Monday, August 9, 2010

Understanding evil, Part I

"Imaginary evil is romantic and varied; real evil is gloomy, monotonous, barren, boring. Imaginary good is boring; real good is always new, marvellous, [exhilarating]." — Simone Weil
I get "google alerts" and various "database alerts" on various topics that relate to my interest in Homeless World.

Of my interests, a few are goodness, meaning and happiness - but from all that, I also get alerted about new journal articles or recent books on evil, the opposite of what's good (which, from being the opposite, adds, necessarily, quite a lot about understanding The Good).

I'm very taken by Lars Svendsen's somewhat-new book A Philosophy of Evil. It was first printed in an edition in Svendsen's native language, Norwegian, in 2001, and has now been published in an English-language paperback edition, out just this year.  Svendsen's 2001 book is similar in many many respects to another 2001 book on evil I posted about [in Homeless Tom, over a year ago], Rush W. Dozier's Why we hate.  Both books find, from considerable research, that evil exists in shades of gray, and not in poles of black and white, as Christians are taught to believe.  Too, both books find that while evil acts can be horrifying, the motivations underlying evil are just sad, albeit devastatingly so.

Svendsen highlights research that shows that persons who commit deeds — that afterwards any of us would categorize as very bad or destructive, or greatly hurtful or harmful — almost always think of themselves as doing good and being good.  [This is, of course, fully contrary to what fictional stories and news accounts of crimes tell us.]  Quoting Svendsen, regarding violence:
A victim will talk about "unprovoked evil," while the perpetrator will usually refer to a specific, previous provocation.  In reality, so-called "unprovoked evil" is almost always brought about by mutual aggression, and there is often reason to blame both the victim and the perpetrator for the violent result.  A study of 159 murders, where each murder was unconnected to other criminal activity, showed that in most cases the victim acted aggressively and so contributed to the tragic outcome. The overall picture this study paints is supported by a number of other studies:  The descriptions of both victim and perpetrator are biased in the sense that victims tend to describe the situation as worse, and the perpetrator as better, than an objective witness might describe it.  It's a rare moment when those who do evil recognize their actions as evil.  In other words, evil is almost never found in a perpetrator's self-image.
Thus, the great perponderance of evil or bad is banal, or commonplace. There isn't this Satanic being behind the scenes doing evil for evil's sake and laughing maniacally at others' suffering. It's far, far, far less varying and interesting as all that we suppose. What underlies evil, even that on a grand scale, is the same-old, same-old:  Thoughtlessness.

Indeed, in the ways that Satan's complaint with God gets explained, even Satan isn't doing evil for evil's sake.  In Satan's eyes, he seeks freedom.  Freedom, to him, is the greatest of all good; evil "only" has instrumental value in rebelling against God. [See Svendsen re this.]

In the conclusion to his book, Svendsen writes this:
Our basic problem isn't a surplus of aggression.  Instead, it's a lack of reflection.  This lack leads people to accept and even participate in the most lunatic transgressions imaginable against their fellow men.  Pure egotism is a motivating factor in far fewer murders and assaults than an unreflective, unselfish surrender to a "higher" purpose.  However, simple indifference results in even more victims — and not just the ones who are out of sight and therefore out of mind.  Indifference, futhermore, is not just a factor in violent crimes, but is also a contibuting factor to the reality that 1.2 billion people continue to live in extreme conditions of poverty, and likewise that several million people die of starvation every year.  The evil in the world is not simply the sum of unjust actions committed by individuals against individuals, along with whatever natural catastrophes happen to take place.  Evil can also be found in social institutions.  Indeed, from this perspective, we could begin to talk about structural evil.  John Rawls's "norm of justice" suggests that economic and social differences should be organized so that the worst situated receive the greatest advantage.
I'll post more on structural evil, and the worst-of-the-worst, radical evil, which is the preserve of totalitarian regimes — like that that SafeGround, with its "movement," lawyers and allied charities would like to impose on all America — in an upcoming post.

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Blogger terryyarb said...

What is an objective definition of evil anyway? Hitler? The 9-11 hijackers? Stalin? Mao? Pol Pot?

Those are examples that most people would choose, but I bet that all of them thought deep down that they were FIGHTING evil. Why does nobody say that shooting somebody on the way out from robbing a liquor store is evil? Even that example could be somebody angry that onther person got in their way.
So does any human ever think "I am evil, what evil thing can I do today?" I think not. Is there evil outside of a religious definition?


August 17, 2010 at 12:46 PM  
Blogger Tom Armstrong said...

[Seven minutes left on my library computer time.]

I'll seek to address your concluding question, Mighty Ter, but for the moment my answer, based loosely on my understanding of what I read is this:

You're seeking the definition of a word when then an understanding of the condition has shifted.

We still have terrible actions, we just don't have that which prompts the actions being as terrible as was thought -- if recent research is right.

What you write (and what I wrote) is right: Evil-doing people mostly doesn't think they are evil, and very often don't understand the horror of what they've done.

There is still evil (actions) and people who continually do terrible things, so in THAT sense evil still exists.

August 17, 2010 at 1:15 PM  
Blogger Tom Armstrong said...

Lars writes in the foreword to his book that he chooses not to deal with "People who are possessed or seduced by a malevolent, supernatural power" because, "in (his) opinion, this is not a subject for rational debate, but is purely a matter of religious belief."

Evil had pretty much disappeared from philosophical thought [outside a religious context] but is now being revisited exactly because of the horror of Hitler, the 9-11 hijackers, Stalin, etc. The ACTIONS associated with those folks cannot be dismissed.

Evil for evil's sake is not the fount of evil actions. BUT, and I hadn't gotten to this yet, organizations can create a Petri dish for evil actions, because "thoughtlessness" allows evil acts to manifest. And organizations can create a culture of unthinking foolishness.

Shooting somebody while leaving the scene of a crime is thoughtless and an evil act, but does not come from someone who thinks himself to be evil.

August 17, 2010 at 3:15 PM  

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