Who Are You Calling “Evil”?

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THE PROBLEM OF EVIL has taxed the minds of men and women for millennia. Is evil a force, like gravity, that drags human-beings down into the depths of depravity? Does this force reside in a single conscious entity: immensely powerful and seemingly immortal? If so, is this entity motivated to pour its essence into individual human-beings: transforming them into monsters? Or is it, rather, that certain individuals open themselves voluntarily to the malignant forces of the cosmos: deliberately absorbing them in order to unleash evil upon others?

Many theologians (yes, theologians, because any discussion of evil cannot help straying into the realms of religion and metaphysics) reject the idea of evil as a universal force and dismiss entirely the idea that evil can be personified. Their definition of evil employs the concepts of absence and distance. Evil, they say, manifests itself in the behaviour of people who have become separated from God. (Or, if you prefer, from what is Good.) The more prolonged the absence; the greater the distance; the greater their capacity to behave in “un-good” ways.

Since religion and metaphysics make a great many people living in the twenty-first century uncomfortable, the Problem of Evil is often transferred into the realm of science – most particularly, the disciplines of psychiatry, psychology and neurology.

Of course, if the explanation for evil is neurological – i.e. some form of brain malfunction – then the concept is immediately stripped of its moral dimension. If someone behaves violently, inflicting pain and suffering upon the innocent because of some physical defect they cannot control, then they cannot be considered evil. Dangerous, certainly. But not evil.

The psychiatrists, by contrast, search for the causes of predatory and sadistic behaviour in the individual’s past. Traumatic events, experienced in infancy, are believed to influence the individual’s adult conduct. Violence and cruelty, especially, are thought to manifest themselves intergenerationally. Or, as the English poet, W. H. Auden, expresses the idea in his famous poem, “1 September 1939”:

I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.

But, even this approach to the Problem of Evil leaves many people feeling troubled. Since we cannot control the things that are done to us in our infancy then, surely, it is unfair to hold adult individuals responsible for their aberrant behaviour. If the harm they inflict on others is generated by harms inflicted on them, then how can we call them evil? Our unease becomes even more pronounced when we discover that extreme trauma can leave not only emotional, but also very real neurological scars on its victims’ minds and brains. And, if that is true, then, once again, the concept of evil dissolves before our eyes.

Psychology only compounds these concerns. If human behaviour is the result of “drives” impelled by the mitochondria in our cells, our instincts; and if religious, philosophical and ideological systems are overlaid upon these drives in order to control and channel their social effects; then, again, the scope for individual human agency is severely limited. As the American socialist writer, Upton Sinclair, shrewdly observed: “It is very difficult to make a man understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”

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The other great difficulty presented by the Problem of Evil is the way in which human-beings, upon being convinced that a certain course of action is not only entirely justified but entirely right, will proceed methodically to ensure that the course of action is implemented – no matter what the cost.

Dr Stanley Milgram’s horrible experiment, in which people were instructed to inflict electric shocks on participants who failed to answer set questions correctly, offers grim confirmation of this human weakness. Responding to the instructions of the authority figure overseeing the experiment, fully two-thirds of the participants were prepared to deliver potentially lethal shocks. They could hear the person screaming (or thought they could since no one was actually being hurt) but, when ordered by the man in the white coat to “continue with the experiment”, they obeyed.

In a society divided by class, gender and ethnicity there will inevitably be people whose salaries depend upon their willingness to deliver shocks – both real and symbolic – to their fellow human-beings. It is extremely difficult to convince such people that they are doing anything wrong. While the prevailing social and economic system and its practices are believed to be both justified and right, the actions of these people, and the consequences of their actions, will be similarly regarded.

The German philosopher, Hannah Arendt, observing the trial of Adolf Eichmann (one of the leading planners and executors of the Holocaust) in a Tel Aviv courtroom was struck by how ordinary he looked. Could this balding, middle-aged man wearing horn-rimmed glasses and an ill-fitting suit really be responsible for the deaths of six million innocent people? Far from resembling Lucifer, Eichmann looked like a worn-out bureaucrat – which is exactly what he was. Arendt referred to this profoundly demoralising discrepancy as “the banality of evil”.

Because, unfortunately, evil looks nothing like the artist’s impression: there are no horns, no tail, no cloven hooves, no whiff of sulphur. Life would be so much easier if there were! No, if you really want to know what evil looks like, then examine the faces of the people who live next door; the people on the bus; the people in the lunchroom at work. But don’t stop there. If you truly want to examine the face of evil – just take a look in the mirror.

 

20 COMMENTS

  1. Good one Chris
    One point , I think that identifying past childhood abuse as the reason for evil adult behaviour , might explain the origin of the evil, might somewhat absolve the perpetrator of some responsibility , but that doesn’t mean it isn’t still evil .
    But I can’t help thinking of that highly intelligent spoiled creep in the south island a couple of years ago who stabbed his girlfriend umpteen times in front of her mother. In court he still couldn’t get away from the outrageous fact that she wanted to ditch him. He still thought murdering her was completely justified. The evil came from his sense of entitlement , an indulged childhood giving him a ridiculous view of his own worth and importance,not from his own mistreatment.
    And so I think it is on a grand scale of evil. Like dropping a nuclear bomb on the people of Hiroshima which now seems to have been more to see what would happen than to end the war quickly as Japan was already suing for peace. Was Truman an abused child? Is Bolton? Is Trump? Is Hillary? Is Tony Blair? John Mc Cain might have been fucked up in Vietnam I guess . What about Madeline Albright “we think the price is worth it”.
    Child miss use might explain some little evil, big evil derives from privilege and entitlement, “exceptionalism “.
    I try to avoid looking in the mirror.
    D J S

    • At a glance, vaguely wise. On one end, some one might end up possibly being peeved that may (or may not), have a ‘friendlier’ relationship with say, Being Y chromosome’d (or worse, X.) But on the other end, playing morale support in the sense of maybe trying to help people avoid getting soul whammy’d into being Being X’s perfect saintly child soldier, for purposes of turning atheists into faithful.

      Might just secure brownie points. Or if nothing else, possibly lead to a stellar friendship from a blooming say, for better or worse, till death do us part. Or likewise lead to similar interests / plotting from Being X for / against you, in the off chance you could be that “Wild Card” that could either nudge some one towards an end goal, or a spanner that can be… Too much of a support peacock for it’s punishment plot to corrupt / convert some one towards ‘enlightenment’.

      But eh, that’s a wild card guess, evil, on a WWI lite setting. All that’s needed, is to think of what likely long term changes / waves, from pseudo modern interests to a WWI lite world / setting could wreck or save their homeland / people, say. Especially if a truce was called for best mutual interests.

    • In the political cases you cite, DJS, Albright et al, I would say that we are looking at examples of individuals believing themselves to be following a course that is both right and justified. As Dr Milgram’s experiment proved, when people believe themselves to be doing what authority requires of them, they will behave in the most appalling fashion. In a perverse way (given the liberal theologians’ view of evil, it is absence and distance that enable these political killers to issue their orders.

      • However Chris you have to believe that there is not a prior consideration of greed for resources, esp. oil,or domination for prestige and arrogance . I think that the folk mentioned acted for what they saw as best for Americans perhaps, but not for what was right.
        D J S

  2. Human beings are dualistic. And aside from any psychiatric or neurological disorder , – we all have freedom of choice.

    Simply put, we all have the capacity to commit evil acts. Every last one of us .We also have the capacity to reject that evil and choose to do good instead.

    Talk to any Police officer who’s been on the force for any length of time,- they could tell you of the most unlikely looking person committing serious crimes.

    Its humanity and there never will be a Utopia or a period when we have all ‘arrived’.

    • “Sufficient to have stood, but free to fall” – that is one of the key lines from John Milton’s “Paradise Lost”. Christianity rejects fatalism/determinism and commands us to choose between good and evil, right and wrong.

      But, as I said in the posting above, very few of us are ever truly free to choose between good and evil. Our legal system is obliged, for very practical reasons, to assume that we are, but as anyone who has ever watched that “Darklands” TV series, featuring Nigel Latta, knows, it is very difficult to see evil-doers doing anything other than what they have done.

      The French have a saying which translates, roughly, as: “to understand all is to forgive all”. I find it very difficult to disagree!

      • [ ” The French have a saying which translates, roughly, as: “to understand all is to forgive all”. I find it very difficult to disagree! ”].

        Aye , and that is the great crime of the gospel… that ,… a God who sees all the circumstances acting upon an individual is the only one able to judge appropriately. We as humans only see the clinical past and the current atrocity. And those who acknowledge the former,… even they ,… often have a hard time forgiving, seeking appropriate justice shorn of the motivations of revenge or vengeance…

        “Sufficient to have stood, but free to fall”

        Is another way of saying ‘freedom of choice’.

        [ ” But, as I said in the posting above, very few of us are ever truly free to choose between good and evil. Our legal system is obliged, for very practical reasons, to assume that we are, but as anyone who has ever watched that “Darklands” TV series, featuring Nigel Latta, knows, it is very difficult to see evil-doers doing anything other than what they have done ”].

        Excellent.

        However, … I have not seen ‘Darklands ‘… so I cannot comment. But I would say in the fundamentals of the most basics of morality , most of us know what is right and what is wrong. Apart from even the teachings of Jesus on equality , taking care of the poor and opposing authority when it is exploiting and oppressing for pecuniary gain or political power,… we have the ten commandments…

        ——————————

        1/ Thou shalt have no other gods before

        [ If you truly believe in a loving , caring God, why would you serve an evil impostor , – or a lump of inanimate wood?]

        2/ Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image

        [Why bother , – when God is who he says he is – why fall back on a mere piece of stone or wood??? ,- esp when manipulative characters can take advantage of you ?]

        3/ Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain

        [ You profess to love this caring God and all the good in him , yet you abandon him when the pressures goes on… a fair-weather friend…]

        4/ Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy

        [ Even the workers need time with family’s, to reflect, to recharge,… we are humans not machines. A time to focus on the good things we have and the author of them ].

        5 / Honour thy father and thy mother

        [ Harder for those coming from dysfunctional family backgrounds,… yet to forever hold bitterness is to enslave oneself. Finding ones ‘peace’ with whats gone before… which is much easier said than done.]

        6 / Thou shalt not kill

        [ Basic, one which we all agree on. And one which has found expression in so many past and present global bodies ( ie : U.N ) that seek to avoid / curb warfare… and prohibit certain forms of warfare that are considered ‘ inhumane’ ] .

        7 / Thou shalt not commit adultery

        [ Betrayal in a relationship,… with the social costs spreading out into greater society,- and the emotional instability of children who now have to grapple with adult concepts with which they are poorly equipped to deal with. ]

        8 / Thou shalt not steal

        [ Another basic one which we all agree on. Hardly falls into the category of Jesus’s words of loving your neighbor as yourself. A caveat could be those who are so poor they did it to feed their family’s. When the Pharisees criticized Jesus’s followers for picking grain on the Sabbath he replied ‘ the Sabbath was created for mankind, and not the other way around’. In other words,… if a mans belly is hungry , – he is justified in seeking ways to remedy that and should not be held accountable of breaking any ‘laws’ on the Sabbath. ]

        9 / Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor

        [ And how often have we seen this one broken time and time again, – in politics, in day to day dealings with the courts, in personal relations? Almost constantly. ]

        10 / Thou shalt not covet (neighbor’s house)

        [ Extrapolate this commandment to one nation wanting the resources of another nation, – and thus we have the fomenting of war and expansionism.]

        11 / Thou shalt not covet (neighbor’s wife)

        [ Again , the breakdown of the family unit in a fit of uncontrolled and undisciplined behavior, often over time. Regardless of the dissatisfaction one party feels in their current relationship,… yet instead of working things through the choice is made to simply abandon all pretense of morality , family , … and more often than not,… see the new relationship torn apart by the very same pressures that led them together. ]

        12 / Thou shalt not covet

        [ This basically covers the two above,… in other words, do not covet , and don’t be affected by the pain of comparing yourself , and do not let that covetousness drive you , or let your govt to embark on a destructive course of action.]

        It all pretty basic stuff.

        This assumes that there is no psychiatric or neurological disorder’s,… which can often be a direct result of negative early family dysfunction,… or commonly injury and medication.

        I believe in God and his angels and I believe in Satan / Lucifer and his fallen angels /demons. I believe this antagonism has walked its way through the century’s and thus is no nebulous abstract concept. I have seen things that cannot be explained by orthodox’science’ on more than several occasions.

        When the Bible talks about a cosmic war that occurred eons ago,…I believe it indeed happened and is ongoing. I find it odd,… that modern versions of opposition take the form of CERN, for instance. Despite the clinical , sanitized and mathematical genius of the so called experts… that old goat is still trying…

        CERN Switzerland Satanic Tunnel Ritual Calling For Lucifer – YouTube
        Video for CERN Switzerland Satanic Tunnel Ritual Calling For Lucifer – YouTube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dZAQNo9bXwI▶ 37:42
        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dZAQNo9bXwI

      • No Chris, having slept on it I think that’s too fatalistic. Mjolnir is right to look in the mirror and say “Yeah? Nah! that person isn’t evil, and is competent to determine that it isn’t so and that it doesn’t become so.
        And can do so more reliably in reference to his (her)? own conscience than by referring to any religious text in which can be found some kind of justification for just about anything.
        If however one takes the fatalist view that we can’t control what happens to us or be responsible for what we do to others, then that one by self fulfilling prophecy is correct . But so is he or she who decides that they are in control of their lives which is self fulfilling too. And is those who think this way , and not fate, that determine the lives of the fatalists as well.
        In the opening case of Eichmann it may well have been that had he at any point resisted carrying out his role he may well have been sent to one of his ovens esp. with a name sounding like that, but my examples (with the possible exception of Trump) were never in personal danger.
        D J S

  3. Most film makers make the mistake of portraying evil people in the manner you would portray the pychopathic leader of some sort of gang. In fact any criminal who rises to any level of power and influence has to have the skills and personal attributes of say, your company manager – ability to communicate and lead, get on with others, ability to control one’s emotions etc. Therefore the people with the greatest capacity to inflict pain and suffering on humans often do come across as quite pleasant when you meet them face to face. Evil people in films should be presented as pleasant, and even charming.

    The only film I can think of that goes halfway there is 1966 British film Modesty Blaise where Dirk Bogarde plays the evil character who hates having to do evil things

    Apart from that, it is an amazingly visual film which you can watch in full here – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9BpC0NatYqU&t=12s

  4. “If you truly want to examine the face of evil – just take a look in the mirror.”

    You had me until that point, Mr Trotter. I am not “evil”. Confused sometimes. Pissed off at other times. Misguided certainly on rare occassions. But “evil”? Yeah, nah. (Does hoping David Seymour wakes up living in a car, living on meagre handouts, abused by WINZ, count?)

  5. Great Post @ CT.

    I think a definition of ‘evil’ could be when people do unpleasant things to others and enjoy that immensely. The pleasure of causing suffering in others.
    The pleasure of seeing others suffer.
    It’s one thing to acquiesce to the demands of the man in the white coat holding a clip board but quite another to create policy that you know will cause great albeit banal suffering in a country with fabulous wealth in all permutations.
    don brash did, and no doubt still does plan, and execute,such pain and suffering on people who have no resistance to it. For his pleasure.

    roger douglas. derek quigley. mike moore, richard prebble. ruth richardson. jenny shipely. jim bolger. bill english. john key. paula bennett. judith collins. hekia parata. ann tolly. david seymour.
    Chillingly, the list can go on.
    Evil does indeed prevail where good people fail to act.

    schadenfreude
    ˈʃɑːd(ə)nˌfrɔɪdə,German ˈʃɑːdənˌfrɔydə/
    noun
    noun: Schadenfreude; noun: schadenfreude

    pleasure derived by someone from another person’s misfortune.
    “a business that thrives on Schadenfreude”

  6. P.S. I looked in the mirror. I laughed my head off. “I have a beautiful female human who kisses that!? ” I said to myself as I felt a rush of pleasure from sweet memories.
    Am I then evil?

  7. dude i think you used the wrong pic there, thats Klus Barbie not Adolf Eichmann tho ones as bad as the other lol

  8. A thought-provoking post Chris, but with a few details in need of correction by a former psych student:
    “The psychiatrists, by contrast, search for the causes of predatory and sadistic behaviour in the individual’s past.”

    You mean psychoanalysts. Psychiatrists are medical doctors who specialize in mental health, and tend to see it as having neurological causes that can be identified and treated with the right drugs. There are some practitioners who are both psychiatrists and psychoanalysts, just as there are some who are MDs and herbalists, but there has tended to be a “medical” vs. “holistic” split in mental health care just as there is in physical health.

    “Psychology only compounds these concerns. If human behaviour is the result of “drives” impelled by the mitochondria in our cells, our instincts …”

    You’re talking about biological determinism (a la “The Selfish Gene”) not psychology. Psychology is a broad field of study that attempts to integrate the insights of practitioners and experimenters using bio-physical approaches (eg neurology), patient-centered approaches (psychoanalysis, gestalt, DBT), statistical analysis, evolutionary psychology, and any others approach that may shed light on how mental health, and illness work.

    It seems sensible to me that seeking to understand both “surfaces to be measured” (bio-physical phenomena) and “depths to be interpreted” (qualitative research on the human *experience*) is essential if we want to gain a deeper understanding of human consciousness (quotes are from ‘A Brief History of Everything’, part of Ken Wilbur’s better work before he went down the “Spiral Dynamics” rabbit hole). The problems of people doing harm to each other have many potential causes, and at least as many potential solutions, all of which we need to pursue in parallels if we want to reduce overall harm.

  9. You’re just disparaging dark energies. But if one is to understand the great mystery one must study all its aspects, not just the dogmatic narrow view of the jedi. You know that

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