Understanding Evil

understanding evil

Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf. By Robert Loftin Newman ca. 1886.

The French say, to understand all is to forgive all – but, where evil is concerned, forgiving all would be a bad idea.

I have written a whole book on the topic, called (accurately enough) A Good Look at Evil. I wrote it because I’d met the reality, but had not read anything in philosophy, my field, that was helpful.

What sort of help did I have in mind? First, I wanted help recognizing it. Second, I wanted help dealing with it.

Philosophers have defined evil negatively, privatively, as the absence of some quality or feature that is good. Thus, it would be explained by the lack of needed knowledge, the missing order in the psyche, the default on the part of those who should have provided a good example, the failure of early training, the dearth of common necessities, the shortfall in desired advantages.

The trouble was, there were people whose lives went forward without many of these desiderata, but still turned out okay! Whereas, by contrast, I’d met people festooned from an early age with many of the good things – whose absence has been deemed explanatory – who still had become sly and dangerous individuals.

In my book, I did not try to go down the psychic tunnel inside such people. Frankly, I was scared to do that. I just laid out ways of recognizing the bad guys as well as ways to avoid being fooled by their ingenious disguises. I think that’s what the great writers of fiction do, when they deal with the subject at all. Out of commendable prudence, they seldom try to climb inside.

I’m not sure I can do much better now. But I can round up a few more particulars than I managed to gather earlier. This can be helpful because, without much in the way of literary or philosophic guidance, people are left more vulnerable than they should be.

By the way, what about religious authorities? Wouldn’t this be the time for them to step up and fill the gap? Good if they can, but rogues can put on religious disguises as smoothly as any other masquerade. To borrow another French saying, 

L’habit ne fait pas le moine.

The habit (the religious costume) doesn’t make the monk. A potential victim is still obliged to exercise personal discernment. That can’t be farmed out. 

I have seen people who were well-educated, in safe material circumstances, exhibiting no sign of any personal crisis – nevertheless come under the influence of a wolf of outsized malice. In consequence of that influence, they adopted coarser patterns of speech, showed less sensitivity and care in their personal relations, and became less trustworthy overall. 

Such changes seemed inexplicable. Those real individuals to whom I refer hadn’t lost a war, gone bankrupt, been cheated on by their spouses or suffered bodily injury. They hadn’t been isolated from their peers or terrorized. They simply changed, as if under a spell! 

So far as I could tell, the only thing different was that they had come under malign influence. So, there’s at least one thing about its dangers that I’d failed to put in my book:

evil is contagious.

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” (www.dearabbie-nonadvice.com) where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at https://brooklyn-cuny.academia.edu/AbigailMartin . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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