Evil at Dawn

At the New Yorker, Rollo Roming argues that calling James Holmes and/or Jerry Sandusky “evil” raises more questions than it answers.  The concept of evil has been tossed into “confusion” and “tatters” by the events of modern human history (the 1755 Lisbon earthquake and the Holocaust are the two causal examples).  But its use persists, precariously and dangerously:

The danger of a word like “evil” is that it is absolute. The “intense semantic charge” of the word “evil,” Peter Dews writes, “lends itself to exploitation” by whoever uses it. To play the “evil” card is to cut off all debate, and to say that any effort toward rehabilitation or reintegration wouldn’t be worth the risk or heartache. The mark of “evil” demands permanent banishment or death, and we call perpetrators “evil” to relieve the guilt we might feel in applying such sanctions. And yet to try to explain evil, as with brain scans or social conditions, smacks intolerably of absolving it. It suggests that evil is part of the natural order of things, a conclusion that our sense of trust in the world yearns to reject.

The fallacy in contemporary methods of thinking about evil is, I want to suggest, the belief that evil can hold only if the quality of evil is part of an individual’s “authentic” being.  It may well be impossible to find a life, examined in great detail, that purely consists of acts of evil—as far as animals and secretaries were concerned, Hitler was a kind, caring man.  This multiplicity is what we find confusing or unsettling when discussing individuals as evil or not-evil.  We feel a need to reconcile the various and contradicting attributes of a human personality into a coherent—or at least legible—whole.

Roming focuses on the formulation, “X is evil,” rather than, “X committed an evil deed.”  Considering the latter formulation is essential for finding a way to approach the former.   

This requires us to discard “authenticity” and focus narrowly on a series of not-quite discrete events.  The tension in “X is evil” is a result of a belief that while the deed itself may be evil, the individual who commits it cannot be held to be wholly, authentically so.  But our sense of what constitutes a person’s character consists of a mosaic of actions and adjectives.  If I am a kind man when I feed a stray cat or help a stranger who has fallen and twisted an ankle, the non-cumulative effect of those kindnesses only holds for the individual moments of action.  And we say that the actor is “a kind man” because the deed itself is held to be kind.

I believe that we can say that the cold-blooded murder of a dozen and attempted murder of dozens more is an evil deed, in the same way that a deed can be kind. [1]  Similarly, then, in the moment of committing and evil deed (or series of deeds), the actor can be called “an evil man”—even if that term does not hold for all (or any) other deeds he has committed.

In short, my position is that in the moment of committing an evil act, one is behaving in accord with evil; therefore, in the moment of committing the act, its qualities adhere to the actor as well.  So what will happen if we chuck “authenticity” out the window?  A life will appear to be defined by a series—a multiplicity—of actions and their sticky adjectives.  And a life will consist of the accumulation of these actions and adjectives.

A life, then, is defined by its deeds.  One may not, on the whole, be “an evil person,” but by committing an evil deed, that evil adheres permanently as a quality that makes up one’s being.  One was not permanently, or even lastingly evil—just instantaneously is enough.  The single quality doesn’t define or overwhelm the other qualities that adhere from other moments of one’s life, but it is present and forms a part of one’s life that cannot be expunged and informs all those adjectives that stick later.

In terms of responsibility, it doesn’t matter whether I help a stranger on the way back from killing.  If I can be lauded for that kindness, I can be accused of that evil.  What matters, then, isn’t whether one is “on the whole” or “authentically” evil—but whether one ever was long enough to harm another.

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[1] I’m clearly operating in this post under the assumption that the possibility for evil exists.  So I’m going to operate with the premise that human life is a great enough good that its deliberate destruction needs a category beyond the merely criminal—that category would be “evil.”  Of course, if we deny the existence of evil outright, this post is a moot point.

[UPDATED 7/30: Added the link to the New Yorker piece, 72 hours too late.  Forgive me, all.]

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22 thoughts on “Evil at Dawn

  1. So I suppose the first question is, if a baby pulled the trigger on an automatic and killed many people, would say the baby was evil in that moment?

    I’m wondering how we attach the label of evil to acts or persons without knowledge of the subjective state or the level of intent behind them.

    This would be especially interesting in the case of Sandusky, who at times seemed remorseful, while at others seemed to not understand that he did what he did, in which case the evilness of the act seems inevitably distinct from the self that committed it.

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    • It helps here to distinguish between physical evil and moral evil. The baby in question is the source of physical evil (the destruction of life), but not a moral evil, as the baby has no sense of what it’s doing. Whoever put the gun in reach of a baby may well be guilty of moral evil, but the baby has no moral culpability, despite causing great harm.

      Regarding the OP, I agree that evil can be predicated of both actions and the people who commit them. Evil I define (initially) as the lack of a good that ought to be there. Whether it’s anything more than this eludes me.

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      • There’s an old SF story (I want to say it’s by Fred Brown, but I could be wrong.) A peacenik visits the home of a nuclear physicist who does weapons research and is on the brink of creating something that makes an H-bomb look like a firecracker. The peacenik pleads with him to stop, but the scientist refuses, insisting that he’s just increasing human knowledge, which is a good thing. After the visit is over, the scientist finds that his developmentally disabled son has been left a new toy: a loaded revolver. He’s furious: who would give something that dangerous to an idiot?

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    • Ethan,

      Are you trying to get at what role does mental disorder have to play in whether we condemn the practitioner of evil as “evil”? (Or before we condemn the specific actions in question as evil in the sense that their totality adds up to making the person more evil?)

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    • Babies by definition are, of course, incapable of evil. Babies don’t possess intentionality or responsibility. In a certain sense the “act” was not the baby’s, but the act of the person or persons who caused the weapon to be placed in the baby’s hands. Assigning blame might still be subject to a range of complications and gradations, however, having to do with evil intentions as opposed to negligence. Actually, J.L. skips to authenticity without considering intentionality. If I run someone over with my car, it obviously matters whether I accidentally hit the gas or in fact went out of my way to do it. Whether the act is part of what J.L. calls my “authentic being” may turn on whether I show myself to be the kind of person who would run somebody over on purpose (for the fun of it, say) or not. The content of the act is less important than the intention in determining its actual evil and to whom the evil adheres. It’s more “evil” to try to hurt someone and fail, than to hurt someone very badly by accident.

      As for Sandusky, we run into the paradox of remorse: The more capable of remorse someone is, the more presumably capable of being responsible. A baby is incapable of remorse or of responsibility. Though society copes with evil differently than it copes with incompetence, both force us to investigate what kind of danger is actually posed by the bad act, including but not limited to whether the perpetrator himself is dangerous.

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    • It figures that the first comment would point out what I was hoping no one would notice I’d elided — intentionality.

      I’m probably too much influenced in this post by a concept of “Contextual Intentionality” that Berel Lang offers in an essay in (I think) THE FUTURE OF THE HOLOCAUST. (Though the title might be wrong. All his books have similar titles. It’s really annoying.) The short version being, We have no means to judge claims of intent/non-intent; the action and its known/knowable context must stand as evidence/lack thereof for judging intentionality and degree of responsibility. (His version is a good deal more nuanced, and longer, than my quick summary.)

      But this, as the title of the book it’s in should indicate, is formulated in application to LARGE crimes. While I think that there’s room, working in a frame influenced by Lang, to exclude infants/children on the basis of what we believe about their ability for fully adult responsibility, there is a question of what we’d say about two 16 year-olds horsing around and one dying when the gun happens to be loaded or the wrestling choke-hold works too well. This might be the point at which it breaks down — or at least, my use of it (I’m the one, I should say, who’s merging this model of intent with the question of evil) breaks down.

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  2. Evil, as with any other word which emerges as both a noun and adjective, is trapped in its attributive form. Our notions of evil are always predicated on attribution: much that is substantively evil can be explained away as a Greater Good.

    I believe in Evil-the-noun. Evil does exist in the world. I’m not a dualist who believes evil fights good. Evil simply fills in the dark places as surely as shadows. Evil is not so much the opposite of Good but the absence of Goodness. You may always tell Evil by this sign, that it is constantly justifying itself. Good never needs to justify what it does. Good illuminates the world. It is the light that shines in the darkness and the darkness has never understood it.

    The danger of a word like “evil” is that it is absolute. That’s absurd. The world trends toward entropy and chaos. Evil arises when Good cannot or will not do anything to stop it. Furthermore, the word “evil” doesn’t cut off debate, it starts debate. We can play little games with Evil, pretend it’s just an adjective, that right and wrong are just opinions. The Frog and the Scorpion: the scorpion will remain true to his nature.

    Equivocation of this sort reminds me a bit of the Godwin Game. The Nazis really did exist, they had excuses for what they did and they were enormously popular. We might ask how a highly advanced nation of scientists and writers and theologians and thinkers of all sorts could be so easily seduced — but we don’t, these days. The Nazis are considered so asymptotically evil that nothing can be compared to them.

    Let me be plain: Evil is not absolute. It is a force as surely at work in the world as entropy. You might be a Buddhist, understanding that Evil is something we create. You might be a Christian, believing Evil arises from man’s fallen and unenlightened nature. You might be an atheist, believing evil must be opposed by every rational person on the basis of its consequences. All these are interesting angles on the problem but it’s our consciences which lead us to this Attribution of Evil.

    We must all reject Evil’s bad excuses for what it does. Those excuses betray intent, the intent of the doctrine of mens rea, the will to do what we know to be wrong, providing a defence for the mentally ill who do not know that what they are doing is wrong. But rolling our eyes up at the word “Evil” as if it were only defined by the religious authorities is to play a dangerous game: soon enough, we start making our own excuses for evil. Mankind’s favourite game is self-delusion, the worst part of which is accepting the excuses of Higher Powers and thus rejecting the statements of our own consciences.

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  3. I think the big problem in calling someone like James Holmes evil is largely:

    1. It is exactly how we wants to be described.

    2. Calling people evil makes them seem impossible to reform and it allows society to avoid tough and painful conversations on mental illness, how to treat the mentally ill, what do you do with the mentally ill who seem to defy treatment while still being a moral and ethical society, etc. And lots of other painful conversations.

    3. This piece sums it up well. Basically we want to have our cake and eat it too:

    http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/the_dilettante/2012/07/aurora_shooting_if_we_want_to_prevent_the_next_massacre_we_need_to_cure_our_addiction_to_evil_.html

    Society seems to want to condemn evil while also being attracted to it and revel in it.

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    • Not having read the article in (3), I’d agree, to an extent, with you on the previous two. With the exceptions:

      (1) But if how they *want* to be called *is*, in some framework, the accurate term for their deeds?

      (2) This problem is, in fact, something I was trying to get around in the OP. If someone isn’t “truly” or “authentically” or “wholly” evil, but simply one who has committed an evil deed, then therapy and reform in order to avoid future instances seems entirely prudent — especially if the act isn’t one that would have them imprisoned for the remainder of their life. In which case, I’d say there’s a societal obligation to attempt a kind of reform rather than mere punishment.

      But I get the point — a non-nuanced definition of evil is a blunt tool.

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    • I’d ask, how many does it take to become evil-beyond-reform? However misguided their defense of him may have been, there seems — at least in the initial disbelief — to have been *some* good in Sandusky, even if it was just a performance. Now, maybe that’s an argument against the stickiness of performance.

      I don’t know that he’s “authentically” evil — and I don’t know that you or I can be qualified to make that judgment about any other. So I’d say that he, and those like him, fall into a category of beyond-reform. In society’s reaction to them, I don’t see how there ought to be any significant difference between the two. (Though I see immediately where a death penalty proponent and myself would disagree over this.)

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  4. I liked the way this post dispenses with the “authenticity” frame because it is one of the biggest excuses for evil conduct over the last few decades. So many times, from the Iraq war to torture to financial fraud, just to give a few examples, the attempt has been made to exculpate the person who engaged in this misconduct or advocated it on the grounds that he/she generally is a nice person or might even have had good motivations. When you have a debate about US foreign policy and point out how we (somewhat) and others (mostly) have suffered as a result of our serial clusterf—-, the words will be said that we “meant well.” Why is that an excuse? If you committed what would otherwise seem evil acts that result in suffering for millions, why is your ignorance, arrogance, or general cluelessness sufficient to give you a free moral pass? I guess my point is that a lot of the evil that gets done in this world isn’t by self-consciously dastardly guys twirling their long, evil mustaches and cackling maniacally over the mischief they’re wrought. It gets done by people whose judgment is warped by their own vanity and narrow self-interest and who rationalize those failures and their inability to think through what they’re doing by citing their adherence to some greater good. I’d like us to get to point where we shrug off the excuse-making, all the inquiry into generic niceness, works-well-plays-well-with-others, or good party manners, and ask: What did you do? What did it lead to? By your acts, what are you responsible for? Just for once, I’d like the phrase “he meant well” to go on an extended holiday while we focus on what he did.

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  5. If you turn to the New Yorker piece – at http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2012/07/james-holmes-aurora-and-the-meaning-of-evil.html – you’ll find a predictable and in fact rather clumsy and obvious confusion or elision: In the first paragraph,Rombig observes two leading politicians – Obama and Boehner – describing the acts of Sandusky and Holmes evil, and then, without noting the difference, for the second paragraphs, turns to the individuals: “‘What does it mean, in the twenty-first century, to call a person like James Holmes ‘evil’?” This slighted distinction is critical as far as attempting to understand what is taken to be consensual and what is taken to be uncertain in the uses of the term “evil.” In referring to the acts as evil, we and our leaders re-affirm and, perhaps, verbally constitute the “good” society. Part of what makes the bad act evil, or the difference between robbing a convenience store or driving without a license on the one hand, and murdering strangers or raping children on the other, is that the merely bad act is not thought to do irreparable injury to the victim. We hesitate to judge the perpetrator to be evil because to do so puts us or each of us symbolically in his position, repeating his act in a parallel manner, but in relation to him. This notion that judgment belongs to the state, or God, or history, or in any event remains beyond the volunteer (thought not beyond the hero or other exceptional figure) is deeply ingrained within us, taught as a lesson and precept in school, at home, in our major political documents, in art. Of course, many of us may confidently and even defiantly indict a Sandusky or a Holmes “without trial,” but there remains much greater opportunity, for some of the reasons mentinoed by JL or Romig or the author he quotes, for disagreement, second thoughts, explanations when we take a step away: Maybe pedophilia is genetic… Maybe Holmes suffers from some well-known or to-be-discovered-tomorrow degenerative neurological disease…. Raising such questions is a normal, arguably pro-social act. Raising questions about the acts themselves, however, is to place oneself outside of society, or at least outside of this society.

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  6. “Evil,” it seems to me, doesn’t have any coherent meaning outside of a religious or supernatural context. Demons are evil. Satan is evil. Humans acting in service of Satan is evil. Cthulu is evil, and so are his worshippers.

    In the real world, people are irrational or misguided, or have unusual preferences. I’m not sure which of those categories Holmes falls under. Personally, I can’t really imagine any situation in which I might conclude that going to a theater and shooting indiscriminately would be a good idea, so I’m tempted to write it off as irrationality. But maybe he just values notoriety more than freedom and doesn’t have the aversion to killing people that most of us have, in which case it could be explained by unusual preferences.

    This isn’t to say that people like Holmes aren’t a threat to the rest of us, and that they shouldn’t be locked up or killed or otherwise restrained from harming us. Nor is it necessarily to say that we should have any sympathy for them. I just don’t think that there’s any good secular definition of “evil.”

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    • That’s a good point, and it’s largely why I deliberately didn’t get into discussion of “what is evil?” in the post.

      The formulation of evil in traditional Jewish sources, however, isn’t all that far from your framing of a (very) strong/dangerous irrationality. There’s an “evil impulse/inclination” that naturally occurs and, unconstrained, can lead one astray — but that, contained and controlled, is necessary for human life.

      If I haven’t forgotten about it by the time I finish my coffee (highly possible!) I might want to stretch this into a longer post… Thanks.

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