The Truth about Evil

Is our understanding of evil rooted in error?

There are evil acts and there are evil people. Evil acts are, roughly, ones that involve the intentional infliction of suffering that is significant, undeserved and unnecessary. Those who consistently perform evil acts are evil people. Evil is not a supernatural force that takes possession of people. Neither is it a sequence of genes. An evil person does not have to be motivated by the thought of perpetrating evil. An evil person may act only from what they regard as the best of intentions. Most of the evil acts in the world are the result of simple stupidity: of people holding rationally and/or morally indefensible beliefs.

Discussions of evil are typically confused, being based on various unsubstantiated assumptions. One common assumption – the first dogma of evil, if you like – is that a person cannot be evil unless they are responsible for what they do. This erroneous assumption decisively shaped the discussion in the HowTheLightGetsIn debate. The assumption is that if we can show a person’s actions to be the result of factors beyond his or her control – the result of an unfortunate genetic profile or pernicious childhood circumstances, for example – then the person can no longer be classified as evil. This assumption is false. A person is evil if they consistently perform evil acts. Why they do this is irrelevant. If we discover that their persistent tendency to perform evil acts is the result of genetic or environmental misfortunes over which they have no control, then we would no longer be able to blame them for their actions. But this need not alter our assessment of them as evil.

In other words, we need to clearly separate two issues. The first concerns the moral status of the person – whether they are a good or bad person. The second concerns whether they are responsible for what they do. Common sense, philosophy, and science have persistently run these two issues together, assuming that unless a person is responsible for what they do, they can neither a good nor a bad person. This assumption should be rejected. In saying this, I am not repeating the truism that we should distinguish the evaluation of a person from the evaluation of their acts. It is a common to think that evaluating a person’s actions – as morally good or bad – does not require that they be responsible for those actions. I am arguing that we should extend this to evaluation of the person, as a good or bad (or evil) person.

The reason is not difficult to discern. Some philosophers think there is no such thing as free will. Others think there is. There are good arguments on both sides. Some think recent developments in the neurosciences support the first group; others think this support is not as decisive as it seems. Suppose, just for the sake of argument, the first group is correct. It doesn’t matter whether they are – this is what philosophers call a thought experiment. If so, then no one is ever, or has ever been, responsible for what they do. Does this mean that no one has ever done good or bad things? Most people would accept that this is implausible. Hitler’s behavior, for example, was still evil even if he had no control over it. His actions would still be evil even if he were not responsible for them. This is, of course a point about Hitler’s actions, not Hitler himself. But the point is that the possibility of moral evaluation – of judging actions as good or bad – does not simply disappear just because there is no one is responsible for what they do. Once we accept this, however, we can see that essentially the same point applies to the evaluation of people as well as evaluation of their actions. Would we really want to claim that Hitler was not an evil person just because he was not responsible for what he did? Would we really want to say that no one ever, in the history of the world, has been good or bad, simply on the grounds that no one is responsible for what they do? This claim strikes me as breathtakingly implausible. And it becomes unnecessary as soon as we are willing to sever the connection between two issues: the issue of the moral status of a person and the issue of his/her responsibility for his/her actions.  

I am in a minority of philosophers in this respect. Most still think that the moral evaluation of a person – as opposed the person’s actions – requires the assumption that he/she is responsible for what he/she does. I do think that, as the neurosciences progress, we are going to have to become increasingly comfortable with the divorce of the question of the moral status of a person from the question of their moral responsibility. When we do, debates such as that at HowTheLightGetsIn may come to look curiously, but hopefully endearingly, quaint.

Image credit: 酷哥哥

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David Morey 2 26 February 2015

Interesting, and the implications for prison, treatment and punishment?