I nearly decided not to comment upon my day of Jury Duty last week, as it was singularly uneventful. I was selected twice and excused twice, once for no apparent reason and the second time following voir dire. All in all it was rather what I had expected it to be. There was minor disappointment at not being seated for a jury; however, that is likely for the best given the circumstances. I would have found it quite difficult to ignore my own impressions of the defendants in favor of deciding the case on the facts presented

There are many complaints regarding the American system of justice, but for my part it seems to work fairly well. Conscientious souls may bemoan the fact that a wealthy defendant has far more resources at hand than does a son of immigrants or the poor, but such has been the truth throughout history. The fact is that a poor defendant has a much better chance of a fair trial and eventual justice in the current system than he has ever enjoyed before. Are there injustices perpetrated, inequities un-redressed? Human beings run the system, so the answer is “Of course.” It is a terrible system for one who demands perfection, but it is recognizably less terrible than others.

Where American justice tends to go astray is in the laws it is forced to uphold, and the types of punishments it is permitted to mete out. The demand that people be locked away for longer and longer periods of time strains the penal system to the point where even lip service to the notion of rehabilitation becomes rare. The rantings of radio talk show hosts bring an end to education programs in penitentiary systems, or programs designed to reintegrate released prisoners in to the general public. As these trends progress they are exacerbated by laws, passed with public acclamation, which further ostracize and perpetuate the offenders’ punishment far beyond the lawful prison term or probation served. You Americans are rapidly approaching a system of punishment in perpetuity that shall not only fail to curtail crime, but likely lead to even more social unrest and violence down the road.

I am fully aware of the counter-arguments to the notions I have posed above. I submit to you that should you feel such punishment in perpetuity is a just and worthy thing, you might wish to be completely honest with yourself and begin to advocate execution for all but the most minor of offenses. It seems to me that such a system would in the end be far more humane than the abattoir-for-the-soul that currently enjoys such favor and support.

If anything truly saddens me regarding all of this it is that it did not have to be this way. The current state of affairs is essentially the result of bad timing. Reformers who attempted to turn the penal system in to a “treatment” system rather than merely punishment arrived too soon. Their hearts were in the right place, but the tools at their disposal were too primitive, their understanding of the driving issues, the “root causes” of criminal behavior, and in particular criminal violence, were woefully inadequate to the task. They did not understand the biochemical processes that lead to mental illness, instead looking to environmental factors, upbringing, and the like to tease out meaningful and effective treatment. A great deal of what came out of that era was quackery, but a significant portion of it was not. Unfortunately for all concerned the system suffered tragic and well-publicized failures and was ridiculed in to non-existence, leaving America with the wreckage she now enjoys.

Solutions? I have none. I believe there is no easy method to turn away from the punishment mentality that currently prevails. It meshes too neatly with the Puritan ethic at the heart of the American psyche. Couple that with politicians’ unwillingness to advocate any law that might be seen as “coddling” criminals and one can see where the opportunities to even attempt implementing a more rational system are to be few and far between. Instead of reform, what you are likely to get is a horrific and bloody collapse. Until then, enjoy the carnage. After all, you are paying billions every year to finance this particular little travesty.

Only it is not so little, is it?

All of this leads neatly in to my desire to discuss Mark Alger’s brief and well-constructed treatise on the Nature of Evil. Mr. Alger is not dealing with crime in his piece, but instead takes a much broader view of what is justified in confronting an evil that threatens the very existence of the human race. In this notion we are essentially in agreement- I can see where genocide could eventuate as the only workable solution. Neither he nor I embrace such a notion with any sense of joy, but both recognize that squeamishness on the subject serves no good purpose. It might be beneficial to the cause at hand should those who either overtly or through religious complacency harbor and support the Islamic extremists come to understand that the west has not removed the option of complete annihilation from the table.

The premise and definition offered by Mr. Alger is this:

There is a certain mindset prevalent among the intelligentsia — the self-designated elites — that evil is not so much a matter of kind as it is a matter of degree and circumstance. This is what more morally-strait thinkers call situation ethics — the refusal to accept that there are such things as absolute good and evil.

I must agree.

As far as I can tell, the only valid measure of good and evil is the survival of humanity. That which aids the survival of the human race is good, that which obviates it is evil.

Note that I set the bar at the level of the entire species. Individuals (despite my avowed reverence for the individual) are not in it.

This is a worthy definition so far as it goes; however, I am uncomfortable with the notion of situation ethics. This is not to say that I reject the reality of it, for most surely I do not, but it does become a handy tool for the avoidance of difficult moral choices, and its easy acceptance is not something I look upon with favor. Situational ethics have evolved in to the default moral compass for far too many of the persons who purport to offer intelligent and insightful commentary on the human condition. Modern western thinkers have lost the ability to make absolute moral judgments, hence those misguided souls who cannot admit that such creatures as Saddam Hussein are better rotting in a prison cell at the hands of outside forces, than remaining in power awaiting the day their own tortured people finally attempt to rise up and topple them. This is an inversion of situation ethics, where acceptance of naked evil is turned in to some warped virtue since it springs from the tragically mistaken, but understandable, notion that war itself is the ultimate evil and thus to be opposed at all costs.

To my mind there is no substitute for measuring the individual against moral absolutes- that judgment must be made first before any consideration of situational ethics can be entertained. This is a messy and uncomfortable notion for many in the west today (particularly in the USA) as the aftermath of the Second World War and the subsequent American “Boomer” generation work their way through the social power structures that serve to shape the culture and moral sense of nations. That discomfort is generally the result of a certainty that in such a litmus test, most people would be found wanting.

Killing another human being is an evil act. Recognize that and accept it- there is no method by which the taking of human life can be rendered an unqualified ?good’. From that foundation it is then possible to look at the circumstances surrounding the act to determine if this was a necessary evil, but never, under any circumstance whatsoever should one be permitted to pronounce the act of murder as “good”. Once that line is crossed, where evil is rendered good, there is no longer any real claim to any demonstrable morality of any kind.

My discomfort with the current American penal system is a case in point. There are Attorneys General holding office today that would righteously and correctly demand the utmost prosecution of the crime of rape. Take that same crime and place it in the context of one incarcerated felon sexually assaulting another and it becomes the stuff of humor, even being described as an acceptable tool of punishment and humiliation. This is situational ethics writ large and plain: a virulent cancer upon the soul of a nation. Make no mistake- such attitudes are born of a lifetime spent taking absolute moral situations and turning them in to nuanced situational constructs. Such things are undeniably evil themselves.

I do not advocate a return to fundamental religious teachings- I am no shill for the assorted Christian cults that hold such sway in America and other parts of the world. Religion is no prerequisite for moral clarity and can itself be used to blur the distinctions between right and wrong when wielded by fanatics. No, it is my belief, cultured over long years, that human beings have an innate understanding of right and wrong tied to the actions of individuals. From those understandings flow all law, religion, and philosophy. Social creatures that you are you craft your laws to conform to some degree to those innate moral understandings, and in those places where freedom and liberty are granted as a birthright those laws are open to the people and to some degree subject to their will. When the people’s understanding of the law becomes poisoned by carefully constructed syllogisms designed to blur the moral certainty at their core the society becomes sick. Such sickness can weaken the soul of a nation to the point where all that is required for a plunge in to tyranny is the proper circumstance and a readily available demagogue.

I do not believe you Americans are there yet, but you certainly have reached a crossroads, and you have been dithering for some three decades.

The situation in Western Europe is far worse. The sickness of moral relativism (and that truly is what the less provocative phrase “situation ethics” means) has been virtually enshrined in the European mind. Nations that howled under the crushing boot of fascism some seventy years ago now pay homage to the sovereignty of butchers and tolerate the killing of Jews. Corruption in government is so widespread that it barely raises an eyebrow unless those caught out are somehow in disfavor at the moment. Two World Wars and a half-century of reliance on the sheltering arm of the United States for their security have thoroughly fractured the heart of once-great peoples. Moral relativism has turned justice in to crime, liberation in to imperialism, and patriotism in to nascent fascism. There is now half a continent of peoples who cannot recognize evil by its stench or its vileness. When the European Union collapses in to civil war they will be helpless to resist the resulting tyranny. Instead they shall welcome it, for tyranny shall be salvation and liberty an evil lie. The circle of “situation ethics” as the core of moral philosophy shall be complete. All that shall remain is to build the camps and fire the ovens.

Human beings live a life of rationalization. They have to, for to live in a world built solely upon moral absolutes is nigh on to impossible. The Catholic Church recognizes this; it is implicit in the practice of Confession and Repentance. Most religions have some method for the sinner to cleanse his soul. Where the denizens of modern democracies have gone astray is in stepping away from any notion of moral absolutes and embracing the much more comfortable, much less demanding pseudo-ethos of Moral Relativism as the core of their ethical compass. It is a soothing lie, and seductive: the promise that all things can be rendered good with clever enough justification, and that the notion of an absolute evil is merely a construct of primitive minds, unworthy of the modern world.

Again, I have no solutions. I make no claim to higher intellectual or moral ground. Indeed, I am a vile creature by any standard one might wish to apply. I carry the weight of myriad lives taken by my own hands, my only justification that they encountered me at a time when I cared not a whit for the lives or happiness of mortals. My regret over those actions might absolve me in the eyes of another, but never in my own. Should you suspect such moral pain might make of me one suited to render judgments, I say no. The weight of judgment, the task of recognizing fundamental evil, is yours and yours alone. Eschew the easy path, accept that you yourself have committed evil acts and be determined to prevent those acts, and the sly justifications offered for them, from being the sole descriptor of you as a human being. Embrace the absolutes subjected to such facile rejection by others. Let that core come first, recognize evil when it is manifest before you, for without that recognition the door is open to the whispered lie. Down that path lies ruin and despair.

Believe me. I have walked that road. The memory of it haunts me to this very day.

7 Responses to “Evil”

  1. Bush Found Jesus

    Like the promise of Paradise for suicide bombers, Jesus is some kind of Holy Bandaid for these guys. No action, whether as petty as sometimes behaving like an ass or as big as shipping people off to war on false pretenses, can fail to be explained a…

  2. Wel stated! Applause from this quarter.

    Can’t say I argue with any of it. I’m not comfortable with situation ethics in *any* situation. It started out I was gonna disagree, (with s.e.) but that sort of obviated my thesis, so I went with it. ::g::


  3. I must say that I find your post a little dizzying. The abrupt transition from berating we Americans for our puritan punitive mentality to flashing the specter of world-wide genocide of Muslims takes the corners a little too fast and on too few wheels for my old grey head.

    I am equally bewildered by your notions of evil, though I honestly cannot take the fictive fantasia of your last two paragraphs seriously. Without religion, what moral absolutes would you use and where do they come from. Do you pick them off the apple trees? Or dig them like parsnips?

  4. Mr. Marshall-

    I grant the juxtaposition of the two topics might seem somewhat bizarre; however, this post developed in an evolutionary manner as I had already begun to consider relating my experiences at Jury Duty when I happened upon Mr. Alger’s notions on evil and genocide. At the time it seemed the two could be safely intertwined. Perhaps I was incorrect.

    I shall not step back from the notion that there are situations, easily conceived of and contemplated, which could lead even rational, well-educated and humanely tempered individuals to conclude that an enemy has left them little choice but to employ a ghastly and irreversible solution. It is not a notion I propose as an easy remedy to the current difficulties faced by the civilized nations of the world. For that matter I am not fain disposed towards living in a world where such a measure had been felt necessary to implement. I merely recognize there is little value in pretending such a notion is inconceivable- there is naught of nobility in willful self-delusion.

    I find it odd that people are disturbed by the notion of morality sans religion. It seems counterintuitive to my eyes, for certainly there was morality before there existed the monotheistic pillars of modern Western and Middle Eastern religions. Brute existence made adherence to moral notions somewhat difficult to maintain in every aspect of life; however, I submit that such is also the case in the modern world we so easily inhabit today. My notion of evil is that it rejects the interconnectedness of human beings- religion tends to reinforce those bonds, channeling them through the conduit of worship and faith. Evil takes reason and wields it as a tool against the notion of moral absolutes, offering rationalization in place of certainty, rendering the self supreme over the whole. I merely contend that Man as a creature of thought and reason is capable of rejecting such evil and making of himself a moral entity even outside the proscribed boundaries of the assorted faiths. He is innately capable of recognizing right and wrong, particularly in relation to the acts and interactions of individuals.

    I have no desire to challenge the faith of any believer. Who am I to call faith foolishness, or devotion delusional? That such notions as Christianity hold only intellectual appeal to me could very easily be my loss- a weakness rather than a strength; however, I believe it to be neither. I am what I am, nothing more, nothing less. I make no demands that my tales be accepted. I ask no special considerations. I opine and accept that some shall read thoughtfully and others shall dismiss me as a poseur at best, dangerously deranged at worst. Understand that this place has no hold upon me- angry, mocking words are nothing compared to the trials of a long life, even a mortal one.

    Best Regards,

  5. “He is innately capable of recognizing right and wrong, particularly in relation to the acts and interactions of individuals.”

    Really? Why to we have to teach children right from wrong then?

  6. A child possesses the innate capacity to recognize when a wrong has been committed against him. That recognition of wrong exists outside the teachings of adults. More profound understanding comes with the expanded intellect maturity provides. Adults teach children right from wrong to both accelerate and regulate that process. Sans that guidance the development of an advanced understanding of morality becomes more difficult, but hardly impossible.

    Do not misunderstand me- I do not propose that there is little value to moral instruction, nor do I belittle the accomplishments of religious philosophy. I do not propose that my thoughts on these matters are dispositive. It merely appears to my eyes as a given that Man developed his sense of morality on his own. Those lessons were not handed down from beings on high. Whether God created Man in His image or Man Created God in his image remains a singularly uninteresting point of discussion for me.

  7. CBS and RatherGate

    A little over a week ago Zsallia of Methuselah’s Daughter offered up a treatise on Evil. Watching what is happening at CBS makes her look…