The Problem of Evil (part 2)
I attempted to address this issue before in a limited sense. I will revisit this theme with the intention of providing a fuller, more comprehensive treatment of the view of the subject.
My older and brother and I were once having a discussion wherein I described someone or something as evil. My brother replied by asking me if this was an example of “pure evil”. I asked what he meant by the phrase and he replied something to the effect of whether there was such a thing as pure evil or if these examples could all be explained by other considerations such as people acting narrowly within their self interests to the detriment of others and if we were simply using the term “evil” as a conceptual shortcut to address actions that are not appropriate from a societal standpoint.
I found the idea fascinating from the standpoint of a philosophical brain teaser. Leaving aside any thought of justification for bad actions (I don’t think any person within the parameters of normal ethics would seek to defend the actions of Adolf Hitler or Charles Manson), if it is possible to explain all the actions that we regard evil, does this have any implications for the way in which we respond to such people and actions? Specifically I’m asking if our demonization of such people and actions results in morally inappropriate responses by individuals and societies that regard themselves as good.
The best example I can think of in this regard is the shooting of Trayyvon Martin which has divided the nation with both sides invoking what they see as a moral standpoint. While it is possible to argue the facts of the case without discussing or considering the racial and social aspects and while I’m certain there would have been proponents of both sides even if Trayyvon had been white, it is an inescapable fact that the issue as presented has divided the nation along racial lines. Is this an indication that black Americans are more moral that whites or vice versa? Or does this mean that whites and black people have vastly different and irreconcilable views of morality? The answer on these is a resounding no and for further reading I would recommend Stephen Pinker’s work on this subject. The point that Pinker makes is one that can certainly be debated but for the purposes of my argument I am going to accept it as true so that I can move on to my next point.
It is my contention that the reason that this case can be racially divisive with both sides appealing to morality is because for many, a young black male in a hoodie is the very physical embodiment of that which our laws are supposed to protect us against. It is an undeniable fact that in-group morality is regarded as something entirely different than the ethics we use in deciding what to do with people outside the in group and for many Americans, Trayyvon Martin is definitely part of the out-group. In much the same way that society demonizes other groups and would dispense with due process and normal humane considerations, with young black males in our society the presumptions of innocence seems to be a mere formality. And while black Americans can look at this case and immediately identify with Trayyvon Martin (“That could have been my son”), other people seem to be more apt to sympathize with George Zimmerman. Once you decide which side you want to defend, contriving an argument to fit your conclusion is as easy as playing dodge ball against blind kids.
My main concern with the dehumanizing nature of regarding certain people and things as evil (terrorists, sexual predators, racial minorities, etc.) is that people who are truly innocent are nevertheless tainted and are held to a different standard, in fact if not de jure. Are there any innocent people incarcerated in Guatanamo Bay? If so, does anyone care? Should convicted sex offenders be allowed to live anywhere once they are released from prison? And for that matter why do we set up laws restricting where sex offenders may live but living next to a convicted murderer is apparently just fine? I’ve never been raped or murdered but I’m not entirely sold on the idea that the former is worse than the latter.
I initially intended to wrap up this blog post with a nice tidy summation but I have the feeling that I’m not finished with this subject. I throw this out inviting comment.