Monday, August 9, 2010

Talking About Evil: does it help understanding?

The evil that men do lives after them. The good is oft interred with their bones. – Shakespeare, Act III, scene 2, Julius Caesar
Are spiders evil? Are mosquitoes evil? Spiders catch and eat mosquitoes, preventing them from biting humans. How about lice? They do humans no good, so far as we know. Are they evil?

Are the members of street gangs evil? Gangs often control the behavior of individuals who otherwise would be very dangerous. But such gangs, also, may sell addictive drugs. Is this evil? What if the laws are changed to decriminalize such activity? Would such “evil” suddenly become “not evil?”

Employing the word "evil" is either very sectarian theology – a resurgent Manicheanism --, hyperbole, an "inquiry-blocker," or all of the above. It does not help clear thinking; serving, perhaps, at best, to rationalize anger and our excessive reaction against those designated as evil. To put it another way: “evil” is not an explanation; it is a condemnation and a dismissal: it makes the “evil-doer” a member of the Unredeemable Other, rather than a member of Our Community.

Talk of “evil” traditionally postulates a personal interior characteristic of the person, a “demon seed,” ignoring, for example the work of such people as Phillip Zimbardo and Stanley Milgram. The point of their work is that so-called “evil” is an intensification of the ordinary under special circumstances; not, a quantum leap into the diabolical. Hutus slaughtering Tutsis is a variation on the same theme as Americans “targeting” Afghanis -- only the justification differs. Do you think that there are Afghanis who believe Americans are evil?

How do we identify evil? Associating evil with the willingness to inflict pain and the enjoyment thereof is too narrow. Doctors and dentists inflict pain. So long as they cure us we are not concerned about their personal enjoyment during the procedure. Pain is dispensible: terrible harm can be inflicted with the softest spoken lie. Or by refusing to show concern for others.

The state of mind -- and social situation -- of someone like a Laventy Beria or a Jeffrey Dahmer is generally too complex to reasonably attribute it to children. It takes a special developmental history to become the kind of monster they were.

However, there are young children locked away in mental hospitals in these United States who are killers and are believed to be too dangerous to let out into the general population. I have talked with some of their caretakers. The story is not one of demonology. As one nurse put it, “What these kids need is a decent parent.” And a way to turn off much of the outside world.

To examine these issues further, see Pain versus Anguish: is there no need for corporal punishment?


-- EGR

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