Thursday, August 25, 2016

On Evil And Meaning Well

     “Don’t tell them that I meant well.” – Lord Adron e’Kieron, in Steven Brust’s Five Hundred Years After

     If there’s a principal metaphysical flaw in the understandings of most Americans today, it would arise from the widespread disinclination to believe in the reality of evil. This is a consequence of the general benevolence that characterizes the American mindset. Many tend to assume that others’ moral and ethical postulates are congruent with their own: i.e., as they wish no other man harm, they assume that no other man would wish to harm them. This partially disarms them before the genuinely evil man.

     Then again, American society is founded on a degree of interpersonal trust that exceeds anything found in any previous civilization. Without the assumption of general benevolence generally felt, our nation would not function nearly as smoothly as it does. So the disinclination to believe in evil, even when instantiated immediately before one, isn’t an entirely bad thing.

     The usual deflection consists of five words:

“I’m sure he means well.”

     That sentence provides cover for a multitude of crimes.

     “I aim at evil and I will achieve evil.” – Robert Putney Drake, in The Eye in the Pyramid

     Among the unpleasant facts I had to accept in growing accustomed to my own powers was this one: The man who habitually, precisely, and coldly distinguishes among facts, desires, opinions, values, and assumptions is the rarest of all creatures. Nearly everyone “thinks” with his wishes at least some of the time. Thinking with your wishes can get you killed. It’s one of the greatest and deadliest of the flaws of Mankind: so great and so lethal that I sometimes wonder how we emerged from Cro-Magnon ancestors who simply had to know better.

     Therein lies the greatest of the dangers that arise from the disbelief in evil: not only do we not believe it, we don’t want to believe it. Thus, given any way to dismiss its existence from consideration, the great majority of us will do so. Hence the destructive power of “I’m sure he means well.”

     It can be difficult to fathom the mindset of an evil man, or a man bent on evil in some particular context. The difficulty, coupled with the desire that it not be so, makes for a very steep emotional hill. It gives the evil man an edge he will not fail to exploit.

     In an early passage in The Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal Lecter asks FBI trainee Clarice Starling whether she considers him evil. She responds, “You're destructive. It amounts to the same thing.” He mocks her for her inability to see the essential difference:

Evil lies in the intention, not in the consequences.

     Evil is inherently a matter of the will. He who wills evil is evil, at least for that instant, whether or not he achieves his aim. He who “means well” might be many unfortunate things: foolish, ignorant, clumsy, or lacking in vision. But no matter how destructive the consequences of his deeds, he is absolved of evil intention, and therefore of evil.

     This appears circular at first blush. A brilliant novel, James Blish’s Black Easter, draws the matter in high relief:

     “Look at it this way for a moment, Dr. Ware. Very roughly, there are only two general kinds of men who go into the munitions business: those without consciences, who see the business as an avenue to a great fortune, eventually to be used for something else, like Jack here — and of course there’s a sub-class of those, people who do have consciences but can’t resist the money anyhow, or the knowledge, rather like Dr. Hess.”
     Both men stirred, but apparently both decided not to dispute their portraits.
     “The second kind is made up of people like me: people who actually take pleasure in the controlled production of chaos and destruction. Not sadists primarily, except in the sense that every dedicated artist is something of a sadist, willing to countenance a little or a lot of suffering — not only his own, but other people’s — for the sake of the end product....
     “War doesn’t satisfy me any more. It’s too sloppy, too subject to accident. It excuses too much.”
     “?” Ware said with an eyebrow.
     “I mean that in time of war, especially in Asia, people expect the worst and try to ride with the punches, no matter how terrible they are. In peacetime, on the other hand, even a small misfortune comes as a total surprise. People complain, ‘Why did this have to happen to me?” — as though they’d never heard of Job.”
     “Re-writing Job is the humanist’s favorite pastime,” Ware agreed. “And his favorite political platform, too. So in fact, Dr. Baines, you do want to afflict people, just where they’re most sensitive to being afflicted and just when they least expect it, right or wrong. Do I understand you correctly?”
     Baines had the shuddering feeling that he had explained too much, but there was no help for that now; and in any event. Ware was hardly himself a saint.
     “You do,” he said shortly.

     Dr. Baines, the CEO of “Consolidated Warfare Services,” has taken a hand in fomenting wars for decades. Until his declaration of intent to black magician Theron Ware, his above-board operations could be seen solely as a search for market opportunities. Once Baines has declared his greatest desire to Ware:

     “I would like to let all the major demons out of Hell for one night, turn them loose in the world with no orders and no restrictions—except of course that they go back by dawn or some other sensible time–and see just what it is they would do if they were left on their own hooks like that.”

     ...his evil intent can no longer be concealed. Yet many would strain to do so anyway, perhaps with a dismissal such as “He’s just being dramatic.” (And indeed, quite a lot of drama emerges from loosing forty-eight major demons upon the defenseless and unsuspecting human race. Read the novel. I highly recommend it.)

     Baines, a fictional character, may or may not exist in the real world. However, the will to wreak harm upon others surely does. Whether those who will such harm achieve their aims is independent of their essential evil.

     I intend this brief piece as a precursor to a more extended examination of evil and our mental defenses against accepting its existence. For the moment, Gentle Reader, let it stimulate some thoughts.

     In other words: More anon.


Anonymous said...

"Evil lies in the intention, not in the consequences."

I believe the exact opposite. Evil is as evil does.

I do not understand how you reconcile your statement that, "He who “means well” might be many unfortunate things: foolish, ignorant, clumsy, or lacking in vision ... But no matter how destructive the consequences of his deeds, he is absolved of evil intention, and therefore of evil."
with the prior statement that “I’m sure he means well ... provides cover for a multitude of crimes."

How do we measure intent? If it were a true statement that Adolf Hitler's intent was to better the lives of the German people, would that absolve him?

Anonymous said...

I find your statement that there are some who like/try to/do believe there is no evil. Unfortunately this world is rife with it. Perhaps those who believe otherwise have had a very sheltered life and/or have turned off their brains. Perhaps this is how people like HRC can thrive.