Identifying Evil

by Justin

The first step in identifying an evil practice or individual is to define the word itself. I’ll open with the Wikipedia version as it’s as great (not necessarily wholly accurate) an authority these days as anything else:

the intention of causing harm or destruction while threatening or deliberately violating morality. Largely due to the subjectivity of the word morality (which may refer to a society’s moral code, one’s own moral system, relative morality, absolute morality, etc.), there is no agreement about whether evil is a matter of social custom or universally correct principle that overrides custom.

The harm and destruction bit is pretty straight forward – but then you hit the immediate snag of absolute morality and the challenges of identifying (and condemning) evil across great cultural divides. This is a critical issue in W’s glorious legacy of the ‘War on Terror’. Launching missiles at an idea should have seemed like nonsense from the beginning, but 9/11 and its aftermath were the direct product of an ideological schism. So it almost makes sense. And in that administration’s defense, radical and violent fundamentalism has a near intoxicating stench of evil all over it.

Over at bigthink.com they ran a video of forensic psychiatrist Michael Stone talking about evil in the case of terrorism and then with regard to such pillars of human decency as Bernie Madoff. The former first:

Those kinds of things are clearly experienced as evil by the victims and by the people who side with the victims, such as the American public.  But the thing is, the people that commit the terrorism they, as you know, like in 9/11, consider the Americans as the Great Satan and we’re the infidel because we don’t subscribe to Islam, et cetera.  So they experience us as evil at the same time as we experience them as evil.  And we don’t have a God that descends from the sky and says, “Well, I’ve looked over your situation and I’ve looked over the other guy’s situation and I really think evil is on the side of the ones who blew up the World Trade tower.”

Stone then points out that history becomes the ultimate judge of sides, and that in his estimation the clear disregard for the value of life practiced by radical Islam puts them closer to the side of Evil. I’m with him on that one. If you make a practice of inspiring terror, of killing civilians to drive home an ideological point then at some point the belief system went astray. You ask me, fundamentalism in all incarnations zealously courts evil actions.

And that brings me to another distinction worth making. A single act, even taken out of context, cannot be identified as evil if you use this sloppy working definition adapted from Wiki’s: the intention of causing harm or destruction such that it denies another person their inalienable rights (life, liberty, pursuit of happiness). I use person in that definition to keep the discussion contained, but in reality I’d adopt a broader interpretation of entities possessing rights. It becomes immediately apparent that context is important, lest we condemn every death on the battlefield as an act of evil. The point here is that intention really makes the grade on this discussion. It’s about consciousness and awareness. So an act in and of itself has no moral implications. But an action (or series of actions) tied to a belief system or moral compass allows for an institution or individual to fall under the ignominious title of Evil. Or rather the action, only when considered fully within its context, may be evil.

By that rationale, a crime of passion does not make the criminal evil. The passion bit means that the consciousness as decision-making engine was absent, and therefore the act itself may be deplorable and tragic but not evil. There’s a good chance some punishment is in order, certainly some psychiatric evaluation and counseling. But should a father lashing out against the man he believes killed his daughter be condemned as evil (watching Twin Peaks right now)? Someone, however, who makes a regular and conscious practice of robbing someone of life and liberty probably earns some outright condemnation as an agent of evil.

That’s the sort of thinking that helps reinforce American resentment of Al Qaeda and fuels our own justice system. In fact, the degrees of murder used in identifying a crime point out the weight we place in premeditation or conscious decision-making. But before I wander into an oblivion of tangential arguments, I want to get to the second part of Stone’s interview:

And there were a number of suicides occuring in the immediate aftermath of the Madoff scandal.  So, in a way, in directly he had caused the death of a number of people besides, of course, subjecting untold number so people to the loss of their money and to misery.

I had a fierce and potentially offensive conversation at work about Madoff’s impact and the lives ruined by his treachery, the consensus in the end being that his crime was greater than that of murder. Certainly greater than any crime of passion. The rationale being that his exploitation and deceit were with extreme awareness. Beyond that, his crimes were lengthy and calculated. Knowing the risks, knowing the lies, doesn’t that constitute a greater and ultimately more punishable crime than just about anything else? If the ramifications are on that scale, doesn’t that say something about the caliber of crime? Stone doesn’t outright say that Madoff is evil, just as he doesn’t outright say it about Bin Laden and his posse. I’d go further and say that the calculated disregard for people’s welfare, the embrace of ruination and the treatment of people as pawn’s in the selfish pursuit of wealth constitutes evil. Madoff lacked the excuse of a culture raising him to be militant or ignorant, only a culture that nurtures greed. His education and opportunity exempt him from any excuses he might have rendered.

There’s no such thing as evil. Everything is always more complicated than that, outside of the product of Zemus’ hatred and anger you won’t get pure evil bent on the destruction of humanity. The considered attack on man’s inalienable rights comes close, but inevitably gets muddy in the details. There are sociological definitions of evil as militant ignorance, which sounds about right to me. Psychiatrist M. Scott Peck threw down his definition of evil as follows (again from Wikipedia):

Peck considers those he calls evil to be attempting to escape and hide from their own conscience (through self deception) and views this as being quite distinct from the apparent absence of conscience evident in sociopaths. According to Peck, an evil person:

  • Is consistently self-deceiving, with the intent of avoiding guilt and maintaining a self-image of perfection
  • Deceives others as a consequence of their own self-deception
  • Projects his or her evils and sins onto very specific targets, scapegoating others while appearing normal with everyone else (“their insensitivity toward him was selective”)
  • Commonly hates with the pretense of love, for the purposes of self-deception as much as deception of others
  • Abuses political (emotional) power (“the imposition of one’s will upon others by overt or covert coercion”
  • Maintains a high level of respectability and lies incessantly in order to do so
  • Is consistent in his or her sins. Evil persons are characterized not so much by the magnitude of their sins, but by their consistency (of destructiveness)
  • Is unable to think from the viewpoint of their victim
  • Has a covert intolerance to criticism and other forms of narcissistic injury

Reminds me glaringly of someone I have the misfortune of knowing. I don’t know that I would use evil, as at least a beneficial awareness arises in the wake of her destruction. But maybe that owes more to the steel of the survivors than to the nature of the storm.

Maybe the definition should address truth as the only pure goodness and evil as the active opponent to its manifestation in our world.

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