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Monday, November 5, 2012

The Nature of Evil - Is Modern Society More Evil Than Times Past?

In another in her series on the nature of evil in the Guardian (11.5.12), Clare Carlisle raises the question whether or not modern society is more conducive to evil or even facilitates it more than in times past.

The answer to this question lies in the definition of evil, and as Carlisle has discussed previously, Augustine famously defined evil as only the absence of good.  This was his way of squaring the notion of an all-good and beneficent God with the presence of evil.  Evil as an entity does not exist in itself, Augustine argued, but Man’s choice.  Man has free will, he continued, and can turn away from God.  

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Kierkegaard expanded on this theory of evil and free will by saying that human beings are basically driven by self-interest and by a prideful assumption that they can always prevail; but at the same time they are overwhelmed by the infinite freedom of choice which results from free will, and always pull back from the abyss. Human sinfulness, said Kierkegaard, results from this traumatic conflict when we choose wrongly or immorally without thought for consequence, driven to irrational choice because of the angst of the choice itself.

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This rather academic parsing of evil does not sit well with most modern thinkers who prefer to look at the expressions of evil which is not defined in terms of or with reference to God, but as a human construct.  Yet, definition is still elusive.  Most would agree that an evil act has to be horrendous, overstepping all bounds of civility, reason, and morality.  Some have argued that it must be committed without justification, satisfying only some perverse compulsions.  Even the worst of Shakespeare’s villains had at least some logical motivation for their actions.  As murderous as Richard III was, he had his eyes on the crown.  Goneril and Regan, as cruelly dismissive as they were of their father, Lear; or Edmund, whose ambitions led to the deaths of Gloucester and Lear, had ‘legitimate’ reasons for their actions. 

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Even the vicious and horrific actions of Titus Andronicus could be justified by considerations of justice and Biblical code. Only Iago and Tamora (the Queen of the Goths in Titus Andronicus) were true villains,acting only on the basis of pure evil. Iago provoked the death of Othello for one reason only – he could and wanted to watch the dissembling of a great man; and Tamora had Titus’ daughter raped and then had her tongue cut out and her hands cut off our of pure hate and spite for her father.
Others have argued that individuals always behave badly, and that the term ‘evil’ must be applied to acts committed on a greater scale.

Genghis Khan and Tamburlaine were evil because of the millions of innocent people were killed as they marauded their way across Europe and Asia.  Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot were evil because they engineered the deaths of tens of millions.  Yet, the nagging question remains – if they were simply acting out what they thought were historical imperatives, no different from the English kings so aptly depicted by Shakespeare, then were their acts evil?  Why should justification alone be an exoneration from evil?

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Is innocence the key variable in evil – i.e. does the the killing of innocent people, civilians caught up in war or civil conflict, constitute a higher level of evil that the death of soldiers? And what of the deliberate annihilation of civilians to achieve what strategists consider a moral end, such as the bombing of Dresden and the defeat of the Nazis? What about senseless massacres of children committed by madmen, such as recent events in Norway or America? Does mental illness exonerate these murderers?

Carlisle describes two famous experiments done at Stanford and Yale involving volunteers who willingly agreed to torture others.
Researchers found that under certain conditions, well-educated and apparently ordinary university students were capable of immense cruelty. Under the instructions of an authority-figure students were prepared to administer painful electric shocks as a penalty for poor memory: two-thirds of them increased the voltage to lethal levels as their "subjects" cried in agony. These results demonstrated how dangerous and immoral obedience can be. In the Stanford experiment a prison environment was created in the psychology department,assigning roles of guard and prisoner to a group of undergraduates. Within a few days guards were treating prisoners with such cruelty and contempt that the experiment had to be terminated early.
The results of these experiments are often used to suggest that we all have the capability of evil within us, for here was a perfect example of well-educated, upper middle class students voluntarily agreeing to torture.  They had no real motivation or justification for it; they simply did what they were told within an artificial, institutional setting.  What these experiments really showed, however, was not just that we are all capable of horrible acts, but that we do so when told to do so.  This, of course, was the defense used by Nazi war criminals who said, “I was simply following orders”.

Many innocent people were turned over to the secret police of countries in the former Soviet bloc who in turn tortured and killed them for being suspected traitors.  Does their active complicity in these ‘evil’ acts make them evil, or does the fact that they were forced to do so exonerate them?
Carlisle then turns to the question about the presence of evil today – in a society which has become less personal and more virtual, have we become less accountable for our actions and therefore more easily express the most negative sides of our nature?
Do science and technology, in particular, dehumanize us? Modern technology has certainly created forms of communication that allow people to remain more safely anonymous. Take the internet, for example; it's right here. In recent years the malevolent online behavior of internet trolls and vitriolic commentators, hiding behind their pseudonyms, has become a much-discussed cultural phenomenon.
Carlisle concludes with a reflection on Plato:
In the Republic Socrates' pupil Glaucon recounts the story of a shepherd, Gyges, who fell into the earth during an earthquake and found a ring that made him invisible. "Having made this discovery," says Glaucon, "he managed to get himself included in the party that was to report to the king, and when he arrived he seduced the queen and with her help attacked and murdered the king and seized the throne."
The story of Gyges's ring seems to suggest that evil is a simply a fact of human nature. When anonymity releases us from responsibility for our actions, we will gladly abandon morality and harm anyone who obstructs our pursuit of what we think will make us happy. In this way, we might point to Gyges in arguing that there is nothing particularly modern about evil.
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‘Evil’ acts always have been and always will be committed by ambitious, powerful people who exercise every bit of individual will and marshal all available resources to attain their ends.  As individual, most of us are constrained enough by social convention, religion, or prevailing mores to keep our aggressive instincts in check; but there is no reason to assume that our human nature is any different from that of an of history’s ‘villains’.  We will, when threatened, do anything to preserve and protect what is ours and to extend and expand our protective perimeter. 

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