Moral Evaluations of Evil People

 Posted by on 7 October 2008 at 11:01 pm  Ethics
Oct 072008

A reader — Thomas — recently asked me the following question:

A question occured to me as I was mulling Dani’s abortion position in my head: is it MORE evil to hold a position like hers, when you actually do see its full meaning and consequences (i.e., women who have abortions shall be put to death), than if you are a more moderate conservative who opposes abortion but doesn’t really think about the logical implications of that view, either through evasion or lack of intellectual energy?

Yes, a person who openly embraces and welcomes the destructive effects of his ideas is more evil than his more “moderate” counterpart. Such a person is ready and willing to commit the most heinous acts for the sake of his ideology — without reservations. He will be fully convinced that what he’s doing is right. When he has the opportunity to put his ideology into action, he will push others into participating in his crimes by force of will. He will leverage their partial agreement with him, and he will relieve their feelings of guilt by assuming responsibility.

His evasive counterpart would recoil in horror from the prospect of performing such vile deeds. He would attempt some more moderate course — and so do less harm. He could not greatly others to adopt and implement his views. The great danger of such a person is that he represents a transition point on the way to fully embracing evil. He gives a civilized veneer to his ideas, thereby making them more attractive to people who would be totally repulsed by the openly evil position. After people have adopted the moderate view, fully evil person can press those people to adopt his more consistent position. However, that doesn’t make the moderate person more evil: it just means that he’s very dangerous too: he’s a helpmate of the fully evil person, even if unintentionally so.

Here’s how I came to that opinion. Consider an academic utilitarian — someone who believes and promulgates the idea that each person ought to pursue the greatest happiness for the greatest number. That person’s view is subject to some very nasty counter-examples. If a town of white people would get greater pleasure from lynching a black man (minus his pain) than from not doing so, then they ought to lynch him. It would not merely be permissible to do so, but obligatory.

Some utilitarians have various arguments against such scenarios. They say: “Of course, that would be morally repugnant, but utilitarianism would require us to take into account the sadness felt by the black man’s family, etc.”

That’s not an adequate answer: the numbers might not always line up, precisely because people can take pleasure in morally repugnant acts. No causal connection can be made between maximizing the greatest pleasure for the greatest number and refraining from violating rights, for example. (That’s not true of AR’s egoism, in contrast, because the requirements of life are set by facts, not desires.) These utilitarians are evading, I’m sure: their rationalizations are just too thin to be honest mistakes. Yet they do retain some respect for the rights of persons.

Alternatively, some utilitarians embrace such scenarios. They say: “If that’s how the numbers go, then lynching is what we are obliged to do.” These people are more consistent in their embrace of utilitarianism. Yet they are not more honest; they are completely untethered from reality. No cost to the lives of individual persons would ever dissuade them acting to promote the greatest happiness for the greatest number.

So who is more evil? I’d say the second person, without a doubt. If given power, the second person would wield it without any concern for the lives of individuals. His only concern would be to fulfill the abstract command of utilitarianism, and no evidence of its evils could dissuade him from doing so. The first person would attempt to retain some respect for the rights of individuals. He could not bring himself to be so brutal as the second. Ultimately, of course, he’d likely have to give up utilitarianism or respect for rights, but until then, he could be pushed toward respect for rights.

Now, the consistent utilitarian is useful in a certain way: he shows others the ultimate end of the utilitarian position, while the mixed utilitarian conceals it. Yet that’s not relevant to evaluating them morally, because that’s just an accidental consequence of their moral commitments, not a part of their actual moral psychology. In other words, it’s not a trait that they’ve cultivated deliberately; it’s just a by-product.

That being said, it’s certainly true that — in some contexts — the person embracing evil in part is more dangerous than the person embracing evil in full. Yet that’s only because the partial-evil person serves as a stepping stone to the greater evil of the full-evil person. In other words, even that danger presupposes that the fully evil is is morally worse.

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