly form of evil is the one that comes bearing gifts. The seemingly well intentioned, “benign” evil that takes advantage of our “better angels”. Human civilization has always been a complex thing. We are fearful animals by nature and,often times, ready to believe there is evil around every corner. Organized religion was one of the first institutions to take advantage of the human condition. Casting the world in the middle of a continuous war between beings of good and evil, many corrupt religious leaders used their sacred position to deal with political and philosophical opponents. It wasn’t enough for them to be wrong, they had to be evil as well. In an attempt to squelch “heresy”, many well intentioned people eventually found themselves a party to unbelievably atrocious acts and, before they came to their senses, countless numbers had suffered terribly. As much as many, including myself, wish to highlight the wrongs of religion, we forget that the deceptions leading to these wrongs were only possible because of the great good these institutions have done for all people, religious or not. Every system or organization that gains great influence, no matter how well intentioned, will eventually attract ill intentioned men looking to use this trust to their advantage. For many, that is true evil. When trust and faith are used to exploit and injure. Many can suffer with a physical wound far easier than a spiritual one.
Some philosophers believe evil may be the natural state of man. Good does not conquer evil so much as it temporarily replaces it until evil eventually re-emerges. Perhaps nothing is actually good, only a lesser evil. Plato noted that evil was much more a part of human life than good since there are far more ways to do evil than good. Almost every moral philosopher in history seems to be of the opinion that the “thin veil of society” is all that keeps the evil inside all of us from coming to the forefront. If society were to ever fall, man would fall back on his primal instincts and most base tendencies. Natural urges and tendencies fuel many evils in the world today, most notably rape and killings committed “in the heat of the moment”. When a wife kills a husband she finds sleeping with another woman or a similar situation. I get that one too. Rage mixed with just about anything is pretty bad but, coupled with humiliation, it often turns deadly. Always remember, when a person says, “I could just kill you.”, they may be joking, but they are absolutely correct. Given the right conditions, it would appear that almost anyone is capable of taking a life.
But is this evil? is evil even a good term to use? American psychologist, Marshall Rosenberg, proposed that evil was actually a counterproductive label because it dehumanized the person being labeled and makes it easier for us to commit atrocities against them. It’s hard to accept that many of the American citizens who participated in the genocide of Native Americans were such willing bloodthirsty participants. It seems counter to our concept of human nature. However, if you label this group as evil and somehow unfit for such emotional attachment, it becomes easier to commit these acts. No person is inherently evil but they may be coaxed into evil acts. He also wrote on the approach societies take in handling evil, juxtaposing our judicial system, which punishes evil, with other cultures who do not have a concept of evil and seek to work the person back into their group. Punishment vs. rehabilitation. I think our justice system likes to think it does both, but I don’t see how locking someone in a cage is effective rehabilitation. You basically feel that when a person commits an evil act, it is the act alone that is evil and not the person.
As we have discussed before, there is a school of thought involving moral absolutism that defines good and evil as absolute terms. All evil is evil no matter the original intention or context. Stealing to feed yourself is still evil even if it was your only choice to survive. This usually evolves from a sense of duty based ethics which divide the world into either good or evil and see no obligation in venturing to a middle ground. But does this contradict the natural state of the world? Is a man stealing bread to feed his family an evil person? What about a homesteader who kills bandits to protect his cattle and other property? Amoralists contend that nothing is right or wrong. Good or evil. Such concepts do not exist in nature and are the inventions of humans with their self interests in mind.
It seems that most people work somewhere in between. Universal moralists. While it does deal with many seemingly absolute concepts of right and wrong, it differs from absolutism in that it allows flexibility in what is right and wrong based on any number of variables pertaining to the act. In this case, killing is still evil in general, but it can be excused in certain circumstances, such as self defense. Universalism can fit a wide range of people from the very religious to the atheist. It involves aspects of faith in the “better angels” of our nature, as well as reason and the strength of the mind to objectively observe. Moral universalism, a bit like absolutism, is believed to be applicable to all individuals, regardless of race, creed, or culture. But what this means is that standards applied to one person or group should also apply to the standard bearer as well. Or, as Noam Chomsky put it:
(Noam Chomsky quote courtesy of Wikipedia)
“ … if we adopt the principle of universality : if an action is right (or wrong) for others, it is right (or wrong) for us. Those who do not rise to the minimal moral level of applying to themselves the standards they apply to others — more stringent ones, in fact — plainly cannot be taken seriously when they speak of appropriateness of response; or of right and wrong, good and evil. ”
“ In fact, one of the, maybe the most, elementary of moral principles is that of universality, that is, If something’s right for me, it’s right for you; if it’s wrong for you, it’s wrong for me. Any moral code that is even worth looking at has that at its core somehow.”
I think this gets to the heart of most people’s views on good and evil. Maybe it’s not absolute, but what ever standard we adopt has to pertain to everyone or it’s meaningless. If we hold one man’s feet to the fire for something, we must do so for all. If we give reprieve to someone for their circumstances, we must approve that reprieve for all in that position. If evil becomes whatever you want it to be at any given time, then it really becomes nothing. Either the word has meaning or it does not.
In the middle of writing this post, the news broke that Osama Bin Laden, the mastermind behind the worst attack on American soil in history, had been killed in a firefight with U.S. Navy Seals. I had always intended on adding him and the events of 9/11 to the piece but now the ending has been changed significantly.
On September 11, 2001, America was mercilessly attacked by subordinates of Al Qaeda terrorist network leader, Osama Bin Laden. Supposedly a decade or more in development, Bin Laden proposed a plan to hijack several passenger jets in America and crash them into previously determined strategic targets. We all know the details of that very tragic day. Over 3,000 lives lost in coordinated attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. A day that cold have been much worse if not for the heroic sacrifice of passengers aboard United Airlines Flight 93. Somewhat aware of the attacks already carried out, the passengers aboard decided to fight the hijackers and try to prevent them from reaching their target. Many speculate the plane was headed for either the White House or the Capital Building. Either would have been a devastating blow to an already frayed American psyche. Often times we feel the eradication of evil requires a hero or heroes to step forward. Someone to shoulder the great weight that comes with contesting true evil. These men and women took on that weight and bore it better than any of us could ever hope to. We do toss the word hero around too much, but this is a case where it cannot be emphasized enough.
The immediate aftermath of the attacks left a shock that did not subside for weeks and months. For some, it has never really left. What irked many in this nation(including myself) was Bin Laden and Al Qaeda’s perceived justification for these attacks. We built bases on “Muslim Holy Land”. Many terrorist organizations have claimed legitimacy in their acts in the past by rationalizing it as retaliation for “Western aggression”. Most times we can see through that. At the end of the day, the leaders are just interested in money and power. They use religious and socioeconomic justifications to appeal to people who may not be entirely cool with killing on a whim. You just make them see that they are part of something larger. A great battle between good and evil. It has worked for thousands of years. Any scholar of religion will tell you though that there is no basis for evil thwarting evil. You cannot respond to an insult with a greater insult. It is a misconception that Jihad is a war to convert people to Islam. A jihad is only to be called in defense of state or expansion. It is literally the only way Muslims can declare war. There is nothign wrong with this definition. What state did not wish to expand? What state did not need to defend it’s borders? But Bin Laden is not a state, he is a man. He has no basis to declares jihad on anyone or anything. He’s just a loudmouth who got a fat check from his daddy to go away.
Again, there is great evil in warping faith. These men killed fellow Muslims. And again they had no basis, state or otherwise, to declare these men and women “non-believers”. Just the ravings of a heartless thug. War is an ugly thing but for most people you can’t justify the targeted killing of civilians. Any message you carry with you rings hollow in the ears of those mourning their loved ones. On May 1, 2011, Osama Bin Laden, the most wanted man in the world, responsible for the deaths of thousands of people, was shot and killed in a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Upon hearing the news, hours later, that he was dead, spontaneuosu public celebrations popped up in Washington D.C., New York, and many other places around the country. Many considered him the most evil man on the planet. A cold and calculating mass murderer who never showed regret for any of his crimes. Shot through the left eye by a SEAL squad, his death was most likely instantaneous. Perhaps too good a death for one who has visited suffering on so many.
It is a very human thing to struggle with the prospect of taking a life under any circumstances. Sometimes though, it seems that death is inevitable. Some, like myself, believe nothing comes of it but another hole in the ground(or, in this case, another body in the ocean). There is catharsis in the immediacy of the news but after that there is still the emptiness of loss. Even in death, evil takes from you. It almost seems unfair sometime. A thousand good men could work for a thousand years and never achieve anything worthwhile. One evil man can change the world in a single day. But it can be infuriating to know the man responsible for so much death and anguish still lives. It is no man’s right to be another man’s executioner but some men seemingly give us no choice. There are over 6 billion people on the planet. A handful of them are capable of achieving great and lasting evil on a global scale. Would it not be just as evil to allow them to continue?
Evil doesn’t have to manifest in a physical way though. The big part of terrorism, from whence it gets it name, is the very deep terror it spreads among a community victimized by it. The lives lost seem like almost an afterthought to the perpetrator. Just a means to an end. Perhaps men like Hitler, Stalin, and Bin Laden are just sociopaths. They lack empathy. The key to feeling any remorse or guilt for our actions against another. Maybe they just don’t care. They do know what they are doing though. If you panic and scare a population, they will do a lot of your work for you. They will tear down themselves to build up a wall against you. Go back to 1942 and look at how we handled the Pearl Harbor attack. We rounded up thousands of Japanese Americans and sent them to “internment camps”. These were American citizens and we treated them like they had already attacked us. Fast forward to 2001 and the great groundswell of bitterness and hatred toward Islam that sprung up in this country. A mosque was burned to the ground no more than 2 miles from my home. I had to pass it everyday and it always made me sad. I’ve met people who attended. They are such great folks. Great Americans. Why would anyone do that?
Because evil operates on 2 emotions, fear and anger. You do not need to break the body if you break the mind. Then the whole thing will fall. During the Son of Sam killings in New York many neighborhoods were fracturing under the weight of their own fear and anger. Neighbor began suspecting neighbor and differences long ago cast aside came rushing back. This seems to be one of the side effects (or maybe intended effects)of great evil. In a rush to destroy it we become a little like the evil we are after. This is what makes evil so difficult. So complex. It is an idea. You can’t war against it. You can’t bribe or detain it. It may be just the natural state of mankind. All our effort is put into good and evil seems to come just so easy. Great acts of atrocity can cause us to question ourselves and our sense of what is right and wrong in dealing with them. We never want to lower ourselves to their level but evil plays by no rules. Evil is so easy and so deceptive that sometimes we are lost before we ever realize it.
Well, we have reached the end of this chapter of Exploring Morality. Along with the wrap up I would also like to give a special shout out to the U.S. Navy Seals. Specifically, Seal Team 6. Well done gentlemen. Well done. So, i really don’t think we’ve come to any determinations here. I didn’t think we would. As I said in the opening, this is a difficult subject. We’ve touched on some things that are viewed as universal evils – rape, murder, theft – but there are still gray areas. To keep an ordered society, evil cannot be tolerated. But to combat that evil we sometimes engage in unsound acts ourselves. An argument can be made that this weakens us. Only good can beat evil. The lesser of two evils is still evil. There is no justification for that. Only an admission that good cannot win.