Sunday, July 22, 2012

A rampage killer and the problem of "evil"

"The problem of evil" is the common term for a certain argument against the existence of God. Or at least, the existence of the so-called "omni god": one who is omniscient (all-knowing), omnibenevolent (all-loving) and omnipotent (all-powerful). The argument goes, basically, that evil would not exist in a universe created by such a deity, because he would know about it, care about it, and be able to prevent it if he had these three qualities. For the purposes of this argument, "evil" is generally defined as suffering-- pain and anguish, usually on the part of humans but sometimes in general. Responses to this argument, defenses of the belief that evil could exist in a universe created by such a god, are called theodicy. Generally an argument of theodicy will appeal to free will and assert that humans wouldn't have it if we weren't able to commit evil acts, and further that pain and suffering are certainly bad but they're also the origin of virtues like compassion and altruism. Of course, not all pain and suffering is caused by human behavior-- natural disasters are an enormous source for these, but they generally aren't called "evil" because evil requires an agent. A person is needed to be evil and commit evil acts.

Arguments from either direction on this topic are not terribly convincing to me, in large part because I not only disbelieve in God but also in evil.

I believe in pain and suffering, certainly, but I believe that attributing them to evil explains precisely nothing. And that's a problem, since it is frequently used to explain things, generally when the pain and suffering is particularly heinous, the speaker has no real idea why they have occurred, and the speaker is either the victim of this pain and suffering and/or sympathizes with the victims. It's like a place-holder for the actual cause, but more importantly (and more significantly) it tends to stand in the way of identifying and articulating the actual cause. It essentializes the perpetrator of the heinous act, who is labeled the evil one, and therefore the explanatory buck stops with him/her. In order to portray this person as absolutely responsible for his or her act, the label of evil forestalls any explanatory circumstances in the mistaken belief that they would constitute exculpatory circumstances. This is why I call evil supernatural-- it's an idea that there's some aspect of a person which is distinct and elevated from all causal factors which contributed to his or her behavior. I'm quite willing to say that people can be bad, be immoral, deliberately or mistakenly do things with disastrous consequences for others as well as themselves. But I won't call them evil, because badness and mistakes can be explained while evil cannot.

Psychologist Roy Baumeister wrote a very important book called Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty, in which he articulates what he calls the "myth of pure evil." The myth entails the following:
  • Evil is the intentional infliction of harm on people.
  • Evil is driven primarily by the wish to inflict harm merely for the pleasure of doing so (or for no reason at all). Harm inflicted by evil forces is gratuitous and therefore unjustified.
  • The victim is innocent and good.
  • Evil is the other, the enemy, the outsider, the out-group.
  • Evil has been that way since time immemorial.
  • Evil represents the antithesis of order, peace, and stability
These are the characterizations we give the things and the people we want to call evil, because we want to distance ourselves from them and signify at once that we a) are not capable of committing such acts ourselves, and b) certainly didn't commit any such act in this instance. The worse the act in question becomes, the stronger this impulse is. Suddenly it's not only permissible but obligatory to use any words of condemnation possible to describe the act and its perpetrator, even if they are not accurate. Recall when Bill Maher lost his job as host of Politically Incorrect because he refused to call the 9/11 terrorists "cowards"? He wasn't by any means refusing to say that what they did was wrong, and that they are bad people, but he would not describe their actions as cowardly given that they knowingly and willingly were doing something that would necessarily lead to their deaths. But because Maher refused to feed the myth of pure evil, he was viewed as excusing it and therefore at least a little bit evil himself. Describing someone as evil as an explanation for their behavior is a kind of fundamental attribution error-- it attributes all responsibility for the act to the nature of the person rather than his or her situation-- and people who openly refuse to commit this error risk being viewed as sympathetic to the perpetrator and even to the act itself.

In this context, I want to consider the words of Colorado governor John Hickenlooper about James Holmes, the 24-year-old suspect of Friday's mass shooting in Aurora:
Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper says the mass killing of a dozen people and wounding of another 58 at a movie theater may not have been political terrorism, but it was the act of a deranged, demonic person who wanted to create intense fear. 
The Democratic governor appeared on CNN’s “State of the Union” Sunday and says officers are getting a lot more evidence from suspect James Holmes’ apartment and are learning more about him moment by moment. 
Hickenlooper told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos on “This Week” that Holmes was diabolical and he would have found a way to create this horror even if he did not have access to guns. Hickenlooper says Holmes would have used explosives, poisonous gas or some other method to create the terror.
"Demonic?" Does Hickenlooper actually believe in demons, and that they caused Holmes to murder? I seriously doubt it, although if he does believe that he should be evicted from office as soon as possible. It certainly sounds as though he's using the word to express the extent of his horror at the act, and it accomplishes that. But unfortunately it also accomplishes something else, an incorrect or at least far too hasty explanation for the killer's actions. There is no way for Hickenlooper-- for any of us-- to know at this point whether Holmes is "deranged," much less "diabolical." Those two words create an interesting paradox, actually-- if by "deranged" Hickenlooper means that Holmes is mentally ill, then that would effectively prevent him from being "diabolical," since the myth of pure evil entails that the perpetrator commits his or her heinous acts with full knowledge and deliberateness, with a sound mind. That's how we hold the person fully responsible, morally and legally. People with mental illnesses can certainly be responsible, but if mental illness drives a person to do something like go to a movie theater and open fire on its occupants then I think it's safe to say that the person was not in full control of his or her faculties, however much thought he put into it beforehand. It is entirely possible to be both disturbed and calculating.

The last similarly horrible event that occurred in Colorado was the shootings at Columbine High School in 1999. Dave Cullen, the journalist who authored the book Columbine, has an editorial in the New York Times today advising extreme caution in interpreting the causes behind this one:
You've had 48 hours to reflect on the ghastly shooting in Colorado at a movie theater. You’ve been bombarded with “facts” and opinions about James Holmes’s motives. You have probably expressed your opinion on why he did it. You are probably wrong. 
I learned that the hard way. In 1999 I lived in Denver and was part of the first wave of reporters to descend on Columbine High School the afternoon it was attacked. I ran with the journalistic pack that created the myths we are still living with. We created those myths for one reason: we were trying to answer the burning question of why, and we were trying to answer it way too soon. I spent 10 years studying Columbine, and we all know what happened there, right? Two outcast loners exacted revenge against the jocks for relentlessly bullying them. 
Not one bit of that turned out to be true. 
But the news media jumped to all those conclusions in the first 24 hours, so they are accepted by many people today as fact. The real story is a lot more disturbing. And instructive. 
At every high school, college and school-safety conference I speak at, I hold up the journals left behind by the killers, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. The audience is shocked at what they learn. Perpetrators of mass murder are usually nothing like our conceptions of them. They are nothing like a vision of pure evil. They are complicated.

Evil is simple. Easy. Practically a write-off. And therein lies both its appeal, and its fundamental mistake.


  1. Excellent post. Reading discussions of the killings in several comment threads, I found the resistance to complexity formidable. Commenters who try to discuss and understand the complexity of the act or the actor can face a barrage of anti-intellectual, self-righteousness. This resistance is itself worthy of exploration and yours is the only post I've read that addresses it.

    A story of how compelling the need to simplify and create self-distancing, mutually exclusive categories can be: a commenter in one thread referred to the "Colorado tragedy." Almost immediately, he drew rebuke from another commenter. The critic insisted that "tragedy" is the wrong word because it implies random misfortune and this was an intentional killing.

    Leaving aside the fact that tragedy can refer to any sorrowful, typically unexpected event and, leaving aside that the massacre was a rather random, misfortune for those who just happened to be at that particular theater at that particular time, what was the point of the distinction? Why must we not permit the word tragic to describe what is a tragedy for many people connected with this mass shooting?

    Could it be that allowing that the word tragic could cover either intentional or unintentional harm could, by mere semantic association, ever so slightly weaken the psychological wall between good and evil, me and it? I don't have a name for this logically unnecessary demand for semantic distinction, but it seems like it could serve as an anxiety-alleviating "cognitive error."

  2. I think you're definitely onto something there. "Tragedy" has never, for me, referred to something that is simply a matter of circumstance rather than a deliberate act, but even if it did mean that it would seem terribly petty to pick on someone's word choice in that way. I understand the impulse to hold the perpetrator as responsible for his actions as possible, but it's not only possible but incredibly easy to go far, far beyond that in your zeal to condemn the act. And yes-- I think that as you suggest, there is definitely some rhetorical construction of barriers between self and object of condemnation going on there.

  3. I and my friend, a psychologist in Denver, believe that God is omniscient. He has purposes why he's letting the devil exists.

  4. All you've written here I like and agree with. It doesn't go far enough, in my mind, down this rabbit hole. True, positing supernatural evil explains nothing, but it's function is not that. Like 'godidit', it serves as a way to evade having to explain anything.

    It's easy, in a sense, but if people were simply lazy or just didn't care they would stick with “shit happens” or the annoyingly popular “it is what it is” and “I dunno”. That would be the easy path, but religious people instead go to extreme lengths to construct elaborate fantasies to deny what is manifestly true and obvious: people die; good guys don't always win; sometimes our deepest convictions are just wrong. These castles of denial demand enormous effort and constant reinforcement, hence the piling on you discuss.

    Many people simply can't accept reality and the hard truths it implies, e.g.
    “If evildoers are not evil, then I could be one myself;
    if rapists are not evil, then I could be a rapist;
    if evolution is true and animals are not mere brutes, then I am not better than them;
    if science is correct, I could be just full of shit.”

    All these require facing possibly ugly truths about ourselves. Admitting we are or could be wrong and commit “evil” can be difficult, it causes a strong emotional reaction, anxiety and fear ( known hallmarks of authoritarian followers ). Facing that fear requires courage, which they lack. This I think explains how otherwise intelligent people can still swallow outrageously stupid religious dogma. Religious people aren't stupid or lazy, accepting the easy answers, they're cowards evading the pain of self-examination. So it seems to me.


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