Friday 2 January 2009

The Nature of Evil

Good and Evil are issues I think we fail, in our current thought paradigms, of truly understanding.
We battle to get our heads around what they are.

I guess we're still wrestling with the question; if there is no devil, then what really, is evil?

And yet I would argue that both good and evil are real, they are tangible and in a sense, measurable. It IS possible to define them.
But unfortunately, they are not absolutes.
They truly ARE relative concepts.
Just because they are relative, doesn't make them false, of course. Distance is relative, but it isn't false.

Myself and a friend were driving along the motorway listening to a radio discussion about the Rachel Nickell killer and he asked me if I believed in evil as a real concept. I said I did. I defined good as being the impulse towards harmony, towards improvement, towards human happiness. Evil I defined as being a strike against that. Working against the universal harmony.
He agreed and used a term I nodded at 'Base animal instincts which no longer suit the world we live in'.

And this would seem to be a major part of it, yes. He argued that as time progresses, we get LESS evil, in a sense. I suggested that our knowledge changes, that our systems change, and evil is the flaws. You will never eradicate evil, because there will always be people who behave in a manner contrary to the greater good. But what that behaviour is, alters.

Now in a case like the Rachel Nickell killer, it's hard to imagine a culture where what he did not be considered evil. But, we forget something. A humanity once existed with no concept of good and evil. Where his fellows would once have simply carved him up if they found him odious. But maybe in such a culture his instincts would not have led him to make himself odious to his fellows. Yes, he is a throwback. Unable to control dark instincts which have had no place in human culture for millenia. He is unable to stop himself raping and killing people. But a human culture once existed where his ilk could have their fill of those activities WITHIN the framework of human culture and where therefore, he could have fitted in.
And in a sense, that's a bit disturbing.
But it certainly makes you pause for thought. Why DON'T the rest of us rape and kill people?

I've come to the conclusion that there is a very good reason why most of us actually find the concept of a rapist more repulsive than that of a murderer. I think it's because most men, if they're honest know they couldn't rape. But aren't so sure about the killing bit.
I was pondering this myself. Why IS it that I know I couldn't rape, but sometimes when I hear about routine murders- by which I mean ones that weren't planned, or carried out by serial killers, but ordinary bog standard five minutes of being pushed beyond the brink murders- I find myself shivering and thinking 'There but for the grace of God...'

I think it's largely to do with conditioning. And of course, we're all socially conditioned. We're toilet trained for a start. But even when you look at something like licking a knife. It's funny how I can't bring myself to lick sauce of a table knife. Because you're taught it's wrong. So even on your own, you won't do it. I think most of us feel that way about rape. It's ingrained within us. There are are only two ways you could commit rape. One would be if your passions got the better of you. The other is cold blooded malice.
But of course, for most balanced human beings in today's society, your passions aren't going to get the better of you to the degree you fail to understand consent. Just as your need to go the toilet never leads you to actually go in your pants. It's much the same thing. Rapists are people who have failed a basic part of cultural conditioning, the sexual equivalent of toilet training.

But killing, is different. Because there remain reasons why we as a society might permit that. Furthermore, like it or not, we do have an instinct in there to kill. And worryingly, not necessarily in self defence, either. Throughout history we seem to have found ways to deal with this, hunting being a common one. But we don't even need to do hat any more. Computer games allow us to have a fairly harmless way of getting to kill things. Images on screens. For most of us, this is clearly enough to keep Inner Homo Erectus satisfied.
Whilst none of us can think of any circumstances where there could ever be a GOOD reason to rape, we can think of several I'm sure, in which we would feel killing wasn't wrong. Or at least, it was the lesser of evils.
Because murder is UNLAWFUL killing. But we are aware there are lawful ways of doing it.
I admit myself, I oppose the death penalty and I think war is really a horrid thing, in reality. But COULD I go out there and gun people down? Well, I know how I feel when I go paintballing. And it's a strange sensation. And at the time, quite exhilerating.
I suppose at this level, there isn't a problem. I guess the majority of males are like this. We don't want to kill people and we have so little wish to kill people that we're not going to do it. But had we a reason, we would.

It's a hard one, the way we treat killing. Because ideally, we'd live in a violence free world. And I think we have to ingrain within ourselves that all human life is sacred. Problem is, killing is more instinctive to us than we sometimes care to admit.

I'm actually of the belief that the old pre-fifties term for a psychopath, moral imbecile, is a better one. It describes it better. Incapable of being educated to understand the moral nuances of the culture they live in. Of knowing which of their instincts are acceptable and which ones aren't.

The idea that a psychopath is devoid of emotions, clearly isn't true. They have emotions for sure, just not ones they are capable of controlling. Far from being cold and calculating, they are the reverse in fact. If they were able to be logical, they would be capable of being ruled by the societal norms of the culture they live in. In fact, myself, I actually see that as they KEY definition of a psychopath. Unable to control their emotions.

Why do I see that as the key? Well, because morals are cultural. When you talk of a conscience, it is for the most part a cultural construct. Most of us learn to tap our emotions into a collective whole, to EMPATHISE with society around us and build collective morals. We're not born with them. We actually learn as we develop to condition our own emotions. And yes, to suppress some of them. And encourage others. The psychopath doesn't do that. They just react how THEY feel.

Conscience is actually an important part of self awareness. What we have seemingly done is created this version of ourselves in our head which in our imagination, can be seen by the keeper of society's rules. And can judge us. That's essentially what a conscience is. It's our understanding of the NUANCES of moral codes. It's the voice that explained to us as we developed why these things were wrong.

More important, it regulates instincts. Your nasty instincts.

And it's not something we born with. It is acquired. The proof of that is easy. Feminists sometimes say 'All men are rapists'. And this offends. It clearly isn't true, at one level.
But at another, it is. All men if brought up in a society which didn't condition men against it, would be potential rapists, just as all men brought up not toilet trained, would defecate in bushes.
Only a few hundred years ago, armies abroad would burn villages and rape all the women. Ordinary men. Men who were loving husbands and fathers at home. Because human culture then believed it to be PART of war. Soldiers at war in foreign countries had license to rape. And therefore, ordinary men didn't feel what they did was wrong any more than a soldier now feels that machine gunning someone down is wrong.

And if we go back far enough, we find that our ancestors, every one of them that lived and bred, was evil by our standards. They were. It is impossible to dispute this. We find it hard to accept, but they were. They probably treated their young just as parents do today. They caressed their loved ones and showed many of the things we see as HUMAN.


Two things we can be sure of. They killed and ate EACHOTHER. And they raped as a matter of course.

We know the first from disturbing remains we have found. And it shouldn't really surprise us. Early man was the most vicious predator ever. And I would imagine each tribe 'beat the bounds' of their territory regularly. The daily hunt was probably quite ritualised. A territorial act, in some ways. And if they encountered another tribe, they'd fight to the death. And the winning tribe would have a load of carcasses on it's hands. They were carnivorous predators by nature looking at a lot of dead bodies.
So yes, coming home with people flesh, was a double triumph.

The second we can be sure of, from a disturbing point about human evolution. Only two primate species are unable to tell when their females are fertile. Us, and Orang Utans.
Oran Utans are pretty nasty when it comes to sex. Unlike Chimps or Gorillas, Orangs live alone. And when a male sees a female, he simply jumps her. He doesn't much care if she's fertile or not. Hence, he has lost the ability to tell.
As, seemingly, have humans.

With humans, it was probably different. We probably lost it for warlike reasons. Once we'd annihilated the males of a rival tribe, we'd go in search of their females. And sometimes perhaps, we'd attack tribes simply to rape their females.

These are our ancestors. Nasty creatures, in many ways.

And yet can we judge them as evil? Yes, in the same way we judge slavery to be evil. Evil is the retrograde, by judging something evil, we are saying that it is something we recognise as something that we want to keep out of our way of life today.

But was it evil for our ancestors? Well, the question is largely meaningless. They did it, for a very long time, probably a lot longer than we've NOT been doing it. At the time, it clearly was a norm of their culture and it's pointless to speculate whether they could have got by not behaving like that.

By the same token, other things that once were judged evil, we can now get by doing and they no longer cause damage. Homosexuality, for instance.

So how do we set a standard for good and evil? How do we ascertain when something moves from the good to the evil category, or vice versa?

Well, we had that question to answer in the twentieth century. What made Nazism evil? Because the Nazis themselves believed themselves to be good.
The answer is objectivity. The Nazis weren't up to date with their moral relativism. They didn't use the most objective frame of reference. The knowledge we now have enables us to state that Nazi ideas caused more misery than happiness. And we can also say that it contained within it ideas that within earlier thought systems, indeed society at earlier states of development, would have been good. But not today, not in the state of human technology and development today.

The sexual revolution is a classic case in point. Of how changes in society meant that a system of values once designed to uphold harmony and prevent damage to society, was actually causing more unhappiness than it prevented. And there was a paradigm shift.
And now I think it can be said that good and evil, on that front, have been in many ways reversed. Now, those who push the old archaic values, are actually the ones who tend towards evil. Because they aim to make people more miserable.

War. At one time, I don't think pushing deliberately militaristic policies was in itself, evil. Today, it undoubtedly is.
The death penalty. Not evil in 1600, because it was needed. Today, evil.

And I can see other areas, things which could BECOME evil. But aren't yet.

One of those relates to our relatives. Our nearest ones.

It has been pointed out that over time we've widened our definition of humanity. At one time, it was thought we only needed to be human to those who had our skin colour. Now Racism is dead, but some argue, could that go further?
Could we one day demand fully equal treatment for other species?

I think that the species sets a limit, in some ways. The fact is, altruism has a selfish component. There is sense in the boundary being the species boundary, because every human being alive could be the ancestor of those your own descendants reproduce with. It has genetic logic. Our own survival is linked to it. Being nice to other species is, in a sense, an affordable luxury.

But the point is, we may be able to afford it. And yes, it will come to a point when we may feel we give species rights according to the affinity we feel with them. Because we will recognise which ones come close to us empathetically. And thus, we will feel towards them 'There but for the grace of God'.

Even now there is a campaign afoot to extend basic human rights to all Hominids. The Great apes, basically, this means that Human rights, would become Ape rights.
I can see this coming to pass. We have little to lose by doing this, and much to gain. We have no need to use Apes in the way we have uses for other animals. Perhaps giving them equal rights with us, would change how we saw ourselves and our cousins. Apes would no longer be animals. We'd simply be the success story of the Ape family. And maybe we would feel more inclined to see how far we could TEACH Apes. After all, emotionally they do not differ from us much.

I can see, in time a sort of basic rights being given to other mammals. I think it is true that in the animal kingdom- or in life generally- there is a them and us. I would say that a good deal of our emotions exist in rudimentary form in all mammals. Emotions have evolved, and I would hazard a guess all mammalian mothers experience some emotions of some similarity. As I often say, this seems to be an area of investigation not much pursued yet, comparative animal psychology, but I think when it has been done, we will recognise a basic mammal psychology, whereas the psychology of Reptiles will always seem alien. At the end of the day, they lay eggs. It's a huge difference, a root difference in the social systems and individual psychologies developed to cope with that.

I think the vegetarian argument is complicated. Our attitude to our fellow mammals isn't something we seem to have quite sorted out. We seem to agree that eating dogs is distasteful. And personally, I think that carrying out tests on dogs is appalling. But I admit that my own morality on animal treatment is patchy. I find the actual gory details of what actually happens in what we now call 'Meat Packing Plants' to be absolutely horrific to even contemplate, but nevertheless I love a good fry up. And I love a good burger.
I see dogs as being almost like furry people and feel a genuine emotional closeness to a dog that I don't to a chicken, or a lobster and certainly don't towards a carrot.
But I'm also aware that a dog is no closer a relative to me than a pig, and a rat is actually a closer relative.
The problem is, that realistically, we are carnivores by nature. Meat, and indeed red meat, is actually a fairly necessary part of our diet. Attempts to find moral ways round the fact we need to eat our fellow mammals have not as yet been successful.

But a day will probably come when we are actually able to grow red meat. Pork, Beef, etc, not actually on live animals, but in processing plants, in vast vats where the flesh can be produced without the need for it to be part of a living animal. And where indeed, we don't need to slaughter any mammals for any reason, because we don't need to produce substitutes for their parts that we slaughtered them for, we can artificially produce the real thing.
And then we will have reached a point when keeping mammals to slaughter them, will have become evil. Because there will be no necessity to do so. It will be willfully allowing lives to exist that aren't so very different to ours, lives we can emote with, just so we can slaughter them or torture them.
So what wasn't evil once, what still isn't evil yet, WILL be evil.

And we can't even begin to understand the things we do now that we can never see could ever be evil, but will be.

Just our ancestors could have no conception that killing and eating their fellows was evil.

It is not just about what is in our hearts, it is about what is in our heads.

Good is about taking what is in your heart and using what is in your head to understand the hearts of others and try create a world which brings joy to as many hearts as possible, including your own.

And Evil is when the mechanisms for achieving that are flawed.

And that is the only way I think Good and Evil can truly be judged.


Anonymous said...

The urge to violence that is in many humans has a biological basis. The genes that produce murderers and rapists, in less potent combinations, are those that also produce warriors and explorers.

Anonymous said...

I like the notion that evil evolves, that we get more humane as time passes. I was just watching the film Milk this weekend, and it led me to reflect a lot on homophobia. It is still horrendous, what some people believe, but even mere decades ago, the hatred and violence targeted at this group of people was even what a good chunk of religious right wingers would find appalling.

However, given my work with criminals, and perhaps by simple virtue of being a woman, my views on rape aren't quite as optimistic. I do believe the adage that all men are rapists is utter bullshit, but I also think it can be more opportunistic than one would expect. I have assessed men who would never grab a woman from an alley, but given the right combination of circumstances (e.g., unexpectedly being alone with an attractive women, alcohol, etc, etc) have done some pretty immoral things they can't even comprehend.

Anonymous said...

Crushed, Good ideas, interesting post.

Your reversion to the "moral imbecile" definition works. Their problem is I guess that they see other people like props, or things, not as people. They don't make the connection that other people feel the same things they do, or care.

Some bits I am not sure really hold together. Like the territories thing. How would that square with hunter gatherer behaviours?

All men are not rapists, some are. Many follow their john thomas without thinking about it, especially when wearing beer goggles.

You assert "The death penalty. Not evil in 1600, because it was needed. Today, evil."

How do you figure that statement, or even justify it?

Especially as I guess you would seem to be quite ready to apply the death penalty to anyone who falls into your scarily loose definition of paedophile behaviour?

Surely evil is as much about harm? Unkindness, cruelty?