Denying Manicheanism Does not Mean Denying the Reality of Evil

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Clarence S. Darrow

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Some people are evil. They are not totally evil, for anything totally evil would not exist–Manicheanism, the view that evil is an equal and opposite reality to good, is flawed. To accept that evil is real does not imply that evil is positive; it remains an absence of good. Yet evil is a real lack (and here I’m focusing on moral evil) that results in murders, theft, broken promises, manipulation for one’s own selfish ends, and the list goes on. Some psychologists, sociologists, and social workers deny that evil is real in any sense, and deny that there are predominately evil in the world. Yet I have found that if I question the deniers in detail, they almost always have met one person so twisted that they had to admit that person was evil.

The United States is often Manichean in its view of evil, particularly in holding that America is good and America’s enemies are totally evil. But that does not mean that when President Reagan called the Soviet Union an “evil empire” that he was wrong. It was predominately evil. To say that the Soviet system was predominately evil is not to say that it was totally evil, nor does it claim that the Soviet leaders were totally evil–even Stalin, by sharing in existence, was “metaphysically good,” even though he was morally twisted and predominately evil. He was not subhuman or a demon; he was a very bad human being.

However a person’s background influences him, this does not excuse him from moral responsibility–one way to dehumanize people is to say that they are totally determined by their background, since denying them free will to make moral decisions denies them a fundamental human capacity. Loeb and Leopold‘s background (wealthy, pampered) did not force them to murder Bobby Franks, despite Clarence Darrow‘s dehumanizing denial of Loeb and Leopold’s moral freedom. They had the free will to decide whether or not to murder Bobby Franks, and their action was twisted and evil. Although it may be difficult for someone in a violent urban area to make the right decisions, the person remains responsible for the moral choices he makes. To deny him moral choice is to deny him humanity. Liberal social reformers who say that instead of making evil moral choices that a person is determined by his environment are the true dehumanizers. Traditionalists may need to admit the importance of social background in corrupting character, but at least they recognize the humanity of people from violent and poverty stricken neighborhoods.  Neither does a rough rural upbringing make bad choices inevitable.

Some people are simply “meaner than hell.” A sociologist may claim that this “evil theory” is naive, but I would say that the sociologist has a twisted and flawed view of human nature. Some people have made so many bad choices that they have ruined their characters, and others have no conscience. With psychopaths, it seems that the only goodness in them is metaphysical goodness, that they exist, and as products of God’s continuing creation, they are good insofar as they exist. But  morally they seem to be utterly twisted to the point of having very little if any moral goodness left. We don’t have to go to the usual examples of Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, or child murderers and serial killers to know that some people with whom we are in contact are evil. Some people love to create strife–they encourage friends to turn on each other, split and destroy organizations such as churches and clubs, and split up families–all for a kind of evil and selfish spite and glee. Their hearts are rotten; as Solzhenitsyn said, “The battle of good and evil is fought within each human heart.”

That means that as fallen creatures, we all have the capacity for evil. Any of us can start on a slippery slope that leads down the road to evil. So we should watch our own spiteful and selfish thoughts (for selfishness and pride are the ultimate roots of evil) and try to follow Jesus’ advice to “love our neighbor as ourselves.” We should never be complacent in fighting the darkness of pride in our own hearts so that we may overcome temptations to evil acts and develop into virtuous human beings.

The Boundary Between Mental Illness and Evil

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"Satan Sowing Seeds" by Felicien Rop...

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Was Jared Lee Loughner, who allegedly murdered six people in Tuscon and wounded 13 others, including Congressman Gabrielle Giffords, insane or evil or both? Leonard Pitts and other columnists and bloggers have openly wondered whether “evil” is a more appropriate description of Mr. Loughner than “insane.” Psychiatry and psychology tend to medicalize deviances in human behavior, sometimes to the point that they tone down the role of human responsibility. For example, classifying alcoholism as a disease alleviates the moral responsibility a person may have for engaging in the heavy drinking that made him dependent on alcohol.  Classifying mass murderers as “psychopaths” may be accurate as a descriptive label for their condition (no empathy, no conscience), but such classification does not address the issue of whether psychopaths are evil. There are several bad arguments that someone who medicalizes terrible human actions may use. For example:

1. If person x has a mental illness, and that mental illness contributes to x’s destructive behavior, then x is not morally responsible for x’s actions.

2. Person x has a mental illness.

3. That mental illness contributes to x’s destructive behavior.

4. Therefore, x is not morally responsible for x’s actions.

The weakness of this argument is premise 1. Just because a person is mentally ill, and that mental illness causally contributes to his behavior, does not imply that the person is not morally responsible for his actions. The reason is that the mental illness may be a necessary but not sufficient condition for x’s destructive behavior. X’s evil moral character may still play a causal role as well. Or x’s evil moral character may have causally contributed to his mental illness.

Another bad argument goes as follows:

1. Deviations from normal brain structure are correlated with psychopathy and other personality disorders.

2. If deviations from normal brain structure are correlated with psychopathy and other personality disorders, then the individual with such deviations is not morally responsible for his actions.

3. Psychopathic [mass murderer, swindler–take you pick of crime) individual x has deviations from normal brain structure.

4. Therefore psychopathic individual x is not responsible for actions that are due to his psychopathy.

One problem with this argument is that correlation is not causation. Even if a causal relation could be established, this does not answer the question of which direction the causation goes (the “chicken-egg problem”). Do the deviations from normal brain structure cause psychopathy or does psychopathic behavior cause deviations from normal brain structure? Unless one accepts reductive or eliminative materialism, then one cannot automatically claim that a twisted mind and behavior are caused by an abnormal brain. To make such a claim would be to beg the question on the complex metaphysical issues surrounding the mind-body problem.

I do not know where the exact boundary between evil and mental illness. A rough answer that seems reasonable to me is that if a person’s mind is utterly divorced from reality, then he is not as responsible for his actions as someone who has a firm or even partial grip on reality. Where should that line be drawn? This is the difficulty. It seems to me that psychopaths are evil people. Borderline personality disorder is (and I’m not trying to be “facile”) is a borderline case–but if a person suffering from borderline personality disorder destroys another person’s life, emotional health, and/or reputation due to manipulation and lies, then the person seems as much evil as having a medical disorder. The refusal of many borderlines to get help or take responsibility for their actions are basic elements of an evil character. Munchausen’s Syndrome and Munchausen’s by Proxy fall in the same category–the drive for attention is twisted to the point of doing evil and manipulative actions. I know that many professional psychologists and psychiatrists would disagree. But they do not know everything any more than I as a philosopher know everything. I know there is a level of mental illness that totally removes a person’s moral responsibility for heinous actions.  But since evil is by nature a distortion of the personality, there may be some individuals who are considered to be mentally ill but who are actually evil, or some individuals who suffer from mental illness and have an evil character.  Human beings are a mixture of good and evil, and that battle, as Alexander Solzhenitsyn said, is fought in every human heart.