My Problem Of Evil

by Theodore Dalrymple (July 2008)

As someone who has spent much of his life investigating the darker sides of human existence, either as a tourist of civil wars, or as a doctor working among criminals and misfits, I have a weakness for books with the word ‘evil’ in their title. I am still trying to understand, or at least make sense of, what I have witnessed, seen and heard, and have failed to do so to my own satisfaction. And so when I gave a talk recently in a bookshop for which my reward consisted of any book I wanted from the shelves, I chose The Myth of Evil by Phillip Cole, instead of the most expensive volume I could find.

Dr Cole is a philosopher who argues for the uselessness, indeed the harmfulness (I almost said the evil), of the concept of evil. And I confess that, though I have sometimes had a strong sense of being in the presence of evil, I have had some slight difficulty with the meaning of the concept myself. What exactly does it mean? Can we, ought we, or must we, do without it, philosophically, ethically, psychologically and sociologically?

Cole argues that the concept is redundant both as a description and as an explanation of human conduct. In fact, he says, its main use or function, when stripped of its unsustainable pretensions to describe or explain anything, is to frighten populations into acquiescence to the extension of power over them by ruling elites whose legitimacy might otherwise be called into question. For it is not common values or characteristics that unite political entities such as states in the modern world, he says, but common enemies, who are either wholly imaginary or whose power and malevolence are much exaggerated.

Indeed, he continues, the concept of evil is responsible for much harm (again, I almost said evil) in the world. The reason for this is clear. When we say of someone that he is evil, we are saying that he is a being of a quite distinct category from ourselves, such that normal ethical limits and restraints do not apply in the way that we must deal with him. For evil is the ultimate – well, evil, and must be destroyed by any means possible. Without the concept of evil, then, we would be much less likely to treat people evilly.

Is there any way that we can infallibly distinguish between what (or who) is evil, and what (or who) is merely bad? Or is evil just the extreme end of a moral spectrum? This would not entail that evil did not exist, just as the fact that, in any human population, there is a continuum of heights does not mean that there are no tall men. The fact that there is a continuum of haemoglobin concentrations in human blood does not mean that no one is anaemic. But it does mean that we should have to give up the search for the defining characteristic of evil as a positive force in the world, as if it were something wholly distinct and sui generis.

The acts that we are prepared to describe as evil must be morally reprehensible in themselves, do practical harm to others, be done from choice and with malevolence, and usually be characteristic of the agent rather than impulsive or exceptional to his character. All these conditions are dimensional rather than categorical; we still have not found the essence of evil, if there be one, that distinguishes it from the bad, the very bad, and the very, very bad.

And yet moral categorisation is not wholly dimensional. We do not say of a serial killer who kills twenty victims that he is twice as bad, morally, as one who kills ‘only’ ten. While on my peregrinations through civil wars I saw terrible things on a scale incomparably greater than anything I saw in medical practice, and yet I saw things in medical practice that caused the word evil to reverberate in my mind. To give only one example: a man was so jealous of his successive girlfriends that, in order to ensure that they attracted no one else, he threw acid in the face of the first and ammonia in the face of the second, maiming them for life. If anything could be called evil, this surely could, and should, be.

But what is the use of the word ‘evil’ here, beyond severe moral condemnation? Does it help to explain anything? Dr Cole tells us that it rather inhibits attempts at understanding than contributes to it.

We use the word ‘evil,’ says Dr Cole, to fill in the inevitable gap (or black hole) in our understanding of deeds that seem to us to be quite outside the normal human repertoire. This is because any set of explanatory factors that we may use to account for such deeds never accounts for them totally. Thus, when we find that a certain form of bad behaviour is much more common among people of a certain background or with certain formative experiences, there nevertheless remain many people who are from the same background or have had the same formative experiences who do not behave in like fashion. So there is a gap; and the gap remains however we refine or multiply the factors that we use to explain the behaviour.

Evil rushes in where psychology (or sociology) fails to tread. But, says Dr Cole, evil itself fails to explain anything.

He uses as an example the notorious and brutal murder of the two year-old James Bulger by two ten year-old children, John Venables and Robert Thomson. Both of the culprits came from highly disturbed and indeed sordid backgrounds, in which there was a lot of violence, emotional instability, excessive drinking, etc. The statistical connection between such a background and violent criminal behaviour is clear; but what the two boys did was nevertheless exceptional (murder by children, even from the worst circumstances is very rare).

The press called them monsters, and demanded that they should be locked away for the rest of their lives. But if they were monsters by birth, not only did this seem to reduce their moral culpability (for monsters by birth have no choice but to be monstrous), something must have accounted for their monstrosity: genetics, birth injuries, chemicals in their environment and so forth.

To invoke Satan, as many still do, is merely to postpone the problem: for why does Satan wish to corrupt humanity? He is a rebel against God, of course, but why, given his angelic constitution, did he rebel? If he was differently constituted from the other angels, that is to say was created distinct from them, he is not to blame for his rebellion, or not wholly to blame. Was he misled in turn by an ur-Satan, who tempted him to deviate from the path of God? We are faced here by the prospect of an infinite regress, in which we never reach the origin of evil.

In his discussion of the emblematic case of the murder of James Bulger, Dr Cole sometimes confuses things. He is highly critical (as many others have been) of the trial of the two boys accused of the murder according to the procedure that would normally have been used for adults, which he thought was traumatic for them and failed to recognise that they were still children and therefore not fully formed from the point of view of their character.

The confusion is twofold. First, a trial is not a therapeutic manoeuvre designed to do the accused some good. It has quite other purposes. The fact that a solemn trial was inevitably traumatic for the children was not, in itself, sufficient reason to avoid one. Second, although the children were not fully-formed as human beings, they were nonetheless moral agents. They lied to the police, and tried to throw the blame on each other, in quite cunning and sophisticated ways, indicating that they knew that they had done wrong and had something to hide. They knew perfectly well that stealing a child and smashing it to death with rocks was wrong.

But on the larger point on this case, Dr Cole is surely right: to have dismissed them as irredeemably evil, or possessed by evil, would have been mistaken and cruel, as is proved by the fact that the children subsequently turned out well, much better in fact than they would have done had they never committed the murder, for they received intense and humane attention thereafter. As the writer of a book on the case, Blake Morrison, put it (I quote from memory), ‘It was a pity they had to murder James Bulger to get an education.’ I don’t think I have read a more succinct and damning indictment of a society and its educational system than that, and no doubt it does not apply only to Liverpool, England. (The fact that the children turned out well suggests also that the trauma of the trial was not as great as supposed by its critics, or may actually have done the children some good. Not every experience we don’t like or want is bad for us.)

Now Dr Cole extends the lessons of this case to all human evil, if I may call it such for lack of a better word, whatsoever. Venables and Thompson were redeemable precisely because those who looked after them thought they were redeemable and did not consider them as evil by essence; by extension, everyone else who commits evil is redeemable, though perhaps with more difficulty.

I am not sure this holds. Venables and Thomson were redeemable relatively easily because they were so young when they committed their crime. They were carefully abstracted from the kind of social environment in which they would have been encouraged to commit further violence. Rather unusually for someone who is a hard-liner on the question of crime, I found myself in agreement with the lenient party in this case, who argued that they should be set free, with supervision, at the age of 21.

But the case is not a typical one. Most murderers, torturers, rapists and so forth are not 10 years old, but adults. And what Dr Cole, who is of a very different political stripe from me, does not appreciate is that his naturalistic account of evil (to the effect that what is called evil requires no special understanding beyond that we apply to all other human traits and conduct) does not lead to conclusions that he would easily find acceptable.

If the connection between evil acts and the life experiences of those who commit them is so strong and intimate that it is morally exculpatory, in other words that those who act evilly can do no other, and if as a matter of empirical fact there is no procedure that can reliably reform them, then the case, in the name of public safety, for ferociously long and incapacitating prison sentences, until time has done its work, is made. In other words, the connection between exculpation and penal leniency is a psychological one in the minds of penal liberals, not a logical one dictated by evidence and argument. The more circumstances ‘determine’ criminal behaviour, the more firmly ought criminal behaviour be repressed.

Only if we accept that there is something deeply mysterious about human freedom – are that men are free, despite our inability satisfactorily to explain exactly what we mean by it – can we dare to hope that neither ferocity nor prolonged incarceration will always be necessary for people to change.

But sometimes they will be necessary. That is why we shall always have to exercise judgement, and can lay down no hard and fast rules as if life could be lived out of a book of recipes.

As for the naturalistic theory of evil, it raises the hope, or rather the mirage, of a society so perfect that no one will have to be good (to use T S Eliot’s formulation). And that mirage has been responsible for as much evil as the concept of evil itself.

I confess that the problem is too difficult for me to solve. I am not philosopher enough – and neither, it seems to me, are most philosophers. I own myself defeated, but I shall go on using the word just like everyone else, as if its signification and implications were perfectly obvious.

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