Beyond Evil

In Education, History, Philosophy on April 26, 2012 at 17:26

picasso Guernica from http://www.abcgallery.com

Evil, like race, is a social construct that does not exist in the natural world. Justice Potter Stewart of the Supreme Court said in 1964 about obscenity that he can’t define it, but he knows it when he sees it. That is true for many people when they are asked to define evil. They don’t know what it is exactly, but they know it when they see it.

Evil is a self-defining term, “The evil man inflicts injury on himself; he would not do so, however, if he knew that evil is evil.” from Beyond Good and Evil by Frederich Nietzsche (section 190).   Ah, the tautological pleasures of evil. Evil exists by the very existence of the word evil.

The term evil is used to bring down those that stand out from the herd, “The lofty independent spirituality, the will to stand alone, and even the cogent reason, are felt to be dangers, everything that elevates the individual above the herd, and is a source of fear to the neighbour, is henceforth called EVIL…” (Ibid: section 201).

During humanity’s history, those that stand apart, Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, (the church hated astronomers), Darwin, Marx, union members, atheists, homosexuals and other outliers have been labeled “evil”. Being labeled evil can justify your murder. Thus, jihadists can kill Americans, for they are part of the “evil empire”, the U.S. can kill Muslims who belong to the “axis of evil”, people can kill doctors for they are evil, and so forth. Evil is a label preserved for those that disagree with convention, the powerful or are different. In modern times, evil is a term frequently exploited by dogmatists and ideologues.

“Against such a “possibility,” against such a “should be,” however, this morality defends itself with all its strength, it says obstinately and inexorably “I am morality itself and nothing else is morality!”” (Ibid: section 202)  Thus, we can see the use of the term evil as a way to validate a particular religion or morality. Evil is what one should not do, and thus those who act opposed to these evil actions are moral. So, if homosexuality is evil, those that are married to the opposite sex are moral.

As the web page for the Christian group New Advent states, “Thus evil, from the point of view of human welfare, is what ought not to exist.”  If they are evil, they shouldn’t exist, so we are justified in killing them. So people who think others are evil and “ought not to exist” can call for their murder, as Ted Nugent recently did when speaking about President Obama.

The subjective nature of the term evil makes it useless, a word with no concrete meaning. As the Christian Heretic site says, “The problem is, there is actually no such thing as evil because “evil” is really nothing more than an English word we use to label an action or experience which we perceive in a negative way.”  In fact, the belief in evil is a superstition akin to belief in God, astrology or the Loch Ness Monster.

Nietzsche turns this back on the accusers, “According to slave-morality, therefore, the “evil” man arouses fear; according to master-morality, it is precisely the “good” man who arouses fear and seeks to arouse it, while the bad man is regarded as the despicable being.” (Nietzsche: section 260) The supposed “good” and “moral” use fear of others to manipulate us.  By defining our morality for us, religious and political leaders control us through fear, and thus they continue to gain the most from the labor and resources of this nation. While we are out fighting the evil in each other, plutocrats are writing new legislation to take away our rights, jail us and further rig the economy for themselves at the expense of the people.

The Church and mid-evil theocracies used God and fear to control the masses, and the state learned this technique and uses it today. If the U.S. had been less “moral” and less religious, and instead been more rational and scientific, we wouldn’t have been so easily manipulated to go to war with Iraq after Bush’s “axis of evil” speech. If we understood that the term “evil” was being used to get us to attack unsuspecting humans thousands of miles away (who had nothing to do with 9/11) and that the term meant nothing, we may have thought twice about accepting the war with Iraq.

Thus, the “good” person harms society by labeling those he fears as “evil”, and in doing so, they promote the very thing they rail against: anger, hatred, judgement and violence.

If I ask you to show me evil, you can’t. You would show me a picture of Charles Manson, or Pol Pot, or some other person most people consider evil. But it is not that they are evil in and of themselves, they are only “evil” because of their actions. So why not just call them “mass murderers” or “genocidal maniacs” and leave it at that? Evil is an adjective that lacks meaning separate from actions. Evil is a shorthand for so many possible actions that it has no meaning.

That “Evil” can be used to describe something unpleasant is not evidence that evil exists as a universal constant, nor the base for an argument for moral absolutes.” Herodotus 

The term evil allows us to avoid disturbing questions regarding the development of men like Stalin and Hitler by stating, “They are just evil”. In the book, For Your Own Good, noted German psychiatrist and author Alice Miller argues that it was the strict child rearing practices in early 1900s Germany that produced not only a compliant populous ready to obey a dictator after WWI, but these practices also created tyrants like Hitler that would recreate the oppressive experiences of childhood for the Germans. If Hitler had been born elsewhere at a different time, he certainly would not have become evil.

“It is too simple to blame evil people for horrifying acts of terror,” says psychologist and science historian Michael Shermer. “In a scientific worldview, however, there is no such thing as good and evil as supernatural forces operating outside the realm of the known laws of nature and of human behaviour.”

Americans are particularly succeptable to the term evil and react to it without asking why something is evil or if it is evil at all. Evil is a catchall phrase and whenever someone calls a person, issue, policy, or anything evil, you should question this persons logic and argument. Better yet, turn the page and read something else.

Tex Shelters

  1. Good one, Tex. Great examples that the term has no meaning by itself. Thanks.

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