Posted by: aboutalbion | July 28, 2012

Evil (5)

After my first post on evil, ‘aleanation’ commented …

Just asking out of curiosity, because I have been finding it quite difficult to conceptualize, do you believe that there is such a thing as an “evil person?” If so, what does an evil person look like, what lies at the heart of evil in humanity? Could it be some type of inborn cruelty, malice, or greed? That seems unlikely to me, but I am open to arguments. It seems much more likely that fear (of death, of loss) lies at the heart of the evil that men do, that evil is the corruption that occurs in those that surrender to fear of death, rather than to love of life. If that is the case, is there such a thing as an evil person?

… and I indicated that I would reply in a few days’ time.

In posts this past week, I have summarized my understandings of the Christian approach and several psychological approaches to the problem of evil.  And at the end of this week, I have come to the same conclusion as ‘aleanation’ has done.  I find that it is unhelpful to use the notion of “an evil person”, and I consider it irresponsible for commercial organizations to promote the idea that a few people are “born to kill”.

My starting point is that everyone lives their life negotiating a constant procession of conflicts of interest in all their encounters with other people.  And one way of assessing emotional health is the ability and skill to foresee and resolve these everyday conflicts of interest.

As I see it, the resolution of each and every conflict of interest involves a change in the status quo, and that means that there is a winner and a loser.  [When I hear the alleged claim of a win-win outcome, I don’t think it is too hard to find third parties who are disadvantaged.]  And I suggest that people in sustainable relationships develop the ability and skill to balance out these wins and losses.

So in my thinking at the moment, I am with Schopenhauer and Noddings.

In his account, Schopenhauer writes about the truth of the general principle that “the ceaseless efforts to banish suffering achieve nothing more than a change in its form”. [1969 p315]  Julian Young, in his general introduction to those coming to Schopenhauer for the first time, helpfully calls this “the conservation of pain principle”. [2005 p189]

In her account, Noddings describes the awareness that pain is endemic to human life – what I call ‘the pain of living’.  She relates experiences of physical and psychic pain, helplessness, and separation to the feelings of fear.  For Noddings, these are the elements of what our culture calls evil.  From here, she implies that attempts by human agents to relieve another’s pain are “good”, while attempts to increase another’s pain are (or ignoring another’s pain is) “evil”.

So far as I can see, these two accounts remind me that everyday living is about paying attention to ‘the pain of living’ in my life and ‘the pain of living’ in the life of the person who is present with me.  As I negotiate conflicts of interest with others, then by “the conservation of pain principle” I am doing “good” and doing “evil” every day.  In so far as I am fearful of pain, I will incline to resolve a conflict of interest in my favour and I will attempt to export my pain and I will incline to do “evil”.  I deceive myself if I think otherwise.

I have now come close to the idea that good and evil are two sides of the same coin.  I suggest that, together, we are all in this transactional business of ‘pain management’ – both our own and those we are with.

If any of this makes sense, then there will be some people whose capacity to handle conflicts of interest is impaired and whose quantum of ‘the pain of living’ is excessively large.  Criminologist James Alan Fox of Northeatern University says (in a Reuters piece): “They … have a very weak support system … They don’t have close friends or family nearby to turn to for help or to put their thoughts into perspective … There are thousands and thousands of people who fit that pattern and do not kill anyone.”  But here and there, in a way that is completely unpredictable, a small number of people choose to share their fearful pain with their community in a socially unacceptable way that is dreadful for those involved.  And so we hear about Aurora and Utoeya and other unspeakable events …

So I find that, by an alternative line of thought, I reach the same conclusion as ‘aleanation’.  No “evil people”.  Just people like us.

Many thanks for the comment.

[Noddings, N (1989) Women and Evil.  Berkley: University of California Press.

Schopenhauer, A (1969) The World as Will and Representation Vol 1.  New York: Dover.

Young, Julian (2005) Schopenhauer.  London: Routledge.]


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