When a person does terrible things that seem utterly senseless, like murder children, there is sometimes a division in the assessment of the person. Some people will take the view that the person is mentally ill on the grounds that a normal, sane person would not do something so terrible and senseless. Others take the view that the person is evil on the grounds that a normal, non-evil person would not do something so terrible and senseless. Both of these views express an attempt to explain and understand what occurred. As might be imagined, the distinction between being evil and being mentally ill is a matter of significant concern.
One key point of concern is the matter of responsibility and the correct way to respond to a person who has done something terrible. If a person acts from mental illness rather than evil, then it seems somewhat reasonable to regard them as not being accountable for the action (at least to the degree the person is ill). After all, if something terrible occurs because a person suffers from a physical illness, the person is generally not held accountable (there are, obviously, exceptions). For example, my running friend Jay told me about a situation in which a person driving on his street had an unexpected seizure. Oddly, the person’s foot stomped down on the gas pedal and the car rocketed down the street, smashing into another car and coming to a stop in someone’s back yard. The car could have easily plowed over my friend, injuring or killing him. However, since the person was not physically in control of his actions (and he had no reason to think he would have a seizure) he was not held morally accountable. That is, he did nothing wrong. If a person had intentionally tried to murder my friend with his car, then that would be seen as an evil action. Unless, perhaps, the driver was mentally ill in a way that disabled him in a way comparable to a stroke. In that case, the driver might be as “innocent” as the stroke victim.
There seem to be at least two ways that a mentally ill person might be absolved of moral responsibility (at least to the degree she is mentally ill).
First, the person might be suffering from what could be classified as perceptual and interpretative disorders. That is, they have mental defects that cause them to perceive and interpret reality incorrectly. For example, a person suffering from extreme paranoia might think that my friend Jay intends to steal his brain, even Jay has no such intention. In such a case, it seems reasonable to not regard the person as evil if he tries to harm Jay—after all, he is acting in what he thinks is legitimate self-defense rather than from a wicked motivation. In contrast, someone who wanted to kill Jay to rob his house or just for fun would be acting in an evil way. Put in general terms, mental conditions that distort a person’s perception and interpretation of reality might lead him to engage in acts of wrongful violence even though his moral reasoning might remain normal. Following Thomas Aquinas, it seems sensible to consider that such people might be following their conscience as best they can, only they have distorted information to work with in their decision making process and this distortion results from mental illness.
Second, the person might be suffering from what could be regarded as a disorder of judgment. That is, the person’s ability to engage in reasoning is damaged or defective due to a mental illness. The person might (or might not) have correct information to work with, but the processing is defective in a way that causes a person to make judgments that would be regarded as evil if made by a “normal” person. For example, a person might infer from the fact that someone is wearing a blue hat that the person should be killed.
One obvious point of concern is that “normal” people are generally bad at reasoning and commit fallacies with alarming regularity. As such, there would be a need to sort out the sort of reasoning that is merely bad reasoning from reasoning that would count as being mentally ill. One point worth considering is that bad reasoning could be fixed by education whereas a mental illness would not be fixed by learning, for example, logic.
A second obvious point of concern is discerning between mental illness as a cause of such judgments and evil as a cause of such judgments. After all, evil people can be seen as having a distorted sense of judgment in regards to value. In fact, some philosophers (such as Kant and Socrates) regard evil as a mental defect or a form of irrationality. This has some intuitive appeal—after all, people who do terrible and senseless things would certainly seem to have something wrong with them. Whether this is a moral wrongness or health wrongness is, of course, the big question here.
One of the main reasons to try to sort out the difference is figuring out whether a person should be treated (cured) or punished (which might also cure the person). As noted above, a person who did something terrible because of mental illness would (to a degree) not be accountable for the act and hence should not be punished (or the punishment should be duly tempered). For some it is tempting to claim that the choice of evil is an illusion because there is no actual free choice (that is, we do what we do because of the biochemical and electrical workings of the bodies that are us). As such, people should not be punished, rather they should be repaired. Of course, there is a certain irony in such advice: if we do not have choice, then advising us to not punish makes no sense since we will just do what we do. Of course, the person advising against punishment would presumably have no choice but to give such advice.
If you determine that your partner has been cheating on you, there arises the question of how to respond to this revelation. The following are some suggestions.
It is an extremely good idea to get tested for sexually transmitted diseases. While people often worry they will be ridiculed or humiliated, this is almost certainly not the case. Health care professionals are trained to be professional about such matters and often tend to be sympathetic towards people who have been betrayed by their partners.
Even if you and your partner practiced safe sex, it is still a good idea to get tested. Even with due precautions it is still possible to become infected. You owe it to yourself and any future partners to be sure that you are not infected.
Some people believe that a cheater will always be a cheater and hence can never be trusted. While some people might be incorrigible cheaters, it seems unlikely that every cheat is beyond redemption and incapable of changing their ways. After all, people do change in the face of experience and some people do change for the better. Think of wrongs that you have committed in the past and ask yourself if you have been able to become a better person and not repeat your mistakes. Think of wrongs that you have done that you hope will be forgiven or, even better, wrongs that have been forgiven. If you can think of such things, then you might be able to forgive the cheat.
If you think that forgiving the cheat is about doing something for them, keep in mind that such forgiveness is mainly for your benefit. Bearing a grudge and refusing to forgive a person can wear on you-causing stress and perhaps even making you a worse person. This is not to say that the cheater should be pardoned completely, just that letting the anger go can be good for the heart and the soul. Holding onto the anger can have terrible effect on your next relationship by impairing your ability to trust others.
Because of the possibility of forgiveness, reconciliation can sometimes occur. Sometimes the person who has been betrayed is able to forgive the cheater and the relationship can be restored to a semblance of its previous state. Some people do learn and are able to change from a cheater to a loyal partner. While this can happen, it is a good idea to be wary of people who merely pretend to be reformed cheaters. While people can and do change, people also tend to stick with established patterns of behavior.
When you are wronged it is natural to want to wrong the person who harmed you in return. On one hand, there are good reasons to punish the cheater. On the other hand, there are good reasons not to do so.
One reason to punish a cheater is the psychological need for revenge. You might, it could be reasoned, feel better after punishing the person and thus be better able to move on. Of course, not everyone has this need and it can be argued that this need shows a character defect. However, the need is understandable. One reason not to punish for revenge is that doing so can make you a worse person-a vengeful human being.
A second reason to punish the cheater is that they deserve punishment. Some might argue that punishing the cheater is like punishing a criminal-the punishment is needed to set things right. This has a certain appeal. After all, we do owe others for the good they do us, so it would seem (by analogy) that we owe them bad for the evil they do us. Of course, doing wrong for wrong seems to merely double the wrong being done, thus providing a reason not to do this.
A third reason to punish the cheater is to deter them from doing it again. As philosophers such as Hobbes and Glaucon (in Plato’s Republic) have argued, if people can commit their misdeeds without fear of punishment, then they will continue to commit those misdeeds. But, if they are punished, then they will be much less inclined to commit their injustices in the future. One reason not to do this is that it is not clear that cheaters will learn to be more loyal from being punished.
If you decide that the cheater needs to be punished, then there is the question of the nature of the punishment. Before considering what action to take, it is very important to be aware that law enforcement officials generally do not consider cheating to justify taking action against a person.
People often entertain the idea of doing physical harm to the cheater or his/her property. For example, every time cheating is discussed in my ethics classes someone (for some reason it is always a woman…) brings up keying the cheater’s car. Laying aside the immorality of such deeds, harming a person or his/her property is generally illegal and doing so can end with criminal prosecution. In the past, courts were often lenient in such cases-even acquitting men who killed their spouses for cheating. However, those days seem to have fortunately passed and vengeance for cheating is much less well regarded in the courts. While fantasizing about torching the cheater’s prized Trans Am can have some psychological benefit, actually doing so would probably result in a law suit or even jail time.
People sometimes entertain the idea of exposing the cheater to the world thus shaming them and warning others. Of course, doing so will also reveal to the world that you have been cheated on and might cause you some embarrassment.
Some people say that the cheater is punished by not having them as a partner anymore. While this does reveal a certain degree of arrogance, it is certainly a peaceful and legal approach. Of course, the cheater might or might not consider this a punishment-they might simply move on to a new relationship (or, more likely, relationships) without any suffering on their part.
Perhaps the best way to “punish” the cheater is to move on and create a loyal, healthy and loving relationship with another person. A true cheater will never be able to have such a relationship and although the cheater might believe s/he is happy, this is almost certainly self delusion. In a sense, by denying themselves loyal and healthy relationships, the cheaters are punishing themselves.
Kirk Cameron, formerly of Growing Pains, has lent his skills to the defense of creationism against Darwinism. He is currently involved in handing out a version of Darwin’s book with a new introduction. Not surprisingly, the introduction is highly critical of Darwin.
While there are some reasonable criticisms of evolution and it is quite possible to give reasonable arguments in favor of teleology (see, for example, Plato, Aristotle, and Aquinas), this introduction seems to focus primarily on ad homimen attacks against Darwin. To be specific, the main criticisms seem to be allegations that Darwin’s theory influenced Hitler, that Darwin was a racist and that Darwin was a misogynist.
The logical response to these charges is quite easy: even if these claims were true, they have no bearing whatsoever on the correctness or incorrectness of Darwin’s claims. After all, these are mere ad homimen attacks.
To see that this sort of reasoning is flawed, simply consider this: Adolf Hitler believed that 2+2=4. Obviously the fact that Hitler was a wicked man has no bearing on the truth of that view. Likewise, even racists believe that fire burns and to say that this makes the claim about fire untrue is obviously false.
To use another example, it has been argued that Hitler was influenced by Christianity. However, it would be a logical error to infer that Christianity is flawed because a wicked person was influenced by it (or believed in it).
Interestingly enough, certain atheists attack religions in the same manner that Darwin is being attacked here: by noting that people who did terrible things were Christians/influenced by Christianity (such as the impact of Christian antisemitism on the Holocaust). Obviously, this sort of tactic is based on a fallacy whether it is used against Darwin’s theory or against a religious view.
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When people are critical of using certain methods against terror suspects, one reply is that to accept limits on our actions will make us unsafe. This is because accepting limits will impede our chances of winning and if we do not win, then the terrorists will harm us.
The usual justification for this is that we do not want to be harmed and we want to win. Of course, the terrorists can say the same thing-they also want to avoid harm and achieve victory. They can, of course, help themselves to the same argument used above. After all, if doing whatever it takes to win is morally acceptable, then the terrorists are acting in ways that are morally acceptable. They are just doing what they think it will take to win.
To argue that our side should win, we need something that distinguishes us from the terrorists. We could just be pragmatic and say that we should win because it is us and we are not them. They can, of course, say the same. In this case, both sides are morally equally and whoever wins, wins. If we take this approach, we have to lay aside all moral language when trying to justify what we do or why we should win. After all, such moral talk would be meaningless.
However, few people want to take this approach. Rather, it is common for the defenders of the “do whatever it takes to win” approach to argue that we are justified in acting without moral limits on the basis of (ironically enough) moral grounds. For example, Ralph Peters argues that we should do whatever it takes to win because an American victory would be better for the world. It is also common to present the view that we are morally superior to the terrorists we fight and being better than them justifies the claim that we should win rather than them.
This approach creates what seems to be a bit of a problem: how do we reconcile rejecting moral limits on our actions with the claim that we are morally correct?
The stock approach is the ends justify the means. The usual line is that since our goals are noble and good, we are morally justified in accepting any means to achieve those goals. This view is, of course, a utilitarian approach. The main worry here is that the actions we take to achieve our goals might morally outweigh our goals. In other words, the moral evil generated by our means might exceed the good of achieving are goals.
This can be illustrated using a simple economic analogy. If achieving a goal generates $500, then it is profitable if we spend $499.99 or less in achieving the goal. If our goal is profit, then any means that bring us to our goal for $499.99 or less would be acceptable. Obviously, the less the means cost, the better.
In the case of a moral goal, the same logic applies. If reaching our goal (beating Al Qaeda, for example) would generate 500 Good Points (just to make up an imaginary measure), any means that reached that goal for 499.99 or less Evil points would be acceptable. Naturally, reaching it with less Evil Points would be better because we’d end up with more Good.
So, if we argue that our side should win because we are in the right or because our victory would be a moral good, then we would need to avoid generating too much evil. Otherwise, we would be taking actions that would undercut our justification and prevent us from achieving our stated goal.
A variant on this is the view that if we are good, then we can do whatever it takes to win. A variant on the above argument counters this: if we do enough evil, then we are no longer good. This is because being good means that you do good rather than evil.
So, we have to accept some limits. If we do not, then it would be a matter of luck that we would win and still be good or achieve a greater good. By luck, I mean that we would win before we had done enough evil to make us evil or outweigh the good of achieving our goals.
Naturally, some might reply that we must do what it takes to stay save, because survival is what matters.
That is, of course, a practical approach. One moral reply is that given by Socrates in the Apology. Another moral reply is that, as noted above, if we take survival to justify our actions, then the terrorists can take the same option. As they see it, they need to kill us to survive. In this case, we’d need to lay aside the moral talk and be honest about it. We have no justification beyond wanting to live-just the same as them. We just happen to be us. Of course, if we take this approach to ethics, it would apply across the board. In short, we’d be embracing egoism. Or, if we wanted to toss ethics altogether, we could be moral nihilists.
My view is this: Americans, as a whole, are better than Al Qaeda and their fellows. This is because our general goals are morally superior and we generally accept moral limits that they reject They, for example, intentionally murder children and non-combatants. We, in contrast, put ourselves at risk to avoid hurting civilians. We think women are people and deserve full rights. They do not. When we do wrong, we take ourselves to task for it. They behead journalists. See the difference between good and evil?
Moral battles are not won by being evil. They are won by being good and defeating evil.
As mentioned in a previous post, philosophers seem to assume that an answer is needed to the question of why one should be good. This seems to be based on the assumption that people need to be motivated to be good and hence default to evil or at least to being non-good. As a change of pace, I thought I’d turn this question around and ask “why be evil?”
So, how about a case for being evil…
First, if you ask people what they want, the most common answers, at least in my experience, involve material things-money, jobs, power, cars and so on. Of course, this is based on my experience, which might be unusual. Hence, there is a need for a broader base of evidence. This brings me to a second category of evidence-the media.
A quick glance at the leading magazines of today clearly shows what people prefer. Business magazines, such as Business Week, extort the value of wealth and success in business. Celebrity magazines, such as People glory in the fame and wealth of the stars. Turning to television, channels such as VH1 and MTV show the houses, cars, fame and wealth of celebrities and, of course, these things are all held up as being of great value. Many of the music videos, a defining art form of the 21st century, present the glory of wealth, fame and power. Given that art tends to reflect the values of a culture, it seems evident that wealth, fame and power are valued and preferred in this culture. If additional evidence is needed, a survey of the rest of the media will reveal that the general glorification of wealth, success and material goods is common. Thus it may be safely concluded that the media provides ample evidence that material success is preferable.
Third, there is the fact that many people pursue material goods at the expense of non-material goods. For example, people are willing to engage in degrading activities for material gain or fame. Reality television shows such as Fear Factor, Flavor of Love, the various versions of Survivor and similar shows make this quite evident. Magazines such as Maxim, Playboy, Playgirl, Penthouse and Hustler also make it clear that people are willing to engage in degrading behavior for the sake of money and fame. As another example, people are willing to sacrifice their physical and mental health in order to acquire money. In Japan, for example, people have been known to work themselves to death. In the United States, people are willing to work long hours and focus on their careers at the expense of their personal relationships in order to achieve material success. As a final example, people are quite willing to engage in immoral behavior for material success. People lie, cheat, steal and murder in order to gain material goods. Dictators throughout history ranging from Caesar through Hussein have been willing to employ the most terrible methods to secure their material power. These facts indicate that people greatly value material goods and, given the above argument, it would follow that these goods are preferable.
Fourth, people are willing to risk punishment in order to acquire material goods. Prisons are full of people, ranging from former corporate officers to petty thieves, who committed crimes in the attempt to make material gains or in search of material pleasures. Given that people will risk terrible punishments in order to gain material goods, it seems reasonable to believe that these goods are preferable.
Overall, given the arguments presented above, it seems eminently reasonable to accept that material goods are what people prefer and hence are preferable. What remains is showing how being unjust enables one to better acquire such goods. If it can, then that provides a rational motivation to be evil.
Consider, if you will, two people who are each starting their own software companies. One, Bad Bill is unjust. The other, Sweet Polly is just. Now, imagine a situation in which both Bill and Polly stumble across a lost laptop at a technology expo. This laptop of course, contains key trade secrets of another competing company. Polly will, of course, return the laptop to the rightful owners and will not look at any of the details- the information does not belong to her. Bill will, of course, examine the secrets and thus gain an edge on the competition. This will increase his immediate chance of success over the competition.
Now imagine what will happen if Sweet Polly continues along the path of justice. She will never take unfair advantage of her competition, she will never exploit unjust loopholes in the tax laws, and she will never put people out of work just to gain a boost to the value of her company’s stock. She will always offer the best products she can provide at a fair price.
In direct contrast, if Bad Bill follows his path of injustice, he will use every advantage he can gain to defeat his competition and maximize his profits. He will gladly exploit any tax loophole in order to minimize his expenses. He will put people out of work in order to boost the value of the company stock. His main concern will be getting as much as possible for his products and he will make them only good enough that they can be sold.
Given these approaches and the history of business in America, it is most likely that Sweet Polly’s company will fail. The best she can hope for is being a very, very small fish in a vast corporate ocean. In stark contrast, Bad Bill’s company will swell with profits and grow to be a dominant corporation.
In the real world, Bad Bill’s unjust approach could lead him to a bad end. However, even in reality the chance is rather slight-provided that Bill is smart and knows how to buy all the right people.
Naturally, more than a story is needed to make the general point that injustice is superior to justice. Fortunately a more formal argument can be provided.
The advantages of injustice are numerous but can be bundled into one general package: flexibility. Being unjust, the unjust person is not limited by the constraints of morality. If she needs to lie to gain an advantage, she can lie freely. If a bribe would serve her purpose, she can bribe. If a bribe would not suffice and someone needs to have a tragic “accident”, then she can see to it that the “accident” occurs. To use an analogy, the unjust person is like a craftsperson that has just the right tool for every occasion. Just as the well equipped craftsperson has a considerable advantage over a less well equipped crafts person, the unjust person has a considerable advantage over those who accept moral limits on their behavior.
It might be objected that the unjust person does face one major limit-she cannot act justly. While she cannot be truly just, she can, when the need arises, act justly-or at least appear to be acting justly. For example, if building an orphanage in Malaysia would serve her purpose better than exploiting those orphans in her sweat shop, then she would be free to build the orphanage. This broader range of options gives her clear edge-she can do everything the just person can do and much more. With her advantage she can easily get the material goods she craves-after all, she can do whatever it takes to get what she wants.
Turning to the real world, an examination of successful business people and other professionals (such as politicians) shows that being unjust is all but essential to being a success. For example, it is no coincidence that Microsoft is not only a top software company but also often regarded as being one of the most unjust. Now I turn to the just person.
If a person, such as Polly, is just then she must accept the limits of justice. To be specific, insofar as she is acting justly she must not engage in unjust acts. Taking an intuitive view of injustice, unjust acts would involve making use of unfair tactics such as lying, deception, bribes, threats and other such methods. Naturally, being just involves more than just not being unjust. After all, being just is like being healthy. Just as health is more than the absence of illness, being just is more than simply not being unjust. The just person would engage in positive behavior in accord with her justice-telling the truth, doing just deeds and so forth. So, the just person faces two major impediments. First, she cannot avail herself of the tools of injustice. This cuts down on her options and thus would limit her chances of material success. Second, she will be expending effort and resources in being just. These efforts and resources could be used instead to acquire material goods. To use an analogy, if success is like a race, then the just person is like someone who will stop or slow down during the race and help others. Obviously a runner who did this would be at a competitive disadvantage and so it follows that the just person would be at a disadvantage in the race of life.
In light of the above arguments it is evident that the life of evil is the preferable life. That is probably why evil is a growth industry and is always hiring.
No doubt, many people would read this and say: “Hey, that is not being evil! That is just doing what it takes to be a success!” Or, if you happen to be a Cheney fan : “Hey, that is not evil! That is just doing what it takes to stay safe!” But, consider this: the most seductive evil of all is the evil that people think is not evil at all.
While I am a philosopher, I am also (obviously enough) a person. While it is tempting to look at philosophical problems from a purely abstract vantage point (that of the academic philosopher) it also seems important to look at them as a person.
One problem I have thought about for quite some time is the question of why I should be good. Of course, this does raise the quetsion of what sort of good I should be. But, I’ll set that aside for now and just pretend that I know what good is so I can focus on why I should (or should not) be good.
One way to look at the problem is to see if I have a motivation to be good. Like most people, being harmed by others concerns me and provides some motivation to behave certain ways. So, to avoid being harmed by others I do have a psychological motivation to avoid being bad. Or, more honestly, to avoid being caught.
Of course, this motivation does not really move me. After all, if I accept that I am just good to avoid being punished, then I am motived by fear and that strikes me as a weakness. I would be acting from the motivation of a potential victim and as a pragmatic coward. I would, as Aristotle might say, be ruled by the fear of pain. Staying on the path because I fear that others will whip me like a errant donkey hardly seems like a noble and proper life for a human being. As such, I need a better motivation. Also, honesty compels me to admit that this is also a matter of pride.
I’ve never really tried being truly evil. Really. Of course, if I had, I certainly would not be such a fool as to admit it. But, I have had moral failings. I’ve also done good things. Based on these experiences, I am inclined to agree with Aristotle and Plato: being good is like being healthy-you feel better because you are better. Being bad is like being sick: you feel bad because you are bad. Some of this might be psychological and social conditioning. However, it all cannot be-for in some cases my moral views lead me against what I have been conditioned to accept.
Of course, someone might say that being good because it makes me healthy is just being pragmatic. In a way, that is a fair charge. The same charge could be leveled against me in regards to physical health: I exercise and try to otherwise take care of myself because doing so makes me fit and healthy. That seems sensible and right. After all, I am choosing what is objectively better for me for the sake of being better. I am choosing what is right because it is right. Or so I hope.
Someone might say that I am just doing what I want to do. However, I am not just doing what I want to do-I am doing what will actually make me better. To chose what is best because it is best seems to be a proper choice. Making that choice to avoid being whipped like a donkey is not a proper choice, but an act of fear.
So, what about people who are evil? If they do so because they give in to temptation, then they have not really made a moral choice. They have simply been lured off the path by their weakness. But what about someone who knowingly walks off the path, choosing to be evil? Clearly, they would have made a bad choice (by definition). But, they would be making a choice and perhaps acting in a way more proper to a human than those who just follow the path out of fear of the whips. These people might be among the most dangerous people of all-they would be hard to deter with punishments or lure with temptations.
But, a clever person might say, do not the people who stay on the path because of the whippings or leave the path due to temptations also make choices? On one hand, the obvious answer is that they do: they chose to be ruled by weakness (cowardice or lust, for example). On the other hand, it could be argued that they are not choosing. Rather, they are being ruled by their weaknesses-it is their fear or desires that drive them on or off the path; not an act of conscious will.
I’m not saying anything original here-just hashing through this problem.