Monday, 16 April 2018

'Evil': A Brief Search for Understanding

In medieval times, evil ws often personified in not-quite human forms

Posted by Keith Tidman

Plato may have been right in asserting that “There must always be something antagonistic to good.” Yet pause a moment, and wonder exactly why? And also what is it about ‘evil’ that means it can be understood and defined equally from both religious and secularist viewpoints? I would argue that fundamental to an exploration of both these questions is the notion that for something to be evil, there must be an essential component: moral agency. And as to this critical point, it might help to begin with a case where moral agency and evil arguably have converged.

The case in question is repeated uses of chemical weapons in Syria, made all too real recently. Graphic images of gassed children, women, and men, gasping for air and writhing in pain, have circulated globally and shocked people’s sense of humanity. The efficacy of chemical weapons against populations lies not only in the weapons’ lethality but — just as distressingly and perhaps more to the weapons’ purpose — in the resulting terror, shock, and panic, among civilians and combatants alike. Such use of chemical weapons does not take place, however, without someone, indeed many people, making a deliberate, freely made decision to engage in the practice. Here is, the intentionality of deed that infuses human moral agency and, in turn, gives rise to a shared perception that such behaviour aligns with ‘evil’.

One wonders what the calculus was among the instigators (who they are need not concern us, much as it matters from the poltiical standpoint) to begin and sustain the indiscriminate use of chemical weapons. And what were the considerations as to whom to 'sacrifice' (the question of presumed human dispensability) in the name of an ideology or quest for simple self-survival? Were the choices viewed and the decisions made on ‘utilitarian’ grounds? That is, was the intent to maim and kill in such shocking ways to demoralise and dissuade insurgency’s continuation (short-term consequences), perhaps in expectation that the conflict will end quicker (longer-term consequences)? Was it part of some larger gopolitical messaging between Russia and the United States? (Some even claim the attacks were orchestrated by the latter to discredit the former...)

Whatever the political scenario, it seems that the ‘deontological’ judgement of the act — the use of chemical weapons — has been lost. This, after all, can only make the use utterly immoral irrespective of consequences. Meanwhile, world hesitancy or confusion — fails to stop another atrocity against humanity, and the hesitancy itself has its own pernicious effects. The 19th-century British philosopher John Stuart Mill underscored this point, observing that:
“A person may cause evil to others not only by his actions but by his inaction, and in either case he is justly accountable to them for the injury.”
Keeping the preceding scenario in Syria in mind, let’s further explore the dimensions of rational moral agency and evil. Although  the label ‘evil’ is most familiar when used to qualify the affairs of human beings it can be used more widely, for example in relation to natural phenomena. Yet, I focus here on people because although, for example, predatory animals can and do cause serious harm, even death, I would argue that the behaviour of animals more fittingly falls under the rubric of ‘natural phenomena’ and that only humans are truly capable of evil.

As one distinction, people can readily anticipate — project and understand — the potential for harm, on an existential level; other species probably cannot (with research continuing). As for differentiating between, say, wrongdoing and full-on evil, context is critical. Another instantiation of evil is history’s many impositions of colonial rule, as having been practiced in all parts of the world. It not uncommonly oppressed its victims, in all manner of scarring ways, by sowing fear, injustice, stripping away of human rights, physical and emotional pain, and destruction of indigenous traditions.

This tipping point from wrongdoing, from say, someone under-reporting taxable income or skipping out on paying a restaurant bill, into full-on evil is made evident in these additional examples. These are deeds that range the gamut: serial murder that preys on communities, terrorist attacks on subway trains, genocide aimed at helpless minority groups, massacres, enslavement of people, torture, abuses of civilians during conflicts, summary executions, and mutilation, as well as child abuse, rape, racism, and environmental destruction. Such atrocities happen because people arrive at freely made choices: deliberateness, leading to causation.

These incidences, and their perpetrators (society condemns both doer and deed) aren’t just ‘wrong’, or ‘bad’, or even ‘contemptible’, they’re evil. Even though context matters and can add valuable explanation — circumstances that mitigate or extenuate deeds, including instigators’ motives — rendering judgements about evil is still possible, even if occasionally tenuously. So, for example, mitigation might include being unaware of the harmful consequences of one's actions, well-meaning intent that unpredictably goes awry, pernicious effects of a corrupting childhood, or lack of empathy of a psychopath. Under these conditions, blame and culpability hardly seem appropriate. Extenuation, on the other hand, might be deliberate, cruel infliction of pain and the pleasure derived from it, such as might occur during the venal kidnapping of a woman or child.

As for a religious dimension to moral agency, such agency might be viewed as applying to a god, in the capacity as creator of the universe. In this model of creation, such a god is seen as serving as the moral agent behind what I referred to above as ‘natural evil’ — from hurricanes, earthquakes, volcano eruptions, tsunamis, and droughts to illnesses, famine, pain, and grief. They of course often have destructive, even deadly, consequences. Importantly, that such evil occurs in the realm of nature doesn’t award it exceptional status. This, despite occasional claims to the contrary, such as the overly reductionist, but commonplace, assertion of the ancient Roman emperor-philosopher Marcus Aurelius:
 “Nothing is evil which is according to nature.”
In the case of natural events, evil may be seen as stemming less from intentions and only from the consequences of such phenomena — starvation, precarious subsistence, homelessness, broken-up families, desolation, widespread chronic diseases, rampant infant mortality, breakdown of social systems, malaise, mass exoduses of desperate migrants escaping violence, and gnawing hopelessness.

Such things have prompted faith-based debates over evil in the world. Specifically, if, as commonly assumed by religious adherents, there is a god that’s all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-benevolent, then why is there evil, including our examples above of natural evil? In one familiar take on theodicy, the 4th-century philosopher Saint Augustine offered a partial explanation, averring that:
 “God judged it better to bring good out of evil than to suffer no evil to exist.” 
 Other philosophers have asserted that the absence of evil, where people could only act for the good (as well as a god’s supposed fore-knowledge of people’s choices) would a priori render free will unnecessary and, of note, choices being predetermined.

Yet, the Gordian knot remains untied: our preceding definition of a god that is all-powerful and all-benevolent would rationally include being able to, as well as wanting to, eliminate evil and the suffering stemming from it. Especially, and surely, in the framework of that god’s own moral agency and unfettered free will. Since, however, evil and suffering are present — ubiquitously and incessantly — a reasonable inquiry is whether a god therefore exists. If one were to conclude that a god does exist, then recurring natural evil might suggest that the god did not create the universe expressly, or at least not entirely, for the benefit of humankind. That is, that humankind isn’t, perhaps, central or exceptional, but rather is incidental, to the universe’s existence. Accordingly, one might presuppose an ontological demotion.

Human moral agency remains core even when it is institutions — for example, governments and organisations of various kinds — that formalise actions. Here, again, the pitiless use of chemical weapons in Syria presents us with a case in point to better understand institutional behaviour. Importantly, however, even at the institutional level, human beings inescapably remain fundamental and essential to decisions and deeds, while institutions serve as tools to leverage those decisions and deeds. National governments around the world routinely suppress and brutalise minority populations, often with little or no provocation. Put another way, it is the people, as they course through the corridors of institutions, who serve as the central actors. They make, and bear responsibility for policies.

It is through institutions that people’s decisions and deeds become externalised — ideas instantiated in the form of policies, plans, regulations, acts, and programs. In this model of individual and collective human behaviour, institutions have the capacity for evil, even in cases when bad outcomes are unintended. Which affirms, one might note in addressing institutional behaviour, that the 20th-century French novelist and philosopher, Albert Camus, was perhaps right in observing:
“Good intentions may do as much harm as malevolence if they lack understanding.”
So, to the point: an institution’s ostensibly well-intended policy — for example, freeing up corporate enterprise to create jobs and boost national productivity — may nonetheless unintentionally cause suffering — for example, increased toxins in the soil, water, and air, affecting the health of communities. Hence again is a way in which effects, not only intentions, express bad outcomes.

But at other times, the moral agency behind decisions and deeds perpetrated by institutions’ human occupants may intentionally aim toward evil. Cases range the breadth of actions: launching wars overtly with plunder or hegemonism in mind; instigating pogroms or death fields; materially disadvantaging people based on identities like race, ethnicity, religion, or national origin (harsh treatment of migrants being a recent example); ignoring the dehumanising and stunting effects of child labour; showing policy disregard as society’s poorest elderly live in squalor; allowing industries to seep toxins into the environment for monetary gain — there are myriad examples. Institutions aren’t, therefore, simply bricks and mortar. They have a pulse, comprising the vision, philosophy, and mission of the people who design and implement their policies, benign or malign.

Evil, then, involves more than what Saint Augustine saw as the ‘privation’ of good — privation of virtuousness, equality, empathy, responsible social stewardship, health, compassion, peace, and so forth. In reality, evil is far less passive than Saint Augustine’s vision. Rather, evil arises from the deliberate, freely making of life’s decisions and one's choice to act on them, in clear contravention to humanity’s well-being. Evil is distinguished from the mere absence of good, and is much more than Plato’s insight that there must always be something ‘antagonistic’ to good. In many instances, evil is flagrant, such as in our example of the use of chemical weapons in Syria; in other instances, evil is more insidious and sometimes veiled, such as in the corruption of government plutocrats invidiously dipping into national coffers at the expense of the populace's quality of life. In either case, it is evident that evil, whether in its manmade or in its natural variant, exists in its own right and thus can be parsed and understood from both the religious and the secular vantage point.

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