Wednesday, February 23, 2011

On Evil

In her keynote speech at TOC on February 11, Margaret Atwood observed that every tool has three sides, sharp, blunt and dumb.

The first two are available for good and evil uses respectively, while the dumb side delivers the almost equally prevalent effects we associate with the stupid and the banal. So, she added, a hammer might be used to build homes for refugees, to murder your neighbour's baby, or to accidentally blacken your fingernail.

Now, if I were a 'Christer', this is one of the explanations I would tend to deploy to account for the existence of evil in a created world, for a world with hammers that could only be used to build homes for the needy, would be a very different world to the one we actually inhabit, and a much less ethically-engaging one for sure. The potential for evil is, if you like, an inevitable part of the payload of good; in this world at least.

Norwegian thinker Lars Svendsen recently tackled this most elusive of concepts in his book The Philosophy of Evil. Rather like Niall Ferguson and his 'killer apps' for successful civilisation-building, Svendsen locates four different kinds of evil action:

Demonically evil acts - where one does evil for its own sake (whatever that may be).

Instrumentally evil acts - where the evil is done for a greater goal, not necessarily a good one either, and where the act is recognised as evil by its perpetrator.

Idealistically evil acts - where something bad has been mistaken for something good, and...

Brainlessly evil acts - rather self-explanatory this one, but controversially Svendsen thinks this kind of evil is best exemplified by Adolf Eichman.

This handy taxonomy externalises the issue somewhat, identifying evil acts independently of the mental (and moral) states behind them.

In Meno Plato argued that evil always resulted from ignorance, for who would actually want to pursue something they themselves did not perceive to be subjectively good?

That evil is a mistake — the kind made when one ignorantly confuses building a house for the needy with brutal murder with a household tool — strikes me as a flawed position.

Just last night I was reflecting on two individuals I know here in Guatemala, cousins in fact, who both seem to have a persistent tendency to behave in a nasty way to their fellow travellers on this planet, often in a manner that ends up harming their own cause.

While this last observation might support Plato's position, the key difference I can detect between these two people, is that the 'evil' in one — interestingly, the one more universally recognised as a bad egg — strikes me as predominantly the result of a particularly ropey upbringing, whilst the 'evil' in the other, appears to stem from something deeper, and therefore somehow more evil, in the bloodline.

Of course, this takes us back to the old nature-nurture antimony. I have no more ability than the next person to pry these two biases apart (more on this in a forthcoming post), but the idea of an evil state of mind that is somehow instinctual, certainly bothers me more than one that has been learned, or indeed simply manifests itself occasionally as a result of a disturbing lived experience.


norm said...

As a matter of how policy is used, I have found the most evil people in the areas where power was to be found. People seeking power or control over others seem to have a willingness to act in evil ways.

Begonia said...

Anyone who has had children can tell you that they come out of the womb with their own tempermants and personalities. In other words, all the ingredients are in place for determining the kind of person they will be as an adult.

In this analogy, bad parenting can be too strong and burn and harden the sweetest of temperments. And even the best parenting can't do anything about individuals whose makeup was deeply flawed to begin with.

GC said...

I haven't had children, but your theory seems to work with cats!

Being adopted, I am perhaps better able to spot where parenting starts and heredity leaves off. It is still a difficult call.

In the case of one of the individuals mentioned in the post, my own take is that he/she has acquired some of the stronger traits of his/her father (like competitiveness) but that this has gone into an introverted personality, not an extroverted one like his - introversion/extroversion is usually an inherited trait, whilst the competitiveness could be either nature or nurture.

GC said...

As for power, one of the debating points around the concept of evil surrounds 'magnitude'. Bombing a civilian location in war might not be evil, but the fire bombing of Dresden could be. So, is there a tipping point where ordinary unpleasantness turns into something qualitatively different? People in power might have their mental states corrupted by their authority, but they are also in a position of opportunity to perpretrate badness on a larger scale.