Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Evil is what you do

If it weren't for Nick Armstrong's various posts I presumably wouldn't be writing this, but this isn't a response to Nick.  In fact I've written much the same thing elsewhere, just never (as far as I can recall) here.

Intent does matter when discussing evil because there's a difference between doing something bad out of innocent ignorance (which is very different from various other kinds of ignorance) and doing something bad because you know it will hurt someone.  The second stands a chance of being evil, the first not so much.  Intent isn't magic, what is being done is wrong either way, but it does matter.

The thing is that intent doesn't matter all that much.  Very few of the things that qualify as evil can be judged based on intent.  In fact, even the ones that can be tend to use intent as proxy for knowledge.  Something like:
"If I had known that it made you feel that way I never would have called you that continually for the last seven years but you're so good at keeping your real feelings hidden that I never suspected."
Yes, the intent was good, but it's the knowledge that makes the difference between that non-evil act and this evil one:
"I knew exactly how it made you feel, that's why I've called you that continually for the last seven years."
Also, remember what I said about innocent ignorance?  Why the knowledge is lacking is important, this is pretty evil too:
"If I had known that it made you feel that way I never would have called you that continually for the last seven years, mind you there were indications that something was up with you and being called that, but I never bothered to find out what."
In fact, the callous evil of "I don't care" or "It was expedient" tends to disturb me more than the evil of, "I don't like you."

If you hurt people because you're trying to hurt people then at least there's some limiting factor on what you'll do.  You're going to hurt the people you're trying to hurt.  If you hurt people because you don't care about the consequences of your actions then there's no limit, no end, no stopping point. You don't even know what evil you're putting into the the world unless someone brings it to your attention (and if they do you don't care) so the potential is unlimited.  Ditto for, "It was expedient."  If the ends justify the means then recall that there are some pretty good ends out there, enough that you can justify basically any means up to and including destroying the entire universe (bring an end to all pain and suffering as just one example of an end that can be the means to.)

If you're willing to do evil things because they're expedient ... well that's where we find most actual evil in the world.

Hell, "It's expedient," is an apt description of all three of the biblical temptations of Christ in the wilderness by the Devil.  Especially the last.  Way easier to rule the world by kneeling down and worshiping the devil than death by crucifixion, resurrection, 40 days on earth, return to heaven, seeing your followers martyred, seeing your teachings twisted, and waiting an unspecified time to return which thus far has proven to be at least 1980 years, 9 months,  and 17 days using certain traditional dating techniques.

There are some who would argue that the world would be a better place if Jesus had taken the expedient route.

The point here is not to get all religious though, but being on religion provides a nice segue into the next point.  Ever heard the word Antichrist?  Ever wondered where it came from?  It's mentioned in couple books of the Bible (literally: two books) and in them it's about orthodoxy vs. heterodoxy which is a debate that I have no interest in but the key thing is that John is saying, basically, "Make sure that you don't become one of these Antichrist people."  People who were once orthodox Christians have become heterodox and John is writing to those who are still orthodox to say, "Watch yourselves to make sure you're not taken in and become one of those people too."

The idea starts off as, "We must be ever vigilant of ourselves lest we become something bad," (I happen to disagree with John that heterodox=bad but that is neither here nor there) and yet by the time that it gets to us it's been entirely externalized.  It's not, "Those people who used to be like us have become Antichrists and we could too," it's, "We must be ever vigilant of others because evil is external.  There's no way I will be an Antichrist, but I must always keep a lookout of Nicolae Carpathia."

We do that a lot with the idea of evil, in all its forms.  We push it out, we externalize it, we make it so it's not something we can do.  I'm not a misogynist --I love women-- so clearly I cannot do misogynist things.  I'm not a racist --I think everyone is equal-- so clearly that thing I did was not racist.  I'm not evil --there is no malice in my heart-- so what I do is not evil.

And this in turn is used to justify and cover for evil.  Love this sinner, hate the sin.  But it's tough love.  Really, really tough love.  Painful knock them to the ground and kick them when they're down ... we're seriously calling this love?

That action was evil when he did it because he hated the Cardasians and did it out of malice, but it was totes ok when I did the exact same thing on a weaker population less able to deal with the blow because I did it out of expedience.

I'm not being misogynist when I create these rules for women to live by, I'm trying to protect them.  Only good happy things in my heart.

I'm not being homophobic when I try to make it hellish to be non-straight via public and private means of discrimination, I'm doing it out of love.  I'm trying to save them from Hell by discouraging behavior that would send them there.

I'm not being racist when I say we shouldn't talk about race, I'm just trying to jumpstart equality on the basis of believing that we pretend there's nothing wrong then soon there will be nothing wrong.

I'm not preforming these morally questionable acts because I'm evil, I'm doing it because the ends are good and that's what matters.

Evil is something that other people do while twirling their mustache.  What I do is done via the best of intentions.

Hell, even the Dungeons and Dragons "Evil" alignment doesn't see itself as evil.  It sees itself as Callicles / Nietzsche / Ayn Rand Beyond Good and Evil return to the natural and proper state in which the strong dominate the weak.  No malice, just a desire for things to be as nature says they should be (according to their philosophy.)

We reduce morality to intent and suddenly, "It was Tuesday,"* becomes much more acceptable than, "I hated him all my life and if I couldn't take his village at least I could have him killed."  I see it the other way around.

Then again, I'm much more willing to trust someone who compromises all morality on the basis of being bribed than someone who does it for free.  I know how to keep the first person on the right track: Stop zir from being bribed.  I have no idea how to make the second person not be evil.  I realize this is a heterodox position to take.

But leaving aside the bribes and sticking with evil.

Certain actions are not evil
Certain actions (the vast minority) are liminal and in these cases it depends on why they are done:
  • Innocent ignorance: merely bad, not evil
  • Not caring enough to find out: evil
  • Willful ignorance: evil
  • Knowingly: evil (note that it doesn't matter whether the person doesn't care or is trying to cause harm or anything else: knowingly is evil.)
Certain actions are evil.  Intent doesn't matter.  Knowledge doesn't matter.  The actions are in themselves evil.

One's internal state only matters when trying to classify the cases that occur on the margins.  Cases that are already bad, it must be noted.  In all other cases evil, or lack thereof, is what you do, not how you feel.


Callous uncaring evil is worse in my eyes than malicious evil.

"It was expedient," a more damning explanation than, "I hated them all."


* For those unfamiliar, Bison has just been told the story of a man who gathered, organized, and led a defensive force to cast him out of a village he was trying to raid for supplies and slaves and was thus, basically, singlehandedly responsible for his defeat.  While retreating Bison gave the order to have that person, the one person who represented a threat to him who happened to be the father of the person he's currently talking to, shot.  It's not something that he remembers because it's no big deal to him.  Threats are eliminated all the time.  It's expedient.


  1. I like the example of Charles Clore, a fairly nasty man who was among other things a slumlord in London in the 1960s.

    He also paid for the Clore Pavilion at London Zoo, where many people (including me) fell in love with nocturnal mammals.

    I don't care how much he was trying to buy back some reputation by doing so, that in itself was a good act. Does it mean he wasn't a bad guy in general? Not at all, but if there's any sort of post-mortem accounting it will be reckoned a small thing in his favour.

    I don't believe any sane person sees himself as evil.

  2. Hmmm.

    1. I don't think I believe in evil? Wrong, certainly... Maybe I'm the biggest moral relativist ever?

    2. I think a non-evil Christian-ethics-compliant version of "the ends justify the means" gets into letter vs. spirit of the law or Law vs. Love. And Tikkun Olam. And stuff.

    3. "Callous uncaring evil is worse in my eyes than malicious evil." I don't think either of those is worse. I did have the feeling for many years that your version was The Truth. It's somewhat how I was raised. And if I believed in that one flavor of Christian Hell I'd be damn sure I'd burn for all the things I didn't mean to do... Except that maybe I forgot a part where you're not supposed to love yourself less than you love other people? To be fair, I think at least some of the people and institutions contributing to my upbringing wouldn't agree.

    4. A lot of the major characters in DS9 (and other Treks too? and lots of fiction that interests me...) have a lot of questions about whether the evil they did, intentionally or not, is balanced by the good. I feel like they're heroes in the saga-sense: great people, doing world-shaking, Wyrd-shaping things. Not necessarily in the "person who is Right and Good" sense. And also I think there are a lot of Star Trek stories where the Starfleet folks can be heroes by the own sense of what's right, and people they come in conflict with can be heroes by a different sense that Our Heroes can still respect... I think that goes with the Western vibe Trek often has.

  3. Urgh, the last bit of 3. there is confusing. I think maybe "people and institutions...forgot or omitted it, too," is a bit clearer?

    "Hero" in the Good and Admirable sense, is for sure something you do. A hat you sometimes get to wear. But in the old sense it's more related to Charisma stats and hit points and stuff. Then conflating the two gets to "That person is a Hero, so therefore we always give them the benefit of the doubt..." when no, the hat is not a permanent feature.

    1. Urgh, the last bit of 3. there is confusing. I think maybe "people and institutions...forgot or omitted it, too," is a bit clearer?

      Uh... could you put it all together because I'm not sure where you think putting that would make things clearer.

  4. And I see that Ana addressed similar things in the most recent Narnia post as well, but I hadn't read it earlier.

  5. Hell, even the Dungeons and Dragons "Evil" alignment doesn't see itself as evil. It sees itself as Callicles / Nietzsche / Ayn Rand Beyond Good and Evil return to the natural and proper state in which the strong dominate the weak. No malice, just a desire for things to be as nature says they should be (according to their philosophy.)

    I am much amused that this should be mentioned at a time when I'm trying to think about what would be a sensible way of remixing the D&D alignments.

    Also, in one of the discussions I was having about different possible reads on what puts people at the "Evil" end of that bar, a friend sent me a link about growing up in a Hezbollah culture as an illustration of the way in which evil can come out of indifference.

  6. I tend to agree, but I've always had a bit of a problem with this because of something I learned in history class in high school (probably it was massively simplified, but it serves as a good example). I learned that British "liberals" often were the ones who wanted to colonize because it was our responsibility to bring civilization to foreign lands, while the "conservatives" were the ones who wanted to avoid foreign pollution so let's not colonize.

    So the ones whose ideals were the least "selfish" were the ones whose actual impact was by far the worst (in the vast majority of cases, colonization did not turn out well for people who lived in the countries colonized), while those who were the most "selfish" actually did the most good by leaving the people alone.

    It's one of the reasons I've basically rejected "evil" and "good" as applicable in real life. I can't assign "good" based on motivation, but there's so much evil done in the world by well-intentioned people ...