Monday, October 24, 2011

The Possibility of Evil

In my last post, I mentioned a hypothetical corporate leader who "really does not care about the fact that the methods for creating his product kill, maim, or sicken others or destroys their property."

My purpose was to illustrate that the current system is one in which the person who is willing to do harm has a number of economic advantages over any who would be reluctant to do harm. He gets to pocket profits that others would avoid and use governments in ways that others would shun. In doing this, he gets extra income that he can then use to drive more virtuous (and less vicious) competitors out of business.

This brought up some comments about the possibility of evil.

A member of the studio audience asked, "Do you really believe this person exists in the real world?"

My answer: We are clearly surrounded by people who have a lower regard for the interests and well-being of others than people generally have a reason to promote. Some not only disregard the well-being of others, they actively seek to cause harm. For some, causing harm is an acceptable means (collateral damage). For others, it is an end in itself.

Villainy, in this sense, is a matter of degree. There are probably a few with absolutely no regard for the well-being of others. At the same time, everybody has this fault to some degree. Each of us has encountered a situation where we did not do as much for others as a person with good desires would have done.

According to desirism, a villain is a person who lacks malleable desires that people generally have reason to promote, or has malleable desires that people generally have reason to inhibit. Praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment are the social tools for promoting moral virtue and inhibiting vice.

The drunk driver provides one of the best examples of moral failing for my purposes. The drunk driver does not seek to do harm. Instead, he adopts a belief - contrary to all evidence - that he does not pose a threat to others. The main difference between the drunk driver and the corporate executive is that the drunk driver is a threat to only a small number of people – one vehicle full, in most cases. The corporate executive has the power to do far more harm.

This is not to say that all corporate executives are evil. They clearly are not.

Yet, even here we must use some care in using the claim "good" or "evil". Desirism suggests that it is possible for a person to be both - to be good in one area of life, and a villain elsewhere. This happens as a result of a specific mix of the malleable desires an agent acquires.

A brutal Nazi SS officer can be a gentile and loving father. A drunk driver can be somebody who volunteers a great deal of time to help the poor. A slave owner in a slave society can be, in every other respect, indistinguishable from any gentleman in the world today in terms of concern for his family, willingness to sacrifice for his country, and the efforts he makes on behalf of the suffering of others – those who do not belong in the slave class.

A corporate executive can be brutal in the board room while still be the nicest person one would meet if you happen to bump into him on a fishing trip with his kid.

The drunk driver also illustrates the fact that few people actually see themselves as evil. Take almost any person who has committed a moral crime, and he will give you a story that paints him as the virtuous person trying to do good - or, at least, as somebody doing that which was fully within his rights - being victimized by oppressive 'others' filled with malicious plans or a callous indifference.

I have no doubt that Hitler thought himself a great man. Slave owners had any number of rationalizations in defense of slavery. It was a great institution – a win-win situation – in which the plantation owner benefits from the labor of the slave, and the slave benefits by a warm roof, food, and somebody to watch out over their welfare.

A rapist will commonly tell you either that the woman wanted to be raped or that she deserved it as punishment for some prior crime. Child molesters will explain why sex with children is not harmful and that all harm comes, not from them, but from an oppressive society.

However, the fact that one is a successful rationalizer does not mean that one is not guilty of a moral crime. Rationalization itself is a vice, worthy of condemnation. It is not to be made into an escape from moral judgment.

The main impact that Ayn Rand has had is to give business leaders a rationalization for disregarding the life, health, and well-being of others. They are told to see themselves as the sole source of all things of value and deserving a rich reward for their contributions. Those who do not become wealthy are too lazy to make money themselves and, instead, wants to live like a parasite on the profits of those who actually contribute.

Though, to be honest, some members of the 99% fit this description.

Do these people exist?

Well, yes, they do.

My standard example of this type of people are corporate leaders who contributed to senseless propaganda against climate science. I mentioned some of them in an earlier post, many of the objections we hear against climate change. Regardless of whether the climate change science is accurate, the arguments being used against it are absolutely pathetic. We have reason to inquire as to the moral character of those who would grab onto those rather foolish arguments.

A person genuinely concerned about the well-being of others would condemn the use of these flawed arguments as cluttering the debate. I cannot think of any conclusion to draw of those who grasp these flawed arguments other than that they lack concern over the potential harm that climate change might cause. They do not have enough concern to keep the debate focused on objections that actually make sense.

Do people who grasp foolish arguments against climate science exist?

Well, yes they do – and many are on the seats of major corporations.

Quite a substantial number of candidates for the Republican nomination for President of the United States also fit this description – and they are well funded.