Hospital bedside blogging, with my thoughts turning to evil

Mom’s in the hospital again and suffering greatly, not in body, but in mind. She’s mildly delusional, and very paranoid, angry and anxious. I can’t imagine how grim it is to live in her head.

I slipped away for an hour and had lunch with Don Quixote. Our conversation turned to evil. I believe evil exists. Don Quixote pointed out, correctly, that many people who commit evil believe in their own heads that they’re doing a good thing.  They believe in their revolution or their God, and believe that they are serving that revolution or God (and, therefore, the greater good) by torturing or murdering mass numbers people who “get in the way.”

I’m going for moral absolutism here:  I believe that my system, which is predicated on maximum individual freedom within a framework of stable laws, is the best.  If two systems, mine and another that is more repressive, find themselves clashing over physical or mental control of people, I believe my system must win, and the other system must be defeated, even if that battle spills blood and causes the death of innocents.  I justify these deaths on the ground that, over the long run, my system will provide the greatest good for the greatest number of people, while any other system (e.g., Communism or radical Islam) will force great suffering on people for an indefinite amount of time.

At this point in my thinking, I don’t care that the Islamist or the Communist thinks I’m the evil and he’s the good.  If I lie down right now and refuse to do battle, he wins, and I will have perpetuated what is, in my absolutist universe, the greatest wrong of all, which is to allow evil — admitted evil as I define it — to flourish.

What do you say?  Does evil exist?  Am I evil for taking an absolutist position and being willing to fight and kill to defend it?  (Or more accurately, given my armchair warrior status, sending others to fight and kill to defend it?)

I am very interested in what you have to say on the subject.

Incidentally, it’s worth thinking in this regard that part of my Mom’s continuing mental anguish is that she spent WWII interned in a Japanese concentration camp in a war the Japanese started and that she spent the Israeli War of Independence getting shot at by Arabs who refused to recognize the Jewish state.  Those events created a lifelong anxiety that kept her alive during war, but that is slowly and depressingly killing her in old age.

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  • suek

    Could she be suffering from a long delayed survivor’s guilt??  She’s been thought so much…

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  • David Foster

    On the nature of evil, I’ll quote Peter Drucker, who was born in Austria and lived in Germany until he came to the US in 1933.  In his memoir, Drucker wrote about three men he knew who became Nazis or Nazi enablers:

    –Reinhold Hensch, who came from a working-class family and became an SS officer. He summed up his motivations to Drucker thusly: “Now I have a party membership card with a very low number and I am going to be somebody.”
    –Paul Schaeffer became editor of a major newspaper, believing he could influence the regime toward moderation. He disappeared when the front that he provided was no longer needed.
    –An un-named professor, a distinguished biochemist and a “great liberal,” was expected by many to raise objections at the faculty’s first meeting with their newly-appointed Nazi watchdog. But the only question he asked was about whether there would be more funding for research in physiology.
    Knowing these people led Drucker to object to the Hannah Arendt “banality of evil” formulation:
    Evil works through the Hensches and the Schaeffers precisely because evil is monstrous and men are trivial…Man becomes the instrument of evil when, like the Hensches, he thinks to harness evil to his ambitions; and he becomes the instrument of evil when,E like the Schaeffers, he joins with evil to prevent worse…I have often wondered which of these two did, in the end, more harm–the Monster or the Lamb; and which is worse, Hensch’s sin of the lust for power or Schaeffer’s hubris and sin of pride? But maybe the greatest sin is neither of these two ancient ones; the greatest sin may be the new twentieth-century sin of indifference, the sin of the distinguished biochemist who neither kills nor lies but refuses to bear witness when, in the words of the old gospel hymn, “They crucify my Lord.”

  • Charles Martel

    DQ was correct to point out that all evil in this world is committed in the name of good. Murder a few million kulaks? Good because it sets the stage for communism and the flowering of Man. Rape a child? Good, because it satisfies a deep and irresistible craving, and delivers a whopper of an orgasm.
    The fact that all acts are based on some perception of or appeal to good, however warped or debased, tells me that human beings are wired to inescapably look at the world and rationalize their involvement with it in terms of the good/evil dichotomy. Even the occasional Bill Ayers-type idiot whose behavior says he adores evil gives himself away: you only adore that which you think is worth adoring–that is, good enough to adore. 
    So here we are, believers in the good down to our bones. If you’re an atheist, that fact has to be bitterly ironic: a totally random, accidental, and meaningless universe has delivered as one of its random and accidental products an intelligent being that goes nuts if it cannot find meaning.


    Evil, indeed,  does exist. On a grand scale [place name of despot here] all victims are faceless and only the “doctrine” is viable. The other evil is the individual evil. The individual evil focuses on the face/individual and it’s a personal vendetta. The difference is only time. The grand scale evil destroys beyond one generation and the other is short lived.
    Your mom, you, your sister are the victims of the grand scale evil – beyond the first generation. Possibly, your mom has suffered from post traumatic stress for decades. I know of friends, who were children of Holocaust survivors that attended group meetings for years and all of them are scathed in some way or another. 
    YES, Bookworm, your system must win – it protects and defends your children from inheriting something they never would want – horrid memories.

  • Ymarsakar

    If you don’t believe in something strong enough to kill or die for it… why the hell do you think such a person’s judgment would convince me that my “good” is or isn’t justified?

    Truth is dictated by the doers, not the idealists considering the nature of the universe without taking part in anything grand or small. Those who take no sides in anything, have no business talking about whose justifications are correct, for they lack anything remotely approaching a perspective. People can claim whatever they want to claim. Reality isn’t so naive as to cater to everyone’s world view.

  • Americas 1stSgt

    Maybe I look at things a bit simply but I break it down like this: evil is self oriented while good is other oriented. In the Peter Ducker examples above each of those men colluded or allowed evil to flourish for their own selfish ends. The first joined the party because: “I am going to be somebody.” The second thought so highly of himself and his worth he thought he would influence the regime. It sounds more like an excuse to stay put in a great job where again, he was somebody too. The professor allowed evil to march on as long as it didn’t negatively impact his physiology research.
    Bullies bully others because it stokes their ego to have power over someone else. Plus they get your lunch money. Banks aren’t robbed to help orphans. They are robbed because someone lazy wants quick money for themselves. Sexual assault occurs when some slime ball chooses to gratify himself with no regard to anyone he hurts. These people may feel they are doing good but only in the sense they are doing something for their own good.
     Concerning religion, human history is replete with accounts of people enslaving, raping, and killing each other and I would say religion was the excuse not the reason. This is why I kind of chuckle at Humanists and their belief in the basic decency of humanity. If human beings are inherently decent they why do we have to teach children to share?

  • Mosonny

    Suek, interesting point about the survivor guilt.  I don’t know if that is working on Book’s mom, but I remember very vividly that my father admitted to me in his last months, when he was dying of cancer, that HE had survivor guilt;  most of his family were wiped out, including his parents and many close friends.  But growing up, until my dad brought it up one day, I had no inkling that my father felt such horrible pain at being left alive.  He had not only survived, but thrived, succeeded at his career and in the community…but he had apparently been gnawed at by that guilt. 
    I remember, too, when he was given too much of what was called “Brompton’s Cocktail”, which was a mix of opiates and cocaine.  He hallucinated and spoke in Hungarian, acted paranoid and I can only assume he thought we were the Nazis that had come for him.  It was the only time he ever had done anything like this…it had been bottled up inside all those years, the horrible fears and paranoia…he submerged it so well otherwise, which had enabled him to be successful. 

    Book, again, I don’t know if any of that sort of thing applies to your mother…but it certainly could.  I know how difficult it is to be with her and to watch her and to listen…but you are following the Commandment of “Honor your Father and Mother” as it should be done, and you have my respect for that.  I’m an ER doc and I see plenty of good folks who try to do right by their aged parents…but so many that are the prototypical selfish children of the “Me” generations…I know you don’t write these things about what you do for your mom for us to praise you, but I will do so here.  You have a lot of strength and its admirable. 

  • NancyB

    Dear Bookworm, Your mom is not suffering because of what she suffered in her life – she is suffering because she believes the endless loop of thoughts going around in her head about what she has suffered.  Like all of us, she is subject to those thoughts that judge, both others and self.  But there is a way out – a way to learn to calmly observe those thoughts (whether they seem good or bad – still the same).

    And thank you for your thoughts on Christmas and Christ. 

  • Ellen

    Book, I will pray for you and your mother.  I am going through a similar situation.  My mother is in a nursing home.  Severe arthritis and several strokes have left her immoble.   Her mind goes and comes and her attitude is not good.  The sad thing is that most of her problems now were minor ones years ago, she left them untreated, and now they are major ones.   It’s hard to visit her since she spends most of the time complaining.

  • Ymarsakar

    Ayers is living in a mansion, got rich off the blood of others. ANd he can get the police to get rid of you if you’re on his private property too. That private property he was supposedly going to take from the rich and share with the poor in his Weatherman ideology. The downtrodden, oppressed poor, that needs Weatherman violence to free.

     That’s the good he was fighting for. Check out who his wife is too. She’s a nastier piece of work than he is.

  • Ymarsakar

    One of the interesting things I’ve picked up is that when people watch video of crimes like rape in progress, they have questions as to whether it is real. If you tell them it is cctv, and the video looks like it was filmed from a distance or a height, they will believe it is a crime. But if you tell them something else, such as that it was role playing, that would allow them to rationalize it in something harmless. And if anything is on the video they can use to tell themselves something like “nobody would be sick enough to post videos of themselves committing a crime on the internet”, I’m not sure who they think they are fooling here. There are many ways to gain access to people’s homes and start filming them. Bribery, black mail, cons. People fall for scams all the time, why wouldn’t they fall for a “we’ll give you 200 dollars to film in your home” thing. Then just take back the money once everything is setup and your allies successfully kidnapped them.

     This doesn’t inform me much about the banality of evil. What it does inform me is that people are very easy to manipulate. And the reason they are easy to manipulate is because they think criminals are too “smart” to do things. How do they know, have they ever thought about committing a crime and have they ever committed one? Do they know what “goes on” upstairs for such peeps? And even if they did, what makes them think the victims are any less gullible than many people who are “witnesses”?

    They got a lot of reasons, justifications, and self interests to look away from evil and say it is something else, something harmless. You will never dig to the bottom of their excuse well. So it’s pointless to do so. For me, my preferred solutions are to kill those who get in the way, or make use of them as tools. Reason, debate, argument, those things are meaningless in the fight against evil. It’s nice for democracy and making decisions. Fighting a war against evil, not so much.


  • Don Quixote

    To be clear, I believe there is a bit of good and evil in all of us, but that nearly all of us desire to be “good” however we define good.  Bookworm believes she is doing good by sending people to fight and die to preserve the society that most closely fits her ideal.  The Jihadist who gives up his own life to fly a plane into a building, hoping to kill as many innocent people as possible, just as firmly believe that he is doing good.

    I’m no moral relativist.  I believe with Bookworm that we must be willing to fight just as hard for that which we believe is good as our enemies fight for what they believe is good.  And my view of good is far closer to Bookworms’s view than the Jihadist’s.  But I think we do a disservice to our cause if we attempt to define our enemies as “evil.”  In their own minds, they are doing good, and the more clearly we understand that the better we will be able to deal with them. 

  • jj

    I don’t find it necessary to define those who would kill us in order to bend the world to their point of view as much of anything.  It doesn’t matter if they’re good, evil, or part of the amorphous mass in between.  Nor do I expend energy in an effort to understand them.  I am not concerned with their motives.  If you state that your goal is to kill me and end my way of life – for whatever reason – then you better bring some friends, because I am well armed.  I won’t stop to think about whether you suppose yourself to be good, bad, or moderate – it’s not relevant: because I don’t care what you suppose yourself to be.  DQ thinks we should bother to understand that – I don’t.  I am a simpler creature: if you attack me and mine, I will put a bullet into whatever part of your anatomy I can see without stopping to give a s*** if you think God is on your side or not.  When you are on your hands and knees praying to Mecca I will sneak up and cheerfully cut your throat for you while you’re distracted.  Understanding you is not part of the mission, and there will be plenty of time for philosophy after you’re dead.

  • Danny Lemieux

    DQ: But I think we do a disservice to our cause if we attempt to define our enemies as “evil.”  In their own minds, they are doing good, and the more clearly we understand that the better we will be able to deal with them. 

    DQ, you and I will have to disagree. Understanding “evil” helps to explain it, but it does not excuse it. When we lose the ability to discern and define “evil” for what it is, then it all becomes “relative” and, hence, much more excusable. I agree that all people carry the capacity for good and evil within their hearts, but we define our moral selves by the choices we make. I agree that people can do “evil” in the belief that they are doing good (the road to Hell being paved with good intentions and all that), but in the end, we have to call out “evil” not on the basis of intentions but on the basis of outcomes.

    Here’s a good example: the people of North Korea are starving. The overtly “good” thing would be to send them food. However, by doing so, we keep their oppressors in power, because most if not all of that food goes to feeding their war machine. So, is giving food to the North Koreans “good” or is it “evil”? Nobody ever said that living a moral life and judging between “good” and “evil” was easy. 

    BTW, I have these arguments all the time with my (very Liberal/Lefty) priest. He thinks he does good. I fear that, too often, he enables evil. And so our discussions go around and around and around…


  • Don Quixote

    I think we largely agree, Danny.  Certainly, we should identify and defend against evil.  But we should acknowledge that, just because someone does something we view as evil and oppose, it does not follow that that person believes he/she is doing evil or that that person is evil.  Your priest is a good example.  You believe he is enabling evil, but I’ll bet you do not think of him as an evil person.

    JJ, you assume that the only way for good to triumph over evil is by pounding it into abject submission.  See Japan in WWII or the American Civil War.  I don’t agree that this is always the case.  See the Revolutionary War.  If you understand the motivations and self-image of the opposition you can sometimes win without firing a shot.  Just look at what the Left is doing to America. 

  • David Foster

    Americas 1st Sgt…” evil is self oriented while good is other oriented”….evil is often self-oriented, but I don’t think this is always the case. People often do very evil things while sincerely believing they are doing it for the benefit of all mankind. Those who spied for the Soviets in the Cold War often fell into this category. Indeed, even among the Nazis who died in WWII, surely a significant number believed they were fighting for others–although a limited set of others, ie the Aryan Race.

    As Arthur Koestler put it, the egotism of the group feeds on the altruism of its members.

    (Of course,  the people in the above examples weren’t motivated *totally* by concern for others–many of the Soviet spies surely enjoyed the feeling of moral and intellectual superiority to their fellow Americans or Europeans, and the Nazi soldiers knew they would likely get shot or worse if they tried to desert–but altrusim, I think, was not an insignificant factor)

  • jj

    Not a great example.  Britain, during the revolution – which wasn’t by the way, a “revolution,” all America wanted to do was get away; there were no plans to march on London, execute the royal family and parliament, and change the machinery at the top, (which is what happens in “revolutions”) – didn’t try to kill all the Americans.  Nor did the Americans try to kill all the British.  (For revolutions, see France.  See Russia.  See Spain.  See China.  See Egypt. See all over Africa.)  The British self-image was essentially the same as our self-image, and the American struggle for independence was, in the larger sense, an almost uniquely un-bloody, un-scorched earth kind of deal.  The British army didn’t do nearly the damage over the course of years that Sherman did in a few weeks some decades later.  (There’s little question: by contemporary standards Lincoln and Sherman would be war criminals.)  I am unaware that any of the American leaders, or British leaders, actually considered the other side “evil.” 
    If you’re dealing with “evil,” and want to truly deal with it, then you bet: kill it wherever and whenever it sticks its head up.  “Evil,” the real deal, only has two positions: destroy it or be destroyed by it.  If there is a third position available, then it isn’t really “evil.”  Vide: the left.  You may not like it, you may not agree with it, you may think they’re dangerous idiots – but are they truly “evil?”  Dangerous and dumb is not “evil.”  Shoving people into ovens or killing them because they worship differently, is.  Losing a political fight, even if it costs you the nation, is not the same as being shot for attending church in a country that considers itself Islamic.    

  • Ymarsakar

    Only the war monger, the war lord, and the decorated war hero that has done more than any to stave off the rampaging masses, have solid credibility when talking about 1. peace or 2. understanding the enemy.


  • Ymarsakar

    (There’s little question: by contemporary standards Lincoln and Sherman would be war criminals.)

    By contemporary standards, every US war time general and war time president, including Truman, would be war criminals.  Meaningless distinction.

  • Ymarsakar

    I also don’t like JJ’s definition of evil. By that logic, the Nazis were only evil and a problem when they started actually doing oven stuff. Before, when they were just being socialists and getting elected and planning a coup de tat of the Weimer Republic, that was “okay”. I don’t think one can entirely detach the consequences from the planning stages here. Being elected is democracy. Chancellor Hitler was thus, just playing the same game everyone else was playing. No problems there. That’s what people thought back then thought. And that’s what JJ’s logic affirms and justifies. But there was something fundamentally different about Hitler’s faction playing politics and the rest of the Weimar Republic’s factions playing politics. If you can’t even make corrections to judgment when you already know what happened in the historical past, I don’t think any future judgments of anyone else’s evil goals or what not, is going to hold much water. The future is much more nebulous and ambiguous than the past, even with historical rewriting based on Utopian ethics going on. It’s easy to say that people should have recognized the Nazis for being evil or crazy back when, because it is obvious to us now. But that’s not how humans work. Even now the US government is very vague and ambiguous about Al Qaeda vs Islam vs Islamic extremism (muslim brotherhood). So they can easily use JJ’s logic to say that since all of Islamic extremism hasn’t done anything bad to the US and is not at war with the US, just “some” factions like AQ… then only AQ is evil and the rest are just “doing business as usual”.

    Moving to the next topic….

     The fundamental principle behind the American experiment is of individual freedom, and free will does not exist without the ability of the individual to judge, by himself, for himself, what is or is not true.

    Thus We Don’t Have to Do Anything of the sort when it comes to recognizing “evil” or “good” or whatever it is people say we should “recognize” about what we see as “evil”. That is an individual decision, that is not up to strangers, priests, governors, or anyone’s pet totalitarian government to make for other people.

    If a person chooses to attempt to understand the viewpoint of their enemies, that is their choice to make. And the consequences, good or bad, will be for them to suffer. People in general or anyone else here, have no business talking about what choice people besides themselves should be making as part of some automatic exercise. This business, and that business, two different things. It is not the business of strangers to dictate the consciences of other people. Yet people feel free to do so all the time, and yet continue to speak of valuing freedom. Mutual annihilating contradictions are unseen.

    There are no requirements, epistemologically or ethically, for a person to understand their enemies’ motivations. Putting morality on the table here in order to constrain people’s free will, isn’t going to convince anybody of anything. All it does is force people to obey, to do as they are told. And if they are told to do good, they do it. And if they are told to do evil, they’ll do that too. The idea that forcing people to obey by some rule, allows for personal virtue, individual ethics, and character strength to grow, is an untrue idea.


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