Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Nice evil by Hilary White

Tue Dec 14, 2010 ( -

I read Dr. Celia Wolf-Devine’s interesting piece the other day with great interest. I’ve been thinking about her assertion that people, ordinary, nice, regular people are not necessarily “moral monsters” simply because they hold that abortion should be legal. I read this and wondered, all respect to Dr. Wolf-Devine and her superior education and knowledge, if she is correct.Is it possible that the belief that children may legally be killed by their mothers is a definitive component of moral monsterhood? I realize it is an unpleasant thought that the great majority of our fellow-citizens hold moral opinions that are profoundly evil, but how can we, in these deadly times, dare to shy away from unpleasant possibilities?I don’t pretend to know the technical philosophical definition of “moral monster” but, to paraphrase a Supreme Court justice on pornography, I think we can know one when we see one. But we have to know what we are looking for. I believe that in modern times, deliberate human evil is more pervasive than it has ever been, but it is disguised.For some years now, I have mulled over the existence of something I have labeled “nice evil,” the ability of people whom we easily regard as “decent,” “ordinary,” or “nice” people, to hold, and on occasion act upon, moral ideas that our Christian forefathers would have instantly recognized as monstrously evil:The idea that it must be legal for children to be killed before birth at their mothers’ convenience. That elderly people owe it to society to commit suicide. That a man may contract a marriage-like legal arrangement with another man. That marriages can be contracted and tossed aside at a whim. That children can, and should be manufactured to the specifications of paying customers, like a luxury car. That the populous and fecund peoples of the world are a menace solely on the basis of their fertility. That human beings when they are very small, may be used as experimental test subjects.I had started my researches in human evil about ten years ago, when I spent two years bringing myself up to speed on the development of modern, post-Christian philosophy, and I made a horrible discovery.I had started to understand the vast scale of the shift in nearly all political and ethical thought in the west from its ancient Judeo-Greco-Christian to Cartesian, Hobbesian, Lockian, “Enlightenment” philosophies of utilitarianism and radical materialism. I had begun to see how totally pervasive these ideas have become, embedded into the minds of nearly every person in the western world, albeit largely unconsciously. And how they have grown and developed under the power of their own depraved logic.One day, I was struck by a horrifying thought. Under an old, Christian-based legal definition, insanity is understood to be the incapacity of a person to tell the difference between good and evil, right and wrong. If we propose that most people in the modern western world, people raised under the new, post-Christian, post-absolutist philosophical dispensation, truly do not know that abortion is wrong – that it is a monstrous evil to kill an innocent human being – nearly everyone around us is, in some sense, murderously insane. It was a bad moment.I don’t actually believe that (completely), but it is at least true that moral relativism – the idea that morality can be a flexible thing subject to individual circumstances and personal preference – has become the guiding principle, or perhaps anti-principle, for most people in our culture. But is this idea, moral relativism, not simply another word for the evil that men choose? The evil they refuse to give up in the face of “old fashioned” moral absolutism? Does this make the common man a “moral monster”?The 20th century political philosopher Hannah Arendt coined the term “banality of evil” when she observed the trial of Nazi war criminal Rudolph Eichmann. Eichmann was the very epitome of modern, banal, “nice” evil - an unthinking bureaucrat who, even to the end, could not seem to grasp the enormity of the evil in which he had taken part as a cog in the machine, a mere functionary.Observers of the Nuremburg trials often commented that many of Eichmann’s fellow Nazis were to all outward appearances perfectly ordinary, bland, modern, well-educated, even cultured men: bureaucrats whose mass murders were committed from a distance with the stroke of a pen, and with the most prosaic and dispassionate of justifications.We look back on this kind of man with the comfortable assurance that we are observing an undisputed monstrous evil, and are able to see it clearly. That man, those men, clearly ought to have known, and their facades of civilization are not enough to cover their shame. It is not enough, we can say, confident that the world will agree, to like Beethoven and Bach, to read Schiller and enjoy sports and be attentive husbands and fathers. We must know the difference between good and evil, or we are lost, we become those men, those civilized monsters. I have seen myself, many times, the existence of this new, passionless “nice evil.” I have met it nearly every time I discuss abortion with a member of the “personally opposed but…” culture. These are the “perfectly nice” people who believe that it is perfectly justifiable to murder an innocent infant or helpless old person, and for no other reason than the momentary inconvenience he creates for another. Is there not something even more monstrous about this banal and complacent evil? Is this not the smiling, reasonable face of our worst dystopian nightmares?Pro-life apologists like to compare our current abortion culture with that of slavery, one of the greatest evils ever perpetrated under (nominally) Christian princes.In the centuries during which it was practiced, and whole economies were based on it, millions of people lived and prospered on its arrears. Until William Wilberforce forced the British public to look the realities of slavery in the face, it seems probable that the majority of them would, as the saying goes, not wish to own a slave themselves, but would not want to impose their personal beliefs on others. Buy and sell human beings, kidnap and torture and murder them, if your morality says you can. It is none of my business to tell you what to do.Were these millions “moral monsters”? We are so sure of these evils now, but the question haunts us: why did they not know? And how are we different from them? Should these ordinary people not have instinctively known these evils?Should they not all have done what Wilberforce finally did? Should there not have been a mass movement of decent, ordinary people against the atrocity of slavery? Why did Wilberforce’s crusade meet with such determined opposition, and take so long to accomplish?To this day, we ask of the people who lived in the German and Polish towns adjacent to the Death Camps: how much did they know?We are desperate, in some sense, to believe that they did not know because we want to believe that ordinary people simply could not ignore such a horror. We are desperate, I think, because we are they. They are us. They were the ordinary modern people, whose complacency and prejudices we probably share.Under normal circumstances our common human tendency for complacency, for “going along,” for prejudice, whatever its particular targets, would not have deadly consequences. Under a sane government, in a sane culture, opportunities for sins of omission of such magnitude are not presented to the common man.But how long has it been since we have had a sane culture? It is governments, not individuals, who commit the great atrocities. But how complicit are we when we accept these political realities?If the all-encompassing philosophical background to our lives is an evil one, are we not all steeped in evil, largely unknowing, as a fish is unaware of the water in which he lives? It is the work of philosophy to create definitions and distinctions. Perhaps we should examine seriously this concept of “moral monster” and develop a definition. Maybe we would learn something about our world in the process.

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