Friday, November 01, 2013

A Question of Evil

If you look up evil on your online dictionary you will doubtless find something to the effect of “morally bad,” or something that “causes harm or injury to someone,” something that is  “sinful,” “wicked,” even “morally reprehensible.”

Knowing more or less what evil is in the abstract does not, of course, inform one of what is an evil in everyday life, whether any individual act or behavior is evil. Nor does it tell you if evil is “relative” or not, that is, does it exist in some cases but not in others because of circumstances or cultural values. If aboriginal Eskimos, living in an exceedingly harsh environment, occasionally left an elderly feeble person to die because there was not enough food to go around, was that evil? Or similarly, if certain aboriginal people killed one of a pair of twins at birth, because (1) they believed multiple births were animal-like, or (2) a woman could not adequately care for two children because of constant raiding and warfare, was that an evil act? Are there absolute evils, evils that are evil wherever found? If an enemy combatant is captured and tortured to extract information from him or her, is that necessarily evil? We sometimes avoid deciding on absolutes by saying simply, well, sometimes there are “necessary evils.”

But what if the particular evil was not, in fact, necessary, as in the case of torture, which we have been told by professionals in interrogations that it is or was not? As torture has been banned both internationally and by our own legal system one might think it is considered absolutely evil. Interestingly enough, it seems to me, torture may be the closest thing we have to an absolute evil. Killing, for example, is certainly not so considered, as it occurs with such regularity both on and off the battlefield as to automatically be (whenever more often than not unnecessary) classified as a necessary evil.

Although we have a concept of evil we seem to go to great lengths to ignore it, even sometimes excusing it. If a person opens fire with an automatic weapon killing several others we don’t necessarily describe him (it is rarely, if ever, a “her”) as evil, preferring instead to describe him as “insane,” “enraged,” or “seeking revenge.” “Temporary insanity” is a useful euphemism for explaining an evil act. Domestic violence, including child abuse, occurs so frequently and obviously harms others, but we don’t necessarily consider it evil. It may be “bad” or “wrong,” even “stupid,” but it’s just “one of those things” that happen. It’s only when some behavior becomes so egregious we cannot fully comprehend it that we fall back on saying, “well, there are just evil people in the world.”

It seems that when it comes to defining evil you are pretty much on your own. This seems especially true when it comes to harming others. Take food stamps and unemployment insurance, for example. Republicans want to cut them if not eliminate them entirely. They try to justify this by claiming they keep people from wanting to work, so if they didn’t have them they would have to find jobs. However feeble an argument this is on its face, when you consider that most of the recipients are children, the elderly and infirm, and this clearly harms them, this would seem to be something that could easily be considered evil. When you couple it with the fact that the very people who are demanding recipients find jobs are the same people who have done everything in their power to prevent jobs from being created, you have what to me, at least, is clearly an evil act. The same evil theme runs through the question of health care. Why, one might wonder, would anyone want to deny health care to millions of their fellow citizens? This is manifestly evil to begin with, but when you learn they oppose it mostly because they hate Obama and do not want him to benefit from it, this transcends politics and becomes just plain evil. Yes, I am suggesting that Republicans are not merely “playing politics,” they have evil intentions and seemingly delight in causing harm to others, opposing virtually every attempt to benefit anyone other than their billionaire benefactors. In the “modern world,” when it comes to human life and dignity, it seems to me there are only three possibilities: jobs for everyone, some form of at least minimum subsistence (welfare), or just let them die. As Republicans seem to favor this third possibility, I submit they are manifestly evil.

There is, I believe, no evil in nature. There is violence to be sure, and killing, but the creatures involved in this natural order of things are not evil, they are doing precisely what they were designed to do. They have no choice. Choice seems to be unique to our species. You can only find evil where there is choice. You might argue that acting out of stupidity does not make you evil, and while some Republicans are surely stupid people, most of them are not, they are knowingly harming others for no good reasons. Oh well, sometimes there are just evil people.  

If you want to eliminate evil from the world, eliminate humans. Curiously, in the English language, evil spelled backwards is “live” (which I doubt has any symbolic significance), but all who live are not necessarily evil. I suspect that George W. Bush, for example, although somewhat stupid perhaps, was not an evil person, unfortunately the same cannot be said for his “Rasputin,” probably the personification of evil.

“Animals don't behave like men,' he said. 'If they have to fight, they fight; and if they have to kill they kill. But they don't sit down and set their wits to work to devise ways of spoiling other creatures' lives and hurting them. They have dignity and animality.” 

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