Beyond Good and Evil

The mobs posing with their victims after lynchings do not seem aware that they are engaged in evil. They seem proud of themselves. Most people need to see themselves as acting righteously before they engage in evil. In fact, destroying evil is the most common rationale for engaging in evil. Unfortunately, since evil remains nonetheless real, a bland nonjudgmentalism isn't a strong enough defense against it.

The mobs posing with their victims after lynchings do not seem aware that they are engaged in evil. They seem proud of themselves. Most people need to see themselves as acting righteously before they engage in evil. In fact, destroying evil is the most common rationale for engaging in evil. Unfortunately, since evil remains nonetheless real, a bland nonjudgmentalism isn’t a strong enough defense against it.

Years ago I did a small study of lynchings in America, after watching a small town work through some shabby political convulsions. At the time, I still believed it was within our reach for democracies to be governed by reason. One thing that struck me as I looked through old documents was attitudes of mob members in posed photos with their dead victims. The people often seem quite proud of themselves, puffed up with feelings of righteousness. They do not exhibit any sense that they are engaged in evil. Quite the contrary—they seem certain that they are engaged in the destruction of evil. Having heard rumors about the wrong-doing of the victims, getting caught up in the passion of “setting things right,” the mobs were all in with evil.

We will never figure out the mess we are in without understanding such moral inversions. Such an inversion is one of the themes of Huckleberry Finn. Twain said of the novel that it was “a book of mine where a sound heart and a deformed conscience come into collision and conscience suffers defeat.” What Twain calls Huck’s conscience is his conventional sense of right and wrong received from both the formal and informal teaching of the society he grew up in. Growing up in the South before the Civil War, Huck has been taught that slavery is right and proper, and that he has an obligation to return Jim, a runaway slave, to Miss Watson, Jim’s rightful owner. When Huck hears Jim making plans to free the rest of his family once he is out of slavery, Huck is attacked by pangs of guilt:

Well, I can tell you it made me all over trembly and feverish, too, to hear him, because I begun to get it through my head that he WAS most free—and who was to blame for it? Why, ME. I couldn’t get that out of my conscience, no how nor no way. It got to troubling me so I couldn’t rest; I couldn’t stay still in one place. It hadn’t ever come home to me before, what this thing was that I was doing. But now it did; and it stayed with me, and scorched me more and more. I tried to make out to myself that I warn’t to blame, because I didn’t run Jim off from his rightful owner; but it warn’t no use, conscience up and says, every time, “But you knowed he was running for his freedom, and you could a paddled ashore and told somebody.” That was so—I couldn’t get around that noway. That was where it pinched.

Huck decides to “go to hell” for his friend, and he allows his moral sense to trump his conscience, but he never manages to critique the conventional wisdom of his society, to see that the moral code it has adopted is objectively wrong.

Hannah Arendt saw something quite similar but even more ominous while watching the trial in Jerusalem of the Nazi Adolph Eichmann. Like Huck, Eichmann has no sense of doing wrong. But unlike Huck, Eichmann suffers no cognitive dissonance. He is not tortured by a conflict between society’s abstract laws and the concrete suffering of a particular person. Arendt is struck by the Eichmann’s inability or unwillingness to think about what he is doing. He has allowed the social bureaucracy he works in to settle questions of right and wrong, and he only repeats the slogans and rationales without question—indeed, without discernible intelligence.

She coined the phrase “the banality of evil” to evoke the way that stupidity might be enough of an explanation for the engagement in evil of bureaucrats operating in systems that define good as evil and evil as good. It would be comforting to learn that Eichmann was demonic, delighting in darkness. It’s troubling to see him as ordinary, feeling that he was taking the wise and prudent steps to succeed, to make a name for himself, pleasing his peers and superiors. He thinks entirely in cliches and the “official language” through which bureaucrats murdered people without ever mentioning it. He contradicts himself from moment to moment without apparent awareness of the clear import of what he says, caught up in whatever words help him feel okay about himself and with no effort at getting to truth, by looking for coherence, by assessing statements in the light of our experience. He is content to obey the law. He may be operating within a morally inverted universe, but he still uses the language of morality, and he can even quote Kant and discuss, somewhat confusedly, “the categorical imperative.”

Orwell saw the close relationship between the corruption of language and the success of evil in the 1940s. It was an ancient insight even then. “If language is not correct,” Confucius had said, “then what is said is not what is meant; if what is said is not what is meant, then what must be done remains undone; if this remains undone, morals and art will deteriorate; if justice goes astray, the people will stand about in helpless confusion. Hence there must be no arbitrariness in what is said. This matters above everything.” Such insight have been common among the wise of every generation.

And yet the folly continues and gets worse. Ours is the first civilization in history to attempt to get by without a basis in shared morality. It was, after all, theories of good and evil that undergirded the great atrocities in history. Wouldn’t we be better off to abandon the moral certainties and instead adopt a somewhat passionless lack of anything but toleration? The experiment has been underway for some decades now. We now live in the age of ideology, in which for many good and evil are social constructs we should leave behind.

A team of sociologists from Notre Dame who studied the moral lives young adults in America a few years ago were troubled by much of what they found. What had been abandoned included “epistemological foundations, certainty, reason, universalism” and what had been embraced included “uncertainty, difference, fluidity, ambiguity, multivocality, self-construction, changing identities, particularity, historical finitude, localism, audience reception, perspectivalism” and so forth. They discovered that the culture had become “democratized and vulgarized” with “simplified versions of Nietzsche, Foucault, and Derrida” everywhere evident. “By the time it reached the American hoi polloi, postmodernism had become a simple-minded ideology presupposing the cultural construction of everything, individualistic subjectivism, soft ontological antirealism, and absolute moral relativism.”

People who don’t believe in fundamental truths do not become great critical thinkers. If there is no moral truth, what would be the point of unmasking fundamental assumptions? “Who am I to judge?” asked one of the young research subjects.”I mean back then, if that’s what you believed [that slavery is acceptable] and that’s what happened, you know that’s your right, if you thought it was right at that time.” He’s unwilling to say that slavery is evil. Such a judgment would be wrong, he feels. He thinks, unclearly, in the cliches he’s been given.

Moral thinking is a conundrum for many of today’s youth. Nothing, it seems, can be known. Another young person discussed terrorism like this: “I don’t know that people, like terrorists, what they do? It’s not wrong to them. They’re doing the ultimate good. They’re just like, they’re doing the thing that they think is the best thing they could possibly do and so they’re doing good. I had this discussion with a friend recently and she’s like, ‘But they’re still murdering tons of people, that just has to be wrong.’ And I was like, ‘But do we have any idea if it is actually wrong to murder tons of people?’ Like what does that even mean?”

We are far enough into our civilizational experiment to see something of where it leads. Our better artists have been providing help. Terrence Malick portrayed in his powerful 1973 film Badlands a couple of banal killers. The film follows the career of a young man given to senseless murders, off on an adventure with the girl next door, both of whom are reminiscent of Eichmann in their careless and self-centered way, “going with” whatever cliches or songs or other flotsam drift through their weakly ordered minds:

Like Eichmann, they are less demonic than stupid—though what they do remains evil, for those of us still engaged with what is real.

The cinematography is gorgeous and the music is hauntingly beautiful. Caught up in the aesthetics of moments, the quite postmodern lovers drift through an often pleasant fantasy, neither tortured by conscience nor concerned with the law, somewhere beyond good and evil.

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