Sunday, November 30, 2008

Evil: The Leftovers

"Come, you spirits

That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,

And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full

Of direst cruelty! make thick my blood;

Stop up the access and passage to remorse,

That no compunctious visitings of nature

Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between

The effect and it!"

Lady Macbeth

Or should it be "Leftovers: the Evil?" At any rate, moral outrage, like revenge, is probably a dish best served cold.

When I think about the Mumbai murderers, I realize that indignation, in its simplifications and its threatened demarcations of "us" and "them," can be too pleasurable for our own good. But Scott Simon's commentary at NPR agrees, vis a vis evil, that some acts are so heinous that no adjective will better serve. As he points out, for the truly evil, there are no innocents; in that sense, perhaps evil is itself a theory of human nature (a theory that, despicable in itself, views human beings as inevitably despicable).

Ironically, these Mumbai horrors feel worse than suicide bombings (even those that, like 9/11, killed far more people) because they were so much more cold-blooded and required sustained, ongoing deliberation. The suicide bomber must of course massively rationalize his act, but he knows that he won't be around to witness the suffering and mayhem he generates. Accounts in Mumbai agree that these people went out of their way to kill indiscriminately at point-blank range--the old, the young, women, men, it didn't matter. Consider how much effort it surely must have taken to suppress any stirrings of empathy as the killers methodically went from room to room. These actions were evil in a very intellectual sort of way.

That these acts presumably had political ends makes them no less evil. I used to think that the routine denunciations of such atrocities by the President and other heads of state was fairly absurd, stating the obvious. But I'm starting to think that nothing can be taken for granted morally any longer, and the world needs these "routine" restatements of what the civilized realm holds to be justified or unjustified. If we want to "despise the sin, not the sinner," that is fine with me. Evil is the ultimate diagnosis, I suppose, so let us label behavior, not persons. But let us label certain kinds of behavior unambiguously and not bring in extenuating factors of upbringing, biology, or political ideology.

A recent book I need to pick up is the philosopher Susan Neiman's Moral Clarity (her Evil in Modern Thought of a couple of years ago was both accessible and illuminating). Without resorting to simple-minded dichotomies, we need guidelines in a world of increasing moral murk, in which the more we know, or think we know, about the infinite complexities of culture and biology threatens to generate Hegel's "night in which all cows are black."

I am no Jonathan Swift (1667-1745), but his epitaph has been on my mind lately:

Hic depositum est Corpus
Huyus Ecclesiae Cathedralis
Ubi saeva Indignatio
Cor lacerare nequit,
Abi viator.
Et imitare, si poteris,
Strenuum pro virili
Libertatis vindicatorem.

Translated by William Butler Yeats as:

Swift has sailed into his rest,
savage indignation there
cannot lacerate his breast.
Imitate him if you dare,
world-besotted traveller,
He served human liberty.
Addendum 11:39: It occurs to me that evil is the obscene negative, in the moral realm, of what God is in the metaphysical realm. It seems that both must exist, even if, disappointingly, as sociological necessities.


Anonymous said...

If it were possible to isolate 'evil' from any root cause, to define it in absolute terms as an essence that parasitises its victim willing itself into concrete form by the actions it induces in the possessed, then maybe we could theorise that it is just that--'evil' as an entity in and of itself; not just extreme depravity or simple badness. But as it stands, 'evil' is not an island. It is not a pure distillation of rottenness; nor does it have an irreducible core. It has a tentacle in each pie of life: it partakes of culture, religion, situation/circumstance, genetics, accident, trauma, injury, ideology etc. (which extenuate in so far as they explain an event), and combines all of these volatile ingredients to produce a heady concoction that has its end point in depravity.

Does a cake choose to be a cake? Does the egg choose to be part of the cake? A sequence of events is initiated, and once momentum is gained --regardless of 'willpower' which in turn has been produced by its own unique set of sequences -- a caused result will ensue. Not a single eventuality, but one or more of a suite of probable eventualities will occur. The quirk of a common virus in utero in combination with physical abuse at age 3, the toxic influence of a friend with fine weed at age 12, and the witnessed tortured death of an irreplaceable at 21 can react in a susceptible brain with the right genes (turned on at the right time in the right place) to produce a person that massacres 5000 hapless souls in fit of premeditated rage. And does the fact that it was premeditated make it more 'evil'?

The power to 'switch off our consciences' to resist the compulsion to do the unspeakable is predetermined. This doesn't change the fact that the 'evil' act committed is morally repugnant and unambiguously unacceptable to society as a whole. It just gives 'evil' a genesis and a context in which it can be understood and prevented from reoccurring - like Auschwitz.

Where does this leave responsibility? The Mumbai killers are guilty and should be punished; but to label them or their acts as 'evil' is not helpful. Actually, I think it's counterproductive: it just serves to reinforce the dichotomy of 'good' and 'evil' and by inference, its unchangeability/preventability.

This horrible sequence of events can act as a trigger to construct a solution to displace the root causes that may help to instigate future 'evil' of this type. That is as far as'willopwer' extends. THere are dice; but if you can control for every variable that influences an outcome, you can throw the numbers of your own choosing. We can't because we are only little gods so we'll have to content ourselves with probabilities. Absolute probabilities.

We can never generalise about 'evil'. The devil is in the detail; and in the specifics of a situation.

'Evil', responsibility, free will, determinism -- too overwhelming. I struggle...society's going to hell!

John J. Coupal said...

Mr./Mrs. Anonymous says:
The Mumbai killers are guilty and should be punished; but to label them or their acts as 'evil' is not helpful. Actually, I think it's counterproductive: it just serves to reinforce the dichotomy of 'good' and 'evil' and by inference, its unchangeability/preventability.

So, the specific people who carried out the carnage should be "punished"? As, the rapist should be punished? Alas, most of those specific people are now dead. "Punishing" is a comforting, but moot point.

Any comment from Anonymous about the munitions suppliers, theologians, tacticians, coordinators, financiers, observers, evaluators, and IT and communications experts - among others - who directed and co-ordinated that well-planned carnage?

We were down that road in September 2001, when we considered the New York City events as civil crime, deserving of investigation and prosecution by civil trial.

Anonymous said...

John J. Coupal,

By your reasoning it's near impossible to vindicate anyone or anything since all existence--either directly/indirectly-- has in some way contributed to the commission of crime/atrocity/evil.

From the guilty oxygen that dared to sustain your breath to the big bang that initiated the begining of the universe and set the cascade of events in motion that lead to your birth and eventual culpability in the Mumbai murders.

Six degrees of guilt...

Material contribution to an atrocity can be quantified, and thus can be punished -- if the guilty are still alive. We do have a justice system that defines the parameters of guilt and specific criteria that qualify a criminal for a prescribed punishment in response to a defined crime and its consequences-- give or take the judge's discretion.

John J. Coupal said...

Did President Franklin Roosevelt issue subpeonas to the guilty parties who planned and coordinated the murder of US citizens at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, in 1941?