Eeeeeeeeevil

Oddly enough this is not yet another post about Amazon.  You want to beat that dead horse, you go right ahead.  You can haz beat horse without me.

This is a post on the nature of evil.  Since I was accused (grin) of being a philosopher (okay, I did consider it as a degree but you know, weirdly, no one pays you to sit on the street corner and spin theories) you might think I’ve decided to embrace it, but no.  This is still a writer’s blog and I’m still a writer, and this is on the nature of evil in fiction.

Someone commented on my post that most – or all, I think this person said (snort) – the evil in fiction these days is some sort of corporation against which the plucky heroine goes up, single handed.

I suppose that’s true… if the only thing you read is The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo which was written by a man who willed all the profits to the communist party.  (I KNOW you’re shocked.  I am too, what can I say?)

I will confess there is a lot of stuff out there about evil corporations against which the plucky heroine fights.  This is because until recently the submissions were all strained through gatekeepers who frankly had no more knowledge of what they were doing in business or what business was for than my cat does.  Perhaps less, since my cat has no ulterior motives, besides getting tuna.  These people were using their job for a massive corporation to reward those they agreed with, punish those who didn’t, redistribute money accordingly, and “educate” the reading public.  Of course it never occurred to them publishing was a peculiar business at a peculiar point in time, where they could control both the distribution and (through it, because if you’re not on the shelves) the sales, and where accounting has always been at best loose, so that their playing of favorites and complete lack of regard for what the consumer wanted NEVER came back to bite them in the fleshy part of the back.  And because this never occurred to them, corporations and those who worked for them MUST all work like they did in their publishing corporations, and therefore they made perfect and convincing villains to them.

Because the rest of us didn’t necessarily work for corporations and because most of us knew how business can and does bite when you behave that way, most of us found this less than convincing.  (I remember being in a workshop with someone who submitted a story in which this man was running from corporate assassins.  It was never explained WHY and the editor running the workshop saw nothing wrong with this.  Both author and editor looked at me like I was a lunatic when I pointed out most corporations don’t have assassins – though I worked for one, long ago, who had corporate escorts of both genders.  Don’t go there – and even if they did, they had to have some reason to spend money sending them after someone.  In their minds corporation=evil, no explanation needed.)

In my case, I was bored with this by the mid nineties, and stopped reading SEVERAL mystery series once I figured out the solution to every crime was “business eeeeeevil” and “corporation eeeeevil.”

I’m not particularly fond of “government eeeevil” either, though of course I believe it is, or rather – it is an unaccountable power, which has to be limited to keep from being evil.  But I’m not going to give you a pass, whatever my personal beliefs, if in the universe of your book someone is evil because they work for the government.  The sweetest of my nephews is a government bureaucrat, and I really don’t see him becoming evil any time soon.  Sarcastic, occasionally, but not evil.

The other thing I’m not fond of is what I call “Moustache Twirling Syndrome.”  The villain is eeeeevil because he’s an eeeevil dude and does eeeeeevil things.  He eats babies for breakfast and cooked his own grandmother for lunch.  Why?  Because he’s eeeeeeeeeeeeeevil.

As a subset of this “he was good but is now eeeeeevil because he went mad” is … insane.  And lazy.  And a cop out.  Also, I don’t think it ever happens, but I’ll get into that later.

Oh, and “he’s eeevil because society made him so” is dead.  That dog won’t hunt.  If you want to sell that book – other than to our blinkered gatekeepers, most of whom were last awake or off opiates back in the seventies – I suggest a time machine.  Most of us have long since come to the conclusion that no matter how wretched your beginnings some people turn out more than all right.  So if your character went to the bad, there’s more to it than that.  I’m not saying his circumstances (duh) or moral upbringing aren’t to blame, but just “society made him bad” won’t cut it.

Ditto for the villains religious convictions; racial prejudices; or political beliefs.  Even when something like that is evil in itself, evil is not usually that black and white (pardon the pun.  Today is national pun day) and it doesn’t come that easily.

So… how does evil work?  Don’t you need evil in your work?

Well… for the type of thing I write, you do need evil or injustice to be conquered.  This is because I’m not satisfied with writing grey sludge in which, at the end, everyone is equally good or bad or … cheese! Lasers!  Whatever!

I suggest you study theological writings or the works of older philosophers (all the way to Greece) on the nature of morality and evil, and how evil arises.  Or… read history, particularly the wretched, wretched history of the twentieth century.

If you’re not willing to do that work, I’ll give you the short version: there are two things from which most of the really great evil of humanity arises.  One of them is the desire to do good.  The other is the desire to fit in.

But… but… but… greed!  Doesn’t evil come from greed?  Don’t people want to achieve lots of power, steal tons of money and then roll in it, like Uncle Scrooge?  Well…  Uh.  I wouldn’t object to that except for the rolling in, because ew, who knows where that money has been.

The thing is, mostly greed is not an end itself.  Wanting to have a lot of money is not usually brought on because you really like paper and metal, or you want to look at it.  It’s also not brought on because you want to take all the money and make everyone else have none (this idea, anyway, is based on the finite pie idea of economics, which, like most of what Marx ever wrote, is a crock) or even because you want to have all the luxuries.  Oh, sure, the luxuries are nice, but most of us have an upper limit to what we’re willing to do for them.  Will one or two people really kill for a slightly better grade of sheets?  Possibly.  But it’s not something most of us can empathize with, and therefore not something that translates well to fiction.

Greed is usually a means to power.  I.e., have a lot of money or stuff = have a lot of power.  And whether this is true or not, most people who crave power over others tell themselves they’re doing it for the good of others.

So it comes back to that: the desire to do good and the desire to fit in.  Most of the editors, for instance, who perverted the writing field beyond all market-forces reason were doing so for “good” motives: i.e. to “educate” the public or (gag) to “raise public consciousness.”  Occasionally, a few, might have been doing it to fit in with the other editors (and a few writers) in the cool kids club.  But most of them were doing it for the absolute “good.”

But… you say, sitting there…  Don’t most people do things for those two reasons?  Well, of course.  Apes – not just humans – are inherently moral (in the sense they’re prejudiced FOR fair play – ask Dave Freer) and inherently social, so these are basic drives of ours.

The difference – and if you read Romeo and Juliet this will make sense – is a matter of degree.  Evil usually comes from the desire to do good, coupled with a lack of perspective about the limitations of reality, coupled with something in you that pulls out all the stops – the type of drive that turned inward could make you a saint, but turned outward…

Say you love birds.  You really, really love birds.  You have nursed countless birds to health.  You give all your money to bird foundations.  How is this bad?

Well, for one, if you’re giving your entire salary to bird charities, who is supporting you?  Do you see how you’ve become a burden on the family and friends who look after you?

But, you say, that’s not an evil.  Uh… Think about the stuff they could do for themselves.  Think about how much harder they have to work so they can support themselves and you.  Then think again.

Okay, okay, you say.  You can see how this would make you a sort of minor domestic evil, and perhaps a good candidate to become a murder victim, but…

But suppose you’re the same bird-loving schmuck, walking around in a wheeze of feathers, spending all your money on seed, but you inherit a company from your uncle Gander.  No, let’s say it’s a controlling interest in a corporation.  You find out what this corporation makes are bird feeders.  And you work with engineers, make your bird feeders the best money can create.  Only one problem.  You’re selling them too expensively and they don’t move.  So you discount them to undercut all the other guys (!) and… go under, taking with your company the jobs of thousands of employees and all the savings of your trustees.  Or you – since this is fictional – deploy corporate spies to figure out how the other companies build bird houses so cheeply.  Or you – sabotage the other guys’ factories, so your superior, better-for-birds birdhouses will sell.  (If you use corporate assassins, though, unless your company is set in Russia or China, we can’t be friends any more.)

Now, suppose you’re the same bird-loving schmuck, but instead of inheriting a controlling interest in a corporation, your third cousin twice removed, Rudolph, is the ruler of the small and isolated country of Upthere, in the mountains of Europe.  He dies, and you’re next in line.  All of a sudden, you are in charge of a kingdom with a couple million subjects, an industry consisting of painted clogs, and a standing army of a couple hundred thousand (bear with me.)

You immediately, on your first day in office, write laws forbidding the killing or exploiting of any birds, in the fastness of your kingdom.  It takes some weeks before you realize that many people in fact lived from the chickens in their backyard, and because chickens are birds, people are starving.  Worse, the paint used to paint the clogs is made from eggs and because getting eggs is “exploiting” the birds, clogs can no longer be painted.

At this point, you can, of course, back off.  But the thing is, if you back off you’re sure that people will start shooting innocent sparrows.  So you double down.  You make it impossible to use even old feathers…  When people disobey, you arrest them.  Soon your persecution against the Bird-Exploiters is in full sway, and you’re censuring books that talk about making pillows out of feathers.  And then you find yourself in a very short time ruling over a starving nation, where people can’t help but obey you because you have the army and it’s too difficult to move (borders can be closed, besides most people for some reason don’t like to move away from what they know.)

Okay, the above examples might be influenced by the fact that I think while any group of humans is suspect, to really screw up things you need a government – otoh, keep in mind governments DO have armies, and often also assassins, and also that while it’s unlikely anyone would want to distort all of a kingdom in the name of birds, people have done it for crazier, less concrete reasons: in the name of equality and fraternity, for instance, of which no one has seen hide or hair.

But – but – if you must make a government the villain, keep in mind that it’s easier to do evil when you’re trying to do good and also that – WWII notwithstanding (or even the cold war) – not all evil comes with spiffy uniforms and goosetepping.  It’s easy enough to do evil with a writing implement and an official order.

This is not to say your evil people shouldn’t be truly evil.  There’s nothing as scary as those who think they’re doing good.  What I mean is that they can’t simply be evil because they work for a corporation; or because they are in government; or even because they live on the street and wee on themselves.  You MUST create believable villains – at least you must if you don’t want me rolling my eyes at you – and that demands they get where they are rationally.

People who want to see the world burn exist, but there aren’t many of them – and most of them aren’t rational enough to PASS anyway.  (Except perhaps natural psychopaths, but that’s a complex and still being researched subject.) – but most of us – yes, you TOO – can be led to extreme evil by our desire to do extreme good.  And that makes a very satisfying villain.

Oh, yeah, I’m running an interactive workshop over at Mad Genius Club for the next five (maybe seven) weekends.  Come on down and join the fun.

66 responses to “Eeeeeeeeevil

  1. I love your take on this! And it makes me feel better about a WIP I have in which I have a good guy (god) trying to save the world from a bad guy (god) who is also trying to save the world. I wondered if having the bad guy driven by desire to save the world would result in eye rolling, who cares WHICH one wins?

  2. I’d love to read a book where the hero is a plucky businessman, going against a well-meaning but extremely inefficient welfare state.

    • you know… in the no-gatekeeper day… it could happen.

      • Analog used to run a lot of those stories — though usually it was more on the order of “plucky entrepreneur outwits stodgy bureaucrats and greedy corporations.” But that’s pretty close, really. Even though I agreed with the sentiment I eventually got tired of them. I don’t know if Dr. Schmidt still runs them or not.

    • Scott Harrison

      Atlas Shrugged – Ayn Rand
      High Justice – Jerry Pournelle
      Exiles to Glory – Jerry Pournelle
      Pallas – L. Neil Smith

  3. Brilliant! Agree wholeheartedly. Thank you for articulating it so well.

  4. The economics thing – I’m pretty sure it is possible to create a finite pie: You just ban / persecute the creative and industrious. See Soviet Russia, Mao, N Korea, Zimbabwe etc.

    Beyond that I tend to agree. Consider the Irish Potato Famine. I don’t think anyone in charge was evil intentionally. They just didn’t understand what was going on and why all their acts – each of which was on its own pretty insignifcant – caused the death of millions.

    Although there is also the example of the Khmer Rouge. I don’t understand the motivations of Pol Pot & his henchmen but I think at least some of them were clearly evil.

    • Yes, Francis, I confess I don’t understand the motivations either, but first you have to throw in the culture, which is pretty alien to western minds. It could have been “for the good of the land” or something like that and to us it would be a “uh?” but still good FOR THEM. And I suspect they thought it was.

  5. IMO the Khmer Rouge were the “we are creating a better world no matter what it costs” type of evil beings.

    Evil yes, but in their own minds they were doing what was necessary to create a better world.

    The “ends justify the means” is something that plenty of “evil” people have used to “excuse” their actions,

  6. Sometimes, as you show in Birdland, evil is just a natural outcome of the law of unintended consequences.

  7. Scott Harrison

    I agree with your desire to do good and desire to fit in. To me however, the defining characteristic is ignoring/violating others rights, possibly to do the above. Another way of looking at it is that evil is the violation of boundaries for whatever reason.

    • David Weber commented that one hallmark of evil is eliminating freedom of choices.

      IE, the evil person knows the “right way” and works to prevent people from chosing the “wrong way”.

      • Oh yeah, desire to control others is one major way things go wrong, but it starts from desire to do good and desire to fit in. Then it goes bad. Fast. Another way it goes bad, which ties in with ignoring rights is “treating people as things.”

        • Scott Harrison

          Many actions stem from the desire to do good and/or the desire to fit in. In my view the action becomes evil when the perpetrator decides that he/she/it knows what is good for other people better than they do and forces them to act his/her/its way. This does discount those that just don’t care about other people and will act to get what they want irregardles of the effects on other people. This however is also a transgression against the other people’s boundaries.

  8. I must admit a fondness for the mustache twirlers. I agree they should have a purpose beyond evil-for-evil’s-sake, however… What I really can’t stand is whiney, self-pitying evil villains. Compared to them the mustache twirlers, wallowing in their evil, relishing it even, are a delight.

  9. I am VERY surprised that you did not trot out this quote by C. S. Lewis during your delightful essay:

    “Of all tyrannies a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victim may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated, but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”

    In my writing, the worst villains are motivated by “ends justify the means” thinking. Ferinstance, those corruptible humans will fill the galaxy with their immorality if they aren’t killed off first.

    You also cited unchecked power as a source of evil. And I believe Lord Acton had something to say about that.

    • Daniel Webster had another fitting quote:
      Good intentions will always be pleaded for every assumption of authority. It is hardly too strong to say that the Constitution was made to guard the people against the dangers of good intentions. There are men in all ages who mean to govern well, but they mean to govern. They promise to be good masters, but they mean to be masters.

  10. Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six describes this type of evil to a t. Environmentalists, convinced they must eliminate much of humanity in order to save the planet, create a plague they plan to use. Of course there’s a vaccine for them, for the “right thinking people.”

    Evil people rarely think of themselves or what they do as evil.

  11. Well, the thing is, most evil (in my opinion) is done in the name of whatever theology the evil doer believes. This has justified most all the wars in the last 1,000 years or so. So, yeah, forcing others to conform to one’s idea of “good” is generally evil. Don’t believe me, consider the GOP these days. And I’m a conservative of many years standing.

    • Hey Marty, you’ve given me an idea for a great book. Heroic Religious Folks fighting against people who want to improve the world by destroying Religion (including anybody who believes in Religion). [Very Very Big Evil Grin]

    • Not going into politics, but WTH? Marty, what is the GOP trying to make people conform with? The poor dumb bastards can’t conform to each other! Fear the people in power, not those out of it. I fortunately am not a conservative. I’d seek the overturn of most politics in the last 100 years.

      • Actually, I was thinking of Santorum telling women to not use contraception. Although, Limbaugh’s insult was pretty astounding also.

        As for being a conservative; I’ll simply say the only Democrat I ever voted for president was my first presidential vote; and it was for John F. Kennedy. And that was primarily because I liked Lydon Johnson much better than the Republican VP candidate.

        • Marty – Santorum never said that. And I suspect you aren’t on top of the Limbaugh controversy, either, from your comment. Which suggests an other definition of evil, as practiced by our MSM: telling the public what somebody MEANT rather than what they actually SAID. Which is typically a problem because they generally get it wrong.

    • Marty,

      If you want to talk real-world evil, I’ll take the one that’s currently kissing up to the people who say their religion means that women need to be covered in a burlap sack lest they inflame the poor helpless men, and women who don’t want the burlap sack should be killed for “shaming” their men, and… You know, the the ones currently running the show in the USA and many other Western countries. Who suddenly stopped decrying the Taliban abuses of human rights on… oh, about September 12, 2001.

      Beside that the loud – admittedly frequently obnoxious – religious minority in the GOP is nothing. Even the ones who are most obnoxious aren’t talking about killing you for not belonging to their denomination. The silence from the other side about the religious groups currently killing people for not belonging to their denomination is rather too telling.

      Oh, and “conservative” these days means “in favor of the current status quo”.

    • Oh Lord you truly have drunk the Kool Aide haven’t you?

      Conservatism, true conservatism, is about allowing all people to have choices. Whether it be religion (I’m Southern Baptist btw, but you’re welcome to practice, or not practice however you choose.) profession or education. It’s liberalism, a religion in and of itself, which is trying to impose a morality on us — theirs.

      You remind me of the nitwit commenter I had on a piece I wrote about hunting for the Daily Caller. This twit told me that by asking her not to impose her anti-hunting version of morality on _me_ I was imposing my morality on _her._

      She then went on to tell me I had some deep-seated belief I was in denial about that she was right.

      Any GOP candidate who stands up and intends to enforce any version of morality on the nation I would oppose as vociferously as I oppose the evil man — yes I said it, and yes he is — who currently occupies the White House.

      Frankly, I haven’t seen such, except from a few fringe nitwits — except in the Democrat party where they want me to pay for a 30 year-old Georgetown law student’s rubbers out of some sort of weird idea contraception has something to do with health or insist on destroying entire industries in the name of “health.”

      The GOP has its issues, but I haven’t seen nearly as much of that sort of nonsense out of them.

      Have there been religious wars over the centuries? Certainly. But let me clue you in on a little secret since you’ve obviously not studied history — the crusades weren’t started by the Catholic Church. They were a delayed response to Muslim aggression. Ever hear of the Reconquista? That was Sarah’s ancestors taking Portugal and Spain back from the Moors. Who, by the way were not provoked into invading the area, it was just there and the could.

      • Chris French

        “[...]except in the Democrat party where they want me to pay for a 30 year-old Georgetown law student’s rubbers out of some sort of weird idea contraception has something to do with health[...]”

        Inasmuch as my significant other is a female who has to take birth-control pills in order to keep a serious medical condition in check: Might I suggest you do some more research on the uses of “birth-control” medications beyond basic birth-control before making such patently-false, never mind thoroughgoingly-ignorant, statements?

        • Yes, Chris, but here’s the thing, your SO doesn’t expect anyone to pay for hers. Yes, in rare cases, it does, but this is NOT what’s being pushed.

        • Never mind Chris that the Catholic Church has no problems with valid medical reasons for “birth control methods”.

          Never mind Chris that the Federal Government attempted to force Catholic Schools/Hospitals to provide “abortion” benefits.

        • Chris, I agree that there are many “female problems” (life threatening ones!) that birth control pills are effective at treating. So does the Roman Catholic church, which fully supports such treatment, and has clauses in their insurance programs to allow such treatment.

          I have a lot of sympathy for women who need the pill to treat these disorders. Been there, done that. (Though, interestingly, for me, being on the pill did *nothing* to stop the cysts forming. So it’s not a magic bullet, either).

          However, I know of *no* problems of a life-threatening nature *to the mother* that demand use of a morning after pill. Life-threatening to the baby, OTOH, is of course the *point* of the morning after pill.

          (BTW, Lin waves at the raccoon in the kilt and takes him and Chris French to the Diner to introduce them)

        • In the case where the pill is being used to treat another condition it’s primary focus is not contraception now is it?

          But let me rephrase, contraception very rarely has anything to do with actual health. And then only in cases where pregnancy might actually be dangerous to the mother.

      • “Conservatism, true conservatism, is about allowing all people to have choices.”

        Exactly. That’s what I believe.

        “Democrat party where they want me to pay for a 30 year-old Georgetown law student’s rubbers”

        I agree, we shouldn’t have to pay for rubbers for anyone who can afford them. On the other hand, I do think many in the GOP think, Santorum in particular, imposing a requirement of no contraception is OK. It’s not. It completely violates the principals of conservatism.

        “you’ve obviously not studied history”

        Wrong. I’ve been reading history for probably longer than one with such a shallow grasp of it has been alive.

        You’re also wrong about the crusades. They were primarily a device to retake the “Holy Land” from the Caliphate; and were very much in keeping with the idea of re-uniting the Roman Empire. In fact, one of the crusades resulted in the sacking of Constantinople, the only time it was captured prior to 1453; even the Mongols didn’t capture it..

        Moors presumably, “by the way were not provoked into invading the area, it was just there and the could.”

        Wrong again. The moors (a Christian name for Muslim) conquered the Spanish peninsula because of Mohammad’s exhortation to spread his religion to the unbelievers. The reconquest of the Spanish peninsula was a direct result of the desire to restore the “Holy Roman Empire.”

        As for Kool-aid, no I haven’t drunk any lately. I do remember the source of that aphorism though. Do you?

    • This is the stupidest thing I’ve read today. A rapist is motivated by religion? The crooks running fraudulent “green energy” companies are motivated by religion?

      Most of the wars of the past thousand years were religious? This suggests you don’t know any history at all. What religion was the Vietnam War based on? Or the Congo civil war? Or the Korean War? Or the two World Wars? Or the Chaco War? Or the American Civil War? Or the War of the Triple Alliance? Or the Crimean War? Or Napoleon’s wars? Or the Seven Years’ War? Or the War of the Austrian Succession?

      • Vietnam and the Korean war were the result of Christians not wanting the “godless” communists to take over a “Christian” country. WW II was against the Aryan Nation. The American Civil Was was quite simply a desire to impose Northern values and morality, i.e., Christianity, on the South. Other examples abound, the War of the Roses in England, the “troubles” in Northern Ireland, the 100 years war, the Crusades. As I said before I read history for recreation and to learn something. I don’t, usually, attack someone’s viewpoint on history, even when I’m personally attacked. Can you say the same?

        • For now I’ll ignore the godless communists and aryan nation wars and concentrate on the one that had me spitting coffee over my keyboard in disbelief.
          The American Civil War was a desire for the North to impose christianity on the South, Really? What history did you find that in? Since the South was generally believed to be much more religous than the North (and almost all religion in the South was christian) and trying to wrap my mind around that. The vast majority of Southerners went to church every Sunday, much more so than the urbanized and culturally diversified Northerners. Ever hear the term, ‘good Southern Baptist?’
          There is a common arguement that the civil war was over slavery, or that it was over states rights. But this is the first time I have ever heard anyone argue it was a religous war.

          • bearcat, I think the intention is to make the blog devolve into political name calling, so people don’t have to THINK about the issues and therefore dismiss the whole thing as “oh, it’s just partisan.” See this person’s “non apology” — I think we are in fact dealing with an agent provocateur. It’s the only thing that explains such blatant a-historicity and mendacity. Just skip past.

            • Marty Halvorson

              I realized just now that you have a very closed mind. I am not an “agent provocateur.” You didn’t like my “non apology,” fine. I’ll get right to the point. The first post was an honest attempt to illustrate the point you had made in “Eeeeevil.” In that post, not knowing otherwise, since there’s no FAQ or other link to the “rules,” I offered an example that used a word you obviously did not think belonged. For that single word (GOP), I was viciously attacked by someone who neither knows me or what I believe. When I responded as graciously as I could manage, I was attacked again, and told to “Knock. It. Off.”

              You post today “Art, Politics and Meaning” convinced me that you just don’t get it. I know I said I was just going to STFU, but being attacked by Sarah Hoyt is not acceptable, and I must say cowardly. If you have something unpleasant to say about me, feel free. But, I expect to hear directly, not by your telling someone to do it for you, and not by your snide response to a comment by someone other than me.

              With this, I really will just Shut The Fuck UP!

  12. “Well, the thing is, most evil (in my opinion) is done in the name of whatever theology the evil doer believes.”

    Once you recognize that there are a lot of theologies that don’t have Gods, you might even have an argument.

    • Thanks. I assumed that most readers of this blog were intelligent enough to understand what was obvious.

      • Marty, buddy, your only warning. Sarah has asked me to deliver it. I responded to you in the political arena because you started it — which was in direct violation of the rules here — and I received a very private slap for having done so. However, this is not a political blog. Either stay on topic and take your political crap elsewhere or you will force Sarah to do something she rarely does — ban you.

        One warning, sir, one hopes you’re intelligent enough to heed it — Knock. It. Off.

        • I am, and I will.

          Nevertheless. The rules are not obviously available, at least I can’t find them. But, being warned means I will avoid commenting on any topic that interests me, and just STFU.

          For what it’s worth, from my viewpoint, I was on topic. Perhaps I mistook openness as a given. The example in my first post, was just that, an example that I thought illustrated my point. Which many here obviously missed: Beliefs allow one to condone or practice what others consider evil. The fact that Patrick choose to attack me based on his belief about an example, is not what I consider polite discourse. If fact, it illustrates my point much better than the example.

          Sarah,
          I hope you read this and all my replies to Patrick. I subscribed to your blog, and read it regularly because I found what you have to say about things I’m interested in, usually, quite insightful. I’m not a writer, nor do I ever intend to be a writer, so most of your blogs on writing I skip (although sometimes interesting). This post caught my attention because it seemed as though you had captured that which results in evil, and (I must admit) one of my hot buttons is the evil done in the name of theology (of whatever flavor). Should you choose to ban me, I’ll continue to live my life according to my rules (which BTW includes discussion of political topics).

  13. Okay, i’m going to make another suggestion. I’m going to get all Buddhist on you and suggest that both of your kinds of roots of evil arise from “duhkha”, the frustration that things are not just the way you want them, followed by trying to force other people to behave the way you want them too.

  14. “Well, the thing is, most evil (in my opinion) is done in the name of whatever theology the evil doer believes.”

    If you changed theology to belief system to also cover all the evil doers who do not acknowledge their belief system as a religion that statement would be correct. BUT, if you substituted good for evil it would also be correct. Most peoples actions (except possibly those with multiple personality disorders) are guided by their beliefs, so stating that most evil actions (or good for that matter) are guided by thier beliefs is a moot point.

  15. I follow the arguments here, but if you dip a bit into the subject of serial killers, you’ll find people who just seem inclined to evil, without philosophy or ideology, who seem to be daring Satan to show his face to assist or offer a critique. These human monsters provide, I think, much of the action unit leadership for the evil governments of the world, who make up the SS, the Einsatsgruppen, Mao’s Red Guard.

  16. Sarah and Francis brought up the possibility that the previous culture may dictate how severe an evil government can get. Probably, though “Communism only went bad because Russia was too dumb” is a bad excuse. Italy was never half as enthusiastic at genocide as Germany, China worse at Communism than Russia, Cambodia still worse. It might have to do with the fact that there are said to have been periods in Chinese history when human carcasses were displayed in butcher shops for sale, there were horrors in Cambodia even before the Khmer Rouge. There was the report by an American intelligence officer in 1971 or so about the situation in a border area of Cambodia: a platoon of Lon Nol government troops fighting against the Khmer Rouge was cut off, denied food, the local quartermaster came by repeatedly to apologise, again and again for lack of food, until the last visited ended with… The report’s last sentence was something like, “This government platoon ceased to be an effective fighting unit when they butchered and ate the quartermaster.”

    • This has to do with lacking a cultural respect for life. Yes, it can make things worse.

      • Quite a few years ago I read a newspaper column by Sid Harris in which we quoted a 19th Century Chinese guidebook to England to the effect that the English were very peculiar and had such an odd reverence for life that they kept ALL infants, even those born to prostitutes, alive. China, of course, being far more pragmatic had long ago established the practice of providing wells outside of town for the disposal of unnecessary newborns. One supposes that many Chinese scholars, reading Swift’s “Modest Proposal” never realized it was satire.

  17. Speaking from the dark side (I know, I know, Sarah – the siren call of the corporation was hard to resist) – I haven’t met anyone eviiiiilllll at work lately, or even evil. I feel fortunate in that regard :)

    I find extremism, in whatever belief system that is held (be it secular, political, religious, etc…) creates the path for evil to bloom. When a belief no longer allows for civil discourse or reason, then fanaticism takes root. My food for thought.

  18. OK, I want to say I am not sure I really want to step into this mess — but of course the fact that I have posted says otherwise. The ‘want to’ may be the wiser part of me, but here goes, with moderate slippage off the main track. To start: I agree with the argument that the worst things that are done by man to man is done in the name of doing good.

    I was reading the opening of a book about William Morris this morning. It was decrying the evil use of child labor for the production of garish goods for the masses. (Garish is a matter of opinion.) So were the Luddites correct in concluding that corporate industrialization is bad? Before the industrial revolution do you think that the children were not put to work? No they worked on farms, which were equally dangerous and dirty. We probably would not have had child labor laws if it was not for the immense rise in productivity that came with the industrial revolution. That and, oh, some religious do-gooders like William Wilberforce.

    To say that the majority of war is caused by religion is the same as blaming evil corporations, sloppy. Most wars are fought because the leaders of one group of people wants and believes it can take what another group has. Be it lebensraum, religion, or what have you, excuses will be made, initially to get your people to support it and then to make look proper for the record.

    The death toll in the twentieth century from war and social engineering is so immense that it reflects little good on modern mankind. To argue that the majority of the deaths in those wars were due to religion would require that you start with the premise that the state is the Socialist religion. This might be said of any government among those based upon a Communist philosophy – either the national or international variety. (Note: Pol Pot was trying to create an agrarian communist utopia for the good of the people.)

    I was recently struck by the thought that one real evil is that which is done when one mistreats someone who is dependent upon them. This is seen when a child or a sick person is abused by its caretakers. Often this abuse is rather everyday stuff, done for the ‘good’ of the victim. It can be a simple matter of imbalance, as when discipline goes overboard or is lacking.

    (Aside: The cases, like the child that recently froze to death locked in an unheated bedroom because it had wetted its bed or the killings described in Capote’s In Cold Blood , are something else again. There is no real explanation, although Nero Wolfe would probably advise us that it made sense to the one who did it. Do you really want to comprehend that kind of logic? For me these cases fall into ‘they behave this way because their mind is broken.’)

    I don’t want to live under a nanny state. If we resign ourselves to be children of the state then the state gets to decide what is ‘for our own good.’ What is likely to happen? Say we choose to base it on science, because science is rational. Science is still debating whether coffee is good or bad for us. I expect everyone here is aware that the German National Socialists explained much of what they did by the scientific understanding of their times. Again, I don’t want to live under a nanny state.

    This is one reason we need to live like grown-ups, willing to be responsible for ourselves and our choices. And let others have the same freedom. But does this mean we should stop trying to fight for what we think is good for fear of it going overboard and becoming an evil? That would leave the playing field to those who cared enough to fight for what they want – such as a nanny state. That would be evil, as well.

    P.S. While the French Revolution did not immediately result in lovely uniforms, it did lead to the Napoleon take over and that came with some lovely ones. But this is allowing the inner Ms. Bennett to come out, and that is … altogether … ewwwww. (and a bit evil)

  19. I have said all my life that the four most dangerous words in the English language are “for your own good,” so I’m completely with you on this.

    I’d like to add some other variants on this. The small-natured, insecure person who gets power can be scary. Many serial killers are bright, but dysfunctional socially, major underachievers in their chosen jobs.

    Another similar one is the elitist attitude of the (usually bookish) person who can state things like, say, it’s necessary for 25% of the population to die in order to fix the world – I remember this kind of attitude from bright college students who were outcasts in high school. It gets knocked out of them when they grow up, get jobs, and befriend the kind of people they’d have hated in high school, but some of them stay in academia, or hide out in other places and never outgrow it. Usually they stay in places where they aren’t directly harmful (heaven forbid they would actually take direct action) but they can cause a lot of indirect harm.

  20. There is no evil, merely misunderstanding.