On the Nature of Evil: A Question for the Hive Mind


Tod Kelly

Tod is a writer from the Pacific Northwest. He is also serves as Executive Producer and host of both the 7 Deadly Sins Show at Portland's historic Mission Theatre and 7DS: Pants On Fire! at the White Eagle Hotel & Saloon. He is  a regular inactive for Marie Claire International and the Daily Beast, and is currently writing a book on the sudden rise of exorcisms in the United States. Follow him on Twitter.

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311 Responses

  1. Avatar ethan says:

    Taking event to be somewhat discrete and discontinuous rather than ongoing: Hiroshima and Nagasaki.Report

    • Avatar Shazbot3 in reply to ethan says:


    • Avatar Shazbot3 in reply to ethan says:

      For a single event, the firebombing of Tokyo was probably worse:

      “The next month, 334 B-29s took off to raid on the night of 9–10 March (“Operation Meetinghouse”),[7] with 279 of them dropping around 1,700 tons of bombs. Fourteen B-29s were lost.[8] Approximately 16 square miles (41 km2) of the city were destroyed and some 100,000 people are estimated to have died in the resulting firestorm, more immediate deaths than either of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.[9][10] The US Strategic Bombing Survey later estimated that nearly 88,000 people died in this one raid, 41,000 were injured, and over a million residents lost their homes. The Tokyo Fire Department estimated a higher toll: 97,000 killed and 125,000 wounded. The Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department established a figure of 124,711 casualties including both killed and wounded and 286,358 buildings and homes destroyed. Richard Rhodes, historian, put deaths at over 100,000, injuries at a million and homeless residents at a million.[11] These casualty and damage figures could be low; Mark Selden wrote in Japan Focus:
      The figure of roughly 100,000 deaths, provided by Japanese and American authorities, both of whom may have had reasons of their own for minimizing the death toll, seems to me arguably low in light of population density, wind conditions, and survivors’ accounts. With an average of 103,000 inhabitants per square mile (396 people per hectare) and peak levels as high as 135,000 per square mile (521 people per hectare), the highest density of any industrial city in the world, and with firefighting measures ludicrously inadequate to the task, 15.8 square miles (41 km2) of Tokyo were destroyed on a night when fierce winds whipped the flames and walls of fire blocked tens of thousands fleeing for their lives. An estimated 1.5 million people lived in the burned out areas.[12]”


      War crime.

      I’m also not sure whether to think of how awful an act was in terms of numbers of innocent people killed overall or numbers of people killed as a percentage of the overall population (as Pinker measures violence in his newish book.)Report

    • Avatar Brandon Berg in reply to ethan says:

      Sadly, that probably doesn’t even crack the top 100 in terms of body count. And as bad as it was, it’s not entirely implausible that it saved lives on net by bringing the war to a decisive end.

      I’d argue for the Nanjing Massacre as a better candidate (though still not top three material), for the sheer number of perpetrators and the up-close-and-personal nature of the crimes. It’s one thing for one person to drop a bomb on a city from the air, but for many thousands of soldiers on the ground to massacre civilians by hand…dead is dead, I suppose, but it seems to me that the latter requires a much deeper level of depravity.Report

    • Avatar Snarky McSnarksnark in reply to ethan says:

      Not to justify dropping the bomb, but I’m not so sure that the effect was, in the long reach, good. By 1949, both the US and the USSR had the bomb, and there were constant calls for its deployment (in Korea, in Vietnam, against Cuba, etc.)

      Without the human examples afforded by Hiroshima and Nagasaki, there’s a good chance that the “threshhold” for deploying the bomb would have been lower; with the consequent result of a history of more casual use. Given the American practice of fire-bombing cities, it is hard to make a solid case that nuclear weapons are morally exceptional — they are exceptional because they are more powerful, period.Report

    • Avatar Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to ethan says:

      I think I’d hesitate to use events that could reasonably be considered within the scope of War. This is not to say War is less atrocious or horrific, but events during War are, for lack of a better term, low hanging fruit.

      Events like the Holocaust, on the other hand, represent a more pure (?) evil (not the kind that issues ugly yellow smoke from inside a toaster before vaporizing your parents).

      Internment of Japanese Americans
      The Great PurgeReport

  2. Avatar Sam says:

    European Colonialism in Africa springs immediately to my, both during and especially in its aftermath.Report

    • Avatar Kazzy in reply to Sam says:

      While I agree with you that the effects of EC were horrid, far reaching, and remain ongoing, I think this example plays into what I outline down below, namely about intent.

      My hunch is that a great number of the colonizing powers thought they were actually and genuinely doing good on the “dark continent”. They sure as hell didn’t do much, if any, good. But they likely thought they were doing good, as patronizing and self-serving as that “good” might have been.

      So, I wonder, how much does intent matter and how much does impact matter? And if impact is what matters, then I’ll repeat another question I ask below: Is the man at the slave auction who comes up $1 short on every sale evil?Report

      • Avatar Pierre Corneille in reply to Kazzy says:

        I haven’t read your downthread comments yet, so maybe this is addressed there, but as far as EC and good intentions go, I guess I have two observations/arguments:

        1. Many of the good intentions were either non-existent or thin excuses for extracting as much wealth as possible from the native populations.

        2. I think good intentions, even when sincere, often betray a certain arrogance on the part of the good intender, a certain assumption about the benightedness of one’s subjects and an unmerited confidence in one’s ability to come up with a plan, make it all right, and when it doesn’t turn out all right, to cut one’s losses and run.

        I call these “observations/arguments” because maybe there’s something I’m missing when it comes to colonialism. It’s certainly not my historiographic specialty and any well-informed layperson knows as much as, or more than, I do about the matter. But I’m just putting it out there.Report

  3. Avatar greginak says:

    The Holocaust and the slaughter of many millions by Stalin and his peeps in the 20’s-30’s. To try to specify why i point these out, other than the obvious, i’d rank killing people above slavery and imperialism as bad as they were. The 20th century gave bad guys far more tools and reach to be able to do terrible things. I have no doubt there would have been massacres into the millions hundreds of years ago if they had the tech.Report

  4. Avatar Jaybird says:

    Top Three? The Holodomor, The Holocaust, and The Great Leap Forward.

    That gets us to… what? 50 Million?Report

    • Avatar Tod Kelly in reply to Jaybird says:

      Jay, a follow up question about the Holodomor:

      Is its inclusion predicated on the “Done On Purpose” side of the debate being correct, or would you still include it if it were merely the unintended consequence of bad policy?Report

      • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Tod Kelly says:

        I would think that one, maybe two million, corpses could be shrugged off as being bad policy.

        Hey, these things happen.

        It’s when you get to around 6-7 million that I’m willing to switch to the “done on purpose” and given Stalin’s hints that he took care of 10 million Kulaks (counting deportations, of course), I’m willing to run with “Done On Purpose”.Report

      • Avatar Chris in reply to Tod Kelly says:

        I won’t speak for Jaybird, but I think even if we accept that none of the behaviors that contributed to the famine were punitive, the actions at multiple levels of administration contributed to the famine, and such actions continued even when it was clear that they were doing so. I think that counts as a pretty high degree of evil.Report

        • Avatar Tod Kelly in reply to Chris says:

          So just to make sure I’m reading you correctly, great evil is not directly tied to intent?Report

          • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Tod Kelly says:

            great evil is not directly tied to intent

            Stalin told Churchill about how he took care of the Kulaks. This implies intent.

            I mean, we’re screaming on different threads about parents who don’t want whooping cough vaccines for their kids. Surely Stalin is at least on the level of parents who are avoiding vaccinations for their children…Report

            • Avatar greginak in reply to Jaybird says:

              Is it to early in the thread to bring out the “Lets not argue over who killed who” line. Because someone was going to say it at some point.Report

            • Avatar Tod Kelly in reply to Jaybird says:

              I think you’re defending a position about a specific event here; my intention isn’t to get into arguments for or against Holodomor deniers.

              I’m more curious about Chris’s answer to the general question: does the intent to inflict harm make something more evil than harm committed due to negligence or misfire, or rather do we judge the degree of evil by scale?

              I’ll throw that question out to everyone. Feel free to take Holodomor out of it if that helps.Report

              • Avatar greginak in reply to Tod Kelly says:

                Yes intent matters. The first Europeans settlers to NA spread terrible diseases that killed huge numbers of native Americans. They had no knowledge they were doing that, although certainly years later they did understand. The first outbreaks were terrible but there was intent or understandings. The later epidemics occurred with intent and knowledge of what they were doing. The intent and knowledge makes the later incidents evil.Report

              • Avatar RichardS in reply to greginak says:

                If intent matters, it should be noted the British gave native Americans blankets deliberately infected with smallpox as “gifts”…Report

              • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Tod Kelly says:

                Well, Chris is, like, totally more gooder at this then I am.

                For my part, I’d be willing to say that there is a point at which outcomes are glaring enough that continuance of policy despite demonstrated outcomes indicates revealed preference.Report

              • Avatar Tod Kelly in reply to Jaybird says:

                I would agree with this, or at least I would up to a point.

                In my lifetime I’ve noticed several occasions where US citizens have been made aware of great evils that we might be able to address, and chose to back continuing policies that allowed those things to continue. (The previously mentioned atrocities in Rwanda come to mind.) In these cases I’m not sure there is a preference for horror.

                Now obviously, there is a fundamental difference between a government in immediate control that decides not to help and a government half a planet away that is not in immediate control and consciously decides to stay that way. But it does suggest that our natural repulsion at the horrors of neglect (and our willingness to declare them “not evil”) dissipates with degrees of separation.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Tod Kelly says:

                Well, on an ethical level, is there a difference between “dude punching other dude” and “dude preventing dude from punching another dude”?

                Doing a thing X and not putting effort into preventing someone else from doing thing X seems like an entirely different moral calculus to me.

                To say say the blood on one’s hands would be distributed among all parties seems, if not downright false, to be focusing on the agency of folks whose agency would place them fourth or fifth in line, if we were doing this agency-wise.

                How many peoples’ agency will you overlook? How many will you address as potential solutions that didn’t materialize when they were needed (perhaps because of wrecking)?

                There’s a point at which, it seems to me, that we’re no longer talking about such things as the starving of Europeans but, without warning, started yelling about topics as relevant as 1960’s public transit policy.Report

              • Avatar Chris in reply to Tod Kelly says:

                We can definitely argue over whether failing to act to prevent evil, when it is possible, is evil in the same way that directly causing evil with one’s actions is evil, but this isn’t the issue in Ukraine in the 30s. In that case, it wasn’t a failure to act, but continuing to act in destructive ways even when it became pretty clear that so acting was, in fact, destructive.

                By analogy, if a manufacturing company realizes that its manufacturing process is contaminating the soil and/or water, which is causing people to die, but continues to manufacture things the way it always has, it is doing something evil, even though causing people to die is not what they intended to do. At some point, willful, and knowledgeable indifference to the consequences of one’s actions becomes the same things as intent.Report

              • Avatar Vikram Bath in reply to Tod Kelly says:

                If intent matters, should the Holocaust count? Wasn’t Hitler trying to make the world a better place?

                (Just asking.)Report

              • Avatar RTod in reply to Vikram Bath says:

                Excellent question.

                Also, welcome to the front page, VB!Report

              • Yes, this why I cringe every time I hear the word “evil” used. How is evil really defined? Is there really such a thing as evil and are some people simply evil by nature?

                I don’t think so. It’s all a matter of perspective. Most of those who have been labeled as evil had justifications that made sense to them; they didn’t perceive what they were doing as evil. In fact, many acted in response to something or someone else they viewed as evil.

                So-called evil acts typically happen because there is a failure for one side to understand or appreciate the other’s perspective. It’s more productive to consider the underlying motivations for “evil” acts rather than to simply label them or their perpetrators as evil.Report

              • Avatar Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to Vikram Bath says:

                The truly evil are always the heroes in their own minds.Report

              • The line between intended and unintended consequences is often hard to discern, such that I find it hard to think of a way to fully know intent. I think this is true on a personal level: I cannot fully know all the intents which I I have for any given action, or if I can know the intent–or rather, “intents“–behind my actions, I don’t always know how apportioned they are to the actions themselves.

                Add to this a consideration of intended vs. unintended consequences. They’re part of a continuum, I think, or at least I think it’s useful to think of them that way. If one is so arrogant in one’s own vision to remake the world–say through a five year plan or a great leap forward–then the disastrous consequences are in a sense a part of what was intended even though the exact consequences are not intended.

                Ick,….I’m being unclear, and what I just said doesn’t really answer Tod’s question about how or whether intent is implicated in evil. I guess my answer is, “it’s messy.”Report

          • Avatar Chris in reply to Tod Kelly says:

            I don’t think “great evil” is directly tied to intent to do great evil, no. Sometimes great evil comes from knowingly not doing anything to stop things from happening, even if the intent is not specifically to allow those things to happen.

            The example of the Bengal famine below is a good example of this. It’s not like the English East Indies company was trying to starve the locals to death, but it was a direct consequence of what they were doing, and as a result, pretty damn evil.Report

  5. Avatar Matt says:

    –The Great Leap Forward

    –The Holocaust

    –The Rwandan Civil WarReport

  6. Avatar Shazbot3 says:

    Is slavery in the U.S. a specific, single event, or is that too general?Report

  7. Avatar Shazbot3 says:

    Maybe we could count the Atlantic slave trade as one thing that went on for a long time.

    “A database compiled in the late 1990s put the figure for the transatlantic slave trade at more than 11 million people. For a long time an accepted figure was 15 million, although this has in recent years been revised down. Most historians now agree that at least 12 million slaves left the continent between the 15th and 19th century, but 10 to 20% died on board ships. Thus a figure of 11 million enslaved people transported to the Americas is the nearest demonstrable figure historians can produce.[64] Besides the slaves who died on the Middle Passage itself, even more slaves probably died in the slave raids in Africa. The death toll from four centuries of the Atlantic slave trade is estimated at 10 million. According to William Rubinstein, “… of these 10 million estimated dead blacks, possibly 6 million were killed by other blacks in African tribal wars and raiding parties aimed at securing slaves for transport to America.”[66]”

    That tops the holocaust in total dead, but over a much longer period, of course. And then there was the loss of freedom of those enslaved.

    I’d put that as number #1., unless we are talking about events that take place over less than 7 years or something.Report

  8. Avatar Chris says:

    I would go beyond the Holocaust and include all of World War II, which resulted in ~60 million deaths. The Holocaust, with 11 million dead including both Jewish and non-Jewish victims, is the worst of the evils of this evil, but death on this scale is unfathomably evil. And while Hitler and the Germans bear most of the responsibility, with Japan coming in a close second, the Soviet raping of Germany, the fire bombing of German and Japanese cities, and the dropping of the atomic bombs show that no one came out of that war innocent.

    The Holodomor and the Great Leap forward, the European slave trade, European colonialism, the destruction of the native American and Australian populations (while it’s smaller in scale, what happened in Tasmania is particularly evil), the 30 Years War, the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, all of World War I, but the hours between 5:10 and 11 am on November 11, 1918 in particular (perhaps the most egregious case of pointless violence ever: everyone knew the war was ending at 11 , but they fought on anyway, even launching offensives to take a few yards that, a few hours later, they would be able to occupy uncontested), the Rwandan genocide, Darfur, the Armenian genocide, the first Crusade, and far too many other events are all good candidates.

    Our capacity for evil seems to have spent much of the last several hundred years testing its limits.Report

    • Avatar Tod Kelly in reply to Chris says:

      “I would go beyond the Holocaust and include all of World War II, which resulted in ~60 million deaths. ”

      Huh. That’s an unusually large brush. Would “all” include the US entering into the conflict in Europe? England’s entrance? The French Resistance movement?Report

      • Avatar Chris in reply to Tod Kelly says:

        I was thinking of it more like this: the starting of World War II, and all that it entails. The proximate (moral) cause of this was in Hitler, the Nazis, and the Germany in the West, the Soviets in the middle (they invaded Poland and Finland before Hitler decided they were too big and vulnerable a prize to pass up), and the Japanese in the East (I’d include the occupation of Manchuria as part of World War II, just a preliminary part to it becoming a world war), so they’d bear the most moral responsibility, but there was so much evil done during that war, by everyone, that British and Americans don’t get out without some guilt. There were undoubtedly good things done in the course of fighting that war, but rarely without evil accompanying it. For example, the major Allied forces were finding and liberating concentration camps at the same time they were fire bombing cities in both Europe and Japan, or in the case of the Soviets, raping and pillaging Germans all the way to Berlin. So the starting of the war unleashed a plethora of evil the scale of which the world had never seen, and hopefully never will see again (though one of the evils it unleashed, the atomic bomb, has the potential to produce even greater evil). The starting of the war, and the ways in which it was started, therefore seems like a pretty good candidate for the most evil act or set of acts in human history.Report

  9. Avatar b-psycho says:

    Slavery, genocide of the indigenous people of North America, and the Holocaust.

    Someone said above that killing was worse than enslaving, I strongly disagree. If given the unfortunate “choice” between slavery & simply being killed, I’d pick death without the slightest hesitation. Without freedom life is worthless anyway.Report

    • Avatar greginak in reply to b-psycho says:

      Well have a nice suicide. People suffered and survived in concentration camps. They were lucky to survive, but they did and they were able to re-build a life. Slaves can dream of and try to escape. Hell in the Civil War some escaped slaves could go back down to the South and free others. Life contains hope.Report

  10. Avatar Shazbot5 says:

    Does anyone here expect the Spanish Inquisition will be an answer?Report

  11. Avatar MoniqueWS says:

    Armenian genocide in Turkey. Does it just have to be about numbers? The Turks not only killed the Armenians they removed their gravestones. The Turk government took over all the assets and cultural artifacts of the Armenians so it would appear the Armenians never even lived in Turkey.Report

  12. Avatar Mike Schilling says:

    Too many choices to narrow it down it down to just three. I’ll just add the Cambodian self-genocide to the list. Partly for its own sake, and partly because even after all the facts were well-known, my country made the realpolitik decision to fund the Khmer Rouge in its fight against Vietnam.Report

  13. Avatar NewDealer says:

    1. The 1930s-40s were a rather dark decade in World history and it is hard to pick out one event in general but they all were highly ideologically motivated so it fits under your Ideology is the Enemy thesis. These events include but are not limited to: The entire Nazi Regime especially the Holocaust, The Stalinist Purge Trials, The Spanish Civil War (Franco and his illegal coup), the Rape of Nanking and other atrocities committed by Japan to show they could be an Imperial Power. The US had her own dark history during this time like the Scotsboro Boys, lynchings, the mistreatment and abuse of Dust Bowl refugees/Oakies, Isolationism and failure to respond to the situation in Europe quickly including limiting immigration for victims of Nazi persecution.

    2. Slavery and the continued problems of racism and bigotry caused by slavery/Jim Crow aka Institutionalized Racism. Though my own ideology is at work here. I seethe when I hear people talk about “The War of Northern Aggression”

    3. The Inquisition/The Programs, and the damage caused by the false document known as The Protocols of the Elders of Zion*.

    *This was a forgery produced by the Czarist police from which we get the “Jews are a secret cabal that control the world’s finances meme”. I’ve heard people in liberal San Francisco say this meme and then insist they are not anti-Semitic with a straight face.Report

    • Avatar Kimsie in reply to NewDealer says:

      Ever heard the actual figures?
      “I’ve heard people in liberal San Francisco say this meme and then insist they are not anti-Semitic with a straight face.”

      … thought not.

      (note: if you can’t talk through the Quaker involvement in the world of high finance, you haven’t been looking)Report

  14. Avatar NewDealer says:

    Also Kenny G does not age! So he must have made some Dorian Gray-esque pact with the Devil!


    • Avatar Brandon Berg in reply to NewDealer says:

      Somewhere in his attic, there’s a CD with a picture of an aged Kenny G, three-foot-long locks of curly grey hair rimmed around his otherwise bald head, like the fruit of a drunken tryst between a jellyfish and a horeshoe.Report

    • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to NewDealer says:

      It’s understandable why folks be hating on Kenny G. It’s the same reason they be hating on Phil Collins.

      Back in the day, before jazz fusion had completely disgraced itself, Jeff Lorber had a band. Kenny Gorelick played sax in it. At the time, lots of bands were trying to blend pop with jazz. Some of those mixtures were startlingly horrible, others quite palatable. Nobody remembers Jeff Lorber now except in a few circles.

      Phil Collins had played long, intricate, demanding music for Genesis for years — and never got a hit record. Peter Gabriel and Genesis had blown the doors off what then passed for top-shelf stage performances: pretty much every motorised light show you’ll see these days uses technology first developed for Genesis. They’d worked so hard, had Gabriel and Collins and the boys, to write intelligent, thoughtful, music — and they wanted a hit so bad they could taste it.

      Kenny G went off on his own. Gabriel left to do his own thing, putting Phil Collins in the driver’s seat of Genesis, eventually to operate under his own moniker. Best thing to happen to all of them. To some precious souls, they’d sold out — but they also sold records.

      It’s fun, having a gibe at the expense of musicians who never vary from the tonic by more than a passing chord here and there. But that’s why it’s called the tonic. It sells.

      Only poseurs get schnappy about working musicians. You so schmart, why you no rich?Report

  15. Avatar Mike Schilling says:

    Also, I can’t understand how no one mentioned the Star Wars Holiday Special.Report

  16. Avatar Patrick says:

    Generally speaking I’d give more weight to “governments inflicting evil upon their own citizens” over “government screwing over citizens of other governments or indiscriminately slaughtering random people here and there”.

    Not because one human life is greater than another; simply because the first function of a government should be to preserve the citizenry, and there’s something that strikes me as “more evil” for inflicting harm on your own citizens.

    The killing of the other feeds upon the proclivities of the species. We’re kinda inclined to get rid of the other.

    The killing of your own is self destructive on additional levels of abstraction. It requires more… I don’t know. More intent. More calculation.


    Stalin, Hitler, the Great Leap Forward, Khmer Rouge strike me as all pretty good candidates for the big three, but there are certainly others.

    Slavery, the slaughter of civilians in war, the subjugation of women, they’re remarkable candidates on their own.Report

  17. Avatar Ken says:

    Just to throw a few more into the mix:

    – The Japanese occupation of Manchuria
    – The US war on the Plains Indians/Trail of Tears
    – The Colonization of AfricaReport

  18. Avatar Shazbot5 says:

    I’ll go for:

    1. The Atlantic Slave Trade
    2. The Holocaust
    3.The Firebombing of Tokyo

    The first is the worst event in the category of awful events that spanned decades/centuries. The second is the worst event in the category that spanned months and years. The third is the worst event that spanned hours and days.

    Racism by western Christians is the cause of all three.Report

    • Avatar Kazzy in reply to Shazbot5 says:

      I was tempted to say, “Writing and adopting the Bible,” but went with what I said below instead.Report

      • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Kazzy says:

        For all the crap that people throw at the Christians and the Bible, it’s amazing how many of those same people will cravenly kowtow to the demands of every other religion. Try saying that about Islam and the Qur’an and watch what happens to this post — and blog. A shitstorm will arrive like the tornadoes that came through here yesterday.

        Really, I don’t expect this place to have any respect for Christianity or anyone else’s belief structures. It’s fashionable to damn Christians and Christianity. They won’t fight back any more.Report

        • Avatar Shazbot5 in reply to BlaiseP says:

          Racism from Islamic people and Jews and everyone is bad, too. Just didn’t make my top 3.Report

          • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Shazbot5 says:

            The Atlantic Slave Trade was a market run by Muslims. The Christians were the people who stood up to oppose slavery in the USA. Learn some history. The Holocaust’s first victims were priests and pastors, homosexuals, Seventh Day Adventists. It was not conducted by Christians: a little more history for you to learn, Shazbot. The Firebombing of Tokyo was conducted by the USA, explicitly not a Christian nation, in response to the attack on Pearl Harbor, conducted by a cult of Emperor worshippers in Japan. More history for you to learn.

            Your contempt for my faith is pretty obvious by now. Your contempt for the facts, also.Report

            • Avatar ThatPirateGuy in reply to BlaiseP says:

              Christianity did not have a unified voice on slavery.

              We both know that the south’s preachers quoted the bible in support of slavery.

              There is a current controversy involving a prominent preacher who claims that to accept the bible literally you must conclude that slavery in general is not wrong.

              To declare that the Christianities of slavery era America had a single position on slavery is to ignore facts.Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to ThatPirateGuy says:

                Frederick Douglass observed the same dichotomy. Nonetheless, it was the Christians who stood up against slavery first. William Wilberforce, William Penn and the Quakers. You will not attempt to weasel out of the history of the Abolition Movement. All this sophomoric gas-passing about how the Christians created the Slave Trade. The Christians were customers of the Islamic slavers who had also been enslaving American sailors in North Africa. I will not look to the likes of you for any statement about Islam’s role in this, nor of its continuing role in the enslavement of thousands.Report

              • Avatar Shazbot5 in reply to BlaiseP says:

                Given that the population of the U.S. and Europe at the time was overwhelmingly Christian, it is no surprise that the abolitionists were Christian.

                I’ll gove Christianity credit for abolition, if you give it blame for the slave trade.

                Actually, it is very difficult to suss out what religions should be blamed for, causally. I get that.Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Shazbot5 says:

                You oughta see if you can patent that Fact Free Baloney. Weight Watchers would be awfully interested in your recipe.Report

              • Avatar Kimsie in reply to Shazbot5 says:

                Causually? You can blame the Crusades on Christianity.
                Can’t with the slave trade — that made mostly economic sense. Just like wars are economic things, by and large…Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Kimsie says:

                You can blame the Crusades on whatever you’d like. Blame is the argument of the weak: the stick with which losers beat winners. It is also the domain of the stupid and the sophos-moros contrarian. There were Christian kingdoms and Muslim kingdoms. They fought each other. Charles Martel, Battle of Tours. The Muslims got as far as France before they were stopped. Sometimes they were allied with western kingdoms. Sometimes they weren’t.

                Nobody rattles on about those Horrible Muslims, quite the contrary, the Moors are presented as noble folks who built the Alhambra. They subjugated the Christians and the Jews under their control, pretty brutally, too. Most people don’t realise the Muslims conducted the devshirmeh, a harvest of Christian boys.

                The Muslims ran the slave trade, still do. We in the West evolved. The Muslims didn’t.Report

              • Avatar Fnord in reply to Kimsie says:

                I blame agriculture.Report

              • Avatar Kimsie in reply to ThatPirateGuy says:

                The South’s preachers were often as not abolitionist. Or didn’t you study the Scotch Irish in history class?Report

            • Avatar Shazbot5 in reply to BlaiseP says:

              “The Atlantic Slave Trade was a market run by Muslims”

              Depends on when you’re talking about. After 1800 and before the trade rampled up, it was run by Muslim traders. But at it’s peak, when it was worst, it was run by Christians, and very much feeding demand in Christian countries.

              Without the toxic mix of racsism amd Christianity, there is no slavery.

              “It was not conducted by Christians: a little more history for you to learn, Shazbot. The Firebombing of Tokyo was conducted by the USA, explicitly not a Christian nation,”

              Yeah, the people who conducted the firebombing weren’t racist against asians and Christian. Sure.

              Yeah, the people who conducted the Holocaust weren’t racist against Jews and Christian, because of their Christian anti-semitism. Sure.

              “The Christians were the people who stood up to oppose slavery in the USA.”

              Also, the Christians were the people who owned and advocated for owning slaves in the USA for centuries.Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Shazbot5 says:

                No it bloody well wasn’t. Read Wilberforce’s On the Horrors of the Slave Trade.

                I lived in Nigeria and Niger. When I was a little boy, the French were still putting down the slave trade among the Tuareg in Niger Republic, the very people who’d been rounding up the slaves in the first place, sweeping south in ghazw raids, where they’d sell their captives for silver, gunpowder, ammunition and rifles, thus perpetuating the trade.

                There was a vast slave market at Badagry: the Europeans and Americans bought slaves like so many cattle at auction. All this crap about how the Europeans went raiding: they were merely customers.

                Hereafter, I’m leaving you alone. You’re just not worth the trouble. You don’t bring any facts to the discussion.Report

              • Avatar Shazbot5 in reply to BlaiseP says:

                Did you live in Africa in the 18th century?

                The Transatlantic Slave Trade from 1600 to 1800, when it was at its peak, involved Arab Muslims only in a minor way, at the point of capture as they were busy taking slaves from East Africa. The capture was performed often by local tribes. Some Muslims were involved in this, and some Muslims were likely taken as slaves.

                I thought about listing the Arab Slave Trade (which was largely, but not entirely separate), but it ranged over a much longer time and is harder to see as a single event.

                Maybe it could be the worst event spanning a millenium. Indeed, I will make it that:

                0. The Arab Slave Trade (Worst over a millenium)
                1. The Transatlantic Slave Trade (Worst over centuries/decades)
                2. The Holocaust (Worst over months/years)
                3. The Firebombing of Tokyo (Worst over Days/Hours)Report

              • Avatar Shazbot5 in reply to BlaiseP says:

                And I am glad you won’t talk to me. It allows all our conversations to be one way.Report

              • Avatar Barry in reply to BlaiseP says:

                BlaiseP, it wasn’t *the* Christians; it was a minority. Quakers are rather distant from mainstream Christianity.Report

            • Avatar Shazbot5 in reply to BlaiseP says:

              I have contempt for Christian racists. Not Christians in general. I am particularly okay with Kierkegaardian fideism, intellectually speaking, and Christian pacifism, emotionally speaking.

              You can say the Christianity didn’t cause the racism. That’s fIne. But that mix of Christianity (and the zeal to conquer and spread Christianity) and racism in powerful European countries is the worst thing the world has ever seen.Report

            • Avatar Barry in reply to BlaiseP says:

              Please stop lying; the people running the slave ships across the Atlantic were certainly Christian. For every Christian opposing slavery, there was one supporting it – otherwise, that trade wouldn’t have happened.

              As for the Holocaust, at the early points it wasn’t the Holocaust, just a dictatorship f-cking over anybody who opposed it. Please note that the whole principle of the Holocaust is that one’s politics didn’t matter.Report

          • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Shazbot5 says:

            But I do urge you, dare you, to make the claims for Islam that you do for Christianity. Within 24 hours, this place will be inundated in irate Muslims.Report

            • Avatar PPNL in reply to BlaiseP says:

              I for one view the treatment of women under the muslim religion as one of the great on going evils in the world today. By any direct rational analysis the muslem religion is much worse than christianity. They would set the clock back to the twelfth century. Christians only seek to set it back to the eighteenth century.

              But the thing is it is christians who hold power over me. If our children are forced to pay hommage to other peoples gods it will not be done by muslems. If their science classes teach religious fables it will not be muslem fables. If I run for political office it will not be muslem voters rejecting me without even listening. It was not muslems that sent Jessica Ahlquist hate mail nor a muslem state rep who called her an evil little thing.

              So yes most of my criticism of religion will be against christians. That does not change the contempt and horror I feel toward the practice of the muslem religion. And it does not change my moral responsibility to defend the right of free people to practice horrible religions.Report

              • Avatar Kimsie in reply to PPNL says:

                There are TONS of muslim countries. I’m not certain you’ve looked at most of ’em. In my not so humble opinion, the worst excesses tend to be considered wrong by about every single muslim I’ve ever talked to. (stoning young girls, say… or genital mutilation).Report

              • Avatar PPNL in reply to Kimsie says:

                Even the most moderate muslem countries tend to be far more religiously restrictive than I can accept.

                Egypt is often mentioned as one of the most moderate muslem countries. They recently sentenced seven people to death in absentia for a film they made. This is largely symbolic but still. Egyptian atheists really can’ t be very public as they would likely be killed. If they are lucky the government will get to them first and they will only be jailed.

                At one time Pakistan would have been the most secular I think. That just shows how precarious secularism is in these countries.

                The thing is religion itself is not evil. It is stupid like believing in UFOs or bigfoot but not necessarily any more evil than these. It does however act as a lightning rod for evil.

                But then who is the harlot?Report

              • Avatar Kimsie in reply to PPNL says:

                People who mention Egypt as a moderate Muslim country only do so because they are ignorant. What they perhaps meant was that its rulers encouraged secularism. New rulers, new rule.

                If you want a country that never donned the hijab, take a gander at Kazakhstan.

                Far more secular than Pakistan, I’d say.Report

              • Avatar PPNL in reply to Kimsie says:

                Well Kazakhstan had a leg up on secularism by being part of the soviet union for so long. That is a brutal way to become secular.

                They also have cultural diversity but again because they were a convenient place for the Soviet Union to dump ethnic minorities. Again a pretty brutal way to achieve diversity.

                They also have a low population density that helps people just get along.

                Even so there is rising religious tension and the government is increasingly forcing more restrictive registration requirements on religions. I foresee bad things in the future. As the Soviet forced secularism decays there is a good chance of civil war.

                And of course currently atheist journalist Aleksandr Kharlamov is being held for trial for “inciting religious hatred”. Chances are good he will do about seven years unless international pressure forces them to release him.Report

              • Avatar Lyle in reply to PPNL says:

                Look at east asian Islam not arab islam unless you mean the arab variety. Take Indonesia which is the largest primarily Islamic country, or Malaya. It is in general a different form of Islam than the tribally based form in the Middle East.Report

            • Avatar Barry in reply to BlaiseP says:

              BlaiseP, please point to even one thread on this blog which has been inundated by irate Muslims.Report

        • Avatar Kazzy in reply to BlaiseP says:


          I actually think this is a fair critique. Personally, I am more critical of Christianity than I am of other faiths for two reasons:
          A) Christianity is the most dominant religion, both in America and worldwide, and has been for some time; it is the Yankees of faith
          B) As a former Christian who still lives in a very Christian world, I feel the particular sting of Christianity, know it well, and feel more comfortable criticizing it since I was once (and probably largely still am) a Christian

          So, that is *part* of the reason I single out Christianity. Of course, if the Bible was never written, some other religion would have reared its ugly head, dominated the world, and likely become the Dallas Cowboys of faith.

          However, I will also concede that I am more likely to bash Christians than Muslims or Jews or other religions because the former are so privileged and empowered, while the others are often marginalized and/or the subject of persecutions in a way that Christians, en masse*, are not. I can say, “The writing of the Bible was evil,” without worrying that some jackhole legislator is going to propose banning the Bible. If I said, “The writing of the Koran was evil,” some folks with real power would use those words or others like them to justify further persecution of Muslims.

          All that said, if you are more comfortable with being saying, “The growth of organized religion as a whole,” I can certainly walk back my Christian-specific comment.

          * I recognize that there were and are instances of Christians being persecuted for their faith. But, speaking as a group, particularly in American and Western society, such is not the case.Report

          • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Kazzy says:

            I’m sick of it. I’ll put this out there plain and stinky. Everyone thinks they’re so fucking cool, slamming Christianity as if it’s the worst thing ever to appear in the history of mankind. They wouldn’t dream of insulting any other religion the way they do with Christianity.

            I’m not here to make any excuses for Christianity. Plenty of evil has been done in its name and far more evil has been done by those who claim allegiance to it. Christianity has served as a mighty engine of tyranny through history. I won’t deny any of it. I’m stuck with my faith, for better or worse. Others may wander around in a funk, clutching their heads and wondering why God does this or allows that.

            What the hell do you want of me? To grimly admit to every ignorant, mean-spirited thing said of the faith which guided me all my life, gave me hope when there was none, got me through a serious drug addiction and PTSD, led me to see the suffering of the world through the eyes of Jesus Christ — to say my faith is all a delusion, a lie, worse, a conscious fraud on this place? Is that what you want of me?

            May the lot of you live to eat your lofty words. My faith may be a delusion but it’s my delusion and it’s deluded millions of faithful people to care for a suffering world in the spirit of Jesus Christ. And I will cherish it all my life. There are things beyond explanation, miracles you ignore and discount at your peril. You want to see a miracle? My life is that miracle.

            Feel free to despise Christianity, feel its sting. Rant and holler and carry on about it, Christians are always up for that sort of cheap talk. We get it a lot. I’m not going to indulge in any self-pity or take umbrage. I’m going to give as good as I get on this subject. You wouldn’t dare talk about Jews or Muslims or Hindus or anyone else’s faith that way. The example of Jesus Christ is still there and I may be a very poor exemplar of it. All this brave horse shit about how Christianity came to dominate this part of the world and how you’re going to give it a just comeuppance. Just you try. Just you try.Report

            • Avatar Kimsie in reply to BlaiseP says:

              Were it not for Christian charity, my husband would not be alive today. (The Mennonites, in case you’re interested).

              Christianity has a lot to atone for — but really, all anyone can ask for is that we each do our part. Tikkun Olam, helping G-d to fix this broken world of ours.

              And, for god’s sakes, dude, it’s not your faith that’s currently engaging in biological warfare against heretics! 😉 [yes, yes it is embarrassing. flinging dirty diapers around yeshivas. downright stupid AND dangerous]Report

            • Avatar CK MacLeod in reply to BlaiseP says:

              The irony of the conventional indictment of Christianity is that it is done, usually quite unconsciously and certainly quite ungenerously on Christian or Judeo-Christian moral terms – usually some patchwork of Judaic commandments and the Sermon on the Mount – asserted as if simply obvious to all, or “self-evident,” or perhaps organic and genetic. The common indictment of Christianity, usually even of particular Christians, for hypocrisy, will be performed in some imitation of Matthew 23, the work which can be said to have defined “hypocrisy” as we now understand the term, and will in that sense be utterly hypocritical.Report

            • Avatar Shazbot5 in reply to BlaiseP says:

              “it’s my delusion”

              Nothing wrong with delusions, as long as you know they’re delusions. That’s what Kierkegaardian fideism is all about. Romantic love is a delusion too.

              Judaism and Islam are delusions too.

              I only have 4 things to argue for:

              1. Don’t pretend the metaphysical aspects of religion have a rational basis. They don’t.
              2. Hold only the good parts of the ethics of religious belief and admit the rest is nonsense or pernicious crap, e.g. the anti-women, anti-gay stuff. No apologetics for really awful stuff.
              3. Realize that the good ethical parts of religion can be believed without believing the religion, or the metaphysical stuff. I as an atheist am committed to morality as much as any theist.
              4. Admit that it is just as easy to live life meaningfully and be saved from alcoholism or any other tragedy without belief in religion as it is with belief in religion. Existentialism is as good an option as Christianity, and if you believe in Christianity knowing that it is a delusion, that is a form of Existentialism. (Indeed, Blaise, I don’t know you, but it aounds like your life was saved by making an existential commitment to something greater than yourself. You could’ve committed to something else and been saved too.)

              Sorry to offend you so often. Almost all of my loved ones are Christians, some devoutly so. I was raised Christian.Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Shazbot5 says:

                Heh. Shazbot, you’re a Sphinx without a Riddle.Report

              • Avatar Shazbot5 in reply to BlaiseP says:

                I also once peed in a drinking fountain.Report

              • Avatar Shazbot5 in reply to Shazbot5 says:

                I am quite happy to talk about the flaws of Islam and Judaism.

                I worry that some of those discussions can become racist. IMO, the Danish cartoon controversy set people off because of the Islamophobic, anti-middle eastern racism as much as the religious criticism.

                Indeed, I knew a lot of atheistic folks from Muslim countries who were offended by the cartoons.

                And given that our elected government has killed a lot of Muslims amd will kill more tomorrow, I am sensitive to avoiding anything that would contribute to anti-Arab, anti-Persian (anti-middle eastern, anti-brown people) racism.

                Same with anti-semitism.Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Shazbot5 says:

                I’m sure you would like to talk about other people’s flaws. They abound in nature. They’re particularly obnoxious in religions, each of which seems to make exclusive claim to the True Faith.

                Your own flaws and shortcomings, well, this is a very different matter indeed. When it comes to exclusive claims to truth, all the faithful are equally deluded. But not all is lost, folks. Hope yet remains and for this we must be thankful. The Great Shazbot will guide us to truth, justice, mercy and furthermore outfit us all in nice red uniforms.

                Sadly, no comfy chair.Report

              • Avatar Shazbot5 in reply to BlaiseP says:

                I like to talk about what is true and false. We have no reason to believe the claims “God exists.” or “We should stone gay people.” are true.

                When we believe the truth, we will be closer to a better world.

                This is some sad attempt to straw man my position by implying that I personally think I will save the world. Of course, I said and believe no such thing. Quit being silly.Report

              • Avatar Kazzy in reply to Shazbot5 says:

                “I am quite happy to talk about the flaws of Islam and Judaism.

                I worry that some of those discussions can become racist. IMO, the Danish cartoon controversy set people off because of the Islamophobic, anti-middle eastern racism as much as the religious criticism.”

                I spoke here earlier about the Haredi Satmars in my town. In conversations with other locals, I speak critically of their faith and how it plays out in our community. It doesn’t take long for the conversation to shift from, “They have antiquated notions of sex, marriage, the role of women, and the need to fiercely defend their community, all of which create real issues in 21st century America,” to, “Well, you know how those people are,” to, “Don’t vote for the new school bus initiative because the old busses go to the Orthodox and fuck those guys.”

                As legitimate as that first comment might be, the convo quickly devolves in a way that has the potential for real dire consequences. So I carefully pick my spots.Report

            • Avatar PPNL in reply to BlaiseP says:

              Easy dude, I don’t hate christianity although I do despise much of what has been done in its name. The truth is we probably would have found a reason to do those things no matter what religion we had or even with no religion.

              Religion is a lightning rod for all our hopes fears and desires. This makes it useful for getting over drug addiction or other problems. It is also useful for building a sense of community and social ties. But with the good comes the bad. It can make people and worse communities judgmental, paternalistic, xenophobic and down right ugly.

              But the usefulness and seductiveness of religion does not make it true. A Buddhist, Hindu or island volcano worshiper gets the same benefit. They can’t all be true.

              Maybe some day you will put down the crutch of religion but I don’t really care that much. On a list of all the things in this world that need to happen that is so far down the list that it simply does not matter.

              But you do need to understand that religion has a horrible failure mode. Just be careful with your new drug.Report

              • Avatar zic in reply to PPNL says:


                My only quibble would be ‘new drug.’ It’s a drug as old as story.

                /developing a serious case of hero worship.Report

              • Avatar PPNL in reply to zic says:

                Yes but if it helped him overcome a drug addiction it was a new drug for him. Kinda like methadone treatment.

                He again repeated the common claim that atheists only hate Christianity. What do I have to do? Draw Mohamed? Link to Mohamed and Mo cartoons? Wear a shirt saying “Stop worrying, the volcano god probably does not exist. Relax and enjoy life.”? Explain the physics behind thunder and lightning to disprove the Thor hypothesis? Explain the geology of the grand canyon to show that it probably was not carved out by the beak of a giant eagle?Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to PPNL says:

                What a pantload. I didn’t say atheists only hate Christianity. I said this bunch only hates Christianity.Report

              • Avatar PPNL in reply to BlaiseP says:

                What bunch dude? Your post was in reply to Kazzy who explained that yes they criticize christianity but because it is the locally dominant, empowered and as a former or current member knows it well.

                These seem like valid reasons.

                I can’t say I agree much with blaming christianity for slavery. I don’t think it can be reasonably blamed on muslims either. I think slavery would have pretty much happened anyway. Again religion is only a lightning rod, a place where cultural norms are justified after the fact. Christianity also caught the lightning of the abolitionist movement. The good can come with the bad. Neither is an argument for truth.

                But remember religion plays on your passions, loyalties and emotions. You are playing with fire. Religion may not be the direct cause of war but it certainly is a weapon of war.

                Be careful, it has a horrible failure mode.Report

              • Avatar zic in reply to BlaiseP says:

                Christianity isn’t to blame for slavery, men are. And those men used Christianity to craft a justification for slavery: they were perfecting the African race for God; I’ve read dozens of sermons that said that; and said that when the African Race was ready, God would redeem them from slavery.

                After those same slaves were redeemed, those same men had a different song to sing, one about ‘state’s rights,’ etc.; they never had much to say on all their Christian justifications for their evil actions.

                Which suggests that the whole Christian aspect of slavery were convenient, but failed to hold much real meaning when their prophecy came true — the slaves were redeemed, for though I looked, I never saw a single sermon proclaiming their godly work finished, a mission of success.Report

            • Avatar Kazzy in reply to BlaiseP says:

              “What the hell do you want of me?”

              Nothing. Did it seem I was asking for anything?

              I’m bothered by organized religion in general. I find specific aspects of different faiths deplorable. I spoke/speak specifically of Christianity for the reasons offered and acknowledged a certain bias.

              What more do you want from me? To feel differently about my former faith?Report

      • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Kazzy says:

        The Code of Hammurabi.Report

    • Avatar Brandon Berg in reply to Shazbot5 says:

      The firebombing of Tokyo over the crimes of Stalin and/or Mao? Was ability to support that last zinger a criterion for inclusion in the list?Report

      • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Brandon Berg says:

        Oh, Brandon. Don’t you know America’s the Designated Guilty Party for any given catastrophe in the world? If you don’t, well, you do now.Report

      • Avatar Shazbot5 in reply to Brandon Berg says:


        Did you see what I wrote about 3 categories of events: taking decades centuries or decades, taking months or years, and taking days or hours.

        Each of my top 3 was a winner in one of the categories.Report

    • Avatar Patrick in reply to Shazbot5 says:

      Why does the firebombing of Tokyo earn particular reference in a war where carpet bombing civilian population centers was the norm?Report

      • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to Patrick says:

        I was wondering that, and especially I was wondering about that particular racism claim, given what was done to Dresden, etc. I guess that particular strain of racism is blind to the color of people’s skin (which I grant is a perfectly real kind of racism).Report

      • Avatar Shazbot5 in reply to Patrick says:

        It is worst single loss or intentional murder of civilians on a single day. It was like 100 9/11’s all wrapped into one.

        If the norm counts as making something less evil, then slavery isn’t evil, because it was the norm. Intentionally burning innocent people to death en mass in the biggest bonfire of all time is not moral, even during war time. If the Nazi’s did it, we’d condemn it.

        “The Operation Meetinghouse air raid of 9–10 March 1945 was later estimated to be the single most destructive bombing raid in history.[2]

        The Operation Meetinghouse firebombing of Tokyo on the night of 9/10 March 1945 was the single deadliest air raid of World War II;[2] greater than Dresden,[13] Hiroshima, or Nagasaki as single events.[14][15

        The figure of roughly 100,000 deaths, provided by Japanese and American authorities, both of whom may have had reasons of their own for minimizing the death toll, seems to me arguably low in light of population density, wind conditions, and survivors’ accounts. With an average of 103,000 inhabitants per square mile (396 people per hectare) and peak levels as high as 135,000 per square mile”


        • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to Shazbot5 says:

          This, again, raises the question of why we are doing this. Why argue about which one of these was the worst when it was a general Allied strategic choice to fight the war against the enemy nations’ will to continue fighting by incinerating large parts of major population centers? That was an arguably evil choice, and it wasn’t made in particular respect to Tokyo. It was made in respect to how to fight the war generally. I don’t really see the point in going to such great rhetorical lengths to single out the Tokyo action over others – including not in Japan or in Asia at all – that happened due to essentially the same moral calculus. Fighting rhetorically to make the point that the Tokyo campaign ought to make some particular list while Dresden and Nagasaki should be pushed somewhere further down it seems like a weird point to go to much trouble to make.

          The better point to make, it seems to me, would be to say that the eventual Allied decision to fight the war by bombing mass population centers resulted in north of a quarter million civilian deaths that were not incidental to any legitimate military targets. Of course, you’d have to allow that some of those people were white Europeans.

          But then I’m still not interested in where that total puts that decision on the Scale of Evils. It was bad. That’s all I know.Report

          • Avatar Patrick in reply to Michael Drew says:

            The better point to make, it seems to me, would be to say that the eventual Allied decision to fight the war by bombing mass population centers resulted in north of a quarter million civilian deaths that were not incidental to any legitimate military targets.

            I’m not so sure that this even boils down to “the Allied decision”. When you’re talking about something as particular as war, you’re talking about pretty complex decision trees and a lot of the intermediate decisions are made by multiple parties.

            If your enemy is willing to bomb the crap out of your civilian population centers because you’re engaged in total war and your civilian population centers are significantly geared towards supporting the war effort, refusal to meet that strategy is likely to lead to you losing.

            Remember, we largely beat the Germans by outproducing them. We largely outproduced them because in 1944 and 1945 almost 90% of federal expenditures were geared toward the war effort and those federal expenditures were nearly 40% of GDP.

            My understanding is that by 1944, basically the entire German economy plus that of occupied nations was devoted to the war effort. I don’t have solid numbers, but in 1943 the Luftwaffe was a shadow of its 1938 self and the Allies already had air superiority, and they didn’t concentrate on industrial targets, and Germany under Speer produced twice as many tanks as they did in 1942.

            Bombing the crap out of entire cities was very likely the only way to curtail production sufficiently to hamper Axis activities.

            Now, you can argue that it’s still immoral (I’m on record with “all war is immoral”, myself), but you don’t go to war to lose.Report

          • Avatar George Turner in reply to Michael Drew says:

            I don’t consider it particularly evil, since it was part of a strategic calculation aimed at stopping atrocities that would continue if they weren’t eventually stopped. The reasoning was incorrect, as the post-war allied bombing survey showed, but that was because conventional bombing of cities doesn’t produce the feeling of helplessness and despair that had been anticipated, nor the crippling amounts of damage required for long term effects to start showing up in meaningful ways. Atomic bombings, however, do seem to produce the desired results.

            Moving forward, we entered into a chess game, and our opponents were logical players. It didn’t take us long to just write off Americans living in major cities, so they’re considered expendable and largely irrelevant. We know that in any major conflict they’re going to have their skin burned off and their bodies blown into high velocity fragments. It doesn’t mean that the enemy launch crews are evil, nor their commanders, if their commanders intentions are honest and just. We will counter-strike with equal or greater devastation and then life will go on, absent large swaths of society’s drunken naive tweets.

            The evil is what communists were doing to the people under their control, not what they were threatening to do to us. More simply, the measure of man is how he treats his own family and charges, not how his actions play out in a stand-up street fight to the death.Report

          • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to Michael Drew says:

            P & G –

            I wasn’t arguing the evil point. Perhaps it wasn’t evil, perhaps it was, I’m not taking a position on that in this subthread. (Though I think that my statement that a number of casualties on that order happened that were not incidental to a legitimate military target stands – if you’re at the point of winning be degrading overall societal production capacity because it’s what fuels the war effort, then you’re at a point where you’re fighting the war against the civilian populace and not the country’s military. Beyond that, my understanding of the strategic logic of these campaigns is that, while it was claimed that military capacity (via general industrial capacity) was the immediate target base, in fact the strategic objective was to degrade societal will to fight – essentially to pound the civilian population into submission and even into active opposition to any policy of prolonging war by sustaining military resistance. Kill the people until they demand their leaders surrender or at least become much less resolved in support of their war effort, essentially. That’s all contested and I might be operating on historical mumbo-jumbo, but that’s my thumbnail understanding of what the Allies were up to with these bombings in 1945 – whether in Dresden, Tokyo, Nagasaki, or Hiroshima.)

            In any case my point was just to say that if there’s evil there, it seems to me that it’s in the decision to pursue that kind of campaign in that particular war, since (whatever else we might say about it) it was obviously a coordinated strategic choice made about how to achieve a final defeat of the Axis that was implemented across theaters during the course of 1945, and that there’s not a lot of analytic purpose to pointing to the manifestation of the policy in one place (Tokyo) as particularly important to note as compared to others (Dresden), given that doing so inevitably diminishes the extent to which we make note of other places where it happened (Dresden, Hiroshima, etc.).

            I mean, it’s fine. My point all along has been that I don’t really know how to parse this stuff, nor, past a certain level of horror (way below this level), why to. It’s just that insisting on the importance of the firebombing of Tokyo in particular seems kind of like going some effort atto argue that it’s important that Auschwitz be the thing that goes on the list rather than the Holocaust – which no one seems to think is important. And perhaps there’s reason to do that – or perhaps there’s good reason not to do that, but to do what Shazbot is doing re the population center bombing (i.e. distinguish and emphasize a local manifestation of a broader policy in the one case but not the other). I don’t know – and I don’t know why it matters. To me, all this just more or less just continues to reinforce my feeling that there’s something of a lack of sense to what we’re doing here.Report

            • Any discussion of events that did not merely change but made our world as we know it is an invitation to indulge in historical fallacy. The result is almost always the same: a hobby horse rodeo – just as in the parallel discussion of religion, which also appears on this thread. That it does shouldn’t be surprising, since it is eventually the same discussion.Report

  19. Avatar J. Otto Pohl says:

    I haven’t seen the following here.

    1. King Leopold’s Congo Free State which killed an estimated 10 million people through forced labor.

    2. The mass expulsion of ethnic Germans from East Central Europe including Stalin’s deportation of the Volga, Black Sea, and Caucasian Germans to Siberia and Kazakhstan. In total this may have resulted in as many as 2 million dead and over 15 million permanently displaced. It also meant the permanent removal of the various rich German sub-cultures in the region between Germany and Kazakhstan.

    3. The Cultural Revolution in China. It killed less people than the Great Leap Forward, but it probably had more severe long term negative effects on Chinese and especially minority cultures. Numbers for fatalities from the Cultural Revolution seem to run all over the place. But, the lower numbers suggest that it was at least a couple of million.Report

  20. Avatar Kazzy says:

    I don’t know if I even believe in evil. Generally speaking, I think concepts of “good” and “evil” are overly simplistic and are often used to seperate “us” from “them”, itself a distiction often made for unsavory reasons.

    At the risk of getting to meta or eschewing the true intent of the question, I’d argue that the formation of the concepts of good and evil fucked a lot of shit up. How many horros have been carried out in the name of “good” or to stop “evil”? It is my generl believe that the vast majority of people do what they think is right. I think it is far more common for people to have a very skewed moral code (e.g., “The African is better off enslaved.”; “It is imperative that we protect Aryan blood, holy blood, at all costs.”) than that they knowingly and willingly do what they know to be explicitly wrong and without value (e.g., “There is no good reason to punch this guy in the face but I’ll do it anyway just because.”). Humans are very good at rationalizing things.Report

    • Avatar Glyph in reply to Kazzy says:

      Kazzy, not necessarily disagreeing with you (yeah, lots of people whom we deem evil with a capital E think they are doing good), but I think people knowingly acting against what they believe to be right is extremely common, and they (we) often don’t even bother to rationalize away the wrongness. I think this applies to all kinds of small-to-medium acts of individual evil, and as Maribou points out elsewhere, truly large-scale mass evil requires many of these smaller acts to accumulate its scope.

      If these two questions can be answered in the affirmative, we will often do all sorts of things we know to be wrong:

      1.) “Will action X benefit me?” (maybe it will feel good, or it will harm my enemy, or it will fatten my bank account; best is when it does all three), and

      2.) “Do I think I can get away with action X?”

      If the answers to one and two are “yes”, Katy bar the door.

      When we do these things, we know they are wrong; we’ll confess if we get caught (and even, occasionally, without getting caught, due to pangs of conscience); but mostly, we think/hope that just maybe we won’t get caught. Most people caught with their hands in the till don’t have a sick grandma they are trying to support that they used to rationalize the crime; they just got caught up in fantasies of wealth. They may have rationalized it down a bit, to “it’s not SO bad; it’s a big company, they’re insured, they won’t miss it”, but they don’t think they are Robin Hood.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy in reply to Glyph says:


        Regarding question #1, I think many people who answer “Yes” to that can or will surmise that said action is therefor good. Or, at least, justified. “It’s my job to take care of me, first and foremost. So what if I steal $50 from Bill Gates. He’ll never know and I’ll be that much better off. It’s the right thing to do.”

        Now, I allow for people with seriously skewed moral codes, which I think will be necessary to do evil in the name of good.

        But I think it is rare that someone consciously says, “I know this is something wrong. I know that I shouldn’t do it. But I will.” There is almost a rationalization.

        But more broadly, I don’t even know what “evil” is.Report

        • Avatar Glyph in reply to Kazzy says:

          But I think it is rare that someone consciously says, “I know this is something wrong. I know that I shouldn’t do it. But I will.”

          I’m not so sure it’s all that rare, Kaz. See: Almost every infidelity, ever. I get your point that they may feel it’s at least somewhat justified (hell, in certain rare cases I agree with Dan Savage that it IS justified), but for the most part people know they are doing wrong and do it anyway.

          In fact, the knowledge that they are doing wrong, is part of the excitement.

          I don’t even know what “evil” is.

          I’m sure that someone here can come up with a better definition, but to me evil is simply “intentional infliction of harm or pain upon an innocent and unwilling party, sans sufficient mitigating factors (such as self-defense, or an attempt to help that unavoidably causes harm or pain as a side-effect – otherwise, dental work on a child would be equivalent to torture)”Report

          • Avatar Shazbot5 in reply to Glyph says:

            Yeah, I think “evil” in this context means just “really wrong” or “really immoral” act.

            In other contexts, it might mean “terrible amount of unnecessary suffering and death, regardless of cause.”Report

          • Avatar Kazzy in reply to Glyph says:

            A fair point about infidelity. Perhaps I should amend my position to say, “It is rare that people set out to willfully and knowingly do evil.”

            The adulterer might think, “I know I shouldn’t be doing this,” as he pulls down his fly. But it takes a monumental asshole to slip a condom into his pocket and think, “I’m going to go out and try to meet someone to cheat on my wife with.” And monumental assholes exist. But I tend to think the vast majority of us are not such.

            As to your definition of evil, how does that differ from immoral?

            Evil just feels like a squishy word for me. So often it seems used for pernicious dehumanization of the person the charge is being levied against.

            Consider a recent example of supposed evil: The Boston Marathon bombers (excuse me for not knowing how to spell their names offhand). Declaring them evil terrorists made it easier to think of them as inhuman monsters undeserving of consideration, basic respect, due process, and the like. Now, don’t get me wrong: there is a degree to which they sacrificed certain basic dignities because of their choices. But, personally, I’d rather think of them as angry, confused, jaded young men who made a series of increasingly wrong decisions for reasons I do not yet understand. Declaring them evil implies that there is something inherently wrong about them, something that cannot be understood and foretelling of a fate they cannot avoid. It is entirely too simplistic.

            Especially when they are looking at their victims and thinking the same damn thing: Americans are evil.

            So, yea, it is a word I generally avoid because I just don’t think it aids us in actually seeking truth.

            I’m curious to see where Tod takes this.Report

            • Avatar Glyph in reply to Kazzy says:

              It’s weird; though I have largely lapsed from the faith in which I was raised, the concept of Original Sin still holds some resonance for me. In that I believe that children largely don’t need to be taught to do the wrong thing, they can figure out how to lie and hurt each other just fine on their own (and of course they have no shortage of adult examples).

              They need to be taught how NOT to do these things; to learn how to remember that even though something will benefit you, and you won’t get caught, you STILL shouldn’t do it because someone, somewhere is harmed. Maybe even yourself.

              So I guess I am OK with the term “evil”, because I believe evil is in everyone, to varying degrees; it’s no more “inhuman” than the entirely-human fact that we all must defecate, but most learn how to do it in private, under hygienic conditions, at the appropriate times.

              I have come to oppose the death penalty because of my evolving understanding of how screwed up and mistake- and injustice-prone all human justice systems are; but even when I supported the death penalty, I never was one of those who rejoiced at the execution of the vilest murderer; and now I will contradict myself a bit by saying that although I don’t consider the vilest mass murderer inhuman, nor would I celebrate his death, I would view such an execution as a grim necessity; similar to the way you’d put down a beloved dog that had contracted rabies (or if the zombie virus existed, the way you’d put down someone thus infected).

              You attempt to understand them, not only for purposes of mercy but also to attempt to prevent future incidences; and then you do the job that needs to be done, nod once, and be done with it.Report

              • Avatar Kazzy in reply to Glyph says:

                Seeing you phrase it that way, I am even more steadfast in my objection to the use of the term evil.

                As you point out, there is a natural human tendency to do wrong, which I think is largely borne out of a natural human tendency for self-preservation and self-satisfaction. Often times, when kids are mean to one another, it is because they derive some sense of pleasure or power from it. They aren’t just mean for the sake of being mean, they are mean for the sake of seeking an end. We just have to teach them a better way.

                So, anyway, given that this seems natural or innate, and the word “evil” is so often used to imply something is inhuman or supernatural, I’m not comfortable using it.

                Now, if you use it the way you described here, I’d have no objection. But when folks want to talk about Osama Bin Laden as evil, I don’t think they are referring to his failure to evolve beyond innate human tendencies. I think they are thinking about something darker and more sinister. That is what I object to.Report

              • Avatar Kimsie in reply to Glyph says:

                I HATE the concept of original sin, for buttloads of reasons (not the least of which is blaming women).

                So allow me to propose the Jewish paradigm, which doesn’t start with the idea that “you’re going to screw up”!

                You have the evil inclination and the good inclination, in every human. And you can choose which one, because G-d gave us free will.Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Kimsie says:

                Niggler, please. Can’t get very far along in Torah without encountering Original Sin. Can’t even get through the first parsha.Report

          • Avatar Just Me in reply to Glyph says:

            I thought about that definition too, but then I wonder what about people who feel pleasure in others pain because that is the way their body is wired? Or the sociopath who is wired differently and can not feel empathy? That is why I have an aversion to the word evil.

            I think the most evil act I can think of is a parent purposely killing a child, a living, breathing child. But then again is it truly evil or was there some kind of medical or psychological reasoning behind why they did so?

            That then brings me to the person who orders others to kill for a cause, such as a government. Would that be the true evil, they know killing is wrong? What if they truly believe that somehow dropping the bomb on a city is morally the right thing to do. Are they then really evil? I don’t know.

            This is a topic I find very thought provoking.Report

            • Avatar Kazzy in reply to Just Me says:

              Great point in your first paragraph, JM. If evil is something wired into people, what does that mean of how we respond to it?Report

              • Avatar Kimsie in reply to Kazzy says:

                I know a psychopath — and he knows pedophiles (who do NOT touch children!). It is possible to be a moral person, or at least to stay within ethical codes, even if you aren’t generally inclined to do so.Report

  21. Avatar BlaiseP says:

    Evil, like guilt in law and sin in theology, is a quality of people, not events.Report

    • Avatar John Howard Griffin in reply to BlaiseP says:

      I’ve been thinking exactly the same thing while reading the OP and comments, Mr. BlaiseP.Report

      • I also disbelieve in evil as a quality of events, but I see it as a quality of people’s decisions, more so than of people per se.Report

        • Avatar Maribou in reply to Maribou says:

          (I’m willing to concede lots of people who may or may not be easily shorthanded to “evil people”…. but any large-scale evil such as those described here comes as the result of many good-to-neutral people fucking up in countless small, evil ways.)Report

          • Avatar John Howard Griffin in reply to Maribou says:

            Agreed, Ms. Maribou. (I think it is Ms. My apologies if I am incorrect.)

            Also comparisons of the degree of evilness between two events (in this thread, at least) seems to come down to numbers (how many injured/killed/maimed/etc). I’m not sure that’s the right way to look at it.


            If it’s just numbers, then I nominate Religion as the greatest evil event ever to have occurred, for more morally-/ethically-questionable pain/suffering/death has come from Religion than any other single source I can think of.

            I blame God for this.

            (/snark, but not really)Report

          • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Maribou says:

            Yes, that’s a useful distinction / addition / amending of my point.Report

        • Avatar Stillwater in reply to Maribou says:

          I also disbelieve in evil as a quality of events, but I see it as a quality of people’s decisions, more so than of people per se.

          Let’s suppose that slavery is evil. If that’s the case, then the practice of slavery in the 1700s was evil. Was a “good” slave owner – one who treated slaves with more respect and dignity than his compatriots (heck, make it stronger: one who held the view that slavery was wrong in any event) – evil? Does the judgment that slavery is evil reduce to the decisions of all the individuals involved in the practice, including people who we wouldn’t be inclined to say acted “evilly” in their treatment of slaves? Or do we judge the practice based more on the outcome of engaging in that practice irrespective of the motivations, intentions and decisions of the individual slaveowners?

          I mean, I hear what you’re saying. Don’t get me wrong about that. I just don’t think our judgments of massive evil reduce to individual analyses quite so cleanly.Report

          • Avatar Kazzy in reply to Stillwater says:

            How evil is the guy who went to a slave auction but always came up $1 short?Report

            • Avatar Stillwater in reply to Kazzy says:

              How benevolent is the guy who went to buy slaves’ freedom but always came up one dollar short? Sometimes intentions aren’t enuf. And that goes both ways. Unless we think that what’s in “the heart” defines people’s actions.

              And how do we judge a person’s “heart” except by their actions?Report

          • Avatar Maribou in reply to Stillwater says:

            “Does the judgment that slavery is evil reduce to the decisions of all the individuals involved in the practice?”
            Yes. But that includes every microdecision made by every individual member of a slave-owning society. Which isn’t very effective, as reductions go. And, honestly, my original point was kind of that I don’t buy “slavery is evil” or “slavery in the 1700s was evil” as a very precise way of describing *anything*, so asking me to start with either of those as a premise isn’t terribly effective. I’m saying there’s a more accurate substitute premise, viz, “the majority of the individual decisions which led collectively to the widespread practice and long-term social upkeep of slavery were evil”. It’s unwieldy, but to me, it *actually says something* in a way that “slavery is evil” can’t.

            (Yep, this is a hard-line free will position. And one that drives Jay crazy. Also, obvs., owes a lot to Hannah Arendt.)Report

            • Avatar Stillwater in reply to Maribou says:

              “the majority of the individual decisions which led collectively to the widespread practice and long-term social upkeep of slavery were evil”

              But why? Because the individuals who made those decisions knew they were wrong? Because they knew those decisions caused unjustifiable harm to others? I think the analysis that individual actions/decisions provides the semantics for collective evil is only justified if we already think the outcome of those actions were so wrong as to constitute an evil.Report

    • Avatar Patrick in reply to BlaiseP says:

      This is a good section of the subthread.Report

    • Avatar Chris in reply to BlaiseP says:

      I think evil is a property (or predicate, or whatever) of events (actions specifically) and not people. In fact, I think treating evil as a quality of people is a very dangerous thing, and has led to all sorts of evil itself.

      Individuals can do evil, but I’m not quite sure what it means for an individual to be evil. How much evil does one have to do before one is considered evil? Or do we all or most of us have evil in us? In what sense do we have it in us? How do we measure it? Since it’s a property of individuals, and not events, shouldn’t we be able to measure it without someone ever having to do anything evil?Report

      • Avatar Patrick in reply to Chris says:

        I so want to go Hegel on this section of the thread.Report

      • Avatar CK MacLeod in reply to Chris says:

        I agree with BlaiseP, and was tempted to post something similar: Events are not evil, and the question is malformed. “Events” are effects of causes. The penetration of a vital organ by a bullet or blade is not evil, it’s physics, and physics is not evil. Nuclear fission is not evil. Death is not evil. To say so would be to say that life is evil, since life is the absolute requirement for death, and everybody dies, most in agony and finally alone, even Ray Kurzweil and even me, or so I’ve been given to believe.

        treating evil as a quality of people is a very dangerous thing, and has led to all sorts of evil itself.

        Of course, it is and has. No one said evil would be easy. Evil, or moral evil, rather than evil in the sense of “very bad,” is a matter of judgment, and requires belief in moral good, which will invariably rely on positive principles held to be essential goods.

        Because most of us here happen to share the same underlying commitments, we can scarcely even imagine questioning them. If I believe that individual human freedom and dignity are essential moral goods, for example, then acts that contradict human freedom and dignity, for instance by assigning collective guilt to groups or defining some groups of human beings unfit for freedom and dignity, and killing or enslaving on that basis, are evil to me. If I don’t hold those truths to be self-evident, then they are not. If I do hold those truths to be self-evident, then they may be worth living, dying, killing, and ordering others to kill and die for: A great part of what often makes the evil of the evil evil is that its propagation must eventually force the defenders of the opposing moral or essential good either to succumb fully or perform some of the same evils in an effort to preserve the good or the possibility of the good.

        The mixed results and gross errors then enable people generations later to indulge in jejune and sophomoric exercises in judgment – not a problem at all if your commitment to your principles extends only as far as comments on an internet thread.

        Great evil requires the possibility of great good, and the possibility of great good requires great belief – which for someone else will all but certainly be taken as evil.Report

        • Avatar Tod Kelly in reply to CK MacLeod says:

          So actions themselves not be evil? It seems to me that the consensus is that they can.

          Two men might think about killing their wife in cold blood for the insurance money, but perhaps only one actually pulls the trigger. Is there not a greater degree of evil committed by the mere action of taking a life, rather than just wishing it to be taken? It may simply be that the issue here is one of semantics.

          I also think there is a consensus that committing atrocious acts can be a greater evil than allowing them to happen. In the past year I have not given money or volunteered time or goods to a women’s shelter; nor have I really done anything tangible to stop abuse of women from occurring in the world – despite the fact that I am very much aware that this abuse occurs. I can see an argument being made that I am as therefore as evil or wicked in my focusing my donations elsewhere as the man who breaks his wife jaw because he’s a brute who had one too many, but I think it would be an extreme outlier.Report

          • Avatar CK MacLeod in reply to Tod Kelly says:

            “Actions” are not “events.” An “action” implies an actor. An “event” is merely a thing that happened. Speaking loosely, when we refer to an event, especially a great and complex historical event, we may mean to includes its qualities of intentional action as well, but we run into some of the same difficulties already encountered elsewhere on this thread, separating an “event” from its context, or defining what “an event” is for our purposes.

            When we define some person as evil, we do not refer to “an event in the mind” that suddenly made that person evil, we refer to a whole pattern or principle of being or identity. We don’t really know whether the murderer who succeeded in murdering authentically is more evil than the would-be murderer who failed. Our imperfection in reaching such judgments, our inability to look into the other person’s soul and judge truly fairly, explains why final judgment is left to God or the end times, etc., in scripture.

            Is there not a greater degree of evil committed by the mere action of taking a life, rather than just wishing it to be taken? It may simply be that the issue here is one of semantics.

            Semantics can be relatively trivial: Maybe we’re just speaking in different codes, and just need to use the right key. Or semantics can be the entirety of any “meaningful” question: What is the meaning of “evil”? If we don’t know the meaning of “evil,” then how can we have a sensible conversation about greater or lesser evil? Can we have a meaningful concept of life, or of the good life, without some idea of evil?

            As noted at the outset, we also are having some difficulty knowing what we mean by “event,” since some wish to indict particular “historical events” and others are moving on to whole ways of life, as though, for instance, “slavery” or “the slave trade” or “the enslavement of Africans” was simply an “event.” Then we have the problem of events within events within events… When we say “Holocaust” we mean many things: the decision to annihilate a “race,” the decisions that led up to that decision, the decisions to implement that decision, the failure to oppose the decisions and their implementation, and the results that were the necessary effects and indubitable signs of those decisions. Such opposition as there was and the ways in which the decision failed are also part of the large event or event of events The Holocaust, however, and the Holocaust is also part of the War, and the War was also part of a vast multi-generational cataclysm.

            The evil of the Holocaust is demonstrated especially by its results, but we judge the actions of those involved according to how they reveal the intentions of the perpetrators. Merely “following orders” we have determined to be evil and punishable, but not as evil and punishable as giving the orders, even if the person giving the order never directly participated in acts of genocide, or even observed or verified its results. The decisions at the Wannsee Conference would have been just as evil – if not as well-known and therefore subject to actual indictment – if events had intervened in such a way as to prevent their having been carried out.

            We can say “slavery was an evil” or “mass human sacrifice to the gods was an evil” without much fear of contradiction at least in these parts, but we’re referring to a practice or custom, not any particular event, and for complex reasons we tend to treat the latter more than the former as “natural evil” or “innocent evil.” The pre-Columbian Aztecs didn’t “know better.” Because the eradication of human sacrifice in Judeo-Christian cultures (or its displacement in war) happened thousands of years ago, it doesn’t appear to be a threat to our principles, so it doesn’t even come up.

            Similarly, no one knows how many slaves died in order to build the pyramids, or died in the mines and galleys of the ancient world producing the materials for all of the tourist attractions, wonders, and lovely priceless museum objects we treat as sacred today. If “events” can be intrinsically evil, and the word “event” refers to just about anything we can describe as having occurred, then maybe “mining” was the “worst event ever,” or maybe “agriculture” was the worst event ever, since it involved vast numbers of people, well more than 90% of all those living in agrarian cultures, for vastly longer periods condemned to short, hopeless lives of squalor, ignorance, and hard labor. We don’t make such statements because we don’t know of a competing principle available to ancient peoples. We have implicitly adopted an “ends justifies the means” calculation in which the ends include “civilization” or “progress” at all, and include ourselves. It was worth it, we inwardly have concluded, or anyway cannot be easily condemned, for all those slaves and peasants to die miserably year after year for thousands of years, because it led to us.

            When the Mongols swept across Asia, Europe, and North Africa, they happened along the way to de-populate vast regions and to annihilate or nearly annihilate entire cultures. They are said to have destroyed every then-existent city in Eastern Europe save two, to have caused the deaths of 90% of Persians. They are said to have constructed towering sarcophagi full of the corpses of their victims. And so on, and so on. Yet, we rarely recall them as a great example of evil because we have little notion of any unique principle they represented, if any, or the principles of the people they killed. For many people at that time, still living according to the precepts of the ancient world regardless of nominal state religions, the strong destroyed the weak, and the Mongols were unusually strong. All we can project onto either side is our generalized belief that peace is better than war and life is better than death, but we can apply the same principle to ant colonies and beehives.

            When we consider what must be done to support our current way of life, and are less prejudicial and self-serving in our definitions, our inclusions and exclusions in chains of causality and responsibility, then we have to conclude that we are also all – every single participant on this thread – implicated in vast and unforgivable evil. Clearly, based on the notion that evil is intrinsic to “events,” the human race and life itself are evil. If we believe that, then we have to conclude that the Holocaust and the slave trade and mass human sacrifice are all just busier examples of business as usual. More likely, we believe something else, and believe that moral nihilism of that type is itself typical of what we mean by evil: The absence of principle or the principle of the impossibility of principle as a typically “Satanic” form of evil that needs to be combated for the good as well as the higher good of all.Report

        • Avatar Chris in reply to CK MacLeod says:

          I don’t think evil is an inherent property of events. I think it’s a property that we assign to events. One only need look at how we talk about evil. Why are they evil? Because they do evil things. What makes them evil? The doing of evil things. How do you make someone not evil? Reform them so that they don’t do evil things.

          No one takes seriously the idea that only people are evil, even if they might say they do when asked. I think it’s reasonable to say that people and events are evil, even if I think it’s wrong, but to say that events aren’t evil renders the evil of persons nonsensical.

          If we’re going to say that people are evil, we’re going to have to start with a conversation about people before we get to one about evil, because the nature of evil is going to be wrapped up in our theory of identity. For example, we’re going to have to figure out where evil resides, and how it manifests itself there (if I take you, Blaise, Maribuo, et al seriously here, I have to assume it manifests itself in some way other than behavior, because behaviors are events, and therefore not capable of being evil). Intents won’t work either, because intents are ephemeral, but presumably evil doesn’t just pass through someone in the form of intents, right? Or maybe I should ask, as a property of individuals is it fleeting or does it have some (not irreversible, or maybe irreversible) permanency? I think you see where I’m going with this.Report

          • Avatar Maribou in reply to Chris says:

            Decisions are closer to actions than to intents, so I think lumping me in with Blaise is a bit of a category error. And damn straight we should have to talk about people before we can talk about evil.Report

            • Avatar Chris in reply to Maribou says:

              OK, sorry about that. I’m fine with decisions being called evil to the extent that they are actions (and pace CK, actions are events). Including decisions is important because decisions can be evil even if they don’t ultimately lead to evil acts (because the acts are thwarted, e.g.).Report

  22. Avatar Matty says:

    The voyage of Columbus,which by opening sea routes from Europe to the Americas made possible the transatlantic slave trade and multiple genocides of native American nations.

    Also the failure of this time travel attempt.Report

  23. Avatar LeeEsq says:

    1. The Holocaust

    2. The Atlantic Slave Trade

    3. Stalin’s dictatorship in the Soviet Union since he had so many imitators after him like Mao and Pol Pot.Report

  24. Avatar KatherineMW says:

    The Atlantic Slave Trade (10 million, as noted above).

    The atrocities of Leopold II’s regime in the Congo (another 10 million).

    World War II, including the Holocaust.

    The first two point to greed being at least as large a culprit as ideology in evil.Report

  25. Avatar North says:

    I’d submit that the start of World War I might actually be arguable as a greater evil. Much to all of what happened in World War II was predicated on the fallout of the conclusion of the Great War. WWI was the roll out of industrial Warfare, the death tolls in trench warfare were titanic and, like I said before, I think you can rationally lay all the sins of WWII at WWI’s feet.Report

  26. Avatar Ethan Gach says:

    1770 Bengal FamineReport

  27. Avatar BlaiseP says:

    The murder of Axel Casian. And the hundreds, thousands, millions of people who were raped, tortured and murdered while the supposedly “good” people did nothing to stop it.Report

    • Avatar Ethan Gach in reply to BlaiseP says:

      You just ruined my day Blaise.Report

      • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Ethan Gach says:

        Human beings are cowardly scum, most of them. Utterly convinced of their own wonderfulness, wandering through life, wilfully blind to the suffering of their fellow man. While everyone else wants to talk about numbers and scale of evil, as if the integer sum of the dead makes one incident more evil than another — let me point out, however unhappy it might make folks around here — that sort of talk is precious, self-deluding bullshit.

        Silence gives consent. Evil is not merely some psychotic stamping his child to death: evil is you and me watching this sort of shit and doing nothing to stop it. Evil is the wilful suppression of our consciences, lying to ourselves about Being Our Brother’s Keeper. We are all in this together.Report

        • Avatar John Howard Griffin in reply to BlaiseP says:

          Silence gives consent. Evil is not merely some psychotic stamping his child to death: evil is you and me watching this sort of shit and doing nothing to stop it. Evil is the wilful suppression of our consciences, lying to ourselves about Being Our Brother’s Keeper. We are all in this together.

          This. (my bold)Report

          • Avatar John Howard Griffin in reply to John Howard Griffin says:


            It is what we ALLOW to happen that truly defines us.Report

          • Avatar Patrick in reply to John Howard Griffin says:

            This is an interesting point. I… agree… but I don’t.

            Being unable to overcome fear evil is a failing, but it’s hard to say that it’s always worse than acting out of fear, or acting out of hatred, or any one of a number of other underlying actions or inactions that can lead to evil outcomes.

            This sub-section of the thread is making me think about the discussion of arrogance that Mike and I had over the last couple of days on the atheism thread. There’s a sort of observer baseline in measurement that skews our estimation.

            If you’re a particularly brave person (and I don’t mean “foolhardy”), an absence of courage seems particularly notable. But it might just be the case that the average Joe has a lot less courage than you do. It’s one thing to say, “I don’t think that guy has enough courage” – which I don’t think is arrogant, mind you, because if that guy had more courage he might be better off – and attaching a valuation to that guy for not having that level of courage.

            When we start saying a lack of courage is evil, I’m not certain that we’re expanding the definition of evil properly so much as we are potentially watering it down. We have to be careful to be really specific about what the evil is, there.Report

            • Avatar John Howard Griffin in reply to Patrick says:

              So, what we ALLOW to happen doesn’t really define us?

              There is no moral wrong that can be done from lack of action?

              Being afraid relieves one of all moral responsibility?

              I think you are correct that this is the way that most people think. That doesn’t make it right.

              And, by definition, one cannot be brave without feeling fear. We are all afraid (and alone) – even (especially?) the brave and courageous.

              It is curious – curious that physical courage should be so common in the world, and moral courage so rare.

              – Mark Twain


              • Avatar Patrick in reply to John Howard Griffin says:

                So, what we ALLOW to happen doesn’t really define us?

                I’m not saying that. I’m saying that it’s only part of what defines us. It think it’s an important point, sure. I just am leery of making it an absolute.

                When asking who is doing evil, the man who comes for the undesirable next door or the neighbor who doesn’t attempt to stop it, or the person who ordered it, I think the right answer is that they’re all doing evil, and it’s not useful to rank order them.Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Patrick says:

                I’m with you on the Rank Ordering business. Maybe it’s the latent Calvinist still left in me, like a stain on the hardwood: Evil isn’t the sort of noun which readily admits to ranking — eviller, evillest. Evil really wants to be a verb but we like the idea of the Noun-ish Evil, so we can more readily condemn it.

                Evil isn’t quite congruent with Crime. Crime admits of degree, misdemeanour, felony, that sort of gradation. Crime is some transgression of the law, punishable by degrees.

                Some cultures and religions have a dualistic approach to Evil and Good. I won’t criticise those who hold to this dualism but I don’t see Evil that way. Evil is an absence of morality, not its opposite. Sociopaths might be clinically insane but they manifest evil nonetheless.

                I still believe in God, so I formally stipulate to the inapplicability of my definitions of Evil to the general case. Evil starts sounding a lot like Sin when the faithful talk about it. Evil is certainly more congruent to Sin than Crime in the Venn Diagram of Ungoodness.

                But Evil contains within it a rejection of the truth of the human condition, one which Crime can never encompass. Evil goes beyond mere injustice: it is a foul parody of Freedom. Freedom only means I can do as I please and you can’t stop me. Sane people, decent, moral people would say “So far so good, do as you please until your freedom trespasses upon my rights, for I shall do the same” Evil denies the proposition by denying the victims their rights, usually by denying their humanity…Report

              • Avatar Patrick in reply to BlaiseP says:

                But Evil contains within it a rejection of the truth of the human condition, one which Crime can never encompass. Evil goes beyond mere injustice: it is a foul parody of Freedom. Freedom only means I can do as I please and you can’t stop me. Sane people, decent, moral people would say “So far so good, do as you please until your freedom trespasses upon my rights, for I shall do the same” Evil denies the proposition by denying the victims their rights, usually by denying their humanity…

                I like this paragraph. You can write different versions of it, depending upon the philosophical framework you might like to choose, and you’ll probably still come out with a remarkable overlap of what constitutes evil.

                I can see versions of this written from a Kantian standpoint to a Utilitarian standpoint to Natural Law to Abstract Right, etc.

                Evil contains, within it, a rejection of the value of others.Report

              • Avatar Chris in reply to Patrick says:

                This is a good point, with an addition: evil always seems like a violation of trust.Report

              • Avatar Patrick in reply to Patrick says:

                That’s an important point, too.

                If in the rejection of the value of others you’re also violating a trust relationship, that does seem to me to be more evil than just rejecting the value of others.

                I’m not certain if this is just a cultural bias on my part. I need to muse on it.Report

            • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Patrick says:

              Simple cowardice in the face of evil is the greatest moral failing of all. Most violent crimes go unreported. Most domestic victims refuse to testify against their abusers. 91.5% of shooters in Chicago get away with it because people refuse to testify.

              We’re all concerned about Evil, applying this Large Red Warning Label to situations and not to people. Evil isn’t over there, somewhere. It’s as close as the air in your lungs. It’s the cowardice which compels us all to silence in the face of injustice, the Very Good Reasons exhibited by the Priest and the Levite in the Parable of the Good Samaritan, the nagging suspicion that our faith in Authority Figures is misplaced and the refusal to act on it.

              Asimov’s First Law said “A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.” This rule ought to be first applied to human beings before we start in on the robots.Report

              • Avatar Kimsie in reply to BlaiseP says:

                The banality of evil is one thing, Blaise. But it’s another to know true psychopaths. And if you’re going to call cowardice evil, then you’d damn well better come up with a term for : “You crossed me, I will prepare plans to kill you — and not get caught. Getting caught interferes with other plans.”Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Kimsie says:

                I’ve known a genuine sociopath. He’s still in prison. Knew him when he was still just killing animals.

                As for revenge, darlin’, I find the best revenge in all times and all places is to live well, that is to say, outlive my enemies. I used to think about revenge, the bloody-minded satisfaction of the Dirty Deed. Then I watched someone try to go for it. Revenge is stupid and those who seek it are doomed.

                The evildoers very seldom die in their beds, wealthy and content and surrounded by their families. That which is taken by force must be kept by force: Gandalf said the treacherous are ever distrustful. Though there are exceptions to the rule, most evil is very richly rewarded, in this life.Report

        • Avatar Citizen in reply to BlaiseP says:

          Justice is not always so blind? Rule by law requires the government to be your brothers keeper. Rule of law requires you to take action. We were once all in this together, but not anymore. That looks pretty evil from the cheap seats.Report

          • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Citizen says:

            Were that even remotely true, we’d have more far people reporting crimes against persons and testifying in court. Our military, which we are told is a great bastion of freedom and liberty, served up hot for benighted folks around the world, seems plagued with an epidemic of sexual assaults. Evil is everywhere, in places high and low. It thrives while the good do nothing, say nothing, demanding no better. Man’s creativity is never more ornate than in his self-excusing.

            We have given lip service to justice. Those who most loudly proclaim their Law ‘n Order tendencies seem the most afflicted. I do not ask for vigilante justice. I ask for justice, which starts with ordinary people standing up to be counted. I see very little of that, these days. What I do see, what I have come to believe, is that most people are good because they fear the consequences more than they love their fellow man.Report

  28. Avatar zic says:

    I’d prefer the answers be specific rather than conceptual.

    Sorry, my answer is conceptual, because it seems to extend back to pre-history:

    Treatment of women, as property, as beings who must be controlled because they ‘tempt’ men, as people without a voice. There is not a single piece written by a woman in The Harvard Classics or Great Books, supposed compendiums of great thought. But Defoe writes on the benefits of <a href="http://www.unz.org/Pub/HarvardClassics-1909v27-00148educating women.

    Educating women. It is very easy to laugh at that failure as one of the great evils today, here in the bosom of modern Western society. But even today, there are women denied an education. We cannot know what happened to women in the two-million years of pre-history; but in the years of recorded history, women having rights to an education, to participate in political process are very new ideas; still tenuous. Having rights to control their reproductive organs even newer.

    It is conceptual; not a single event. But one that so pervades history that it is difficult to see it at all until you consider it from this perspective: history is written by the victors, and there are very few female voices in that tale. They figure largely as characters in the stories told by men.Report

    • Avatar zic in reply to zic says:

      Maybe this helps make things clearer.

      /casting genius.Report

      • Avatar Patrick in reply to zic says:

        I’ve seen that this week. Observations:

        That’s almost picture-perfect casting genius*.
        I would totally watch that movie.
        It would be fascinating to see what was the same, and what was different.

        * Glenn I’d be worried that she’d overact it. Less “Fatal Attraction” and more “101 Dalmatians”. Who’s directing?Report

      • Avatar Kimsie in reply to zic says:

        It’s good… I’m worried some of the older women aren’t… showing enough wrinkles?
        Gandalf’s a cranky ol’ wizard! 😉Report

  29. Avatar Sam says:

    I’m troubled by casually arguing about catastrophic historical events. It makes me uneasy. So I don’t want the following considered a dismissal of any of the other things mentioned here; it isn’t.

    Earlier, when I endorsed the European Colonialism of the African continent, it got no traction, which is at least in part because it is isn’t a specific, noticed thing. It’s tough pointing at one continent, and then another continent, and then saying, that’s the evil. But I’d argue that the most pernicious evil is the one that goes unrecognized.

    Somebody elsewhere in this thread noted the Rwandan Massacre – 800,000(ish) lives in 6 weeks, neighbor butchering neighbor, a wholesale slaughter of one ethnic group (the Tutsis) by another (the Hutus). That simplifies a bad situation for the sake of a comment in a comment thread, but allowing that, the question is why. The answer is long-simmering tensions between the two, tensions that may have existed long before Europe’s arrival. But as with almost everywhere else on the continent, European nations (in Rwanda’s case, Belgium) divided ethnic groups more aggressively, often favoring one over others for attention, services, political support, etc. First, the Belgians favored the Tutsi; then, when the Tutsi demanded independence earlier, the Belgians switched allegiances to the Hutu. Then the Belgians left, leaving behind an enormous power vacuum, one in which aggrieved parties could find no resolution for past injustice other than violence. Rwanda descended into civil war on multiple occasions before 1994, but the ongoing fight for political supremacy culminated in that year’s massacre, a one-sided fight between Hutus and Tutsis (and Hutus who refused to participate in the massacres, and the Twa) whose fury at one another had been stoked by Belgian policies decades earlier.

    (This is before we even begin to address that the drawing of maps which forced peoples together – people who wouldn’t have formed countries without the Conference of Berlin and subsequent colonialism.)

    The Rwandan genocide is perhaps the most stark of many on the continent, at least to those who only casually (barely?) pay attention to it. It is one where we assume simply that tribal (ethnic) issues spilled out of control and we might gawk for a minute at how awful a thing it was (“I saw Hotel Rwanda and it really made me think…”) but let’s be honest: few blame European colonialism for pouring gasoline onto bright embers.

    What Europe did in Africa was more insidious than more obvious evils. I don’t want to rank them. Evils are evil, and ranking them accomplishes no good. Still, what Europe has largely gotten away with beggars belief.Report

    • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to Sam says:

      I’m troubled by casually arguing about catastrophic historical events. It makes me uneasy.

      +1. Not terribly troubled; I don’t think anyone’s doing anything wrong here. I just don’t know how to go about joining in. It’s numbing and I don’t think see a way to even start to order my thoughts on it. Nor, really, any reason to. I mean, finally, what’s the point of deciding the evil of Hitler is greater than the evil of Stalin, and so forth? I don’t see it.

      Yet for some reason, the existence of a discussion on this topic makes me feel like I’m not accounting well for myself if I don’t at least attempt to explain my nonparticipation in it. Like I’m indifferent to evil or something. So that’s what this is.Report

      • Avatar Sam in reply to Michael Drew says:

        It’s one thing to name the greatest basketball players. It’s quite another to rank order evil.Report

        • Avatar Patrick in reply to Sam says:

          Rank ordering evil wasn’t how I took the exercise. It was more of a cultural perception question, I thought.

          Blaise’s answer is just as good as any others.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater in reply to Michael Drew says:

        I’m in more or less the same boat as you MD. I don’t think it’s possible to make a compelling argument that horrible event X was more evil than horrible event Y. It’s enough to establish that both are somehow included in that fuzzy bounded set of things called “evil”. For me, the discussion has merit because it helps clarify how I think about it: the relation between intentions, outcomes, unintended consequences, the role individual perspective or frame of reference plays in forming my own as well as others judgments, and so on. Evil on a massive scale usually arise out of a complex series of historical events and institutional decisions and cultural presuppositions and whatnot. It gets murky and muddled right quick, except for maybe only a few paradigmatic cases that almost everyone agrees on.Report

        • Avatar Patrick in reply to Stillwater says:

          For me, the discussion has merit because it helps clarify how I think about it: the relation between intentions, outcomes, unintended consequences, the role individual perspective or frame of reference plays in forming my own as well as others judgments, and so on.

          I’d guess this is a spot-on description of what Tod was shooting for when he wrote the thing.Report

      • Avatar ThatPirateGuy in reply to Michael Drew says:

        I think it create a more informative to simply give lifetime acheivement awards to Hitler, Stalin, and all the others who systematically brutalized their own people. Genocide is so common and horrific that it would dominate a list of top 3 historical acts.Report

  30. Avatar aaron david says:

    I am going to get a little conceptual first, but I feel that for something to be evil, as opposed to horrible, dreadful or wrong, the action has to willingly and knowingly step outside the bounds and conventions of its period. To me, this eliminates many of the above actions, as they were quite normal for the time that they happened. Was the Golden Horde evil? No, as it was normal and common to slaughter, rape and pillage. Horrible and wrong, yes. Evil, no.

    So, without further ado:
    1. Holocaust
    2. Rawanda
    3. NanjingReport

    • Avatar Stillwater in reply to aaron david says:

      for something to be evil, as opposed to horrible, dreadful or wrong, the action has to willingly and knowingly step outside the bounds and conventions of its period.

      I agree there’s something important in what you’re saying here but it doesn’t conform to my intuitions. I’d like to think I could argue that genocide is evil even if engaging in it were an established cultural norm.Report

  31. Avatar bstr says:

    The Kardashians: Seriously. For the same reasons as the rant on the treatment of women and the cultural revolution in Mao’s China. Maybe the influence of single answer theology should be in this tier. That which promotes a dulling of sensibility and critical thinking would seem to do more to promote support for cruelty than random violence. Is anything more dangerous and more accountable for good and evil than culture?Report

  32. Avatar ThatPirateGuy says:

    I am going to change the assignment and only mention current events.

    The drug war.
    The ongoing slaughter in Syria
    The horrific tyranny occurring in North Korea.Report

  33. Avatar Burt Likko says:

    I’m surprised no one has yet mentioned the Crusades (don’t forget, two of them took place entirely within Europe). Or the pogroms.Report

  34. Avatar DRS says:

    I think you have to include a caveat in your post: for a specific instance of a person committing evil actions (like Blaise, I think people, not events, are evil), it should be understood that the action would have been considered evil at the time.

    For instance, doctors in 18th century Europe who strongly resisted vaccinating against smallpox because they didn’t understand the process were not evil but rather tragically mistaken. Doctors in 21st century Europe who might argue the same thing would have no such excuse.

    Was Tamerlane evil because he massacred entire populations to establish his Central Asian empire? Or was he just more successful than his peers who would have done the same thing if they’d been able? On the other hand, when Hitler and Pol Pot did the same thing in the 20th century, it was definitely evil because attitudes towards conquest had changed in the intervening centuries.Report

  35. Avatar Kimsie says:

    Global Warming
    The Great American Extinction (exacerbated, at the very least, by humans).Report

  36. Avatar George Turner says:

    No one has mentioned the French Revolution yet, but it laid the philosophical and moral groundwork for all the violent “people’s revolutions” and purges that were to follow. If you followed the subsequent trail of radical socialist, nationalist, and racist thoughts and paranoias through their consequences, you’d start with the reign of terror, then Napoleon, then Marxism and its revisions to Lenin, Mussolini, Stalin, Hitler, Mao, the North Koreans and North Vietnamese, and Pol Pot.

    Most importantly, this grouping frees up everyone’s lists for two more items that don’t trace back to the French Revolution in some pretty direct form or another, such as Genghis Khan, slavery, or stuff the Roman Empire did.Report

    • Avatar Patrick in reply to George Turner says:

      Eh, George, the transition from (government) to (government) is historically highly correlated with violence. It’s not just about “people’s revolutions”.

      The War of the Roses wasn’t particularly nonviolent. The dissolution of Khan’s empire wasn’t, either.

      I don’t think, “Kill all those folks, because we want to lead the country and they’re in the way” is something that started with the French Revolution, nor do I think it has nearly as much to do with socialism, nationalism, or racism as much as it does a willingness to kill a bunch of people in the pursuit of power.

      You’re willing to kill a bunch of people in the pursuit of power, the rhetoric you use to get people to either go along or cheer or just sit by quietly is largely just a question of the words that work to get people to go along or cheer or just sit by quietly.

      If the French Revolution hadn’t had the Reign of Terror, somebody would have overthrown a monarchy eventually and killed a bunch of people that were not like-minded when it came to agreeing about “what we should replace it with”.

      You don’t want people’s revolutions (of any sort), just get rid of the guns, historically. Peasants don’t overthrow the ruling class easily without the guns.Report

    • Avatar greginak in reply to George Turner says:

      Damn those “people” for overthrowing a ruling monarchy for rule by ordinary people. Lord knows good ol americans would have never done such a nefarious thing.Report

    • Avatar George Turner in reply to George Turner says:

      Killing in the previously normal transitions from government to government usually ended when one of the two parties gained power, and the killing was usually pretty limited. It often never extended beyond the close allies of the two claimants. What marks the offspring of the French Revolution is that the real killing and terror doesn’t start until after the transition.

      There’s a world of difference between a palace coup, a power-struggle in the halls of Court, and even minor civil wars, and the mass genocides that were to come, genocides whose justifications almost invariably trace back to crazy revolutionary thoughts aimed at helping “the oppressed masses” by identifying the oppressor class, race, caste, ethnicity, or nationals and eliminating them en masse from the Earth, then eliminating those who just aren’t quite perfect enough for the new future.

      After all, the earlier conflicts were usually over whether the crown should sit on the head of the current random doofus or on the head of his third-cousin twice removed. It’s pretty hard to stir up mass genocidal hatreds over that, even given the passions of the day. The total amount of deaths was pretty high, but that’s because wars were more frequent when they were cheap and peasants didn’t have much else to do. Yet when you look at the nice graph of declining deaths from violence, the glaring exceptions since the 1800’s generally trace back to the forces of violent revolution first seen in France.Report

      • Avatar Patrick in reply to George Turner says:

        Yeah, but my point is all the government changes prior to the French Revolution (discounting the U.S., which is an outlier for lots of reasons) involved basically a different level of technology.

        The U.S. Revolution and the French Revolution involved the technological equalizer of guns in a way that previous ones didn’t. The people (the masses, that is) could all participate in the revolution, where in previous iterations you kind of needed the ability to construct siege engines, which weren’t really accessible to the masses both due to educational and resource limitations.

        I guess my point is that comparing revolutions before reliable guns and industrialism to those after reliable guns and industrialism, I expect to see a lot more blood and death after.

        Regardless of the political theories involved.Report

      • Avatar Kimsie in reply to George Turner says:

        Amalek and his kin would beg to differ with you.
        Warlords were all about genocide, shall I cite Temujin?Report

      • Avatar Kimsie in reply to George Turner says:

        Oh, and you’re forgetting several citizens’ revolts, that drove out invaders.Report

        • Avatar Patrick in reply to Kimsie says:

          No, I’m not.

          Just because any one invasion (or repelling of an invasion) was particularly bloody doesn’t establish a trend. Temujin depopulated some cities as examples, but he didn’t go about wiping out all of them because there really isn’t much point in conquering something in order to depopulate it, as it would then sit there empty and not producing tribute, which is sort of the reason to conquer anybody in the first place.

          I’m just saying, the advancement of technology has raised the baseline in how easily and thoroughly you can take human lives. Thus, you’d expect your average bit of violence to be generally more bloody than violence 400 years ago.Report

          • Avatar Kimsie in reply to Patrick says:

            Considering the extant examples of genocide that we have from way back when (amazons, among others), I’m uncomfortable with that idea.
            Considering the Hatfields and McCoys, it might be wiser to say that all war before a certain point was genocide — if often remarkably ineffectual.

            (my response was directed towards George, btw, and not you, Patrick).

            There is a definite “ease of being able to kill other people” thing…Report

      • Avatar George Turner in reply to George Turner says:

        And yet violence has been steadily dropping for 400 years aside from the glaring socialist revolutionary outliers (with the exception of WW-I), and hasn’t been more prevalent where guns and technology were freely available, such as the US, Canada, much of the rest of the Americas (aside from communist revolutions and communist purging juntas), Australia, New Zealand, most of Europe most of the time, and the Middle East prior to WW-I. There was a lot of regime change in Europe, post-Napoleon, and those didn’t get all that bloody either.

        You certainly don’t need guns or modern weapons to commit mass murder, you need a marketable philosophy that compels large numbers of people to carry it out, and usually that involves conspiracy theories (“the others are plotting against us!”), paranoia, oddball social theories (usually variants of Marxism), strong state nationalism, etc. Without that you usually just get border skirmishes, as typically occur between Latin American countries and as used to occur in Europe all the time, or a rapid invasion followed by concessions, some cosmetic adjustments, cash payments, and withdrawal. Without some great social revolution or primitive tribal grievance, such wars just move a line on the map and all the people notice is that they’re sending their tax forms to a different address.

        Even in a country with access to better weapons and with a strong government, the socialist revolutionary nonsense marks the difference between a Bismark and a Hitler, between Tsar Alexander and Stalin, between Chiang Kai Shek and Mao, between Thai vacation resorts and the Khmer Rouge killing fields.

        Such genocides are all variants and outgrowths of the crazy notions that blossomed and spread from the French Revolution, as people who seethed with anger and revenge penned countless works justifying mass terror, social progress through large demographic purges, and a future where “enlightened experts” control every aspect of national life for the good of all. It got countless millions of people killed, and then most everybody decided it was a pretty dumb idea after all and backed away from such nonsense.Report

    • Avatar KatherineMW in reply to George Turner says:

      It also laid the groundwork for democracy in Europe.Report

    • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to George Turner says:

      The only surprise about the French Revolution was how long it was in coming. For all practical purposes, the Bourbons should have fallen long before, or at least pushed into some semblance of a parliamentary system. They had a parliament, of sorts, the Estates General, but it hadn’t been convened in any meaningful form for centuries.

      The English had several important go-rounds with their monarchs, early and late. They evolved a parliament. France could have done the same: it never lacked for powerful barons but none of them wanted to bear the burden of taxation.

      Eventually the lack of funds would pull down the whole wretched medieval system. France, the home of the Enlightenment, finally self-destructed. Most of the people who died in the Terror were only falling into a pit they had dug for others.

      If the French Revolution was the pattern, the underlying causes were the same for all the revolutions which followed. Napoleon merely picked up where the Bourbons had left off, concentrating power in the hands of an absolute monarch, himself. The Russian — and later the Chinese Revolution — tore down a medieval monarchy which had lost relevance. Mao and Stalin would follow the pattern of Napoleon, re-establishing control, guided not by the people but by an ideology. The Vietnamese were only trying to overthrow the French colonialists whose ideas for SE Asia were little more than turning the entire landscape into rubber plantations.

      Pol Pot’s an interesting case. He emerges in the anarchy which followed the overthrow of Sihanouk, a Mini-Mao.Report

      • Avatar George Turner in reply to BlaiseP says:

        That brings up the interesting observation that naval powers decentralized and democratized much faster and more easily than countries that maintained large land armies within their own borders. That leads to some observations by one of the first “modern” historians, Hans Delbruck, who noted that France happened to have the largest swath of prime farm land, and thus taxable revenues, so that was the battleground where military technology and military/social ordering would be driven the hardest, as rival powers contested for control.

        As they say, the best government is that which governs least, and things were bad enough when armies fought mainly to secure a noble family’s claims over a stream of tax revenues, with the social hierarchy based on skill at tax collecting and organizing, leading, and feeding massed infantry and cavalry.

        One path out of that situation claimed that the peasants problem was that their government was neglecting them, its minions were exploiting them, and that if they took over they could use ultimate power to get revenge and fix everything imaginable. Another path claimed their problem was that their government was a military dictatorship that didn’t neglect them nearly enough, abusively treating them as nothing more than a revenue stream, power base, and source of cannon fodder. I think the correct answer was the slowly evolving consensus, “That’s a really stupid way to organize and run a government and society. You can’t own all the land, we don’t care who you party with, and we’re just going to ignore you from now on.”Report

  37. Avatar Pinky says:

    If I may get theological here:

    3 – The sin of Adam, through which sin and death came into the world.
    2 – My own sins, because those are the ones I have to answer for.
    1 – The execution of Jesus, an innocent man, for the sins of the world.

    More in line with the general conversation, I think it’s easier to forgive evil means for the goal of a Marxist-Leninist paradise than evil means for the goal of the destruction of the Jews.

    Last comment, I’m genuinely surprised that no one has mentioned Fox’s cancellation of Firefly.Report

    • Avatar Tod Kelly in reply to Pinky says:

      I loved this comment, top to bottom.Report

    • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Pinky says:

      I think it’s easier to forgive evil means for the goal of a Marxist-Leninist paradise

      “Communicated intention” is something that I tend to see as more and more irrelevant as time goes on.Report

      • Avatar Pinky in reply to Jaybird says:

        Does that phrase carry a particular meaning?Report

        • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Pinky says:

          I don’t understand?Report

          • Avatar Pinky in reply to Jaybird says:

            Sorry. You put it in quotes, as if it were a key phrase in maybe sociology or linguistics or something. I figured I was missing something. If you’re just referring to the excuses that people say out loud, then I understand what you mean – although I don’t quite agree with it.Report

            • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Pinky says:

              Yeah, it’s just the stuff that people say why they did stuff.

              “Why’d you kill that guy?”
              1) “I don’t like Irish people”
              2) “I was hoping to make a better world for women and minorities”

              For some reason, 2 will get you a lot more “respectable” people shrugging and saying “well, you have to understand…” than the former.

              I can’t help but wonder whether people who really, really, really hate Irish people wouldn’t have noticed that.Report

              • Avatar Pinky in reply to Jaybird says:

                Sure. And, I mean, who likes Irish people? But as hateful as Communism is, and as awful as the actions of the USSR were, I can’t help feeling that a person should find Nazis more offensive. Maybe this goes to what Tod is asking about. If you do something awful and can’t form a sentence that begins “I was hoping to make a better world…”, then yeah, that somehow makes it worse.

                I wouldn’t have thought about this, but I think the timeline also plays a role. I don’t know if I can explain this. The Nazis were in power for 12 years. No one inherited it. If you were a bigwig, you didn’t get there by making the best of a difficult situation in the hopes of reforming a movement gone awry; you were a Nazi. It’s like if the USSR had fallen in 1929 with the death of Lenin, all they would have done is kill the old government, kill their rivals, kill Ukrainians, and collapse. They wouldn’t have had any claims of accomplishment or longevity to them.

                Not that Stalin was an improvement. But by the time Brezhnev came along, you could sort of sympathize with the low-level leader who wasn’t directly responsible for killing anyone and was just trying to get by. And I know that what I’m saying could be read as an acceptance of the banality of evil, but that’s not how I intend it.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Pinky says:

                But “I was hoping to make a better world…” allows for a lot of stuff to happen and keep happening for decades. If you look at the high scores, you’ll find a lot of folks who gave grand speeches about their hopes.

                And these communicated intentions were always taken at face value rather than held up against such things as how many mass graves were required.Report

              • Avatar Pinky in reply to Jaybird says:

                Do you think that communicated intentions really are taken at face value? Certainly not always, and probably not even usually.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Pinky says:

                Do you think that communicated intentions really are taken at face value?

                Well, I think that Walter Duranty is instructive for this particular case. He provides an example of (*AT BEST*) someone taking communicated intentions at face value… thus allowing many, many more people to take them at face value.Report

              • Avatar Kazzy in reply to Pinky says:

                Weren’t the Nazis trying to make a better world? They just had a very perverted sense of what “better” was?Report

    • Avatar John Howard Griffin in reply to Pinky says:

      If I may also get theological here:

      3 – Something that happened in a story in a book.
      2 – Some stuff in that book that people are told they have to believe in, but which has no basis in reality.
      1 – Another story that happened in that same book.

      Why is this not treated the same way?:

      3 – Anakin Skywalker
      2 – Midichlorians
      1 – Jar Jar

      Answer: because everyone knows that God exists and the Bible is completely true, but the other stuff is just from a story.

      When does the meteor/GRB arrive?Report

      • Avatar Pinky in reply to John Howard Griffin says:

        Sigh. I wish my comment was treated the same as if I’d said Anakin Skywalker. No one would have bothered to grouse about it. But mention Jesus, and someone will.Report

        • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Pinky says:

          I’m surprised that no one has mentioned the arrest of Mumia Abu Jamal.Report

        • Avatar John Howard Griffin in reply to Pinky says:

          The difference is that you are claiming Jesus as real. Someone making a comment about Anakin would be referring to a FICTIONAL CHARACTER FROM A BOOK.

          Sigh. I wish my comment was treated the same as if I’d said Jesus. No one would have bothered to grouse about it. But mention you’re an atheist, and someone will claim to be a victim.Report

          • Avatar Pinky in reply to John Howard Griffin says:

            Only 1 or so of 180 comments on a thread about the nature of evil reflected the dominant mode of thought of the past 2000 years in the West, and you chose to reply to it.Report

            • Avatar John Howard Griffin in reply to Pinky says:

              the dominant mode of thought of the past 2000 years in the West

              15 yard penalty. Illegal use of appeal to the majority.

              You’re so repressed. Little old me repressing the dominant mode of thought of the past 2000 years in the West, all by myself. Yep, guilty as charged, your honor.

              No god and no religion can survive ridicule. No church, no nobility, no royalty or other fraud, can face ridicule in a fair field and live.

              – Mark Twain


  38. Avatar John Howard Griffin says:

    To answer the question, I’ll only pick one event: The Holocene Extinction Event.

    And, we are all guilty of that evil.

    I think I may be the only one to point to something that isn’t solely focused on pain and death caused to humans. That is interesting to me.Report

    • Avatar Kimsie in reply to John Howard Griffin says:

      Nah, I’m looking at that too.
      Another question: Say, we did something so big and awful that it had a 10% chance of ending all life on earth… but it didn’t actually do so. Is that more evil, or less evil than something that killed 10% of life on earth? (devilishly slippery… does it matter which 10%?)Report

      • Avatar John Howard Griffin in reply to Kimsie says:

        In general, I don’t think comparisons about which thing is “more evil” can ever work properly.

        Specifically: given that we humans are contributing greatly to the extinction of up to (or, perhaps, more than) 100,000 species each year (100-1000 times greater than the baseline), I’d say we’re already doing the “kill 10+% of life on earth” part. I don’t see many people losing sleep for feeling evil about it.

        Other than utterly destroying the Earth, I don’t think humans are capable of destroying all life on Earth.Report

        • Avatar Kimsie in reply to John Howard Griffin says:

          BP oil disaster. With the sheer quantities of oil (particularly if we ruptured the ocean floor while trying to cap the hole), along with untested injection of surfactants, we might very well have killed Earth’s Oxygen Supply (algae, worldwide). I kinda think that might have killed the entire planet (well, maybe the plants might have survived).

          [I know a guy who was running some “worst case scenarios” — another goodie was “destroy all life on the East Coast” … and that one’s above and beyond the 10% of “kill all life on earth”]Report

          • Avatar John Howard Griffin in reply to Kimsie says:

            Oh, I’m not saying humans couldn’t do a really good job, just that they couldn’t kill all life.

            There is life in rocks, life far underwater, life far up in the atmosphere. There is life that runs on chemical reactions in deep sea vents, that needs no oxygen or sunlight. We couldn’t kill all life without destroying the Earth.Report

        • Avatar Kimsie in reply to John Howard Griffin says:

          linkie of the day. meat prices aren’t gonna come back down.Report

          • Avatar John Howard Griffin in reply to Kimsie says:

            Not sure why, but my comment didn’t come through. Here it is again.

            I’ve been following Peak Water for some time. Thanks for the link.

            If you don’t already read it, you might like this web log: www-dot-desdemonadespair-dot-net

            Not for the faint-hearted, tho.Report

            • Avatar Kimsie in reply to John Howard Griffin says:

              One first world country just chose genocide (Trail of Tears variety) as their solution to “climate change refugees”. (It’s still in the planning stages, 20 years out is the best guess.)
              Fuck ’em.Report

        • Avatar George Turner in reply to John Howard Griffin says:

          Um, if we’re causing the extinction of 100,000 species a year, how come only 801 species (both plant and animal) are known to have gone extinct since 1500 AD, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature? When your estimates vary from the hard data by five orders of magnitude, you might as well find a completely different method because the one you’re using is generating garbage. (There are some sound mathematical reasons why the models don’t work.)Report

          • Avatar Shazbot5 in reply to George Turner says:

            More science denialism from George.

            Although 875 extinctions occurring between 1500 and 2009 have been documented by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources,[1] the vast majority are undocumented. According to the species-area theory and based on upper-bound estimating, the present rate of extinction may be up to 140,000 species per year.[2]”

            “The Anthropocene is a term introduced in 2000. Most biologists believe that we are at the beginning of an anthropogenic mass extinction that is accelerating at a terrifying rate. In The Future of Life (2002), E.O. Wilson of Harvard calculated that, if the current rate of human disruption of the biosphere continues, one-half of Earth’s higher lifeforms will be extinct by 2100. A 1998 poll conducted by the American Museum of Natural History found that seventy percent of biologists believe that we are in the midst of an anthropogenic extinction.[26] Numerous scientific studies—such as a 2004 report published in Nature,[27] and papers authored by the 10,000 scientists who contribute to the IUCN’s annual Red List of threatened species—have since reinforced this conviction. Numerous scientific studies since then—as the 2004 report of the journal Nature, as well as the 10,000 scientists who contribute to the IUCN Red List Annual International Union for the Conservation of endangered species—have only strengthened this consensus.

            -Wikipedia on the Holocene ExtinctionReport

            • Avatar John Howard Griffin in reply to Shazbot5 says:

              I thought about it, but didn’t bother replying to Mr. Turner. I didn’t figure anything would come of it, and I’ve used my allotment of Ridicule(tm) for the day.

              Thanks for the effort, tho.Report

            • Avatar George Turner in reply to Shazbot5 says:

              The problem is that those numbers aren’t based on anything sound, like counting species that have gone missing. Just because both science and conjecture can use math doesn’t mean they’re the same thing. For example, statistically hundreds of thousands of pregnant teens were disappeared by the Clinton regime, as confirmed in all government statistics. You could build a great “sciency” argument about that, full of charts and graphs, but what you couldn’t produce are names or bodies. You could even posit a genocide of Brooklyn Dodgers fans, since once there were many and now they hardly exist.

              One of the problem with estimates of species extinction estimates is that they follow the logic that if you, say, diligently explore 100 acres of rain forest, digging under every log, you should discover a new species. Therefore – (and this is the unfounded part), if you turn 100 acres into farmland you’ve driven one species to extinction. The basic problem with that logic is that if I go to the mall I’ll meet a person from a family I’ve never heard of before, say a Kozlowski, therefore if the mall closes (or burns down) all Kozlowski’s must go extinct. That’s not science. It’s not even good medieval logic.Report

              • Avatar Shazbot5 in reply to George Turner says:


                1. The data on how many species are likely to be found in a given region is not just a number pulled out of someone’s butt.

                2. The number of extinct species observed is nothing compared to the number of nearly, or virtually extinct:

                “Therein lies the concern biologists have for many of today’s species. While the number of actual documented extinctions may not seem that high, they know that many more species are “living dead” — populations so critically small that they have little hope of survival. Other species are among the living dead because of their interrelationships — for example, the loss of a pollinator can doom the plant it pollinates, and a prey species can take its predator with it into extinction. By some estimates, as much as 30 percent of the world’s animals and plants could be on a path to extinction within 100 years. These losses are likely to be unevenly distributed, as some geographic areas and some groups of organisms are more vulnerable to extinction than others. Tropical rainforest species are at especially high risk, as are top carnivores, species with small geographic ranges, and marine reef species.” http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/evolution/library/03/2/l_032_04.html

                “In September 2000 the World Conservation Union released a ‘Threatened Species Survey’ also known as the Red List, with shocking results. 11,046 species of plants and animals are considered threatened. This means that they are considered vulnerable, endangered or critically endangered. These species are considered to face high risk of extinction in the near future, in almost all cases this is seen as a result of human activities. This accounts for 24% of mammals and 12% of birds (IUCN 2000).”

                3. If you’re gonna talk smack about the consensus of biologists and biological research in their expertise, please give some citations of the arguments you are attacking.Report

              • Avatar George Turner in reply to George Turner says:

                Your own response should throw up huge red flag for you.

                11,046 species of plants and animals are considered threatened.

                Yet it’s claimed that 100,000 species are not only threatened, but actually going extinct every year. Of the 11,046 threatened species, what, 2 or 3 percent will actually go extinct in a decade? So on the one hand, when you go on actual documented cases (names, places, the body or missing person that is required for any murder case), you have about 800 cases in the past 500 years. When you go with “sciency” people you have about 100,000 cases a year, 2,700 extincts a day.

                If I was that sloppy with numbers and cases, not only could I claim that several hundred thousand pregnant American teens disappeared under the Clinton administration, I could assert that the true number of American pregnant teens secretly killed by Bill Clinton numbered into the billions, and perhaps into the trillions. You would probably assert that that is absurd. Well yeah. A mass genocide exceeding all previous genocides by a factor of a thousand, occurring right under you nose, and nobody can produce a single body.

                You have to know when scientists are doing real math based on real data, like Galileo figuring out the parabolic motion of objects, and when they’re just playing with numbers, like Galileo figuring out the actual volume of Hell based on demographics, average life expectancy, and the volume each soul would require.

                the scientists are doing the equivalent of surveying Auschwitz to investigate a single murderReport

              • Avatar Patrick in reply to George Turner says:

                George, your expertise in assessing and dismissing methodologies in multiple scientific fields is truly a wonder to behold.Report

              • Avatar George Turner in reply to George Turner says:

                Patrick, science is that way. Valid methodologies are valid across all disciplines. Worthless BS is worthless BS across all disciplines. There is no “special math” where certain fields don’t have to produce real data, just computer models, conjecture, and oddball myths of Earth shaking disasters that can’t be detected by any scientific instruments yet invented by man. Those areas belong with the science of tree nymphs, bigfoot, and the Lock Ness monster.Report

              • Avatar Patrick in reply to George Turner says:

                Valid methodologies are valid across all disciplines.

                Newtownian mechanics doesn’t work at the quantum level. Statistical significance means a lot more in a large epidemiological study than in a cohort study. Modeling techniques work well within their parameters, but choosing the proper parameters is discipline-dependent.

                Valid methodologies are valid within the limitations of the methodologies.

                In order to have much to say about the limitations of the methodologies, you have to have a lot of domain experience, to know when those limitations are significant to the discipline in question, and when they aren’t.

                You seem to think (correct me if this perception is inaccurate) that familiarity with the methodology gives you domain experience, or perhaps more precisely that familiarity with the methodology gives you the power to critique the methodology without knowing how the limitations of the methodology are reflected in the problem domain.

                That’s ass-backwards.Report

              • Avatar Stillwater in reply to Patrick says:

                But … Newtonian mechanics isn’t a methodology. It’s a theory. Right?Report

              • Avatar zic in reply to Stillwater says:

                I don’t think it’s theory. I’m guessing they dropped stuff on the moon, and checked out it’s how long it takes to fall, and I’m betting it wasn’t thirty-two-feet-per-second-squared, but fit whatever meters-per-second-squared the moon’s mass would pull.Report

              • Avatar Stillwater in reply to Stillwater says:

                So, you’re one of those people who believe astronauts landed on the moon and all that. I see….Report

              • Avatar zic in reply to Stillwater says:

                Yes I am, Stillwater. We didn’t have the ability to fake the video; the first computer, they Cray computer, that would have been able to chug the graphics hadn’t been invented yet, and the software engineering necessary to process that video wasn’t even a dream in George Lucas’ most yearning fantasy in 1969.

                (My F.I.L. was friends with Seymore Cray, and served on the board of his company. FIL told me that to relax, Cray was digging a cave at the base of the cliff below his house. With a child’s shovel and pail. And he did his designing on a legal pad; often interrupting his digging to jot down notes. The wikipedia entry calls it a tunnel, but my in-laws called it a cave.)Report

              • Avatar Just Me in reply to Stillwater says:

                Now I want to go see if that tunnel still exists!Report

              • Avatar George Turner in reply to George Turner says:

                And yet it’s claimed that the Stephan-Boltzmann radiation law, developed in the 1800’s, is inviolate even thought we’re all sitting here flaunting it in an egregious fashion.Report

              • Avatar George Turner in reply to George Turner says:

                Patrick, scientists in the field that we’re discussing explain the BS of the extinction numbers, and why such numbers come from nothing except flawed mathematical reasoning without being backed up by any actual evidence.

                The only difference between science and medieval logic is that science was based on the idea of observation and experiment instead of mathematical extrapolation from assumed principles. Even with the greatest heights of math and reason, separated from physical evidence (a body) you can generate sophisticated treatises on how many angels can dance on the head of a pin (I’ve read those, and they are brilliant), or the volumetric size of Hell, or anything else that you know in your heart to be true.

                The key advance with the scientific method is that you’d had to prove it with actual, verifiable evidence, not a train of flawless logic about the nature of nature and of nature’s God. So, every day, you come up with 2,700 species extinctions with zero actual extinct species. Every year you come up with 100,000 species extinctions (a number arrived at through cutting logic about God’s manifest will), made up of 99,998.5 cases with no supporting physical evidence whatsoever except your unbounded faith in the Saints, and one dead body every other year.

                If you divorce yourself from evidence and stick to just logic, reason, and math, you’re back in the 1300’s. In that world I can point out that 99.9% of all extinction events are caused directly by Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton’s apatite to eat nothing but nearly extinct animals at White House dinners.Report

              • Avatar Patrick in reply to George Turner says:

                Patrick, scientists in the field that we’re discussing explain the BS of the extinction numbers, and why such numbers come from nothing except flawed mathematical reasoning without being backed up by any actual evidence.

                I’m perfectly willing to believe that, but this is where a citation is in order.Report

              • Avatar George Turner in reply to George Turner says:

                Well, here’s a New Scientist article discussing why a new model is showing that the old model is off by a factor of 1.83 to 2.65, and another herea referencing the same findings.

                What you should find perhaps disturbing is this quote regarding their computer simulations of extinction based on the species-area ratio:

                There is a forward version when we add species and a backward version when we lose species,” Hubbell said. “In the Nature paper, we show that this surrogate measure is fundamentally flawed. The species-area curve has been around for more than a century, but you can’t just turn it around to calculate how many species should be left when the area is reduced; the area you need to sample to first locate a species is always less than the area you have to sample to eliminate the last member of the species.

                “The overestimates can be very substantial. The way people have defined ‘extinction debt’ (species that face certain extinction) by running the species-area curve backwards is incorrect, but we are not saying an extinction debt does not exist.”

                How confident is Hubbell in the findings, which he made with ecologist and lead author Fangliang He, a professor at China’s Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou and at Canada’s University of Alberta?

                “100 percent,” he said. “The mathematical proof is in our paper.”

                There were predictions in the early 1980s that as many as half the species on Earth would be lost by 2000.

                “Nothing like that has happened,” Hubbell said. “However, the next mass extinction may be upon us or just around the corner. There have been five mass extinctions in the history of the Earth, and we could be entering the sixth mass extinction.”

                I cite that to point out that their new model shows the old model is incorrect, and that they are 100% certain of their results. They proved it mathematically without looking at so much as a single Amazonian beetle, refuting the work of people who also never counted a single Amazonian beetle.

                How that is different from a monk using a brilliant geometrical insight to refute a previous estimate of a pin-head’s angel population eludes me, as does the obligatory notion that man has fouled God’s creation and hellfire and damnation must be just around the corner, based on numerology and revelations from the book of Daniel, even though nobody has seen any evidence yet. If millions of species are really going extinct, even as we speak, show me a body. A single freakin’ body. It makes me want to say “Habeas Corpus – Dammit.”

                And following up on that thought, I just wrote a block of code that shows that 17.2 to 19.8 percent of species going extinct are in the genus Sasquatch and the closely related Yeti genus. Given that, sasquatch extinctions alone are numbering over 12,000 species a year, and we’ve never even found an individual one yet, must less a species, much less tens of thousands of species. But they must exist or my model wouldn’t show them dying out. There is absolutely nothing in the “scientific consensus” models that would contradict my sasquatch extinction numbers, and they can’t even point to a statistical sample of newly extinct species to show that my number is even unlikely.

                That’s why it may use math but it is not science.Report

              • Avatar Shazbot5 in reply to George Turner says:

                Did you read that link?

                From the lonk

                We still face an extinction crisis, warn Stephen Hubbell of the University of California, Los Angeles, and Fangliang He of Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, China. But the pair’s work will allow biologists to more precisely define how habitat destruction leads to extinction…

                Jean-Christophe Vié, deputy head of species survival at the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, agrees better baseline data on species is badly needed. He says IUCN doesn’t use the SAR method. But, he points out, “a twofold miscalculation doesn’t make much difference to an extinction rate now 100 to 1000 times the natural background“.

                Hubbell and He agree: “Mass extinction might already be upon us.”

                They’re talking about refining the details of their estimates of how fast the mass extinction is happening. They agree that the evidence shows it clearly is happening.Report

              • Avatar George Turner in reply to George Turner says:

                I read the link, and you should read what science papers sounded like a hundred or two hundred years ago, when they’d commonly stick in obligatory phrases about God’s majesty in the absence of evidence. You’d think they were all edited by a Sunday-school teacher. You have to separate what a scientific paper presents evidence for and what is just a scientist asserting his sincere beliefs without evidence.

                As my New Scientist link above mentions in a sidebar to the story:

                . Now the challenge will be to reach a consensus – a lack of which may have allowed some researchers to make inflated claims, says Carsten Rahbek of the University of Copenhagen, Denmark. “Scientists working for conservation organisations have used the SAR method (see main story) to get high estimates [of extinction rates].”

                Yeah. They have.

                Since the year 2000 only one species has been declared extinct, a mussel. That gives a current data point of 0.083 extinctions per year. Given 800 confirmed extinctions over the past 500 years, you get another data point, 1.5 per year. You could start discussing those numbers, and why you think the 1.5 might be a little low, but then some ADHD kid in the back of the class shouts “It’s a hundred thousand!” The kid next to him shouts “No, it’s a million!”

                The estimates differ from the observed data points by six orders of magnitude. That’s not science, that’s not even good guessing. I can scientific estimates like that from the first-grader next door, assuming she knows the words for numbers that big. If you held to the idea, now quaint and archaic, that the error bars on a scientific estimate should at least include the observational data points, then they’d be so large that all the known data points would have to have their values magnified by a hundred just to get them a single pixel at the bottom of the page.

                But what do wild guesses producing staggering extinction rates accomplish? They generate massive amounts of donations from people. The higher your published guess, the more money you get! Who needs the scientific method when you can fling guesses at a page and generate revenue. It’s not like anyone in a science journal is double checking these numbers, or asking to see the real data, because there isn’t any.

                And as an aside, did you know that almost all documented extinctions since the 1500’s have occurred on islands? In the entire database, only six birds and three mammals are known to have gone extinct on continents. Almost 200 went extinct on islands, almost always due to predation from introduced species and hunting. The island extinction rate was a hundred to several hundred times the background rate, whereas on continents the extinction rate remains at or slightly above the background rate. The things is, that was from a paper discussing the environmental and conservation aspects based on observed extinction rates. Their careful research would be utterly meaningless if someone just swamps their little numbers like 2.12 and 3.26, with “A hundred thousand! A million!”Report

              • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to George Turner says:

                Hint: A paper that says that current estimates are off by a factor of two or three doesn’t support your argument that they’re off by two or three orders of magnitude.Report

              • Avatar Shazbot5 in reply to George Turner says:

                “I read the link, and you should read what science papers sounded like a hundred or two hundred years ago, when they’d commonly stick in obligatory phrases about God’s majesty in the absence of evidence. You’d think they were all edited by a Sunday-school teacher. You have to separate what a scientific paper presents evidence for and what is just a scientist asserting his sincere beliefs without evidence.”

                Just stop.

                1. You appear to be arguing that because science was wrong in the past about something, it is wrong now.

                2. Given what you say about the state of scientifc research 100 years ago, you are woefully unaware of the state of scientific knowledge in 1913.

                3. This is just completely irrelevant to biological research now.

                “The estimates differ from the observed data points by six orders of magnitude. ”

                This is irrelevant given how much the current extinction rate is higher than the background rate as the paper you cited clearly states.

                The mass extinction is occuring according to the data,. The only question are details about the very fast rate at which it is happening. Super fast or super duper fast?

                “But what do wild guesses producing staggering extinction rates accomplish?”

                Not guesses. Data. You’re being dishonest and everyone sees it.

                “They generate massive amounts of donations from people. The higher your published guess, the more money you get! Who needs the scientific method when you can fling guesses at a page and generate revenue. It’s not like anyone in a science journal is double checking these numbers”

                Mark the time. Conspiracy theory again introduced by George.Report

              • Avatar George Turner in reply to George Turner says:

                Do you know what data means?

                A computer model of hypothetical species is not data.

                Did you know that over 100 million American children a year are raped by homosexuals? Well, at least that’s what my computer model says. Your data point might be, oh, three instead of a hundred million – but my model is based on demographics and underpants gnome theory, and I think my model should drive social policy because it has numbers and stuff.

                You can argue that homosexuals aren’t raping a hundred million children a year, but that wouldn’t be science because it would be based on something crude like counting actual cases instead of a guess based on estimating the number of homosexuals to an order of magnitude, the number of square miles each one visits to two orders of magnitude, the number of children to an order of magnitude, the likelihood of some kind of interaction to two orders of magnitude, and some stuff I just made up.

                “The estimates differ from the observed data points by six orders of magnitude. ” [GT]

                This is irrelevant given how much the current extinction rate is higher than the background rate as the paper you cited clearly states.

                And crime statistics are irrelevant given the gay-induced child-rate rape of hundred million a year, since I clearly stated it in the paragraph above.

                We can’t say the current extinction rate is higher (actual counts put the continental rate from 0.8 to 7.5 times the background rate. Note that the 0.8 is lower than background) without actually measuring the extinction rate, now can we? At least that’s how science used to work. In the old days, you couldn’t say one number was bigger than another unless you actually knew what both numbers were. In fact, back in the old days scientists were supposed to actually take measurements and conduct experiments. You know, gather data. You should suspect something is seriously wrong when they’re using methods that can tell us, with equal certainty, what the extinction rates are on alien planets.

                For example, the number of existing species is estimated to be somewhere between several million and several billion. The estimates are that broad. Yet you and these alarmist scientists claim to know how fast species are going extinct within a factor of two. That’s absurdly stupid. If they total number of species could be off by a factor of a thousand, obviously the completely non-measured extinction rate could be off by a factor of a thousand. In fact, since almost nobody seems to be actually counting extinctions, and given the existing data points, the guess of 100,000 a year seems to be off by 100,000.

                The only difference between my scientific proof that homosexuals are raping a hundred million American children a year, and that mankind is driving 100,000 species to extinction every year, is that nobody is going to call out the scientists making up garbage about extinction rates, whereas the other claim would cause everyone to instantly look at real data. Extinct species can’t defend themselves, especially when they’re fictional extinct species that only existed inside a computer model, one that was based on a theory that didn’t even make sense.Report

              • Avatar Shazbot5 in reply to George Turner says:


                They gather data on how many animals have gone extinct. More importantly, they have data on how many are nearly extinct. And they have data on how many species are found in different regions. And they have data about loss of habitat.

                They then use this data to create a model of the current extinction rates and the background extinction rates.

                There is no doubt that it is very difficult to perform these calculations exactly. And scientists are currently debating the exact rate. But the evidence suggests the current rate is between 100 and 1000 times greater than the background rate. There is a massive consensus on that.

                Biologists are not just making up numbers a priori about how many animals must be going extinct.

                If you wish to convince anyone, you’ll need to cite actual papers. The paper you’ve cited directly and explicitly contradicts your own conclusions.Report

              • Avatar George Turner in reply to George Turner says:

                Shazbot, the data they’ve carefully gathered shows one actual extinction since 2000, a rate of 0.08 per decade. The extinction model they’ve been using has been shown to be not just wrong, but logically unsound (if not insanely stupid – like my previous example of going to the mall and meeting someone from a new family, the Plopniks, and then assuming that the closure of the mall means the Plopnik family must go extinct).

                As for their numbers, there are very sound reasons to think the extinction rate would’ve peaked sometime around the 1970’s, since improvements in agriculture have meant a reduction in pesticide use, crop area, and other factors.

                From the IPCC’s AR4

                The period 1850 to 1950 saw a more rapid rate of increase in cropland and pasture areas. In the last 50 years, several regions of the world have seen cropland areas stabilise, and even decrease. In the USA, as cultivation shifted from the east to the Midwest, croplands were abandoned along the eastern seaboard around the turn of the century and the eastern forests have regenerated over the last century. Similarly, cropland areas have decreased in China and Europe. Overall, global cropland and pasture expansion was slower after 1950 than before.

                So, all that farming from 1850 to 1950 hardly made a blip in the extinction rate, but now it’s exploding to 100,000 extinctions a year as we’re letting forests reclaim cropland (the disappearing farmland is a major topic elsewhere)? Does that make a lick of sense to you?

                There’s not much reason that the extinction rates would have changed very much from the 1850’s to today. We were essentially wiping out a couple continents worth of wildlife back then as farming turned industrial and populations exploded, and we sprayed just about everything on the crops and dumped industrial waste into rivers with complete abandon. Most of the expansions in intensive farming are long over.

                So if the models you so love are accurate, the rate of 100,000 species extinctions a year should extend back in time pretty reliably. So let’s assume we’ve been having a million extinctions per decade at least since the 1960’s.

                The lower end of the estimates of the number of species on the Earth are around three or four million. Of those that used to exist, we’ve already seen (according to your model) about five million go extinct. This means that all life on Earth died out sometime during the early GW Bush administration. Somehow the complete extinction of life on Earth during the Bush administration is backed up by few scientific papers noting the event, even though the science clearly says that it must have occurred.

                Do you really think all the mammals died out ten years ago and nobody noticed? Do you think all the birds, all the fish, and all the plants died out while everyone was distracted by Saddam’s statue falling over? Is that your science?Report

              • Avatar Shazbot5 in reply to George Turner says:


                I am sure habitat loss did cause species extinction in the past, though different regions are more (rainforests especially) or less diverse in terms of how many species are prsent, which is accounted for in the data used to estimate background and current extinction rates.

                You are missing (or intentionally ignoring) the data on how many species are critically endangered. “David Wilcove estimates that there are 14,000 to 35,000 endangered species in the United States, which is 7 to 18 percent of U.S. flora and fauna.”


                Your insane reductio argument against the massive consensus of biologists is so weird I can’t even begin to evaluate it. It isn’t an invalid argument, so much as an argument that has no clear reasoning to be evaluated.

                I suppose there is an interesting question as to how much the extinction rate was greater than the background rate in the period from, say, 1000 AD to 1800 AD, as human populations expanded and natural habitat decreased. But the answer to that question is:

                a.) lesser known than current extinction rates which are observed (based on extinction AND endangered species numbers AND data about how many species live in one region and extrapolating for other regions, AND data about climate change and habitat loss)

                b.) Completely irrelevant to what we know about the current rate of extinction and endangerment.

                The factthat you don’t see this shows that you are completely unable to evaluate evidence and arguments in a rational and unbiased way. You have the mind of a conspiracy theorist which makes it impossible to discuss things with you.Report

              • Avatar George Turner in reply to George Turner says:

                Shazbot, 25% of the IUCN’s (the definitive world organization on such matters) red list of endangered species are mammals, and they claim that about 20% of all mammals are endangered with extinction.

                So, if 100,000 species are going extinct every year, we’d reasonably expect that of those, 25,000 are mammal species going extinct every year.

                There are only 5,487 known species of mammals.

                So if your “science” is correct, all mammals on Earth will be extinct within 80 days, and this extinction rate (all of them every 80 days) has been going on for about a century.

                Yet in the real world, the US hasn’t listed an extinct mammal since the 1950’s, when we gave up on the Florida Pallid Beach Mouse, unless you count the Eastern Cougar. In 2011 the Eastern Cougar has been decided to have gone extinct in the 1930’s, even though they can’t decide if it really ever was a species, and can’t decide if all the existing Eastern Cougars are real Eastern Cougars or just wanderers from out West or way down south, or what.

                Look at a simple list of extinct mammals. Note that all the extinctions seemed to be happening in the 1800’s up through the 1930’s, as you would expect if you looked at human settlement and behavior.

                If you extinction crisis, OMG we’re all goin’ to die hypothesis was correct, given the ease with which we were identifying extinct species up through the 1950’s, we should easily be able to identify hundreds of mammals that have gone extinct since then – even within the US. There are none.

                We are the most heavily industrialized country there is, with about 25% of the world’s intensively worked farmland. If there was an extinction crisis of Biblical magnitudes going on, killing 100,000 species a year, it would be happening mostly here. If it were we’d also know the names and dates of every extinct piece of life, because we are awash in well funded wildlife biologists. Each member of an extinct US species, numbering at least several thousand a year by your theory, would have their own memorial Facebook pages. Those are notably missing.

                I have to ask, did you just fall off the back of a turnip truck? There’s no way to reconcile observations with theory when they differ by six orders of magnitude.Report

              • (I thought the majority of the species thought to be going extinct were rain forest flora and fauna, some others oceanic, very few of them cuddly, even the young – presenting a PR challenge to those who believe that the loss in biodiversity is at least regrettable, possibly dangerous, and all but certainly irrecoverable – attempts to attract public interest have mostly been directed at the usefulness of certain rare species of plant that turned out to have unique medical applications.)Report

              • Avatar Shazbot4 in reply to George Turner says:


                You’re just flailing around throwing ideas out, trying to make any sort of skepticism about extinction rates stick. I would be forgiving that you just don’t understand, but you are also a climate skeptic, which in conjunction with this, kills your credibility. You have epistemic problems.

                1. Again, we don’t know what the past extinction rate was during agricultural expansion over the last millenium. It may very well have been less the current rate. We also don’t know how many species there were before agricultural expansion. There may very well have been a very high rate of extinction that is continuing or accelerating.

                One confounding factor is that grasslands contain fewer species per square mile. So if you’re turning grasslands into farmland, that may kill fewer species than doing the same to rain forests. Not that one is “worse” than the other in any simple way, but the rates of extinction and the rate of habitat loss don’t have a simple relationship. It is complicated, which your ridiculously simple reductio argument doesn’t admit.

                But that is irrelevant anyway. What we know is the current rate, within a range, and we are getting that range more and more specific.

                2. Regarding mammals specifically:

                The typical rate of extinction differs for different groups of organisms. Mammals, for instance, have an average species “lifespan” from origination to extinction of about 1 million years, although some species persist for as long as 10 million years. There are about 5,000 known mammalian species alive at present. Given the average species lifespan for mammals, the background extinction rate for this group would be approximately one species lost every 200 years. Of course, this is an average rate — the actual pattern of mammalian extinctions is likely to be somewhat uneven. Some centuries might see more than one mammalian extinction, and conversely, sometimes several centuries might pass without the loss of any mammal species. Yet the past 400 years have seen 89 mammalian extinctions, almost 45 times the predicted rate, and another 169 mammal species are listed as critically endangered. ”

                3. Different classes of animals and plants have different background rates of extinction and different current rates of extinction. So, you can’t expect to see the same rate for mammals and all mammals. For instance, amphibian extinction rates, IIRC, are much more scary right now than mammal extinction rates.

                Please read this:


                4. It is very difficult to observe an extinction. It really is. For a while there was a “50 year” rule in biology, IIRC, where there had to be no reports of a species for 50 years before it was declared extinct. The 50 year rule is gone now, but there is still a very high bar. It is very likely that the number of “observed” extinctions is very low, simply because of that high bar alone.Report

              • Avatar George Turner in reply to George Turner says:

                Shazbot, the most important concept in all of science is use your freakin’ brain. I’m trying to help you with that.

                Note your own quote:

                “…. Yet the past 400 years have seen 89 mammalian extinctions, almost 45 times the predicted rate, and another 169 mammal species are listed as critically endangered. ”

                Okay, if the other idea swimming around in your head is true, that we’re actually suffering 100,000 extinctions a year, then your quote above is absolutely meaningless because that other theory would also indicate that yesterday we had more extinctions than the past 400 years of carefully studied, documented cases, each with a rich literature of an unfolding tragedy. You can’t use the past historical record for anything scientific because you’ve just slammed all the actual data under the weight of numbers a million times bigger.

                You can’t defend conservation efforts because what’s the point in saving something like the California Condor when we know that thousands of other California birds are going extinct even as we speak, probably dozens of species every year. These dozens of extinct California birds are completely unknown to science (conveniently)- but they must exist because people accepted an invalid mathematical model that from its inception was producing numbers five or six orders of magnitude higher than actual measurements, and that model says that there must be massive numbers of species going extinct right under our noses. We just can’t see it because they’re invisible.

                That’s why models and theories have to be run through lots of filters, comparing their outputs to observations. Skip that step and you’re cranking out junk like Chem Trails, HARP, bigfoot, vaccine autism links, and fluoridation conspiracies. One sign that this is happening is when there are claims of extreme danger, Earth shattering crisis, justifications of why actual effects cannot be observed by anything known to man, trivial ease at poking the theory with questions that lead to utterly ridiculous answers, and invariably to ad hominem attacks.

                As another example of the ridiculous answers the area-species rule would no doubt produce, the extinction rates the theory would give from natural forest fires would probably swamp known extinction rates by a factor of several thousand.

                Some of the environmental scientists actually charged with issues regarding species extinction are trying to reign in this nonsense, because their work is largely meaningless if all their well funded field efforts are pissing in the wind as far as the literature is concerned. How can you show progress if some idiot is going to slam you for letting ten thousand imaginary species die while you were intently monitoring one real one? I used to go do endangered species counts in caves. What was the point if we’re just going to make up numbers thousands of times larger than anything being monitored by thousands of dedicated volunteers and Forest Service employees?Report

              • Avatar Shazbot4 in reply to George Turner says:

                This will be my last response on this issue George as I am wasting my time.

                This appears to be the heart of your argument and it is utter nonsense:

                “if the other idea swimming around in your head is true, that we’re actually suffering 100,000 extinctions a year, then your quote above [that the observed mammalian extinction rate is 45 times higher than the background rate) is absolutely meaningless because that other theory would also indicate that yesterday we had more extinctions than the past 400 years of carefully studied, documented cases, each with a rich literature of an unfolding tragedy.”

                Mammals versus all plants and animals dude. Big difference. Confirmed extinctions versus uncomfirmed. Big difference.

                The 100000 number is some sort of gross oversimplification that you are using to make a point. Please criticize specific claims that are made or endorsed by scientists, explicitly and in writing, not just your own version of what you think they are saying.

                Get help.Report

              • Avatar George Turner in reply to George Turner says:

                Shaz, I don’t need help, because I understand math and science (its my job) and don’t believe things that even environmental scientists are complaining about, such as how other scientists are putting out inflated numbers.

                You support the claim that 100,000 (numbers range as high as 130,000) species a year go extinct, even though by those numbers all life on Earth probably went extinct back in the Bush administration, if not the Clinton or Truman administrations. If you view of reality is that bad, I can’t do much to help you. The observed extinction rates, which for some reason were easy to measure in the 1930’s but impossible to measure today, despite having about a hundred times as environmental scientists as back then, differ from your estimate by 100,000.

                Ad hominem attacks or questioning my sanity don’t get you out of this idiocy, because I’m pointing out that your number lead to absolutely ridiculous conclusions that stand in stark contrast to actual scientific data. The extinction rates are probably higher than the measured rate, but it’s virtually impossible that they exceed that rate by a factor of a hundred thousand or a million. If you’re that sloppy with numbers then you’ll believe anything, such as that American gays rape ten billion American school kids every day. Use your head. When you hit numbers that are impossible, there’s been a mistake somewhere. The scientists in the articles I cited wrote papers pointing out giant, gaping, logical mistakes made somewhere. For decades those glaring mistakes went completely unquestioned. Why do you think that is? Why would people who want to call attention to extinction not get called on sloppy, unsupportable methods that produced a whole lot of attention until the field became important enough where real scientists actually needed to dial back the nonsense so they could do real science?Report

      • Avatar John Howard Griffin in reply to Kimsie says:

        Nah, I’m looking at that too.

        I see that now.

        So, two people out of a few dozen. It’s still interesting to me that almost everyone defines evil as something done to humans.Report

    • Avatar Shazbot5 in reply to John Howard Griffin says:

      I thought about animal suffering, but we are looking for one single event, not something so general. You could call “the creation of mass-production, industrial slaughterhouses” an event, but it’s sort of a lot of events over a long time.

      Also, I think we want to avoid things that are too controversial, even if we believe such and such.

      I certainly can imagine someone saying Row V Wade is the worst thing of all time, or maybe the development of abortion as a medical practice in the U.S. and around the world. If you believe a fetus is a person, the death toll from abortion is gigantic and dwarfs anything else, including the holocaust. I’m sure the stats are hard to come by with certainty, but maybe 40 million per year? I heard someone say 1 billion total since 1980, but that could be off. Still a huge number is likely to be true.Report

      • Avatar John Howard Griffin in reply to Shazbot5 says:

        I hear what you’re saying, but didn’t many of the events that others have cited occur over a long period of time? So, the question is: how long is too long?

        Regardless, I consider the biosphere to be much more important than humans. Something that has gotten me in trouble on the LoOG in the past. Our belief that we own the world (the universe!) is what is destroying it.

        Regarding “too controversial”, I have no problem with someone saying they think abortion is the greatest evil, even though I think it has been an unqualified good – for it grants freedom to women, reduces the number of humans destroying the planet, etc.Report

  39. Avatar Francis says:

    1. Monotheistic religions. (yes, BlaiseP, your religion is a delusion. The fact that billions of people believe in one of the three abrahamic religions doesn’t make their factual claims true. Most likely, when you’re dead you’re just dead. And if not, I bet the food at Valhalla sucks.)

    2. Continuing burning oil, gas and coal when by now we know better.

    3. Female genital mutilation.Report

  40. Avatar Kolohe says:

    The extermination of the Neanderthals.

    The extermination of most Western Hemisphere megafauna.

    Yacht Rock.Report

    • Avatar George Turner in reply to Kolohe says:

      As an aside, modern thought wonders if the Neanderthals were even harmed. Based on genetic data they were probably making out like the only customers in a strip club, or the only strippers in a club full of customers. The new thought is that they were just so outnumbered that their genes got diluted from banging so many homo sapien sapiens.Report

    • Avatar Kimsie in reply to Kolohe says:

      Say what? I happen to know someone with a good deal of Neanderthal blood in him.Report

    • Avatar George Turner in reply to Kolohe says:

      Yeah, I’m probably about 2% Neanderthal, and Spanish are slightly higher. It’s possible that the genes for red-hair also come from Neanderthals. In a stunning surprise, scientists managed to sequence their entire genome and were in for a shock. They didn’t go extinct, they interbred with humans, and based on relative population estimates, their gene pool simply became more and more dominated by homo sapiens sapiens DNA. The parts that were highly conserved seem to be in European genes for disease resistance, as Neanderthals were in Europe far longer than the more recent immigrants and had developed better defenses against local diseases.

      It’s an interesting story, as is why we’d been assuming that the Neanderthals must’ve been exterminated through competition or outright slaughter. We didn’t think humans would’ve settled down and started families with them because we incorrectly thought Neanderthals were stupid and primitive sub-humans. The DNA tells a completely different story.Report

      • Avatar Kimsie in reply to George Turner says:

        “probably”.. lol. no, you don’t strike me as Neanderthal much. Were you born with C-section?

        … my friend got into the pilot for that study.Report

      • Avatar George Turner in reply to George Turner says:

        No, not so far as I can tell. I have a belly-button like natural kids.


        PBS Frontline did a great episode on the new Neanderthal studies that was really fascintating, walking through the revelations and surprises, such as discovering that the pitch the Neanderthals used to attach their spear points required a carefully controlled, long-period, high-temperature chemical process carried out in a non-oxidizing environment, and they were doing it a hundred thousand or so years ago, probably making it the first sophisticated chemical industrial process carried out on Earth.

        BTW, years ago, based on artwork from the Indo-Europeans to the Norman Conquest, I concluded that for most of that time we held spears across our backs in combat. The hands look wrong in all the artwork, and the artists were assumed to have been equally sloppy in drawing the line of a spear on the wrong side of the neck. What we’ve found in research on sword studies from the era is that the art is almost always correct regarding important details like limb position and hands, it’s just that postures turn out to be that bizarre looking until you’ve seen the brilliant (but bio-mechanically odd) techniques.

        So taking that into consideration I experimented, and by throwing a very long spear or lance across your back and pulling the butt-end down with your right hand, you can keep a very heavy tip aimed at your opponent (almost like carrying a bucket around with a pole over your back), leaving the other hand free to hold a shield or guide a horse. Then when it’s time to thrust, you align your shoulders and spear with the target, shove your spear hand straight up (to get it clear of your head) and stab, rapidly rotating your upper body and moving your arm almost like pitching a baseball. It works great, adds a couple of feet of range just from the posture, and allows a much longer spear to be used, keeping you out of range of enemy spear points. After the thrust you immediately recover the spear to your shoulder, because you can’t keep the tip up with just wrist and forearm strength.

        I don’t really know what could’ve possessed me to spend so much time investigating spear technique, so yeah, Neanderthal all the way!Report

  41. Avatar Herb says:

    Cortes’s conquest of Mexico has to make the list. That was wicked, mon.Report

    • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to Herb says:

      I think thats debatable. The European conquests of the Americas were no more or less evil than any other conquest before or since. Its not like the Aztecs and Inca were much better rulers than the Spanish. The reason that Cortes was able to conquer Mexico quickly was because the non-Aztecs hated Aztec rule. The Spanish weren’t much of an improvement but they were a slight one.Report

  42. Avatar LeeEsq says:

    Actually, if we are going to root causes and trend setters than I’d argue that how the Jews were treated in the Middle Ages. Enforced segregation, discrimination, persecution, and all the other tools of modern racism originate in how the Jews were treated before Jewish Emancipation.Report

  43. Avatar kenB says:

    Judging by the online dictionaries I checked, I guess my definition is idiosyncratic, but I tend to think of “evil” as synonymous with “malevolent” — an evil act is the act of someone who knows what’s good and consciously, purposefully chooses the opposite. The maximally evil act is when this choice is made purely for its own sake (e.g. a sociopath who enjoys making people suffer); somewhat less evil is when the choice is made as a means to some other personal reward (perhaps a mobster who brutalizes or kills people he knows to be “innocent” in order to consolidate power and/or make money).

    Someone who sees his victims as not worthy of consideration and thus treats them horribly doesn’t fall under my definition of “evil”, at least to the extent that he doesn’t have the sense that he’s doing wrong.Report

    • Avatar Stillwater in reply to kenB says:

      That might be an idiosyncratic definition, but it’s pretty much mine as well for most individual actions. Collective actions seem to be different for me. I’m not exactly sure how. Eg., the holocaust. Simply knowing that it was people who caused that outcome suffices for me to label it as evil without any further consideration of their motives. Maybe that’s incoherent, but evil is the only word I can think of that applies.Report

      • Avatar kenB in reply to Stillwater says:

        I get what you’re saying. For me, the overall event is unspeakably horrible but not “evil” per se. The only way I would justify using that word for it would be if I had the perspective that the Devil orchestrated the whole thing, but that’s not my world view.

        OTOH, it comprised many individual “evil” acts, no doubt falling into both of my categories above, as well as non-evil but horribly misguided acts.Report

  44. Avatar Damon says:

    Any State vs citiczens actions ranks highly-Stalin, Mao, Cambodia, etc. (This would also cover Tuskeege, and the other medical experiments conducted on US folks by the gov’t.)

    I’d like to address another type of evil. This is in no way worse than those above, but it is still EVIL, and pervasive. The evil of thinking that you know best for me: That I shouldn’t smoke, or drink, or do drugs, or eat certain foods, or eat more of this or that. It’s the pervasive belief that YOU know what’s good for me and are willing to inflict violence on me to keep me from doing something you don’t like.Report

    • Avatar Pierre Corneille in reply to Damon says:


      I agree that taken as an abstraction, that evil is not as bad as most of what’s described above. But I think what you describe is actually one of the animating forces behind at least some of those evils. The five year plans and great leap forward were in many ways outgrowths of that kind of thinking.Report

  45. Avatar weinerdog43 says:

    I apologize if someone has already posted this link…