Evil at Dawn

J.L. Wall

J.L. Wall is a native Kentuckian in self-imposed exile to the Midwest, where he teaches writing to college students and over-analyzes Leonard Cohen lyrics.

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22 Responses

  1. Ethan Gach says:

    So I suppose the first question is, if a baby pulled the trigger on an automatic and killed many people, would say the baby was evil in that moment?

    I’m wondering how we attach the label of evil to acts or persons without knowledge of the subjective state or the level of intent behind them.

    This would be especially interesting in the case of Sandusky, who at times seemed remorseful, while at others seemed to not understand that he did what he did, in which case the evilness of the act seems inevitably distinct from the self that committed it.Report

    • Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to Ethan Gach says:

      Evil does require conscious thought & willful action. A baby pulling a trigger is not evil, only curious & unaware of the consequences.Report

    • Kyle Cupp in reply to Ethan Gach says:

      It helps here to distinguish between physical evil and moral evil. The baby in question is the source of physical evil (the destruction of life), but not a moral evil, as the baby has no sense of what it’s doing. Whoever put the gun in reach of a baby may well be guilty of moral evil, but the baby has no moral culpability, despite causing great harm.

      Regarding the OP, I agree that evil can be predicated of both actions and the people who commit them. Evil I define (initially) as the lack of a good that ought to be there. Whether it’s anything more than this eludes me.Report

      • Mike Schilling in reply to Kyle Cupp says:

        There’s an old SF story (I want to say it’s by Fred Brown, but I could be wrong.) A peacenik visits the home of a nuclear physicist who does weapons research and is on the brink of creating something that makes an H-bomb look like a firecracker. The peacenik pleads with him to stop, but the scientist refuses, insisting that he’s just increasing human knowledge, which is a good thing. After the visit is over, the scientist finds that his developmentally disabled son has been left a new toy: a loaded revolver. He’s furious: who would give something that dangerous to an idiot?Report

    • Ethan,

      Are you trying to get at what role does mental disorder have to play in whether we condemn the practitioner of evil as “evil”? (Or before we condemn the specific actions in question as evil in the sense that their totality adds up to making the person more evil?)Report

    • CK MacLeod in reply to Ethan Gach says:

      Babies by definition are, of course, incapable of evil. Babies don’t possess intentionality or responsibility. In a certain sense the “act” was not the baby’s, but the act of the person or persons who caused the weapon to be placed in the baby’s hands. Assigning blame might still be subject to a range of complications and gradations, however, having to do with evil intentions as opposed to negligence. Actually, J.L. skips to authenticity without considering intentionality. If I run someone over with my car, it obviously matters whether I accidentally hit the gas or in fact went out of my way to do it. Whether the act is part of what J.L. calls my “authentic being” may turn on whether I show myself to be the kind of person who would run somebody over on purpose (for the fun of it, say) or not. The content of the act is less important than the intention in determining its actual evil and to whom the evil adheres. It’s more “evil” to try to hurt someone and fail, than to hurt someone very badly by accident.

      As for Sandusky, we run into the paradox of remorse: The more capable of remorse someone is, the more presumably capable of being responsible. A baby is incapable of remorse or of responsibility. Though society copes with evil differently than it copes with incompetence, both force us to investigate what kind of danger is actually posed by the bad act, including but not limited to whether the perpetrator himself is dangerous.Report

    • J.L. Wall in reply to Ethan Gach says:

      It figures that the first comment would point out what I was hoping no one would notice I’d elided — intentionality.

      I’m probably too much influenced in this post by a concept of “Contextual Intentionality” that Berel Lang offers in an essay in (I think) THE FUTURE OF THE HOLOCAUST. (Though the title might be wrong. All his books have similar titles. It’s really annoying.) The short version being, We have no means to judge claims of intent/non-intent; the action and its known/knowable context must stand as evidence/lack thereof for judging intentionality and degree of responsibility. (His version is a good deal more nuanced, and longer, than my quick summary.)

      But this, as the title of the book it’s in should indicate, is formulated in application to LARGE crimes. While I think that there’s room, working in a frame influenced by Lang, to exclude infants/children on the basis of what we believe about their ability for fully adult responsibility, there is a question of what we’d say about two 16 year-olds horsing around and one dying when the gun happens to be loaded or the wrestling choke-hold works too well. This might be the point at which it breaks down — or at least, my use of it (I’m the one, I should say, who’s merging this model of intent with the question of evil) breaks down.Report

  2. scott says:

    By their fruits (deeds) ye shall know them. Mt. 7-16Report

  3. BlaiseP says:

    Evil, as with any other word which emerges as both a noun and adjective, is trapped in its attributive form. Our notions of evil are always predicated on attribution: much that is substantively evil can be explained away as a Greater Good.

    I believe in Evil-the-noun. Evil does exist in the world. I’m not a dualist who believes evil fights good. Evil simply fills in the dark places as surely as shadows. Evil is not so much the opposite of Good but the absence of Goodness. You may always tell Evil by this sign, that it is constantly justifying itself. Good never needs to justify what it does. Good illuminates the world. It is the light that shines in the darkness and the darkness has never understood it.

    The danger of a word like “evil” is that it is absolute. That’s absurd. The world trends toward entropy and chaos. Evil arises when Good cannot or will not do anything to stop it. Furthermore, the word “evil” doesn’t cut off debate, it starts debate. We can play little games with Evil, pretend it’s just an adjective, that right and wrong are just opinions. The Frog and the Scorpion: the scorpion will remain true to his nature.

    Equivocation of this sort reminds me a bit of the Godwin Game. The Nazis really did exist, they had excuses for what they did and they were enormously popular. We might ask how a highly advanced nation of scientists and writers and theologians and thinkers of all sorts could be so easily seduced — but we don’t, these days. The Nazis are considered so asymptotically evil that nothing can be compared to them.

    Let me be plain: Evil is not absolute. It is a force as surely at work in the world as entropy. You might be a Buddhist, understanding that Evil is something we create. You might be a Christian, believing Evil arises from man’s fallen and unenlightened nature. You might be an atheist, believing evil must be opposed by every rational person on the basis of its consequences. All these are interesting angles on the problem but it’s our consciences which lead us to this Attribution of Evil.

    We must all reject Evil’s bad excuses for what it does. Those excuses betray intent, the intent of the doctrine of mens rea, the will to do what we know to be wrong, providing a defence for the mentally ill who do not know that what they are doing is wrong. But rolling our eyes up at the word “Evil” as if it were only defined by the religious authorities is to play a dangerous game: soon enough, we start making our own excuses for evil. Mankind’s favourite game is self-delusion, the worst part of which is accepting the excuses of Higher Powers and thus rejecting the statements of our own consciences.Report

  4. NewDealer says:

    I think the big problem in calling someone like James Holmes evil is largely:

    1. It is exactly how we wants to be described.

    2. Calling people evil makes them seem impossible to reform and it allows society to avoid tough and painful conversations on mental illness, how to treat the mentally ill, what do you do with the mentally ill who seem to defy treatment while still being a moral and ethical society, etc. And lots of other painful conversations.

    3. This piece sums it up well. Basically we want to have our cake and eat it too:


    Society seems to want to condemn evil while also being attracted to it and revel in it.Report

    • J.L. Wall in reply to NewDealer says:

      Not having read the article in (3), I’d agree, to an extent, with you on the previous two. With the exceptions:

      (1) But if how they *want* to be called *is*, in some framework, the accurate term for their deeds?

      (2) This problem is, in fact, something I was trying to get around in the OP. If someone isn’t “truly” or “authentically” or “wholly” evil, but simply one who has committed an evil deed, then therapy and reform in order to avoid future instances seems entirely prudent — especially if the act isn’t one that would have them imprisoned for the remainder of their life. In which case, I’d say there’s a societal obligation to attempt a kind of reform rather than mere punishment.

      But I get the point — a non-nuanced definition of evil is a blunt tool.Report

  5. Roger says:

    How many children rapes does it take to earn the full fledged authentically evil badge?Report

    • J.L. Wall in reply to Roger says:

      I’d ask, how many does it take to become evil-beyond-reform? However misguided their defense of him may have been, there seems — at least in the initial disbelief — to have been *some* good in Sandusky, even if it was just a performance. Now, maybe that’s an argument against the stickiness of performance.

      I don’t know that he’s “authentically” evil — and I don’t know that you or I can be qualified to make that judgment about any other. So I’d say that he, and those like him, fall into a category of beyond-reform. In society’s reaction to them, I don’t see how there ought to be any significant difference between the two. (Though I see immediately where a death penalty proponent and myself would disagree over this.)Report

  6. scott says:

    I liked the way this post dispenses with the “authenticity” frame because it is one of the biggest excuses for evil conduct over the last few decades. So many times, from the Iraq war to torture to financial fraud, just to give a few examples, the attempt has been made to exculpate the person who engaged in this misconduct or advocated it on the grounds that he/she generally is a nice person or might even have had good motivations. When you have a debate about US foreign policy and point out how we (somewhat) and others (mostly) have suffered as a result of our serial clusterf—-, the words will be said that we “meant well.” Why is that an excuse? If you committed what would otherwise seem evil acts that result in suffering for millions, why is your ignorance, arrogance, or general cluelessness sufficient to give you a free moral pass? I guess my point is that a lot of the evil that gets done in this world isn’t by self-consciously dastardly guys twirling their long, evil mustaches and cackling maniacally over the mischief they’re wrought. It gets done by people whose judgment is warped by their own vanity and narrow self-interest and who rationalize those failures and their inability to think through what they’re doing by citing their adherence to some greater good. I’d like us to get to point where we shrug off the excuse-making, all the inquiry into generic niceness, works-well-plays-well-with-others, or good party manners, and ask: What did you do? What did it lead to? By your acts, what are you responsible for? Just for once, I’d like the phrase “he meant well” to go on an extended holiday while we focus on what he did.Report

  7. CK MacLeod says:

    If you turn to the New Yorker piece – at http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2012/07/james-holmes-aurora-and-the-meaning-of-evil.html – you’ll find a predictable and in fact rather clumsy and obvious confusion or elision: In the first paragraph,Rombig observes two leading politicians – Obama and Boehner – describing the acts of Sandusky and Holmes evil, and then, without noting the difference, for the second paragraphs, turns to the individuals: “‘What does it mean, in the twenty-first century, to call a person like James Holmes ‘evil’?” This slighted distinction is critical as far as attempting to understand what is taken to be consensual and what is taken to be uncertain in the uses of the term “evil.” In referring to the acts as evil, we and our leaders re-affirm and, perhaps, verbally constitute the “good” society. Part of what makes the bad act evil, or the difference between robbing a convenience store or driving without a license on the one hand, and murdering strangers or raping children on the other, is that the merely bad act is not thought to do irreparable injury to the victim. We hesitate to judge the perpetrator to be evil because to do so puts us or each of us symbolically in his position, repeating his act in a parallel manner, but in relation to him. This notion that judgment belongs to the state, or God, or history, or in any event remains beyond the volunteer (thought not beyond the hero or other exceptional figure) is deeply ingrained within us, taught as a lesson and precept in school, at home, in our major political documents, in art. Of course, many of us may confidently and even defiantly indict a Sandusky or a Holmes “without trial,” but there remains much greater opportunity, for some of the reasons mentinoed by JL or Romig or the author he quotes, for disagreement, second thoughts, explanations when we take a step away: Maybe pedophilia is genetic… Maybe Holmes suffers from some well-known or to-be-discovered-tomorrow degenerative neurological disease…. Raising such questions is a normal, arguably pro-social act. Raising questions about the acts themselves, however, is to place oneself outside of society, or at least outside of this society.Report

    • CK MacLeod in reply to CK MacLeod says:

      (sorry for rushing that comment up while distracted – think I should acknowledged and taken more into account J.L.’s own attention to the distinction between act and perpetrator)Report

      • J.L. Wall in reply to CK MacLeod says:

        I hadn’t actually noticed the fudged distinction in the original New Yorker post (to which I, of course, forgot to link — it’ll be fixed in about 30 seconds, I promise!).Report

  8. Brandon Berg says:

    “Evil,” it seems to me, doesn’t have any coherent meaning outside of a religious or supernatural context. Demons are evil. Satan is evil. Humans acting in service of Satan is evil. Cthulu is evil, and so are his worshippers.

    In the real world, people are irrational or misguided, or have unusual preferences. I’m not sure which of those categories Holmes falls under. Personally, I can’t really imagine any situation in which I might conclude that going to a theater and shooting indiscriminately would be a good idea, so I’m tempted to write it off as irrationality. But maybe he just values notoriety more than freedom and doesn’t have the aversion to killing people that most of us have, in which case it could be explained by unusual preferences.

    This isn’t to say that people like Holmes aren’t a threat to the rest of us, and that they shouldn’t be locked up or killed or otherwise restrained from harming us. Nor is it necessarily to say that we should have any sympathy for them. I just don’t think that there’s any good secular definition of “evil.”Report

    • J.L. Wall in reply to Brandon Berg says:

      That’s a good point, and it’s largely why I deliberately didn’t get into discussion of “what is evil?” in the post.

      The formulation of evil in traditional Jewish sources, however, isn’t all that far from your framing of a (very) strong/dangerous irrationality. There’s an “evil impulse/inclination” that naturally occurs and, unconstrained, can lead one astray — but that, contained and controlled, is necessary for human life.

      If I haven’t forgotten about it by the time I finish my coffee (highly possible!) I might want to stretch this into a longer post… Thanks.Report