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The Problem of Evil

Friday, July 08, 2005
I hadn't planned to talk about what happened in London, but Pandagon inspired me.

President Bush calls terrorists "evildoers," which is certainly true. But his reaction to evil betrays a serious misunderstanding of the nature of evil.

Evil is a particularly human thing. Bad things happen to good people all the time. This is a sad truth. But it takes more than the presence of suffering to make an evil. We don't call a hurricane or an earthquake evil. Natural disasters or accidents are not evil. We could even argue that crimes that are the products of momentary passions, or insanity, or desperation, are not evil.

Evil is simply the deliberate inflicting of harm on humans by humans. What is shocking about the attacks in London or New York or Madrid is that they are a product of rational consideration. Someone somewhere made a calculated decision to massacre a bunch of people in the name of some other purpose. They transformed innocent people into things, depriving them of their essential humanity and every choice they would ever make.

How does this happen? How is it that a person in a state of cool rationality chooses to destroy others? There is only one answer - that the perpetrator of evil has severed any and all emotional connection with other people. He assumes responsibility only for himself, and everyone else becomes simply an instrument of his will. The only way a person can do evil to another is to decide that the other is not a person at all. This disassociation from others is the psychological precondition of evil.

Evil is a permanent problem for human beings. We can't eradicate it, because it is an inherent flaw in the human species. But what we can do is choose how to respond to evil .We can chose to assume the blame, which excuses the evil. We can pretend it didn't happen, which is an insult to those who have suffered. We can even use the evil to other purposes, as our corrupt President and amoral media have done, which makes one an accomplice to the evil.

But the real danger is to lash out blindly, which risks making us as evil as those we profess to despise. To label those who have done evil as beyond the pale of humanity, to "get revenge," we must define those who do evil as "other." Which makes us capable of all the cruel acts - torture, the killing of innocents - for which we hate them. This is of course the usual fate of those who seek out monsters to destroy.

And this is where conservatism comes in. The ideological predispostion of conservatism is to sever our connections to one another. Modern conservatism is very quick to label people as "others." Virulent nationalism, a quickness to wage war, a focus on individual spiritual salvation, a love of Horatio Alger-style social darwinism: they all have in common an obsession with personal responsibility which eclipses any social responsibility. All these forms of conservatism are eager to divide us from one another.

Which is precisely the danger. An ethic which has too little consideration for interpersonal responsibility or compassion; a social philosophy which is all too ready to label my fellow men & women as "other," makes evil more possible. This may not be the intent of conservatism, but it is certainly the result. A society which is always marginalizing other groups, of dividing them from human sensibilities like pity, is to encourage the very psychological state that evil requires: the belief that others don't matter.

In other words, conservatism encourages evil, because it encourages the sociopathic state of mind that leads to evil. This is not to say that conservatism is evil, only that its theories can readily lead to evil. Which is why you have so many on the right who hate gays, hate women, hate Muslims, hate Mexicans, hate liberals, hate hate hate. Because this belief that I am not my brother's keeper is part and parcel both of conservatism and of evil.

So let's go fight evil. But let's make sure that we don't encourage it at the same time.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 6:55 AM
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