Wednesday, February 09, 2005

"Evil" Is Not an Explanation

The Tuesday edition of the New York Times carried an article entitled "For the Worst of Us, the Diagnosis May be 'Evil'." You can read it here.

The question posed by the article is whether or not we should call people "Evil" who are surpassingly brutal in their crimes, who are deemed uncorrectable by judges and wardens, who have mixed their crimes so enthusiastically that normal moral outrage is inadequate to express our concern. The question is whether people like these should be considered "Evil" by the general society. The idea is that such a person would be branded (figuratively) with the conclusion that ... whatever it may mean to you ... this person is irredeemably bad.

The concept of Evil is both secular and religious. The secular meanings actually come from the most liberal construction of modern religions and are usually a shorthand for a conclusion that the person's behaviors seem to be permanently bent toward the sociopathic, that they are inherently incapable of not doing horrific things.

Virtually all religions have such a concept, but differ widely on the causes. Satan is a key character in Judeo-Christian-Islamic cultures, the personification of Evil, the prime cause after which all other arguments and conclusions are threadbare and meaningless.

This Times article seems to suggest the idea that there is a religious definition appropriate to Judeo-Christian-Islamic-Buddhist America for the causal factors of criminality and psychopathology. Original sin and Satan are the two religious answers. In other words, there really isn't a causal explanation, and so the suggestion is a huge and ugly cop out and a clumsy attempt to meet the current American theocons halfway.

No thank you, Times, we do not have to put on grass skirts to talk to Polynesians, nor do we have to abandon the Theory of Evolution to talk archaeology to Epicopaleans, Lutherans, Catholics, and other reasonable people who have spiritual values. Neither do we have to employ the vocabulary of spiritualism to explain abnormal human psychology. In fact we should not.

The idea should be rejected for the atavistic nonsense that it is. Evil is a relic from our more innocent past, a word that expressed our ultimate chagrin at the intractable immorality of some people. It stood for things we did not in fact understand. It is pathetic and naive arrogance to reify one's ignorance.

We still do not understand why Charles Manson was the way he was or Timothy McVeigh or Adolph Hitler or Pol Pot or Edie Amin or any of thousands (probably millions) of persons who were really bad. We do know that these people were different from all the people who did not act that way. It does not mean that everyone that did not act also did not think or daydream the demise of a rival or enemy. As nightmares and the like tell us, the brain is capable of all kinds of thoughts. The ability to be sociopathic, however, seems to be a relative rarity, perhaps a disturbance in brain chemistry, perhaps a conclusion about life drawn incorrectly then kindled into habit, probaby something quite complicated and not quite the same thing from one case to the next.

Some day we will understand better the psychopath and his ways. In the meantime it is okay to say that we do not know why Manson is Manson and at the same time say that we believe from all the evidence and knowledge of our skill that he is uncorrectable. He may be spiritually "born again" and be given absolution and remission of his spiritual sins, but in society he is bad news and must be kept apart from the rest of us.

So, as for the rest of us, there is the constant temptation to do something illegal or immoral. We are not therefore Evil; we are nothing more than self-centered and lacking in conscience. We are not tax cheats because we have enlisted in Satan's army; we just believe that it will make no appreciable difference ... so it must be okay, even if it is sort of wrong. We are not Evil when we kill our nation's enemies in battle; we are not Evil when we kill mice to develop pharmaceuticals; we are not Evil when we kill patients in our hospitals with diseases they contract there.

Evil goes nowhere to explaining things that hurt and kill other people. For hospital administrators trying to cut costs and "inadvertently" compromising sanitation, the prognosis is thoughtlessness, avarice, expediency, and lots more, but Evil does not explain it. Neither can Evil explain sanity and insanity, it does not explain idiocy or imbecility. It is a useless social or political concept, but it is a wedge against the separation of church and state, and for that reason we must (again) reject it.