A week or so ago, I began a thread at a message board about the recent devastating floods in Pakistan (nothing gets my attention like a flood, it seems). The first person to respond was of a sort that I've found at every message board I've frequented-- Of a philosophical bent, focusing on abstract elements of situations of this sort, rather than the human element. Seemingly more intellectual than empathetic. So instead of a conversation about what the people in Pakistan are dealing with and how they can be helped, the thread veered immediately into a discussion on the place of evil in the world. The idea that got the ball rolling was this: "Evil and misfortune exists in order to bring about opportunities for us to express compassion......otherwise, life would be meaningless." Other folks immediately threw down the bullshit flag and the debate was on.
I allowed that this person had made a valid point. I've read this idea over and over in my exploration of philosophy and religion. But I think I responded too quickly because I don't really agree with that. There's certainly the possibility that this is the case, that we need the contrast of misfortune in order to fully appreciate good and beautiful things in our lives and to spur altruism and compassion. But do they really exist for this purpose? That smacks of a grand design, and that's something I'm definitely not sure I believe in. Later on in the same thread, I went back and pointed out that perhaps this idea is just a coping mechanism for people who can't accept that there isn't always a reason for why things happen. As I put it then, nature and the world are indifferent to all of our theories about them, yet still we feel compelled to quantify them for our own comfort. We assign concepts such as 'good' and 'evil' to occurrences like sunshine and floods, as if these things happen for us, and not merely around us.
And then a couple of days later, NPR posted an article about a new "Gradations of Evil" scale created by Columbia University professor, Michael Stone, and my thoughts shifted to human, as opposed to natural, evil. As a forensic psychologist, I suppose it makes sense that Stone would focus on murderers but, really, that makes the title of his scale misleading, implying as it does that evil only takes extreme forms. Of course those are the most obvious, and the majority of us would probably immediately summon up the likes of Adolf Hitler or Jeffrey Dahmer if asked to name an epitome of evil. But is its extent really encapsulated only within the spectrum of violence and cruelty?
I can't recall now where I read it (within a book by the Dalai Lama, perhaps, or Brad Warner...?) or even if I'm remembering it correctly, but the idea is stuck in my head: something about "evil" being defined as a lack of awareness, an obliviousness, or even a callousness, to how our actions affect others. That would be pretty all-encompassing, making Stone's scale frighteningly inadequate. Anything from a careless insult or a disrespectful lie all the way through the most psychotic torture would fall within the scope of such a definition.
My fault, my failure, is not in the passions I have, but in my lack of control of them...
- Jack Keruoac
But surely there is a difference between simple self-centeredness and the outrageous compulsions of a psychopath. Can we accept that it's a matter of degree? The question to consider may be-- just how far removed are we, really, from psychosis? Is there a level of socio-pathology to the simplest act of manipulation or dishonesty? Or are these merely acts grounded in ignorance?
In Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty, Roy Baumeister begins with an anecdote about a woman rushing to get a snack in an airport before boarding her flight. She grabs a package of chips and a drink and sits down next to a man reading a newspaper. As she reaches into the package, pulls out a chip, then eats it, she notices that the man is suddenly staring at her menacingly. To her shock, he reaches down and helps himself to one of her chips. Her first impulse is one of fear, but instead she remains seated and continues to eat her chips and drink her soda. As she does, the man continues to wordlessly reach into the bag and help himself to chips as well, staring at her the entire time. Her nervousness accumulates, she becomes more and more sure that he's some weird psycho. Finally, her flight is called to board and, heart pounding, she gets up and walks toward the gate. As she reaches into her purse to pull out her ticket, her hand closes on the bag of chips she had bought and then forgot that she'd put away. She'd been helping herself to his food. So who was the psycho? As Baumeister puts it, sometimes evil is in the eye of the beholder.
A more zealous example can be seen in the recent case of an Iranian woman accused of adultery. Puritan New Englander's in the early days of the United States would have slapped a big red A on her chest and ostracized her. The judicial court in Iran has instead sentenced her to death by stoning, which consists of her being buried from the shoulders down and pelted with rocks. Imagine how long this would take and how it would feel, imagine waiting for death in such a position. And yet the Iranian court has determined that her unproven act of infidelity is evil enough to warrant such an execution. Who is the criminal in this case?
How far along the evil scale could any of us go? How many of us have ever really considered such a question? I proposed the idea once on another message board somewhere-- If you found yourself in a situation in which there would be no reprisals, none, at all... could you kill another human being? The answers didn't surprise me. A certain number of people responded with emphatic no's, under no circumstances could or would they take the life of another person. And then there were those who said a gung ho yes!, but with an obliviously conditional "if" that included the defense of self, loved ones, or country. I don't recall that a single person replied that they might possibly kill out of a condition such as rage or even, like Raskolnikov in Dostoevky's Crime and Punishment, out of a bizarre curiosity to know whether they could.
I find it hard to believe that I'm alone in that latter category. No, beyond that, I refuse to believe that a large percentage of us don't have that possibility lurking in our nature. The vast majority of people seem to not want to look at that part of themselves, to dig that deeply. But wouldn't this explain the popularity of a television show like Dexter? There's certainly a level of unconscious projection going on in our admiration of a character who looks and acts just like any one of us, but who then lives out the fantasies we don't even know we have... or won't admit that we have.
And what about a film like Seven? If ever there was a perfect exploration of this subject, that would be it. The triad of characters in that film sums up much of what I've babbled about here-- Where on Stone's Gradations of Evil scale would Mills and Doe each fall? Mills, who wants so badly to be good but whose passions control him, and Doe, whose seeming passivity belies intense hatred. Somerset is then balanced against them both to represent those among us who recognize the existence of this part of our natures. By doing so, by accepting that this shadow is part of who we are, he alone is able to control it. (Spoiler alert for that link, for those of you who haven't seen the film)
What does it take to uncover that part of us? Does it require a level of insanity to step over that line? And wouldn't it be wise to know whether it's there, so that we can take steps to moderate it? After all, is it the impulse that's evil, or the acting upon it? Is it our passions, both conscious and unconscious, or our control of them that separates us from the examples on Stone's scale? Do the gradations end where he specified, or do they continue on until we have to squint to see them?
As is so often the case, I've got questions here but no answers...
I drank some dirty water
Shook evil hands
I've done some bad things
They get easier to do
Then I wrote a nasty letter
And I sent it to the Lord
I said don't you dare come
And bother me no more
I had a good friend
I could only destroy
And lovers I loved less
Than anybody could afford
Yes, but this old rocking horse
Just nods his head
And he's gonna rock back and forth
The way that he always did
Baby, don't you bother
Tasting the water
And baby, don't you bother
Coming closer to me
Can you see my eyes?
They're half the size
And I'm not able
To look at you