Monthly Archives: September 2014

Evil and not Evil

There’s a scene I like in the last of the Star Wars “prequels” (the good one), where Obi Wan Kenobi and Annakin Skywalker have a brief discussion regarding the moral relativism of evil over light sabers.  If you looking for a more sophisticated discussion from me than you’d get from George Lucas, you are likely to be disappointed.  But, the question of evil in the world, and what’s not evil, is something worth discussing in the same way that trying to come up with an understanding of what “terrorism” is is a worthwhile effort.  While there might not be a single, objective definition of evil (I know, some would argue there is a single, discernable definition to be found in one religious text or another – but that is part of the problem), if we are to use the term like many writers have taken to doing a lot this year, then perhaps we can think of some of criteria for thinking of evil in today’s world – a least in a minimalist sense that most people can agree upon.

One thing that is hard to define as evil are unintended consequences.  While some might consider the Iraq invasion, which almost certainly cost over 100,000 lives and possibly many more, as having been evil or I might wonder whether Republican efforts to block sensible health care and gun control reforms are evil, it’s hard to believe that those were or are efforts aimed foremost at hurting people rather than misguided attempts to help them. Similarly, conservatives can point to pro-choice efforts and say its advocates costs millions of lives – but does that make its supporters evil?  In all these cases, the outcomes are disputed or in doubt, and none of the proponents of these actions have hateful or nefarious motives, whatever the outcome.

So, perhaps its motivations that most define evil?  This is a trickier issue, the least of all, because it’s sometimes hard to discern what lies in the hearts of men and women.  Still, not knowing who is always evil shouldn’t detract from our ability to define it, in part, as something based in hate.  Noble motivations are based on a desire to contribute to humanity – all humanity – not just those like most like you.  Evil ones are those that seek to hurt people for the sake of revenge or simply to remove their presence from the world – usually those that disagree with the victimizers or aren’t part of their in-group. 

Another question that arises is whether noble intentions justify wicked deeds.  It’s the kind of question I ask my students when I bring up the question of famous abolitionist, and murderer, John Brown.  Do the ends justify the means when the goal is as noble as ending American slavery?  Or how about ending the Second World War by dropping atomic bombs on hundreds of thousands of civilians?

Motivations matter, but so do methods.  Many greater minds than mine have thought and written about these questions, and just war theory has a long tradition. As far as the intuitive moral calculus goes for most people, however, the more people who are harmed, and the further those people are removed from actually taking part in violence themselves, the worse something is.  A lot of this feeling about evil comes from the fact that we are mostly social animals with well-developed prefrontal cortexes, who can instinctively empathize with those being hurt and angry at the injustice of the injuries.

Maybe it is illustrative to look a two of the biggest crises spots in the world this year when thinking of how we label people or groups as evil. 

First, we have Vladmir Putin, the Russians, and the pro-Russian militants fighting for independence in the eastern Ukraine.  The consequences of the fighting have probably about two thousands deaths, probably mostly civilians (including those on Malaysian Airlines Flight 17).  The outcome is still uncertain as to what the political fallout will be in the longer term.

The motivations of the locals who are fighting is self-government.  They don’t want to be part of Ukraine anymore.  Russian motives can be chalked up to a variety of Machiavellian schemes, but largely the people and leadership of Russia are acting out of emotional affinity for those across the border who are waving Russian flags and asking for their help.

The methods of the fighters have been largely traditional.  There have been violations of the Geneva convention, such as the forced march of POWs through the streets of Donetsk in a parade.  But no mass slaughters of civilians or prisoners.  And it’s unlikely, to say the least, that Russian leadership will decide it’s time to reconstitute the USSR or drop a nuclear bomb on Eastern Europe any time soon, no matter what some otherwise serious writers have suggested.

Compare that to those involved with ISIS (or ISIL or the Islamic State – I’ll stick with ISIS):

The consequences of ISIS offensives in Syria and Iraq have been thousands of deaths, mostly of prisoners and civilians.

The motivations of ISIS is a utopian one involving the creation of as large an Islamic Empire as possible.  Ultimately, like Al Qaeda, ISIS would like to recreate the borders of the original Islamic Caliphate that stretched from Spain to Central Asia.  Even more ultimately, they would like the whole world to be united not just under Islam, but a very specific sectarian-specific interpretation of Sunni Islam.  They would also like everyone under their control to convert to this version of Islam or be killed or expelled. All this, of course, in the service of their view of God’s will – which hardly ennobles the effort.

The methods of ISIS are increasingly well-documented, and the brutality has been absolutely staggering.  Mass killings and graves and beheadings are only the start.  To speak of ISIS committing war crimes is like speaking of the worst serial killers as felons.  ISIS not only parades is prisoners, but films their subsequent executions for propaganda purposes.  Even in the world-gone-mad of the Third Reich, the Nazis tried to keep their atrocities secret.

So, here we have two groups with very different motivations and means of achieving their goals.  Only in the most relativistic universe could we not describe one group of militants as far more evil than the other.  The world “evil” should probably be used very sparingly for only the worst of the worst of this world, if the world is to retain any useful meaning.  But the worst of the worst are here now, killing people today in Iraq and Syria, and they are pretty damn evil.  What to we can and should do when confronted by evil is, however, a question for another day.