“In the world in which we find ourselves, the possibilities of good are almost limitless, and the possibilities of evil no less so. Our present predicament is due more than anything else to the fact that we have learnt to understand and control to a terrifying extent the forces of nature outside us, but not those that are embodied in ourselves.”
Bertrand Russell (1)
“Among the moral results of this disaster (he refers to the plague of the 14th century in Europe) the most shameful was a series of attacks upon the Jewish population, who at Mainz and other German-speaking towns were burned in their hundreds or thousands by an infuriated mob in the belief that the plague was a malignant device of the Semitic race for the confusion of the Catholic creed. ”
H.A.L. Fisher (3)
Beginning on the day in 1975 when his guerrilla army marched silently into the capital, Phnom Penh, Pol Pot emptied the cities, pulled families apart,abolished religion and closed schools. Everyone was ordered to work, even children. The Khmer Rouge outlawed money and closed all markets. The Khmer Rouge especially persecuted members of minority ethnic groups — the Chinese, Muslim Chams, Vietnamese and Thais who had lived for generations in the country, and any other foreigners — in an attempt to make one ”pure” Cambodia. Non-Cambodians were forbidden to speak their native languages or to exhibit any ”foreign” traits. The pogrom against the Cham minority was the most devastating, killing more than half of that community.
The New York Times
Today I want to address the issue of taking action to deter, contain, and even prevent “Evil Acts”.
I consider that it is not enough to condemn evil acts. Words of condemnation are not enough.
In my view one must also act against “evil acts”.
It all began during a visit to the Dachau Concentration Camp, in the outskirts of Munich in Bavaria, Germany.
Dachau is a sleepy suburb. But once you get to the perimeter walls and the barbed wires, you start getting the bad vibrations.
At the end of my visit I was shocked.
More than after my visit to Auschwitz.
May be because Auschwitz is relatively isolated, whereas Dachau is right in the middle of the community.
Hundreds of thousands of people were tortured and lost their life in this and other camps in Nazi Germany.
More than six million Jews lost their lives during the Holocaust.
Some Germans of the time say that they did not know about it.
This is a frightening thought.
How could you live in Dachau and know nothing about the camp?
An even more frightening thought is that there is no guarantee that evil acts will not be committed again.
As H.A.L. Fisher wrote: “The fact of progress is written plain and large on the page of history; but progress is not a law of nature. The ground gained by one generation may be lost by the next. The thoughts of men may flow into the channels which lead to disaster and barbarism.” (3)
I begin by giving some definitions of “evil acts”.
My views address only acts and their implications. I do not refer to ideas, impressions, thoughts and other abstract entities.
Two more qualifications:
- I do not refer to natural acts, like the 1755 earthquake that destroyed Lisbon. This is almost self-evident, but the clarification is needed.
- In addition, I will exclude one person acts like Anders Behring Breivik’s 2011 sequential bombing and mass shooting in Norway.
To start with a definition, I will paraphrase Peter Dews’ definition:
“Evil acts are profound, far reaching desecrations of the human.”
Martha Nussbaum reminds us that Kant considered the human being as capable “under certain circumstances” to commit evil acts:
“Evil is radical, according to Kant, that is to say it goes to the root of our humanity, because human beings, prior to any experience, have a propensity to both good and evil, in the form of tendencies that are deeply rooted in our natures. We are such that we can follow the moral law, but there is also something about us that makes it virtually inevitable that under certain circumstances we will disregard it and behave badly.”
Philosopher Adi Ophir in his book “The Order of Evils” offers the main contention is that evil is neither a diabolical element residing in the hearts of men nor a meaningless absence of the good. Rather, it is the socially structured order of “superfluous evils.” Evils, like pain, suffering, loss, and humiliation, are superfluous when they could have been—but were not—prevented.
Who is the bearer of (good or) evil?
Bertrand Russell’s view (The Reith Lectures, Lecture 6, 1948) provides the answer to this key question:
“That is why the individual man is the bearer of good and evil, and not, on the one hand, any separate part of a man, or on the other hand, any collection of men. To believe that there can be good or evil in a collection of human beings, over and above the good or evil in the various individuals, is an error; moreover it is an error which leads straight to totalitarianism, and is therefore dangerous.” (1)
Therefore it is one or more individuals who commit “evil acts” and are responsible for them.
One more word about those who claim that the agent behind evil acts may be an impersonal entity like the State. I quote Bertrand Russell again:
“When we think concretely, not abstractly, we find, in place of ‘the state’, certain people who have more power than falls to the share of most men. And so glorification of ‘the state’ turns out to be, in fact, glorification of a governing minority.” (1)
The argument applies to all other “impersonal” agents, like a “system” (e.g. capitalism, socialism) and so on.
Why act against “evil acts”?
One may have many diverse motives for acting against “evil acts”. The same of course applies to any other action.
One of the motives may be originating from a moral framework.
A moral framework can be prescriptive, and it is in this sense that I want to deploy it in this article.
Koertge (2) has identified the following building blocks of Popper’s Moral Philosophy:
- self-emancipation through knowledge,
- a dedication to communal problem solving,
- openness to criticism,
- tolerance for other views,
- a society that supports freedom of expression and
- the imperatives to relieve suffering and avoid cruelty.
The moral framework explains the taking of the action and justifies its necessity.
Acting against “Evil Acts”
In the context of the moral framework above, all acts against “evil acts” need to conform with the values of the framework and not violate it.
Otherwise, in the name of the action against “evil acts”, you end up committing evil acts. Which defeats the purpose of taking action against evil.
Acting against “evil acts” is a moral duty, if one wants to accept that there is one,
Of course as I have mentioned in a previous section, action may be taken for other reasons.
Acting against “evil acts” is not necessarily effective. This however applies to all actions. The fact that an action may not turn out to be an effective action does not imply anything against the action itself.
Taking action against evil acts is very risky.
It may kill you, or endanger you greatly to say the least.
It may be safely asserted that if evil acts are consistently deterred and contained, this will be the result of some people taking action.
Consistent outcomes cannot be the result of chance only.
Bad end, good end
Claus Philipp Maria Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg decided to act and attempt the assassination of Adolf Hitler and the removal of the Nazi Party from power.
He was not alone. He was one of the leaders not only of the plot against Hitler and the Nazis, but also of the German Resistance movement in the German Armed Forces (Wermacht).
Unfortunately the attempt failed and von Stauffenberg was executed in July 1944.
My maternal grandfather gave shelter in his house to a Jewish family for a period of over two years, during the German occupation of Athens.
Had he been caught, his whole family would have been killed, and the Jewish family would be sent to an extermination camp.
Luckily he was never caught, and the Jewish family found a safe way out to the Middle East.
Intention versus consequence
The French press magnate Jean Prouvost, who had collaborated with the German forces during the occupation of France, tried to redeem himself by writing a large check to the resistance when it became clear that the Germans were losing the war. After Liberation, the High Court (in France) granted him a non-lieu (a judgement that suspends, annuls, or withdraws a case without bringing it to trial). The reason he went free was probably that the resistance needed the money and later found itself obliged to keep the tacit promise of immunity that acceptance of the check implied. (4)
This incident is worth noting because it opens up a discussion regarding the difference between intention and consequence.
The intention of the person in this case may be considered as having nothing to do with acting against evil. The act as far as intentions go appears to serve the person’s self-interest.
On the other hand, the consequences of the action may have been quite significant, judging by the immunity granted to the press magnate.
Deter, constrain, prevent?
Prevention is of course much better.
But is it possible?
I believe that no one can say that it is not possible, although there is no certainty regarding the outcome of preventive actions.
As an example, it is known that totalitarian regimes are more likely to commit evil acts than other regimes.
This implies that action against totalitarianism is in a way action that potentially prevents evil acts.
This can be generalized.
Once the circumstances under which evil acts are committed are established, all actions that go counter to these circumstances have the potential of preventing evil acts.
Once evil acts are committed, the issue becomes to what extent they will continue.
Action then needs to be taken to deter and contain evil acts.
However, taking action must not lead to committing of evil acts, while trying to deter and/or contain evil acts.
The Syrian Chemical Weapons issue is a good example.
Using chemical weapons is an evil act. There is no doubt about it.
Actions must be taken against the use of chemical weapons.
However, if this action prevents one of the two parties involved in the conflict to use the weapons, while it enables the other party to use them, the action will not be effective.
There is also another issue that needs to be addressed.
If we need to stop the use of chemical weapons, is it not also necessary to stop the production and trading of chemical weapons?
As I was writing this, I saw a brief from the Financial Times newspaper, announcing that “The US and Russia have agreed on a framework for Syria to destroy all of its chemical weapons by the middle of 2014. If President Bashar al-Assad fails to comply with the US-Russia agreement the issue is then to be referred to the United Nations Security Council.”
In place of a conclusion
Now that I read again what I wrote it appears to me that a generalization is in order.
I started out by asserting the necessity of action against “evil acts”.
This is good, but not good enough.
There are far too many religious overtones in the word “evil”.
It is fuzzy, blurred, unclear, and easily manipulated.
Almost everything that I wrote above stands if I replace “evil acts” with “human suffering”.
“I believe that there is, from the ethical point of view, no symmetry between suffering and happiness, or between pain and pleasure. (…) human suffering makes a direct moral appeal for help, while there is no similar call to increase the happiness of a man who is doing well anyway.” (5)
(1) Bertrand Russell, The Reith Lectures, Lecture 6
(2) Noretta Koertge, The Moral Underpinnings of Popper’s Philosophy
(3) H.A.L. Fisher, A History of Europe
(4) Jon Elster, Explaining Social Behavior
(5) Karl Popper, The Open Society and its Enemies