Evil (the concept) considered

The first of a serial post by Chris over at Only a Game has led me to think about the concept of Evil. Over at Chris’ blog, his first post on the subject addresses two issues:

1. Whether to accept the contribution of religious and spiritual traditions on the subject of evil (the answer is yes)
2. Whether 1. entails a committment to the supernatural elements of said traditions (his answer is ‘not really’)

In this post I’d like to consider something slightly different, but prolegomena questions on the issue of evil. Here’s me setting my terms.

Issue 1: Should Evil be considered the systematic partner of the ‘Good’?/the Kantian example of ugliness
Issue 2: Resources of wisdom on Evil beyond religion: Culture
Issue 3: The analytical utility of evil. A ‘Lewisian’ style consideration

Issue 1: Evil and systematic ethics

It has been said by a few Kant scholars (Wenzel et al), that Kant’s analysis of the judgment of beauty or aesthetic judgment proper, can also apply to other aesthetic responses. When Kant describes the judgment of the beautiful; he elicits certain features about aesthetic judgment in general; we engage in an ‘as if’ universal language when we communicate something like ‘that second act was the most beautiful of the whole opera’. We also impute that others must agree, or if they disagree, attempt to enlighten us on the failure of our aesthetic judgement.

Kant made much effort to analyse the psychology of judgments of aesthetic merit. Some ask, what about aesthetic demerit, or disgust? Those also answer that Kant’s systematic approach can also be used to elicit features of aesthetic demerit. Although the literature on ‘disgust’ and ‘terror’ has taken a furn of its own in the continental literature.

Can such a systematic isomorphism take place between the ethical appraisal of the good, and evil? I’d like to think so. To consider Evil as something else from the Good; makes the world of ethics and metaethics a little more broad. Broader still would be to consider phenomena such as moral character, moral dispositions and moral reactions within the domain of ethics proper, but that’s an argument for another day.

To make the claim that Evil may be treated in isomorphic fashion to the Good raises the question of what properties there are that can be mapped on to evil that can also describe the good? Here is where a more meta ethical approach may ensue. When we talk of the good, we may consider issues of how knowledge of morality may arise. Do we for instance, percieve something as immoral viz some sentimentalist and non rational response? Or perhaps do our moral responses (and thus moral appraisals) come about in a wider framework of propositional beliefs; motivations (whether internal or external to belief); dispositions and justifications. To speak of evil philosophically is to address the whole domain of ethics and metaethics; similarly we might say the same of the good. What matters is the import of our underlying understanding of what it is to believe in, act toward, or establish moral judgments.

Issue 2: Evil in culture

I have always maintained that substantive moral issues can be informed by cultural phenomena. Learning through the likes of Shakespeare or DC Comics can give us a picture into insights about people. Evil is no different. Assuming that we wish to enter the talk about Evil into our philsophical vocabulary, we can gain as a great resource the annals of popular culture or our historical past figures who have written on evil.

Nietzsche and philosophers influenced by him, often have interesting things to say about good and evil. Characters we may understand as archetypes, such as the Joker, or Ozymandias (Watchmen) may give us greater nuances, toward systematic and typified conceptions of evil. One most amusing (and insightful) construal of evil comes from the Dungeons and Dragons alignment system. Normally we consider good and evil as two poles. But what if it were more complicated, and the distinction also included our adherence to law and order. So, someone could be good, but lawless (e.g. Batman), or evil and lawful (oil companies?).

Navigating through pop culture apocrypha and religious traditions will inevitably lead to contradictions and blind alleys in our understanding of evil. Its up to us as systematisers to demerit some perspectives over others in the name of truth an analysis. Navigating through cultural relics can also help enlighten us on evil as a notion.

Issue 3: The analytical utility of evil. A ‘Lewisian’ style consideration

I can certainly imagine a world where the term ‘evil’ may not have any meaning in a logically close world. However, despite this, we can consider evil to be a useful term in our understanding of the world. Here’s a list

Social Science: Change the definition of evil, or give it an operationalisation. Criminology is the study of evil. At the edges of crime we might ask certain questions that are outside official criminal definitions. Why is it that industrial accidents in some cases have no criminal definition? Why is it that environmental damage (an evil) is not taken to be enough of a criminal matter? Consider egalitarian matters and social justice in terms of evils; within the framework of operationalising and research questions, the salience of ‘evil’ as a concept can be worked out through a great many questions about society. Some are about solid issues that are definately empirical (rates for reported crime); some are questioning of our current discourse (redefining crimes into non-crimes, or vice versa). Some are critical of our dominant powers (corporate and white collar crime, whether governments should be accounable for breaking international laws or economic damages).  I’d go out on a limb here and say it is the essence of social improvement to operationalise questions and topics of research, as well as the following findings and theoretical musings that follow from them, to be in the remit of social and overall humanitarian betterment.

Psychology: Here’s perhaps where evil gets questioned the most. Case studies into psychopathies tend to lean toward giving exceptions to moral culpability in severe trauma cases (Patricia Churchland likes to consider these kinds of cases for instance). Can we understand evil in terms of deviance? What if we understand evil as a fundamental privation? What if, we may sum up a variety of phenomena to parsimoniously be considered in terms of evil. I think this issue is a moot one, and psychology may trump evil out of our ontologies. I still maintain, despite this, that operationalising one’s terms and research questions comes to the fore in defining conditions for success of a piece of research, as well as its criterion of success at answering the respective question.

Culture/Religion: Culturally speaking, Evil is a term that has been used for so long, we can make a language and set of cultural totems toward it. There might be another X-men remake with Magneto or other such villains, but they make sense presuming that there are ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’ and ‘people in between’. It’s been part of our thinking for so long that we might as well use it as a term. In terms of religious traditions, and in my experience in interfaith groups; Evil is the one thing that unites even the atheists with the religious. Statements of opposition towards evil, or unified condemnation brings unity to groups that are often emphasised for their difference or disagreement. Having common terms helps communicate the same thing.

I’m not certain whether Evil should be part of our vocabulary, but to bring it in, allows possibilities of asking and answering questions. One question that I’ve still considered without an answer for a couple of years was raised by a seminar I was in; of whether the fulfilled person may be amoral or immoral.

Here ends my post.

One thought on “Evil (the concept) considered

  1. Thanks for this interesting exploration riffing off the opening piece… I should get to my blogs tomorrow morning (Wednesday) so I’ll pursue comments at that point, but I wanted to respond to this piece briefly now.

    1. Evil contrasted to Good. Traditionally, I’ve been reluctant to buy into the “good vs evil” dichotomy, but recently I’ve become more open to this concept. Because it is so embedded culturally, I see it as an asset it would be foolish to wholly discard. At one point in the serial, I tease open a gap between Good and Right, but I spend less time considering Evil as apart from Good. This strikes me as another interesting enquiry.

    2. Evil in Culture. I am increasingly drawn to a view of the central role of stories in ethics, and as such all narrative forms have ethical potential – the alignment system in D&D is certainly an example of this (and it in turn was inspired by narrative sources c.f. the Moorcock serial from the other year).

    3. Utility of Evil. These are themes on the margins of the serial, but you raise some interesting points here. The merits of Evil as a unifier is definitely a relevant aspect and indeed the parallel phenomena of picking out “enemies” is precisely what this serial is named after. I’ll be interested in your riff on these points when we get there.

    Your Kant scholarship continues to grow in depth and breadth… I really must tackle the first two Critiques at some point, but it is so tangential to my philosophical work at the moment it feels rather like a luxury. I really enjoyed dissecting the Critique of Judgement though – seriously good stuff.

    As to whether the fulfilled person can be amoral or immoral – relative to what system of morality? I believe that there are tribes that we would call amoral who are nonetheless fulfilled – but if you judge them by their standards, they would be moral, so how far does this construct get us? I rather suspect human fulfilment requires situation in a community (although this does not preclude introverted engagement in a community) and as such fulfilment may require adhering to at least a minimal moral code – but one could adhere to such a code and still by amoral or immoral by other measures. It’s another interesting point of exploration.

    Glad that the first piece inspired this set of tangents – hope you will find more that interests you as it develops. 🙂



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