Sunday, February 18, 2018

is evil a useful concept?

A recent post at A Political Refugee From the Global Village asks the question

“…is evil a word it is very useful for historians to use?”

The post is mostly concerned with political leaders to whom the word evil is routinely attached, which basically means Hitler and (much more rarely) Stalin. The point does however have a wider relevance. It has become increasingly common for people to regard those with whom they have a political disagreement as evil. Even more disturbingly perhaps it has become common to dismiss those who voted for those “evil” politicians as evil as well.

This practice is not confined to one end of the political spectrum. The most spectacular example at the moment is liberals regarding Donald Trump as some kind of comic-book super-villain. But there are plenty of conservatives who see Hillary Clinton in the same light. I’ve even encountered British conservatives who seem to think Jeremy Corbyn is some kind of Bond villain.

And of course anyone perceived as being an enemy of American foreign policy (like Vladimir Putin) is considered to be evil incarnate.

The trouble is that once you dismiss someone whose political views you dislike as evil you give up any chance of understanding what makes that person tick, of understanding why they hold those views, and you give up any realistic chance of comprehending the reasons that so many people support (or supported) that leader.

This might sound like I’m arguing for moral relativism but I don’t think I am. Some political views have produced great evil in practice and some political leaders have led their nations (and sometimes the world) down paths that have been so catastrophic that evil does seem like a reasonable way to describe the results. But the fact remains that once the evil label is applied it is no longer possible to understand the motivations.

Politicians are by nature corrupt and vicious but the frightening thing is that at the same time many really are True Believers. It is necessary to understand what it is that they believe in. It is also necessary to understand what motivates those who vote for them.

It might be comforting and emotionally satisfying to think that our enemies are simply evil but that doesn’t help us to oppose them effectively. If you can’t get inside your enemy’s head you cannot predict his actions.

It’s also somewhat dismaying to see the evil label bandied about in reference to entire groups of people, whether they be Brexit supporters or Remainers or white people or Muslims or Christians or Russians or any other group. It’s useful to understand the motivations of our friends. It’s absolutely vital to understand the motivations of our enemies, or those we see as potential threats. From our perspective it is possible that our enemies really are doing evil but they certainly don’t see it that way. Very few people wake up each morning asking themselves what evil they can do today. In a frightening number of cases they actually wake up asking themselves what virtuous things they can do today. Most of the trouble in the world is caused by people with a burning desire to do good. Liberals have all but destroyed civilisation through an excessive desire to do good.


  1. The first psychiatrist to broach the issue of Evil, as a concept worthy of study and analysis, was Scott Peck, in his 'People of the Lie' His main thesis was that evil had two main components: Narcissism and Laziness. There were other components that could be included but of lesser effect. But even he looked closely at the possibility of it being a feature of 'possession' by malevolent forces outside of the material sphere.

    There is a problem with the laziness inclusion of course in that known examples (such as you mentioned) were anything but lazy. I suppose that is debatable.

    He did not include psychopaths as he saw that mental state as more of a genetic thing rather than a choice ( I do not necessarily confine it so). Most would see psychopaths as evil. The more pragmatic and experiential psychologists (as opposed to Jungian) would see psychopaths as being shaped that way in very early childhood. Sullivan had things to say about normal and healthy, fearful and hateful.

    Much of what we call evil in today's political world is just the tip of a much larger problem which is more hidden in the commercial sphere and may be more common.

    There is a dimension, a line, with Good at one end and Evil at the other, which we all recognise. There are visceral pointers too. Evil gives rise to disgust. Good to Joy. The danger in identification is in ignoring the gut and finding excuse. We are so good at excusing ourselves and so good at condemning others.

    1. I'm inclined to think that evil is mostly excessive do-gooderism - it's mostly a characteristic of people who want to save the world or the nation or particular groups or individuals whether they want to be saved or not.

      And perhaps even more, evil is an inability to consider the possibility of being mistaken.

      If you look at the "evil" political leaders who have led us to disaster over the past half century they all have that in common - they know what needs to be done and they can't possibly be wrong and if the people don't agree then the people will just have to be forced to agree.

      I suppose it could be a form of narcissism.

      As for laziness, I wish we had more lazy political leaders. Politicians very rarely do harm by doing nothing.

  2. From a biblical perspective I understand evil as "bent" form of good. Kind of like sin - is just missing the mark. If we put pure evil on one end of a bell curve, and pure good on the other- I think that would be a tad more accurate to better understand mankind. However, I do know more often that not our pride blinds us between what is right and what is wrong. And I think the blindness of our pride would allow us to rationalize any breach of the 10 utterances/commandments, and scapegoat a bunch of people and slaughter them with enthusiasm. It has been observed that the origins of human evil originates in Genesis 3, when Eve blames the nachash, and Adam blames Eve. The origins of Scapegoating. Everyone blames someone else, creating an enemy, and fails to take personal responsibility in front of God.

  3. Evil is that which is inimical to human's or nature's best interests.