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Being Evil

One of the things that leaps out at you when thinking about moral questions -- as in what are the good and bad things to aim at via one's actions, what things are right or wrong to do -- is the distinction between being bad and being evil. The latter term seems somewhat old fashioned to modern ears. It conjures up images of demons and devils, of hell fire and brimstone. It reeks of the Middle Ages or earlier. And yet sometimes it seems that only a word like "evil" can name certain things human beings do. I'm thinking of recent reports about beheadings of captives in the Middle East, some involving literally sawing a man's head from his body while he's still alive. Or burning one's prisoners alive by dousing them in gasoline in a cage. Or seizing women and children and selling them into slavery. None of this seems right to modern eyes but all were fairly common practices in previous eras. And were taken more or less for granted. And they all seem to be in some sense worse than bad to the modern western mind. They seem to demand a different appellation, to rightly warrant the name of "evil."

Today, at least in the western world, we reject slavery and cruelty, even to the point of finding any form of capital punishment, even when administered painlessly by lethal injection, abhorrent. We look back on the recent past and the Nazis' impressment of segments of Europe's populations into slave labor and death camps and find all that especially horrifying and worthy of our condemnation. Some folks today also condemn the fire bombing of Dresden, conducted by the Allies in the course of war against Nazi-ruled Germany, as similarly evil (as G.E.M. Anscombe did when it was happening). Or the dropping of two atomic bombs on a still belligerent Japan in that same war as beyond the pale. Some in the West have condemned even possession of nuclear weapons as not just bad or wrong but downright evil. So when is the bad not merely bad? When, that is, is it evil and why is being evil worse than just being wrong or bad?

In ordinary usage we do reserve the application of the term "evil" for that which somehow goes beyond the pale, beyond some line which delineates the bad. Of course, not all evils in the world are recognized as man made. Great disasters and plagues are often deemed "evils" visited upon the human race. Perhaps this reflects the sense that they are "visited" on us, i.e., that they have an author. What nature does mindlessly, blindly does not seem evil in any relevant sense of the word. It's just nature, the way things are. We all die, of whatever the cause eventually, and we don't think of dying as "evil." It comes with the territory of living. But when our deaths seem to come upon us in a non-ordinary way, when we die because of mass occurrences (an earthquake or flood, a Hurricane Katrina perhaps) or in the course of some mass occurrence like a plague, then we think of such deaths as being the result of a manifestation of an evil. But this seems to suggest a belief that someone or some thing, some devil or indifferent deity, has acted in a way to cause us some harm, that there is behind it all some a willing agent responsible for the harm we endure. If an asteroid were expected to hit the earth and obliterate the world we know, we might think of it as a great evil come upon us. But only if we also supposed it was the action of some agent with a purpose in mind, i.e., the purpose of causing harm unjustly to mankind. That there are cataclysms and some of them wreak great havoc on the human race does not seem to imply that evil is at work. To ascribe evil is to presume some teleological cause behind the experience we decry.

It looks, indeed, like one criterion then for assessing evilness lies in the intentional state of the agent. Evil, on this description, must be intended in some affirmative way -- or it must, at least, reflect some sort of heartlessness in the agent such that his, her, or its intention may be seen as a willingness to inflict harm on others. On this view sadism must be evil because it involves the willful infliction of harm on another. But perhaps not the sort of sadism that is consensually undertaken as depicted in the recent popular culture book and movie 50 Shades of Gray. Here engaging in sadism, even with a consenting partner, may still be bad and perhaps thought evil because of what it introduces to society (and human life generally within that community). But if the harm inflicted is not received as such then that sort of thing doesn't in itself seem to warrant the appellation "evil." Sadism, when it does warrant that appellation, must reflect the intent of the agent to cause harm to another in a way that really does harm the other. The consenting recipient in a sadomasochistic relationship is not harmed in this sense, even if the recipient sustains some permanent hurt as long as that hurt is in keeping with what the individual accepts or perhaps even desires. So another factor in differentiating what is evil from what may just be bad in some more traditional sense is that the harm must be felt as harm by the individual receiving it. But there are plenty of examples of that in the world. From serial killers and torturers to Nazi medical experimenters and those who would march helpless victims into death chambers, there is and has been evil of this sort in our world in abundance.

Perhaps, too, the term "evil" should not be applied only to those who act thus against other humans. What about the intentional infliction of pain and death on non-humans? Is torturing a stray cat for the fun of it evil? What then of vivisection? Is it justifiable in some way (because of the benefits for human beings) in which torture just for the fun of it isn't? And what about butchering other living things for our dinner? Is "evil" so broad a term as to encompass this, too? Can it be?

Surely we don't use "evil" in this way in ordinary language. Indeed we hardly use "evil" at all anymore because evilness suggests something not only intentional but absolute and the notion of absoluteness as applied to our values just seems out of date. What we call "evil" though does seem to be that which is somehow irredeemable and that surely implies absoluteness. A bad person can change his behaviors and so be good. A bad act can be changed, perhaps with a few tweaks, to produce a different outcome and so made into something good -- or at least no longer bad. But an evil act and an evil doer? These seem simply beyond redemption and that is, perhaps, incomprehensible to us moderns. Can anything be beyond redemption, be absolutely and irredeemably bad?

And yet it is hard to deny that there is or can be evil in the world even today. From the heartless serial killer to the people in the Middle East rampaging through ancient lands slaughtering and beheading and terrorizing for the sake of, well, terrorizing, have we not got real instances of something far worse than mere moral badness? Now there are rumors the Middle Eastern Islamic group called ISIS, which is seeking to alter the world by demolishing the lands and peoples of those who do not share their religious convictions, has turned to more than just enslaving and slaughtering those who are not their own. According to a report this morning from an Online source . . .


. . . the so-called Islamic State has now added organ harvesting from their freshly killed victims to their hawking of oil retrieved from captured lands and their ransoming of captives to their arsenal of money-raising strategies. Even as apocalyptic an organization as ISIS has to raise funds to pay for the things they need to bring their apocalypse about. In a group that's more interested in waging war in order to bring about such an apocalyptic end-of-world vision (as described in the Atlantic Monthly article What ISIS Really Wants http://www.theatlantic.com/features/archive/2015/02/what-isis-really-wants/384980/?fb_ref=Default ) than it is in building a state in the modern sense of that word, we have now seen a new wrinkle in modern human behavior which seems to admit of no other appellation than "evil."

But if moral valuation cannot be shown to stand on some discoverable and, so, arguable basis, if we cannot show that there are reasons to do some things and not others, reasons that transcend our own preferences at any given moment, then what allows us to call organ harvesting from slaughtered human beings or, indeed, the slaughtering itself "evil" or even wrong? If we can't establish that it's wrong to do what these people are doing in some objectively arguable sense (such that we can make the case to other reasonable human beings) can what they do even be called wrong?

One can argue that it's wrong and, indeed, evil solely because it seems evil to those of us who think it is because we can imagine that we are ourselves prospective victims of this sort of behavior. That is, we recoil from it and so are moved to name it "evil." But is just feeling that it's evil for people to do such things enough to make it so? What if we were on the other side? Surely such actions don't seem wrong to those who are doing them since they will argue for the rightness of their acts no less than we will for their wrongness.

We only act when we think what we're doing is right, after all, or we would not so act and this goes for killers like the ISIS fighters no less than for the rest of us. Yet thinking one is right cannot be evidence that one is since we can certainly be wrong about whether we are doing wrong or not. There are reasons we give, to ourselves and others, to support our beliefs in the rightness or wrongness of the actions we are inclined to take. Moral discrimination, even if divorced from the demands of any particular morality (moral code or belief set), remains very much a part of human behavior.

Just thinking that we are acting rightly when slaughtering and harvesting the organs of the slaughtered, even if one thinks one has the sanction of religious revelation behind one in doing so, cannot be proof against its wrongness. But perhaps, like the serial killer, one just thinks might makes right or that if you can get away with it, you have no reason to not do it? Of course the ISIS apologists will argue for more than that. They will argue that God has set them on their path and that the actions they are taking are divinely directed via the Qur'an and its Prophet. But that anyone thinks he or she is following a true revelation cannot be evidence that he or she is doing so, if only because there are competing revelations among different human groups and more than one of these claims to be definitive. Or at least their adherents make that claim for them. Then the only test can be who wins out in the end, who is the stronger as in which revelation and its adherents is mightier than the others?

Can there even be a standard, independent of competing revelations, by which we can condemn behaviors like those of this Middle Eastern group -- and how can we do it if they think they are justified? How might we hope to convince them or anyone to act differently, to forebear from violence against other persons who have done them no harm? What rational standard or set of value claims can we offer people like this or anyone else to show that one should act differently than ISIS members are now acting -- or that we should act to stop their wrongdoing in whatever way we can? Is thinking one is justified enough?

They wouldn't grant that and neither would we.

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