02 January 2009

from Lawrence, Pub Philosophy Group, Sunday meeting: Evil

Dear friends,

First of all may I wish you all the best for the new year.

In the meantime thanks to the enforced holiday I simply lost count of the days and though that today was still Thursday. Better late than never I guess. Talking about evil, this Sunday we are indeed discussing Evil.

At least I managed to write an essay this week, and I must thank Richard for his feedback.

See you Sunday and take care



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“The Problem of Evil” is the title of an essay in the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy that discusses in detail the problem of God and Evil. Basically the problem which we are all familiar with goes something like this: how can there be a benevolent God if evil exists?

But although God and Evil have a long history is philosophy it does not mean that questions about God in philosophy are really legitimate questions for philosophy to consider. I don’t think such questions are legitimate for two basic reasons, the first is that I believe that philosophy is about human beings, and any problems we might have about God are really problems about human beings. And the second reason is that if there is a God then surely we have no right nor reason to question or investigate the actions of God. So either way, talk about God is talk about human beings or simply it is beyond our jurisdiction to talk about God. Hence, the problem of evil, -how can there be a God if evil exists?- is not a legitimate question for us. And I therefore won’t be considering this specific issue.

However, evil done in the name of a God or evil marshalled in the name of a religion that justifies its actions from divine authority is within our scope and within the scope of philosophy. Precisely because all problems of evil are problems about human beings; no more and no less.

By removing the God factor in any analysis of evil I believe we can achieve at least two things: we can begin to understand the real problem of evil because we can being to understand evil in its natural context: human actions. And the second thing we can achieve is to begin to understand the real philosophical issues of evil.

This leads me to define what I consider the two fundamental questions we have to consider when discussing evil.

1) Why are some people evil? Or why do some people perform evil acts or engage in evil behaviour?
2) Do we also have a duty to try and stop evil when others are victims of evil? We generally accept that self defence gives us legitimacy to protect ourselves against evil, but what about altruistic defence, i.e. defending others from evil?

But before discussing these two questions, I would like to establish some parameters of what is evil, but not necessarily to pursue a vigorous argument on the meaning of evil. Evil can mean different things to different people. Moreover, I do not wish to enter a debate into meaning for two reasons. The first is that what is regarded as evil is very subjective: subjective from the individual point of view, subjective from a peer group point of view, subjective to a social group, country, nation, race and may I even add subjective from the human point of view.

The second reason for not pursuing the question of meaning is that once we accept the subjective factor, we can quickly agree what things are evil and what are not, at least from our point of view. Thus we have no problem whether to call something evil or not what is left to be decided is whether others agree with us. In any case meaning is not the real issue but the two questions I proposed above.

It is generally accepted that intention is a necessary condition for some acts to be called evil. How strict the intention has to be is a matter for debate. Should we adopt some sort of legal standard of intention or Mens Rea which is a necessary condition together with the act (Actus Reus) to make an act a criminal act; let’s leave aside for now crimes of strict liability. (see Wikipedia: Mens rea. (2008, December 12). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 13:44, December 31, 2008, from http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Mens_rea&oldid=257519057 OR The People's Law Dictionary by Gerald and Kathleen Hill, for Mens Rea and other terms: http://dictionary.law.com/default2.asp?typed=mens+rea&type=1&submit1.x=44&submit1.y=9&submit1=Look+up...). The Law dictionary defines Mens Rea as: Latin for a "guilty mind," or criminal intent in committing the act. But of course it is not that simple. Therefore, does a philosophical intention to commit evil equal to a legal definition of intention or mens rea?

A second issue about intention is sound of mind or better still a normal functioning brain. Does it make any difference if some evil act was done by a normal sane person (whatever that means) and a person who is not of sound mind? Of course, if there is a difference it does not make the evil act less evil, but maybe how to regard the actions of the person. But intention, I submit, is also subjective or at the very least very difficult to analyse objectively.

For the individual there is always the issue that evil might be a means to an end. An end that might be perceived as a good in itself. Some might act out of malice, but not all evil is the result of malicious intention; or is it? The classical example in a debate on evil in modern times is the use of atom bombs on Japan at the end of the second world war.

That atom bombs are repulsive weapons is in no doubt, after all that’s the point of having them, but the use of atom bombs over Japan make that act an evil act? I am not really interested in whether it was or wasn’t what I am really interested is that evil is steeped in subjectivity. According to Wikipedia, some 220,000 people were killed with the two bombs. But to prove my point about subjectivity, Unit 731 of the Japanese Imperial Army was itself, and independent of other units, responsible for some 200,000 military and civilian deaths in China from testing their bioweapons and chemical weapons. And the Japanese Imperial Army is reported to have killed some 580,000 people in China from germ warfare and human experiments. If you are really interested in these issues and the details of these events I would suggest you Google the relevant terms for more information and diverse sources.

My point is that we hear more about nuclear weapons, but very little about biological and chemical weapons. Is suppose that nuclear weapons are much sexier that biological weapons but that is a matter of opinion of course. QED.

Another necessary condition for evil is causing harm. The intention is to cause harm to others and actually cause it. I am not particularly concerned about what is harm or the level of harm: killing, rape, maim , rob, steal or psychologically terrorise people. Maybe for evil to be established it is necessary that harm is used or done as a means in itself, irrespective of any other alternative. Could the Japanese have tested their bio weapons on other creatures and not human beings? However, it does not make bio weapons more desirable even if the Japanese did research their bioweapons on alternative creatures. Could the Americans have pursued another course of action in WWII, for example by invading Japan? Was this a real alternative? You decide, as I have shown these are subjective issues.

This brings me to the third necessary condition for evil: choice? Does the actor or actors have an alternative to doing harm? An intention to achieve something without a choice is a different sort of intention if one has a choice. We can also assume that choice is linked with an objective or goal. An objective to stop the war is a different objective from finding a more efficient weapon. The problem is what counts as an alternative, given such factors as subjectivity, the heat of the moment and an assumed belief that one can get away with it?

But as I will argue shortly, I think we ought to see choice and objectives in terms as human nature and certainly the way living system seem to operate. The question is what is the difference between nature and evil? Is there a difference in the first place?

Coming back to my original two questions, why are some people evil? I am assuming that we are concerned with normal people committing evil acts, which is probably an oxymoron anyway. Is it possible for a normal human being to commit evil acts? And even if we do not restrict ourselves in this way we can try and understand evil as a form of human interaction with others. Maybe here we ought to distinguish between evil acts committed against an individual and evil acts committed against a group. However, I do not think that numbers make any difference: killing or torturing one person is no different from killing 500,000 people. If numbers made any difference then we would fall into some very serious fallacies and paradoxes. For example, it would be alright to kill one person at a time but not to kill say 5,000 with a single biological weapon; we can apply strict utilitarian standards and simply count the numbers and if there are more beneficiaries than victims then everything is alright etc etc.

Maybe evil is an extreme form of aggression in pursuant of survival that has gone hay wire. Aggression, and therefore harm, is a form of strategy to succeed against competition. This is nature and maybe even human nature, it is, but today we also accept that it is also human nature to cooperate and pursue win-win strategies. Luckily, looking at history we see that cooperation amongst evil regimes does not last for long. And this evolutionary strategy might even give us an answer to the “alternative” factor I discussed above. Is cooperation always an alternative?

I started the essay by excluding god as a relevant factor in our debate and thus make evil, fairly and squarely, the responsibility of human beings. Once we exclude god as a factor, the answer to the question -why are there evil people?- becomes very easy: it is human nature.

This, however, does not solve many problems for us, but it certainly leads us to the real issue of evil. At least real for our era and certainly real for our society. I propose that today’s real problem with evil is not a question of why God allows evil to happen nor why are there evil people, but rather my second question: do we have a duty to stop evil, even if it does not affect us? This is a very hard question to answer, least of which we cannot leave it to god to sort out our mess. Evil is our mess and therefore it is our problem.

Ironically evil is a sort of harm that affects us all emotionally and morally even if this evil is not directed towards us. Genocide in the darkest of Africa is not only a problem for the victims of an evil regime but also for us. We expect our society, our government to do something about it. Of course, realpolitik stops our governments from getting too seriously involved in other people’s problems. (see Wikipedia on Evil and Realpolitik )

But to feel morally obliged to act against evil, one must decide that what is going on is indeed evil and not just something we disagree with. We might all agree that wars are undesirable, but it does not follow that everyone believes that all wars are evil.

Some quite reasonably believe that some wars are legitimate. In fact most would agree that self defence is a legitimate cause to go to war, and most legal systems see pre emptive war as legitimate course of action in the relevant circumstance; what those relevant circumstances are is beyond our scope. But does self defence entail altruistic defence: i.e. going to war on behalf of some other people whether they are allies or not. If protecting one’s kin is a legitimate cause to go to war, why not protecting other human beings not a legitimate reason to go to war? Of course, I am using war here as an extreme case of evil, but evil is not confined to wars alone. So I am not therefore too much concerned about issues such as legal and illegal orders, following order, war conventions, illegal behaviour of combatants and so on.

But even if altruistic defence is legitimate, and even if we accept that any alternatives to war are ineffective, there is still the question of responsibility. Who ought to be responsible to go to war in a case of altruistic defence? The present set up of the UN council is ineffective at the very least. And even if we do agree who is responsible to declare altruistic war, we still have the question: do we really want to put ourselves into harm’s way on behalf of someone else? This question stands even if we all agree that we are concerned with a good cause and that cooperation is a good strategy.

A side issue here would be whether evil is always the result of action or commission or whether evil can be the result of inaction? Legal systems do not have a problem with some forms of criminal inaction, for example parents neglecting their children. But do the same standards, legal and philosophical, apply to inaction when we know that some people are enslaved or tortured? I do not mean doing nothing because there is nothing we can do, leaving subjective judgements about a situation aside for now, but doing nothing because we don’t care or do not want to be involved. Can realpolitik lead to evil due to inaction? The plight of the people of Zimbabwe is a case in point although the situation there has gone far beyond philosophical evil; Zimbabwe today is an insult to civilization.

A factor that also affects how we approach the problem of action against evil is that of peer pressure or group pressure. Peer pressure not only influences us is what to do about evil, but unfortunately also what evil to commit. It wasn’t just Hitler, nor Stalin nor Mugabee acting on their own. The real problem is that we are hardly alone when we have to consider what to do with evil even when we are the victims of evil. Thus excluding the case of the deranged psychopath who is also a rapist and a serial killer, evil, I would say, is an issue that concerns much more the group rather than the individual, but not the individual as a victim of course. The group has to decide such things as whether to invest in more effective policing, identify possible criminals early and work with them to change their behaviour, continue importing from countries with evil regimes, continue buying from shops that stock products made by slave labour and so on. Could it be that the peer-pressure factor is the extenuating factor that makes evil such a complex problem. And maybe why it is difficult to answer the question of whether we have a duty to stop evil even when we are not the victims.

Take care


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from Lawrence, Pub Philosophy Group, Sunday meeting: Evil

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