Just plain banal?

Although I do get state benefits none goes on drink, drugs or one night stands. Instead, whatever’s left after ordinary living expenses goes on my philosophic writing, website, and now blogging – and associated computing expenses. So much may be reasonably acceptable. But is it too impertinent for me to ask questions about the traditional idea of evil – or is it just plain banal?

Maybe linguistic analysis might help here: I agree with Christian philosophy, as I understand it, that evil is not the opposite of good, but I would suggest it is the opposite of something else. For purposes of regular English usage ‘bad’ is the opposite of ‘good’, including when we are talking about bad rollerskates with questions of moral judgment nowhere in sight. Technical failures are bad but not evil, unless they are deliberate sabotage or extreme negligence. Similarly, ‘good’ has both its moral and instrumental/technical senses.

So, as a first stab, I suggest that we ordinarily characterise ‘evil’ as unjustifiable; that is, as the opposite of justifiable in its moral sense. That would work even when we are the bloody do-gooders going on about ‘social evils’ or the bankers!

Yet this way of thinking highlights the potential confusion in taking evil to be just negation and blankness, or lack of reason and incomprehensible, or even Baron-Cohen’s scientific interpretation as lack of empathy – which is really quite like the traditional Augustinian view. Any such way of defining evil implies that if anyone puts forward publicly any kind of moral justification for any action or belief, or even feels or believes it in her own mind, the act or belief in question (and therefore preumably the character responsible for it) cannot be evil. No matter how outrageous, disgusting, cruel, or whatever else others may find it, the protagonist will not be seeing this act or belief as evil and therefore no one else is entitled to call it such. So, provided the biographical evidence that Heinrich Himmler really believed in what he said and did is compelling, as it seems to be in his case, then the Holocaust was not evil (at least as regards Himmler’s own purposes and actions). Moreover, the case would not be established by arguing that Himmler’s motivations were not rational, because there are so many kinds of non-rational motivations we do not regard as evil. The case, therefore, has to depend upon a clear lack of moral value in Himmler’s motives. Of course, if others simply followed Himmler’s lead without question or care save for their own position their part might be evil. Arendt’s famous dictum of the ‘banality of evil’ which, roughly, accords with the traditional view could apply to Eichmann even if Himmler’s own state of mind were different.

More generally, the traditional philosophical way of thinking certainly leaves it possible for someone to be aware that what they are doing is evil, provided that they do not care about any sort of justification or grounding in terms of (moral) values no matter how far removed those might be from conventional moral thought, as might apply to the Nazi race ideology. That is indeed common enough with ordinary criminals. Yet the phenomenon of moral claims leading to justification in moral terms of beliefs and actions many, or even most, people will find outrageous, with such diverse instances as honour killings, political terrorism, or indeed genocide, must raise a very difficult question for the traditional view of evil.

Not that the question is easy to answer by adopting a different definition of evil. One way of looking at ideologies is to think of them as sets of moral claims on behalf of whichever groups are making the ideological claims. To say, as appears to be the commonplace, that ‘evil’ is unjustifiable does not help at all in dealing with (say) the Nazi race ideology, since its protagonists hold it to be justified in terms of their own moral scale! What, instead, we may find is a new way of endorsing the Marxist theory of ideology against the obvious objection that if people are in fact in a dominant position of power, why do they need any ideological justification for it? Maybe they need it emotionally to protect themselves from a sense of evil?

At the end of the day, it is hard to see how to avoid saying that ‘evil’, as we normally understand it, includes recognition by others that there is no moral justification for what I am doing, or that whatever justification I offer (if I bother to offer one at all) is unacceptable. That would fit with ways in which our conceptions of what is to be included as ‘evil’ have changed over time, and differ between cultures and ideological groups at the same time. But it is scarcely comfortable for anyone hoping to find a secure moral grounding, unless, of course, so nearly everyone accepts one particular grounding, be it religious or secular, as to make no matter.

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