A discussion of moral theory should have something to say about the concept of evil. Does it exist? What form does it take? What can be done about it?
‘Evil’ as a Religious Concept
In the circles that I frequent I often hear people speaking about ‘evil’ as a religious concept. This means that ‘evil’ does not exist except in the context of religion.
What seems to concern them is the idea that ‘evil’ is presented as a supernatural entity – a force or a being – that has influence on this world. It is the idea that there are two camps; an army of goodness camped in ‘heaven’, and an army of evil camped in ‘hell’, who are doing battle against each other, with Earth as the battlefield. We are supposed to take sides, and help the forces of goodness defeat the forces of badness.
These assumptions make a very good premise for a lot of science-fiction story. However, they have nothing to do with the real world. They are, in fact, fiction. At best, they can be thought of as metaphor.
When I defend the existence of evil, it is certainly not going to take this form. The concept of ‘evil’ that I am going to defend has noting to do with supernatural forces or extradimentional armies. It will have to do with mundane real-world entities whose existence has been very well established.
I continue to be grateful to the astronomical community for showing us that definitions are not carved in stone, and that we are free to change definitions whenever new data makes an old definition less useful – the way that astronomers have done with the word ‘planet’. In studying a concept we are not looking for some set of evidence that tells us that a word must necessarily be linked to a particular concept. We are free to say that, ‘even if the public at large is in the habit of using term t one way (e.g., ‘planet’ includes Pluto), it is far better for our studies if we use term t to mean something else (e.g., ‘planet’ does not include Pluto).
Economists do the same thing with money. Normal English speakers have this vague term called ‘money’ that has to do with what we pass back and forth in trade. Economists needed a more precise definition, so they came up with definitions that appear useful in predicting and explaining economic events. Actually, they came up with more than one. They call these ‘M0’, ‘M1’, ‘M2’, and ‘M3’.
So, when it comes to the concept of ‘evil’, no natural law or moral duty compels us to look for ‘the correct’ definition of the word. It is quite sufficient to look at how the term is generally used, and to see if we can come up with a more precise definition that is useful to us.
Elements of Evil
The Desire to Thwart Desires
We can start this by looking at the implications that people would draw if we were to say, ‘There is no such thing as ‘evil’.” I suspect that sentence might cause some people to be nervous. They would be afraid that others will take this to mean, ‘There are no actions worthy of condemnation. Everybody can do whatever they wish without guilt or shame.” This, of course, would make the world a very dangerous place to live in. Fearing this danger, people might be very unwilling to adopt the view, “There is no such thing as ‘evil’.”
So, let’s start with the idea that ‘evil’ refers to those people who do things that make them a serious threat to others. They are people that we have reason to strongly condemn, because condemning them makes the world a safer place. We also have reason to use our social forces to build psychological barriers of guilt and shame in as many people as we can to prevent them from becoming evil – to prevent them from becoming a threat to others.
‘Evil’ is found in desires that are seriously harmful to others. It is found in the person who loves to express his power over others by proving to them what he can do to them. His idea of a fun afternoon is ordering the torture and execution of a group of people and then sitting back in quiet contemplation at the fear this generates in the rest of the population. ‘Evil’ is found in the rapist and the sadistic killer. ‘Evil’, in this sense, certainly does exist.
Furthermore, ‘evil’ in this sense is something that we can fight using social forces such as condemnation. We certainly can and do have reason to put barriers of guilt and shame up to prevent people from becoming ‘evil’ in this sense. Preventing others from becoming ‘evil’ is one of the ways we can better secure our own safety and happiness.
Lack of Concern for the Welfare of Others
However, we have no reason to limit the concept of ‘evil’ just to those who enjoy doing harm to others. It also applies to a casual indifference to doing harm to others – an indifference that makes harm to others possible whenever it is useful.
We could, for example, imagine that Hitler was ultimately interested in promoting Germany. He need not have been after his own glory. Instead, he wanted to make Germany into the capital of the world and the German people its masters. In this sense, Hitler would be able to honestly say to the members of the Aryan race, “I sacrificed everything so that I could give you, the German people, the whole world.”
Hitler could have been a very generous person.
However, if this were true, Hitler would still be evil because of what he was willing to do to others to acquire this gift for the German people. In order to give the German people property in Poland, Hitler has no objections to marching into Poland and killing the Polish population, or to relocate them into slave labor camps (to produce more goods and services for the German people). This was still evil, even if Hitler did this for the benefit of others.
Hitler also wanted a world without Jews. It appears reasonable to assert that the harms that Hitler inflicted on the Jews were not an end in themselves (something he desired for its own sake). They were a means – a way of getting to something else that he valued – a world without Jews. If Hitler actually valued doing harm to Jews, he would need to keep them around so that he could do harm to them. He would not be able to harm people who do not exist. However, this was not his aim. His aim was to eliminate the Jews.
If Hitler harmed Jews as a means to an end, and not as an end in itself, this does not mitigate against the claim that Hitler was evil. His willingness to pursue ends that required doing so much harm to others, and the fact that he considered the harm he did to others of no consequence, is enough to classify his actions as evil.
The general principle to be drawn from this is that a person generally does not need to like harming others to count as evil. He simply needs to show callous indifference to the harm that he might cause to others, or the institutions that they use to protect themselves from harm, to be counted as evil.
Bush is Evil
President Bush’s actions over the past two weeks demonstrate that Bush is an agent of evil. We can accept his claim that he seeks to protect the American people. Yet, he would still count as ‘evil’ in the same way that Hitler’s claim to be working for the benefit of the German people would not protect him from the charge of being ‘evil’. This is because of the harm that Bush is willing to do to innocent people and to the institutions that all of us need to protect ourselves from harm.
Bush pushed for legislation that displays significant disregard for the wrongness of torture, arbitrary arrest, and indefinite imprisonment. He seems not to care about the act that his ‘nets’ drag in a lot of innocent people who are forced to endure extreme abuse, and he does not care. Indeed, he cares as little about the harms his systems do to the innocent people caught in his nets as Hitler did for the innocent people caught in his nets.
Also, Bush has shown zero concern for the truth. Bush lies and ‘bears false witness’ against others without even a smidge of guilt showing through to suggest the wrongness of his actions. I have been critical of some of Keith Olbermann’s rants recently – charging him with inventing wrongs that he could then complain about. However, in his Special Comment on October 4 he correctly charged Bush with a disregard for the truth and a lack of concern over unfairly and inaccurately characterizing others sufficient to qualify Bush as evil.
Bush said that his critics do not want to listen to Al-Queida’s phone conversations. This is a flat lie. I want very much to have the government listen to al-Queida’s phone conversations. I want to make sure that the government is listening to Al-Queida’s phone conversations, and that they are not diverting resources to listening to other conversations, such as those of people who say things the Bush Administration does not want people to say. I am concerned about the Bush Administration using this as a tool of fear and intimidation against the American people. For that, I want somebody (the Judicial Branch) to look over the Administration’s shoulder and make sure that the Administration is not abusing this power for political purposes.
Bush said that his critics believe that his critics want to sit back, do nothing, and wait for Al-Queida to attack us again. Actually, most of those critics condemn Bush for senselessly wasting resources that he could have been using to fight al-Queida to carry out a personal vendetta against Iraq. To manipulate the American people into going along with this folly, the Administration told us falsehoods about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction and link to terrorists. (It remains to be seen whether the Administration knew these claims to be false, or simply did not care enough to read the evidence objectively.) Some of his critics think that we should have been using those 150,000 troops and $400 billion actually fighting the war on terror. This is not an issue of ‘waiting to be attacked again.’ It is an issue of ‘fighting those who would attack us and not wasting hundreds of billions of dollars and thousands of American lives chasing some red herring.’
President Bush routinely shows that he has just as much interest in the truth as Hitler had in the Poles. He will use it as much as it is useful, and destroy that which he does not find useful, without the slightest hint that the institution of honesty itself might have some moral value and is not to be wantonly destroyed.
Bush is also continuing to use signing statements as a way of destroying the legislative power of Congress.
Congress passed a bill stating that a FEMA director must have five years of executive leadership experience. Bush signs this bill into law. It is now illegal to hire a FEMA director with less than 5 years’ experience. Bush then issues a signing statement that says that he will ignore this law and hire whoever he likes.
As MSNBC reports, that bill also stated that “nobody but the privacy officer could alter, delay or prohibit the mandatory annual report on Homeland Security department activities that affect privacy, including complaints.” Bush signs this into law. It is now illegal for anybody but the privacy officer to alter or delay these reports. Bush then goes back to his office and signs a statement saying that effectively states that he can and will have these reports edited as he sees fit.
We do not have a legislature any more. We have a dictator, with the power to create laws as he sees fit, answerable to nobody. We might as well disband the Congress for all the good they can do from this point forward.
Either that, or we need to impeach a President and send a message that Presidents also must obey the law – that the word ‘President’ is not simply another spelling for the word ‘Emperor.’
Bush is evil. There is no morality guiding his actions. He will harm innocent people at will, and destroy the institutions of truth, justice, and the separation of powers that we need to preserve our safety and happiness. There is genuine evil in the world, and it can be found in the Executive Branch of the United States and all who support him.