Evil at Dawn
At the New Yorker, Rollo Roming argues that calling James Holmes and/or Jerry Sandusky “evil” raises more questions than it answers. The concept of evil has been tossed into “confusion” and “tatters” by the events of modern human history (the 1755 Lisbon earthquake and the Holocaust are the two causal examples). But its use persists, precariously and dangerously:
The danger of a word like “evil” is that it is absolute. The “intense semantic charge” of the word “evil,” Peter Dews writes, “lends itself to exploitation” by whoever uses it. To play the “evil” card is to cut off all debate, and to say that any effort toward rehabilitation or reintegration wouldn’t be worth the risk or heartache. The mark of “evil” demands permanent banishment or death, and we call perpetrators “evil” to relieve the guilt we might feel in applying such sanctions. And yet to try to explain evil, as with brain scans or social conditions, smacks intolerably of absolving it. It suggests that evil is part of the natural order of things, a conclusion that our sense of trust in the world yearns to reject.
The fallacy in contemporary methods of thinking about evil is, I want to suggest, the belief that evil can hold only if the quality of evil is part of an individual’s “authentic” being. It may well be impossible to find a life, examined in great detail, that purely consists of acts of evil—as far as animals and secretaries were concerned, Hitler was a kind, caring man. This multiplicity is what we find confusing or unsettling when discussing individuals as evil or not-evil. We feel a need to reconcile the various and contradicting attributes of a human personality into a coherent—or at least legible—whole.
Roming focuses on the formulation, “X is evil,” rather than, “X committed an evil deed.” Considering the latter formulation is essential for finding a way to approach the former.
This requires us to discard “authenticity” and focus narrowly on a series of not-quite discrete events. The tension in “X is evil” is a result of a belief that while the deed itself may be evil, the individual who commits it cannot be held to be wholly, authentically so. But our sense of what constitutes a person’s character consists of a mosaic of actions and adjectives. If I am a kind man when I feed a stray cat or help a stranger who has fallen and twisted an ankle, the non-cumulative effect of those kindnesses only holds for the individual moments of action. And we say that the actor is “a kind man” because the deed itself is held to be kind.
I believe that we can say that the cold-blooded murder of a dozen and attempted murder of dozens more is an evil deed, in the same way that a deed can be kind.  Similarly, then, in the moment of committing and evil deed (or series of deeds), the actor can be called “an evil man”—even if that term does not hold for all (or any) other deeds he has committed.
In short, my position is that in the moment of committing an evil act, one is behaving in accord with evil; therefore, in the moment of committing the act, its qualities adhere to the actor as well. So what will happen if we chuck “authenticity” out the window? A life will appear to be defined by a series—a multiplicity—of actions and their sticky adjectives. And a life will consist of the accumulation of these actions and adjectives.
A life, then, is defined by its deeds. One may not, on the whole, be “an evil person,” but by committing an evil deed, that evil adheres permanently as a quality that makes up one’s being. One was not permanently, or even lastingly evil—just instantaneously is enough. The single quality doesn’t define or overwhelm the other qualities that adhere from other moments of one’s life, but it is present and forms a part of one’s life that cannot be expunged and informs all those adjectives that stick later.
In terms of responsibility, it doesn’t matter whether I help a stranger on the way back from killing. If I can be lauded for that kindness, I can be accused of that evil. What matters, then, isn’t whether one is “on the whole” or “authentically” evil—but whether one ever was long enough to harm another.
 I’m clearly operating in this post under the assumption that the possibility for evil exists. So I’m going to operate with the premise that human life is a great enough good that its deliberate destruction needs a category beyond the merely criminal—that category would be “evil.” Of course, if we deny the existence of evil outright, this post is a moot point.
[UPDATED 7/30: Added the link to the New Yorker piece, 72 hours too late. Forgive me, all.]