Friday, August 26, 2016

On Evil Part 2: Other Mental Barriers To Recognizing Evil

     As I said in the previous piece, the great majority of Americans disbelieve in evil because they don’t want to believe in it. Even when evil intentions are plainly on display, with not even a gesture at disguise, we look for ways to exculpate the evildoer. Consider these frequently employed phrases::

  1. “He was badly raised.”
  2. “He didn’t know any better.”
  3. “Well, in light of past injustices...”
  4. “How else could he get what he needs?”
  5. “Our nation / race / religion has done worse.”

     The list could be extended, but the above are the most common parries to a judgment of evil. But note that while the above might explain the genesis of evil intentions – i.e., the conscious desire to wreak harm upon innocent others – the evil of them remains untouched. It can be explained; it cannot be excused.

     Let’s look at each of the above attempts in turn.

     1. “He was badly raised.”

     Stipulate that this was the case. It’s exceedingly rare that any child is raised in a complete absence of influences other than his parents. He will have aunts and uncles, cousins, acquaintances near to his own age, the parents of those acquaintances, teachers, and neighbors. These days, he’ll also have electronic contact with a much wider world. The probability that a child can reach the age of responsibility completely ignorant of what must and must not be done approaches zero.

     2. “He didn’t know any better.”

     The similarity to excuse #1 is considerable. Is it plausible? Hardly. At any rate, we didn’t accept it at Nuremberg. Those trials were predicated on the postulate that an adult must “know better” – that no amount nor intensity of propaganda can overmatch the conscience with which each of us is equipped.

     The sole exception to the Nuremberg principle is the sociopath: the man from whom the conscience is apparently absent. The existence of such a creature, possessed of human capabilities but no moral governor, is intolerable. He must be treated as we would treat a rabid dog: with a bullet to the brain.

     3. “In light of past injustices...”

     Two wrongs cannot make a right. Vengeance is sometimes justifiable as proper retribution. Victimizing the innocent is not. Nor can we merely wave aside harm done to bystanders and say “collateral damage.” While such damage is inevitable in warfare, a good-faith attempt to minimize it and a good-faith attempt to redress it afterward are morally mandatory.

     4. “How else could he get what he needs?”

     Need is one of the worst-abused words in any language. Strictly speaking, no one needs anything. Death is always an available option. Viewed less starkly, one’s survival needs are bare-minimum nutrition, clothing, and shelter from the elements – and how often does some villain pleading “need” restrict himself to those things?

     But let’s be hard on ourselves. Let’s imagine a uniquely tough case:

  • Smith doesn’t have adequate food, clothing, or shelter, or the means to purchase them.
  • He cannot acquire them by honest effort.
  • He has no family and no friends who would succor him.
  • There are no impersonal charities available to him.

     What of it? Would Smith’s circumstances excuse the victimization of Jones, who might need those things just as badly? For that matter, imagine that Jones is unbelievably rich; would that make it just for Smith to steal from him? Ask first why Smith has no friends who would help him voluntarily, for in the answer to that question lies the key to Smith’s predicament.

     Smith’s dire straits make it understandable that he might victimize Jones. Excusing it is another matter.

     5. “Our nation / race / religion has done worse.”

     Stipulate that this is so. It’s still no excuse. It cannot be, else the great-great-grandchildren of pre-Civil War slaveholders would be personally morally liable for the deeds of their forebears. But the truly vile aspect of this attempt at excusing present evil is that the perpetrators are almost never victims of any objective evil; indeed, in our present age the evildoers are among the most favored, most pampered categories of men. More, their victims are almost never connected in any way to those of “our nation / race / religion” who perpetrated evil in the past.

     But to cope with the above requires than men think – that they disregard cant and volume; that they refuse unearned guilt; that they ask hard questions and demand specific answers; that they marshal the courage appropriate to their convictions; and that they uphold a single, uniform standard for right and wrong. These are apparently difficult requirements to satisfy in our time, place, and circumstances.

     There’s more to say about our mental aversion to recognizing evil than a single essay can cover, of course. Yet the subject is far simpler than most people make it, owing to the advance among us of “moral relativism” and the tendency to “think” with our wishes rather than with the logical faculties of our brains. The required standards are utterly simple, objective, and irrefutable. They were elucidated a long time ago, first by Confucius:

     Repay kindness with kindness, but evil with justice.

     ...and a bit later by Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God and Redeemer of Mankind:

     Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

     It cannot be put more plainly than that.

2 comments:

  1. "But to cope with the above requires than [sic] men think – that they disregard cant and volume; that they refuse unearned guilt; that they ask hard questions and demand specific answers; that they marshal the courage appropriate to their convictions; and that they uphold a single, uniform standard for right and wrong. These are apparently difficult requirements to satisfy in our time, place, and circumstances."

    Bingo

    I've known my daughter all my life.(duh) But from the 6th grade on, she went to public school instead of the local private school we had chosen. She wanted to be "more social" and meet more kids her own age.

    Since then - and she's now in her 20's - she has gotten a steady stream of cant, volume, guilt and moral quandary (relativism.)

    Upholding "a single, uniform standard for right and wrong" has become as difficult in her mind as being "discriminating." She's been TAUGHT THAT IT'S WRONG TO THINK THAT WAY.

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  2. I am of the opinion that in the case of Ms. Rodham-Clinton and the ongoing e-mail fiasco the refusal of a corrupt cabal to indict one of its principal corrupters is not a definition of rectitude, but of pure evil.

    Rectitude > noun [mass noun], morally correct behaviour or thinking. (OED)
    Evil > adjective, profoundly immoral and malevolent (behaviour). (OED)

    ReplyDelete

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