Thoughts About EVIL

Posted: April 6, 2011 in Braak
Tags: , ,

I have just finished reading The Name of the Wind and its sequel, Wise Man’s Fear. Much has been said about the former, and I have nothing to add. Much of what was said about the former can be accurately applied to the latter, and so I have little to add to this, except for one or two things. The first thing is that I hate teenagers, and sometimes this causes the book to be frustrating; it is correct, psychologically-speaking, for 16-year-olds in general and Kvothe in particular to sometimes behave the way they do, but that doesn’t mean I find it less annoying. The second thing is that this book is plainly the middle of something, and so it has all the faults that middle books have – the spark of introduction has worn off, but the resolution is still a long ways away.

I guess it was two things then. But there’s one more bit I want to write about, something that this book brought to mind, and which I shall now discuss at length: evil.

Over at Black Gate, there’s been a long and sometimes-interesting (though sometimes-baffling) debate going on about whether or not certain critics are right to call Tolkien’s morality childish, whether or not they’re right to say that moral relativism is more “adult” (though I would, and have, argued that by “moral relativism” most agonists in this debate really mean “moral ambiguity”), and whether or not the rise in moral ambiguity is somehow commensurate with the fall of Western Civilization.

This will get you to most of it. There are a lot of people with a lot of positions here, so don’t let my descriptions of their positions influence you; I’m not even really responding to those cats, anyway, just using this whole thing as a jumping-off point.

These are all very big cans of worms, most of which I don’t want to open. I’ll be brief on this score, then: I think Tolkien is more complex than his detractors give him credit for, but probably less complex than his adherents would like to think, but ultimately I don’t really give a crap what anyone thinks about him. I kind of feel the same way about Western Civilization: it’s better than what people who disdain it say, but worse than what people who love it say, but civilizations rise and fall and I don’t really care.

The only can I’m interested in opening is this one, so let me lay it out: evil – that is to say, Evil evil, capital-E ultimate Evil, Sauron the Dark Lord, on his Dark Throne Evil – is childish.

I’m no moral philosopher or psycholomancer or anything like that – I’m not expert in anything, really, just basically a caveman who was frozen in a block of ice and thawed out a million years later, so your modern world is strange and confusing to me – but if there’s one thing I do know about, it’s children, and how children don’t know anything.

They don’t! We don’t, when we’re kids. We imagine ourselves at the center of the universe – standing on the planet of our mind, as it were, and all those stars above us are points of light in our personal skies. This is common knowledge; we start out with just “I”, and as we get older we start to develop something called a Theory of Mind. The Theory of Mind is the part of you and I that lets us understand that there is an intelligence motivating the actions of other people. We develop, very slowly, the understanding that we are one person in a world full of people, as opposed to the center of a world filled with us.

Now, when we get hurt, we remember it. We remember hurts longer than we do the nice stuff, because it’s always better to avoid a danger a second time than it is to not eat a tasty apple twice. The memories that last the longest are the ones most deeply ingrained into our personalities, and the memories in which we’re hurt are the ones that last the longest.

So, the point, I shall get to it: when you’re a kid and someone harms you, you can’t imagine why they’d do it. Literally, you can’t imagine why; you don’t have a theory of mind. You’re stuck believing that harming you was the point, because you understand all of everyone else’s actions in relation to you. You live in a world in which all harm done is harm for the sake of harm.

And hurts last longer than anything else, so they’re coded deep inside your brain. They’re one of the foundational building blocks for your personality. You carry them with you long into adulthood.

That’s what Ultimate Evil is. Evil for the Sake of It, Dungeons & Dragons Evil, Anti-Kantian Evil. It’s a childhood atavism, a holdover from when you couldn’t understand any reason to do harm EXCEPT to do harm.

When we talk about monsters like Sauron, some Pretty Evil Guys, I think, we don’t usually talk about them in terms of Ultimate Evil. We talk about Sauron like his goal is to “gain power” or “conquer the world” or something crazy like that, despite the fact that it’s not altogether clear why he’d want a conquered world where basically everyone was dead, or what he would do with a conquered world in the first place. Build statues to himself, maybe?

Anyway, it doesn’t matter, because it’s the conquering that we have to stop. Why he’s planning on taking over the world doesn’t much matter, what matters is that he is Doing Evil. It’s the lack of why (not that there isn’t a why, but that we don’t really need to consider it) that makes it Evil, and it’s also what makes it childish (because children only actually asked “Why?” in order to annoy you), and it’s the lack of why that makes it problematic when we start to let it inform our understanding of the world.

Some people have to be stopped, they say, because those people are Evil. Never mind why; the fact is that they want to harm us because they hate us, and they hate us because they’re evil. Evil-doers.

The problem with this is that in reality, most people who do evil think they’re doing good. That, in its way, is the very real and interesting point of Evil. That is the adult point of Evil: the understanding that while it looks like Evil from over here, it doesn’t look quite the same from over there.

But there’s no arguing about that in a lot of fantasy (well, not just fantasy, right? That’s why serial killers are such a good villain in detective novels, and why there’s always some insane terrorist in adventure technology thrillers). These guys aren’t misguided, they are capital-E evil, they want to cover the land in black shadow, kill your men and rape your women and throw your babies on the fire for Moloch, so don’t worry about who they are. It’s not important to understand the nature of orcs, because orcs only want to eat your face, anyway; all that matters is that now it’s time to kill them.

(I have, incidentally, always been fascinated by the orcs as a much-maligned and generally misunderstood civilization; in the only D&D game I ever played for any length of time, my character was a half-orc monk named Thak Spleeneater – a devout Buddhist whose terrifying name was really the by-product of a glib translation.)

This kind of evil is childish, though that’s not to say that The Lord of the Rings is childish. It is, like I said, a little more complex than that. Gollum is a pretty good illustration of a different way of understanding Evil, and you can make a strong argument that Tolkien purposefully set up the existence of Sauron as fantastical to give some kind of frame of reference for the very real human evil found throughout the book. That is, you could say that The Lord of the Rings was Tolkien’s way of saying, “Sure, we’ve got guys like Gollum and Wormtongue and Saruman in our world, but that’s not Evil. Here, this is what Evil is; bear that in mind the next time you start talking about how much you hate Arabs.” (Maybe; maybe Tolkien hated Arabs, too – one of the perils of accepting that bad people have more qualities than just their badness is that you have to equally accept that good people have more qualities than just their goodness.)

And the fact of the matter is, just because something is childish doesn’t mean it’s bad. Childish things are fun. You climb trees when you’re a kid because you like it and you don’t know about falling; it’s still pretty fun to climb trees when you’re a grown up. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying the kind of Good Guys versus Bad Guys mentality that makes moral decision-making in fantasy books so easy (though sometimes, as I might have once pointed out in Legend of the Seeker, peculiarly difficult).

But there is something wrong with not recognizing the fact that you enjoy it because it’s easy. Because it reminds you of your childhood when even complicated questions had simple answers. Because it lets you indulge in the kinds of things that you might want to do – like get revenge on people who hurt you – without guilt or repercussion or moral consequence.

And there is something very wrong with not recognizing that this kind of morality is by far too simplistic a one with which to understand the world at large.

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Comments
  1. Josh says:

    This is an interesting discussion in general, but I’m curious about the ways in which the Rothfuss books inspired it.

    [spoilers for the books below, I guess?]

    I thought you were going to tie it back in to NotW when you said that bit about how “[childhood] hurts last longer than anything else, so they’re coded deep inside your brain,” because that’s obviously what happened to Kvothe re: the Chandrian. And it’s interesting, I think Kvothe has stated, to himself/the reader, a couple times that his ultimate goal is revenge, but mostly what he’s actually in the process of doing is trying to find *information* about the Chandrian and the Amyr, and having a great deal of difficulty doing so. He’s trying to learn more, not blindly striking back. And meanwhile, there have been plenty of hints (which Kvothe has seemed mostly oblivious to) that the conflict between the Amyr and the Chandrian doesn’t exactly map onto good/evil, and particularly that the Chandrian may not be “evil” in that motiveless sense. They’re children’s stories bogeymen, sure, but they’re ALSO – the reader knows – real, and given that they’re real, the fact that they’re NOT actually out there stealing children and causing limitless death, pain, and suffering is evidence enough that they’re not exactly what the stories say they are. So, given your discussion, it seems almost like one strand of Kvothe’s story could potentially, metaphorically, be about the process of realizing Theory of Mind for those who harm you. I can’t imagine Kvothe could ever “forgive” the Chandrian or anything ridiculous like that, and that wouldn’t be satisfying, and any group that kills human beings to maintain secrecy IS “evil” in a real-world sense, but the Chandrian still didn’t seem, to me as a reader, to be capital-E Evil. So, because you didn’t state it, I’m wondering if the books inspired the discussion because you thought they did use this idea of an ultimate Evil, or because you saw a more complex engagement with the idea (which is clearly how I’m reading it, at least so far).

  2. Josh says:

    Wow. Apologies for that giant block of text : )

  3. braak says:

    That was exactly what inspired me about it. I don’t mean to say that I read the book and thought, ah, oh, the Chandrian are a good example of ultimate evil — I mean that the dribs and drabs of information made me think about it.

    Primarily, I think what was going through my head was whether or not I could say that they were verifiably evil. Once Denna makes the competing story that frames Lanre as a hero rather than as a monster, I got to wondering if maybe the whole thing was a complex Story War, in which Kvothe only understood the Chandrian as evil because of the stories that he heard, and maybe the truth was something more complex than that, and the “signs of the Chandrian” were coincidentally evil-looking, as opposed to being actually evil.

    Then I remembered all the murdering that they did.

    Of course, that Duke of Gibea did a lot of murdering, too, and Rothfuss cleverly frames the idea in a morally-ambiguous context; not only have we come to understand that the historical information that is presented to us is often woefully inaccurate or exaggerrated (so what we “know” about any one of these things might be wrong), but we’ve also been opened to the possibility that it might be acceptable to do wrong “For the Greater Good.”

    Likewise, the discussion of the Amyr has the smell of a red herring to it; Kvothe is so sure of their goodness, despite a lack of evidence, that as a reader I can’t help but be suspicious that he’s completely (or anyway *mostly*) wrong about them.

    My suspicion, however, is that the Chandrian are going to turn out to be Evil.

    Incidentally, the demons in those R. Scott Bakker books (ahm…the Inchoroi, I think they were called) were a pretty good example of something that looks like Evil for Its Sake, but they actually did horrible things to pretty specific ends: they needed to kill millions of people in order to seal off the world from Hell, so that when they died their souls wouldn’t get dragged away for an eternity of torment.

    Which is, at least, a reason.

  4. Josh says:

    Ooh. All of that sounds right to me. Hmm.

    And also, that bit of information is the first bit I’ve heard that actually makes me want to read the Bakker. Do you recommend those books?

  5. braak says:

    I absolutely recommend R. Scott Bakker’s books. The part about the Inchoroi comes very late in the story, but they are some of the best — by which I mean, the most complex, the most philosophically dense, the most flat-out interesting — epic fantasy that I’ve ever read. I have been fairly champing at the bit for The White-Luck Warrior, which is the newest in the second trilogy.

    As for Rothfuss, there’s a lot here that interests me, too, and I am excited about it; HOWEVER — somehow I had it in my head that the Kingkiller Chronicles were a trilogy. I have no idea why I thought this, as near as I can see it doesn’t say it anywhere on any of the books. But I did think it, and it’s with a little dismay that I realize that this series is going to be decades in the reading.

    Hhhhuhhhhm.

  6. Carl says:

    I think the point that you come to at the end of your analysis (that the human impulse to reduce the motivations of others to the zero-sum proposition of Evil or Good is uselessly simplistic) is an important and correct one. But I strongly disagree with your conclusions about those who posit the existence of personified Ultimate Evil (and by implication, personified Ultimate Good), and find the charge of childishness against them presumptuous and kind of insulting. It makes sense from your perspective: if there’s nothing beyond the quantifiable world, than anything which, by its nature must be more whatever it is than the constraints of the material world allow, cannot exist, and so devils are no less fabricated crutches for the foolish than angels. But I don’t think it’s fair to make a blanket assessment in the belief in Evil as immature or unsophisticated. You might presume that one who believes in a personified Ultimate Evil (for which the likes of Sauron is a metaphor) had drawn an incorrect conclusion (either from deductive reasoning about the consumptive and sacrificial impulses of human beings– observing the contrast of agape to sadism in themselves and others, and extrapolating the probable existence of beings capable of more of either– or by mistaking their experiences, caused say, by unknown chemical reactions in the body, for genuine spiritual occurrences) without jumping immediately to the charge of immaturity. It just seems like the sort of dismissive tact that undermines dialogue, which the New Atheists take in declaring themselves ‘Brights’. Your theory about the adoption of the notion of evil as a tidy, childhood lens for viewing and understanding an immeasurably complex world is clever and well-reasoned, but it fails to account for quite a long and well-considered history of profound thought given to this question by some very great minds in the history of our species. I appreciate your move in identifying the trap that a belief in Evil creates for us in trying to understand “evil actions” by human beings, but one doesn’t all necessitate the other.

    For the record, I don’t think its quite right to say that ‘its the lack of why that makes Evil’ any more than its correct to say that ‘its the presence of why that makes Good’. I’m not sure that construct helps us to understand evil either theoretically or practically. In the theological construct in which Tolkien was grounded, of course, there is no such thing as Evil, per se, there is only Good and perverted (or misapprehending) Good (which we call Evil)– its the absence of is, not the presence of not. But both seek ends perceived as good by the actor (goods of a sort). Even the most ‘evil’ efforts undertaken in human history, on the large scale and small, serve the objective of achieving some perceived ‘good’ (whether its the achievement of a racially purified species or of the sexual charge that a vicious rapist gets out of domination a victim. Those are EVIL things done to achieve some perceived benefit.) Thus, Melkor can’t create anything of his own, he can only corrupt, because Evil has no being in itself. He cannot generate, he can only consume, like the Screwtape demons eating their subordinates, and then being themselves eaten by their superiors, in a succession of consumption that ends only with the Satanic consumption of everything and absolute annihilation. But the Evil that is service of that appetite is a perceived good. And that’s really the contrast of forces on display: the generative/expansive/productive, achieved by means of self-sacrificial, versus the consumptive/entropic/privative, achieved by means of the selfishness.

    Now, allow me to now to Geek out on you for a sec. I’ve always been particularly fascinated by the Orcs too, actually. Have you read the section from HISTORY OF MIDDLE EARTH on Orcs? If not, its worth a look. Tolkien himself was confounded by them for this very reason and went to his grave undecided about their essential nature. He couldn’t reconcile what he had created in the Orcs, and what he’d written over the course of a lifetime about them, to what he actually believed about evil. It was theologically impossibility for biological, sentient beings, like the Orcs, which were not automatons, but had genuine free will (as he insisted they had), to be either individually or collectively irredeemable (meaning they should rightly destroyed as abominations, as his heroic characters in Middle Earth freely do). Their origins were being constantly re-written, and more revisions he made, the more problematic they became. Giving them either Elvish or Mannish origins was unworkable. Somewhere along the way he decided that their origins involved powerful demons possessing the bodies of animals and forcibly mating with humans, but even then, it didn’t solve the problem of free will from Sauron, which the LORD OF THE RINGS clearly demonstrates they have. If a thing is free it cannot be fated to be certain way, and so its irredemption cannot be a foregone conclusion. And, of course, this means that their indiscriminate slaughter on the basis of that assumption by Men, Elves, and Dwarves was morally criminal. Pretty interesting stuff.

  7. Some good thoughts on evil up here. I’m not sure children are as simple as we all seem to think, but as adults we constantly cling to a “childish” black and white morality. I do think your personal morality should be clear and unambiguous, but you won’t be able to understand people without flexibility.

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/adamcurtis/2011/03/goodies_and_baddies.html

    That’s a bit by Adam Curtis which puts Good and Evil and humanitarian intervention under the microscope. It’s really very interesting and very useful to know.

    As for Rothfuss, I tried reading the first one, but I don’t know if I have it in me to read epic fantasy. (Besides, I was really turned off by the implied premise that we see a bleak future and have to see his ‘growth’ to there. Especially as it was kept so super-annoyingly-mysterious for the first ten pages.) The only one I’ve ever read since adulthood is LotR and that might be more for nostalgia’s sake, though he does wax lyrically rather well. Actually, that’s not true, I read Tigana and while I was gripped and stuck to the book for a week, I felt horribly useless and wasted afterwards. I only just read Pratchett’s Discworld recently, and I can’t emphasize how much I love that universe, but that’s far from ‘epic.’ I just don’t think I have the patience for them anymore, if I ever did.

  8. jge says:

    @braak It’s a trilogy because it will be told in three days. That’s what Kvothe says at the first day, chen Chronicler tries to haggle about the time needed. — But after the second book there seems an awful lot left to tell.

  9. braak says:

    !!! That’s right. I knew there was a reason.

    But, yeah, unless there’s a chapter in the next book that’s like, “And then I sat under a tree for nine years, the end,” I’m not sure how he’s going to fit all the rest in.

    Maybe he won’t finish it in three days? The army will come and they’ll become refugees somewhere, while Kvothe tells the story of the remaining nine years.

  10. braak says:

    @Carl: Insulting, what? Don’t be insulted. You don’t see me getting insulted even though you paint me with the same brush as you do the “Brights”. Why, because we’re both atheists? Though I’ve never given any sign that I approve of their foolishness, that I think people who disagree with me are dull or stupid or dimwitted? Why them, and not one of any number of people who make derogatory claims about strangers? What about me puts me in the same categories as those assholes?

    Maybe I was a little insulted. More about “presumptuous,” I think. You know, like I didn’t have the RIGHT to criticise Tolkien or Lewis or, I don’t know, Thomas Aquinas. Like I was unworthy. I can’t even tell you how blindingly furious that made me, in part because I can’t think of any circumstance, EVER, when I would criticise an argument of yours for being insufficiently deferential to your intellectual forbears. The notion is, quite literally, unimaginably appalling. Three drafts of my response later I calmed down a little. “Calm down,” I said to myself. “This isn’t about you, you know, this is about Carl feeling like you’re attacking his religion and, by extension, his personal identity. Get some perspective, son.”

    But so, maybe I am doing that. Maybe I should be a little more clear, I guess. I don’t think a person is childish for holding on to a notion that they developed in childhood. I suspect most of our notions are developed that way. And I don’t think that the consideration of Evil is a glib or childish enterprise in and of itself. And I am not overlooking thousands of years of philosophical consideration on the subject. I just think that it’s wrong – and, in my defense, it’s not as though I’m the only one who’s ever thought that. By saying, “I think the notion of Evil as a force beyond the purely material is incorrect,” all I’m doing is picking up something from OTHER thousand-year-old moral philosophies.

    I do think it’s wrong, though. Here is the way that it looks to me: I imagine that the world is a puzzle with a million pieces, and everyone goes through a period in their lives when a certain collection of, say, a hundred of them look like they fit together really well. How do you tell the difference between a shape of a hundred pieces that looks right but is still wrong, and a shape that looks mostly right but needs to be revised in order to fit, and a shape that you just haven’t found a space for yet? There’s a million pieces to the puzzle; the outcomes are difficult to distinguish. I’m not saying there’s no validity in the long hours spent trying to reconcile that shape, in the many subsidiary shapes created in order to fit it into the rest of the puzzle, or that there’s anything wrong for having considered the shape necessary to fit. I’m just saying that it’s the wrong shape, and that no matter how you look at it, no matter what you do with it, in the end it’s never going to fit.

    The point about Tolkien and the orcs I think illustrates my point exactly – and, again, let me point out that I’ve already admitted that Tolkien isn’t the best example of this, because he DOES have a complex moral philosophy, and his understanding of good and evil is NOT childish. But look at what he’s done: as a narrative device he creates an Evil adversary that the Good Guys can kill without moral qualm. This is what I say is childish. Except he’s not a child, he’s an adult with a complex understanding of the world, and so he tries to reconcile this childish idea (“orc,” incidentally, is an Old Norse word for “wicked spirit;” the Bad Guys are quite literally boogey-men) with his more complex moral philosophy, and what happens? He can’t figure out how to do it. The problem (well, “problem”) is that he refuses to discard the notion of Evil monsters, and it’s that notion, because it’s abundant and easy, that gets picked up and spread around by his successors.

  11. braak says:

    @Carl: Now, I think the idea of Why is absolutely essential, though I think you’re misunderstanding me if you think I’m saying that “why” is the only thing necessary to distinguish Evil. I am talking about how, in this very particular context (which, if I may remind you, is narrative fantasy fiction and NOT theology), it is the need for and lack of Whyness that lets us distinguish Evil from everything else. Melkor can only destroy and can never create, but is that evil? A hurricane can only destroy, but it isn’t evil. Gangrene only corrupts, but it isn’t evil. But to ask “why” of a hurricane is unreasonable; the hurricane has no motivations, it’s just a thing that does what is in its nature to do.

    But imagine a man whose job is to knock down buildings with a wrecking ball. All he does is destroy, is he evil? Well, he could maybe play music in his spare time, but let’s say he doesn’t. Let’s say all he does is eat and sleep and knock down buildings with a wrecking ball. Is he evil? Maybe he takes no joy in it, maybe he just does it because it’s his job. But let’s say he DOES enjoy it, and that’s why he’s self-employed. Is he evil then? It’s possible to knock down buildings so that new things could be built on them, and this might be destruction to serve a greater good, so let’s say he doesn’t do that – he only knocks down buildings that he knows no one will ever build on top of. Just a guy who produces nothing, just spends all of his time eating, sleeping, and turning abandoned buildings into completely wrecked buildings.

    This guy is weird, but he isn’t really Evil, obviously, because he isn’t really harming anyone. So, let’s say there’s a hobo living in one of the buildings. Does he knock the building down? Maybe it’s an accident, so that’s not evil. Let’s say he does know, and he knocks the building down, anyway.
    That this is morally criminal is obviously the case. So, it is an evil action, but is this hypothetical guy an Evil person? Maybe that hobo had a rocket launcher he was going to shoot at the guy. Maybe that hobo had killed the guy’s parents.

    So. What is the question that you would ask to determine whether this was a guy who did something evil, or he was an Evil guy who did something?

    It’s the same with Sauron (who I noticed was conspicuously absent from your reply); he could do good, or not do Evil at least. But he doesn’t. And why doesn’t he? Well, who the shit knows. Even if we presume that, like the demons in Screwtape, he has taken a good and misunderstood it in such a way that it compels him to do Evil, the fact remains that he – unlike the orcs – is ontologically predisposed to understanding things this way. Why is Sauron the way he is? Because that is the way that he is. When you can ask that question and receive that answer, that’s when you’re talking about Evil.

    Finally: I think you do a disservice to me to suggest that it’s my materialism that causes me to believe all this about evil. If I believed in the Devil – and obviously this is hard to say for sure, because I’d be a different person if I believed in the Devil, and how else would I be different because of that belief? Let’s assume that I am exactly the same, except for Devil-belief – I wouldn’t think he was Evil. I imagine I would feel a great sympathy for him. And I think you do a disservice to materialism in general by saying that it doesn’t acknowledge anything beyond the quantifiable universe, because this is misleading – the first thing you have to accept as a materialist is that you aren’t sure what the boundaries of the quantifiable universe are. How could you say anything about what’s beyond them?

  12. braak says:

    Maybe “Ontologically Evil” is a better word for it than “Ultimate Evil.” Evil-By-Virtue-of-Its-Nature:

    1) A product of childhood, when everything that did a bad thing must be essentially bad.

    2) An easy narrative device that gives a hero adversaries who can be destroyed without moral consequence.

    3) A completely disastrous idea to apply in any real-world situation.

  13. Carl says:

    To the matter of injuries and broad brushes: I in NO WAY meant to imply that you lack the rights to criticize ANYONE, least of all some fiction writers or dead philosophers (what good are they to us if we CAN’T kick around their presumptions and assertions?), and I never knowingly would. If that’s what you read in my comments, then I was completely inarticulate. I think its the inherent dismissiveness of the word “childishness” that’s caused the rub here. To restate your thesis as I understood it: a belief in Evil is childish, as it cannot be primarily predicated on an adult and sophisticated consideration of the nature of our existence, but is instead only a vestigial holdover from the undeveloped mind once grasping in simplicity at complexities beyond its abilities. That hits a nerve if you believe in Evil. I only brought the matter of Institutional Philosophy (and its history with the question of Evil) into the conversation as a way of pointing up the fact that many other capable minds HAD grappled with the question in a supremely sophisticated fashion. To say their conclusions are wrong on the merits is one thing, to say their conclusions are the result of irrational, immature self-delusions seems like another. And OF COURSE you’re picking up where ‘other thousand-year-old moral philosophies’ leave off, but nobody is accusing those philosophers of being children. Perhaps you meant “childish” in strictly clinical, biological terms. But there is, you’ll admit, a pejorative association with it that’s hard to miss. Also, I in no way meant to generally lump you in with the ‘Brights’, only to suggest that I perceived in the approach of this critique of a belief in Evil– in the language and tone– a condescension and easy dismissiveness of those who would disagree– that, yes, stung a bit, and seemed right out of their playbook. I misread the intent, I guess, and genuinely apologize for bringing them into the discussion.
    Anyhow, okay, so I’m not insulted, nor should you be.
    I agree that the narrative device of the Orcs as Evil is childish in exactly the way you describe, (and so, apparently, does Tolkien). With regards to Whyness, Melkor, hurricanes, and Ontological / Ultimate Evil: Melkor and Mr. Wrecking ball differ from hurricanes and gangrene not only in terms of sentience, but in terms of Free Will. Things which by their nature, and as their function, destroy and consume, are not the same as things which freely choose to destroy and consume (for nonconstructive purposes.) (Tangential thought: though, as we’ve discussed before, I understand Christ’s declaration of his Kingdom being ‘not of this world’ to relate the essential character of our universe, illustrated by the sorts of phenomena you identify. A universe that is consumptive, entropic, and privative, which hinges on the competition for limited resources on every scale, and which exists under the implied threat of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, doesn’t seem to reflect the expression of a Deus Agape. Does that make the universe itself Evil? Not really, because evil implies agency. But it does seem to suggest that dynamics of existence cooperate with evil in a way they do not with good. Which is really just to say: doing the right thing will always be harder than doing the wrong thing. It’s easier to destroy than create. It takes less energy to destroy than maintain because chaos and entropy are woven into the fabric of being. All things in existence slouch towards successive consumptions and ultimately towards the end of heat and motion itself. And Tolkien, of course, reflects this metaphorically in the story of Melkor’s pollution of the Music that gives rise to the universe in creation. Melkor is evil by choice, and the universe is without choice, but his fingerprints are all over it and it inescapably reflects his character.) Clearly, no actual, sentient being is Ontologically Evil, and no sophisticated fictitious being really ought to be either. But the agents in question really AREN’T Ontologically Evil– not the fictitious Melkor, not even the (ostensibly) actual Satan. The understanding of them as evil is the assessment of their aggregate choices. Even Satan chose to reign in Hell rather than serve in Heaven, in pursuit of some perceived good (the pleasure of power, the charge one gets in the service of pride)– so, too, Melkor and Sauron. Sauron is no more the way his for “no good reason” than Ghaddafi is the way he is “for no good reason”. (This is particularly the case with the Maiar, who, unlike the Judeo-Christian God, are not absolute beings. They’re modeled consciously on the pantheistic Pagan deities, which were essentially just jacked-up humans, subject to all the same foibles and complexities as humans.) This is why I think talking about them in terms of the Ultimate Evil rather than an Ontological Evil makes more sense. They may have a infinitely greater capacity for evil than anything or anyone else in their respective realities, but that doesn’t make them Ontologically Evil. Free Will is still the fulcrum of their characters.

    Now, with regards to Mr. Wrecking Ball and the question of whether or not his murder of the hobo is evil (certainly his function, ultimately in preparation for the constructive, of clearing dilapidated buildings is not, any way we slice it) and how we determine it: first of all, I think the missing piece in this conversation is the matter of sadism. It doesn’t seem like your conception of evil allows for the possibility of evil actions for their own sake. But sadism is its own reward, afterall; it doesn’t need to avenge dead parents or prevent a terrorist action. It’s simply pleasure derived from causing of harm and is, in my opinion, the essence of evil, because it is profoundly and blindly consumptive, and is the result of knowing agency. If there are a whole host of complex mitigating circumstances driving Mr. Wrecking Ball to knowingly kill a hobo in a building, to whatever degree those things impact his motives, the question of evil becomes immeasurably muddy. But the rush experienced– satisfaction had– on the basis of the hobos suffering alone and only for its own sake, is evil. Of course, who can know the heart of any other person? Only God (if God exists), and so there is no point in attempting judge to what degree Mr. Wrecking ball is himself evil. We can only judge the actions themselves. Regarding my misunderstanding of the claims of materialism and my misattribution of it to your analysis of evil: I appreciate the clarification about the relationship of the construct to what could potentially exist outside the quantifiable universe. Think I got it now.

    And finally, my friend, to your hypothetical sympathy for the Devil:

    If I understand your meaning correctly, I can only conclude again the same thing that I do whenever we engage in this sort of discourse: were you a Christian theist, you would be an impressive one in every regard.

  14. Carl says:

    Screw you, html.

  15. You don’t really have to go super deep into the histories to see Tolkein’s conflict with the morality of orcs. Gandalf tells Frodo that even the orcs deserve pity, not hate. And to be fair to the moralistic dilemma of the heroes, they do only kills those who would kill them. Hell, the biggest massacre in the book is when the trees kill Saruman’s orcs. Everything else is a “just war.”

    Also, I was always under the impression that the Jewish Satan (from Job) was less about evil and fear and more about testing mankind’s faith in God. He has a role, and he fulfills it anyway he can, but he isn’t evil, he’s just lonely and wants some humans to control in his pit. Besides, it’s not like Satan reigned fire and brimstone on Job’s city, God’s Angels did. (I might be mistaken here, but it’s been awhile.)

  16. Sorry, I guess I should have included a disclaimer, as I have no intention of stoking fires of a religious debate. Most of my opinions of Satan come from Widen’s The Prophecy (in which Viggo plays Lucifer) and a history channel special on the nature of Satan. I just like the idea of Satan being similar to Loki or Hades in that they are carrying out their tasks, not embodying any sort of imperative moral force. It makes for better stories in my head.

  17. braak says:

    Yeah, there’s a lot of early Jewish literature that discusses “Satan” (from a Hebrew root STN, which is cognate with the Greek diabolos, something literally like “stumbling block” or “obstacle”) as kind of like God’s DA. Satan-the-Accuser is perceived as being evil because it’s his job to test the faith of humanity on God’s behalf. If that’s the case, then he’s really gotten a bad rap — the poor guy is essentially the Building Code Inspector of the universe, trying to make sure the houses don’t fall down and what, and all anyone can ever think of is how he keeps refusing to give them building permits.

    Though this does suggest an interesting point that I aim to bring up with Carl, which is the equation of Satan with a universe that is spiralling into decay — that the universe isn’t evil, but that it cooperates with evil by its nature. The problem that I have with this is that it suggests a number of things that I’m not sure are implicitly good, but only good from a strong anthropocentric perspective. What is implicitly bad about disorder? We, as humans, obviously don’t like it (except for when we do like it, because “disorder” is relative to a potentially-stifling excess of order). Death is bad, because we, as human beings, instinctively desire to persist indefinitely.

    But are those things really bad? Consider, Carl, your terrible slanders against entropy: to say that it cooperates with evil may be true, but it does equally cooperate with good. Life, evolution, civilization, all those things are made possible by entropy, because a universe in which all energy exchanges were perfect would be static. The sun, in its enormous radioactive decay, fueling the chaos of earth from which order emerges is entropy.

    The heat death of the universe is entropy, yes. But you, holding your son against your chest to warm him because he’s cold, that is also entropy.

    I’m not even sure that it’s right to say that entropy cooperates with evil; if we want to use the Holocaust as a touchstone for human evil, for instance: that was about as bad as it gets, but it wasn’t easy. It took an enormous amount of energy and dedication to build the Third Reich and, in fact, it was entropy — the growing disorder of Hitler’s mind, and the growing disorder of his organization — that played a significant part in Germany’s eventual defeat.

    This is part of the reason, I think, why I have a hard time accepting certain interpreations of Satan (or Melkor) as evil — because though they contribute to a universe of privation and suffering, they cannot be entities unaccounted-for. If Satan exists as a force for destruction in the universe, it is because the universe was designed to be destroyed.

    This is what makes the idea of Sauron so interesting to me, though; the idea of using pagan gods as templates for the Maiar — I think it’s kind of a mistake to suggest that those gods were just like people except for more powerful. That’s certainly true in some senses, but not in others; Dionysus, for instance, is a powerful force for disorder who does not also enjoy a commensurately powerful sense of compassion. He isn’t simply a human being writ large, but a human being with certain particular characteristics writ large — which is to say, he functions according to his nature, because he is the embodiment of a natural force, which is something we forget to our great sorrow.

    But it raises some interesting questions about Sauron, doesn’t it? Sauron sided with Melkor because he appreciated Melkor’s ability to get shit done — it was in his nature to appreciate orderliness. But what is the source of that nature? He was an immortal spirit before he entered the material world; did he have a different nature then? Did he have a youthful nature that grew into something that preferred orderliness above morality? Power above compassion? Or did he spring into being with that nature already intact? Because how can we suggest that Sauron was an entity with the capacity for free will, when he was designed in a way that predisposed him to choose evil?

    A lot of this is what I was trying to get at in my original post, though; I don’t think Tolkien’s understanding of evil was childish, but I do think that the defense of him — as an author who preferred a straight good versus evil morality — is. The idea of Good versus Evil, when predicated on Ontological Evil (the way Tolkien didn’t do it, necessarily, but many of his successors, who really served to define the Epic Fantasy genre, did), is an idea that I still maintain has its roots in an atavism from a skewed childhood perspective. The upshot of all this was: moral ambiguity actually DOES make stories more adult, and it’s the fact that Tolkien’s world had a great deal more moral complexity than he sometimes gets credit for that makes Lord of the Rings not a children’s morality tale.

    The muddiness of the hobo-killing wrecking ball swinger is what I was trying to point out: that the only way we can determine that he is an evil person, rather than a person who, by virtue of whatever reasons and motives, performed an evil act is to say: “Why?” It’s why the whyness is so important; and, obviously, in real life we can’t answer that question (which is why the idea of Ontological Evil is so disastrous outside of fiction) but the places that we CAN know it are: 1) hypothetical situations that I am making up right now, 2) when we write books, and read them. So, since I can ask “why?” as a novelist, I MUST ask why, or else I run the risk of reducing the morality of my characters to something childishly simple.

    And anyway, Evil-for-the-Sake-of-It is what you’re describing with sadism, yes, but I wouldn’t use “sadism” to describe it, only because “sadism” is also a word that describes a very real and fairly ordinary sexual kink in which a participant experiences sexual arousal by inflicting pain — something which is not implicitly evil. I didn’t want to get the two of them confused. I want to say that all of this kind of Evil is fictional, but then some horrible maniac like Josef Fritzl crops up and, man, for as much as I don’t feel comfortable with judging as God does and calling another human being evil, but…man.

  18. Carl says:

    @Expat: as Chris says, you’re exactly right about the traditional Jewish understanding of the Devil as a co-operative Devine Agent under God’s purposeful and immediate direction. The interesting thing about this take on the Devil is not what it does to our conception of him, as much as what it implies about the character of the God. The truth is, though, the God of the Old Testament is a colorful fellow in many regards, and his active use of ‘evils’ to achieve His ends through an intermediary doesn’t seem especially out of character. But that’s an EXTREMELY DEEP rabbit-hole that I don’t have the time to fall down right now. I do want to ask about this business of Gandalf insisting on pity for the Orcs: when does this go down? I’m not doubting you, I just don’t recall it. There’s the famous discussion with Frodo in Moria about Gollum’s deserving pity over death, but the only mention of the Orcs in that discussion is when Frodo says of Gollum:

    ‘I can’t understand you. Do you mean to say that you, and the Elves, have let him live on after all those horrible deeds? Now at any rate he is as bad as an Orc , and just an enemy. He deserves death.

    That seems to imply a shared presumption on their part about the innate non-worth of the Orc. And Gandalf doesn’t correct him on that point in the monologue that follows; he only talks about Gollum’s right to mercy. Then he promptly leads the boys off to an unapologetic orc-slaughter over at Balin’s tomb. This would make sense if the line of demarcation for authentic personhood is drawn (by the author and his protagonists) between the Children of Iluvatar and the Orcs. Gollum gets consideration because, after all, he’s just mangled Hobbit.

  19. Carl says:

    @Braak: there’s a lot to be said here, so I’ll try to employ some pith.

    ON CHAOS AND BADNESS
    I wonder if your Nazism example really holds up: it seems like it would STILL take less energy, of a variety of kinds, for the Third Reich to knock things over and gas people to death, then it would have to construct and maintain a utopian Europe. Speaking strictly in terms of expenditures of energy, they did the comparably easy stuff on their docket and then exited the scene. Rounding up millions of Jews and gassing them to death over a couple of years required a tremendous expenditure of energy, but far less energy than it would have to keep all those people alive and well over the course of decades, provide for them, feed them, educate them, successfully manage their interactions, create and manage institutions that support harmonious and successful living, etc. It’s the reason why winning the Iraq war took a matter of weeks but the reconstruction has barely gotten off the ground after a decade of money, sweat, blood, and tears and effort. Positive efforts simply require more energy because the universe doesn’t as easily facilitate them.

    But I don’t want to make the argument that chaos and disorder are themselves inherently bad. They’re inescapable features of the nature of this reality and characterize the universe, which as I said, isn’t evil. ‘Good’ and ‘evil’ are just signifiers, anyhow, for the broad ends of a continuum of behavioral motivations and actions done and perceived by humans (and other sentient, non-corporeal agents engaged in the human drama, if you believe they exist). Sure, within the parameters of this universe, evils can be turned to goods. Malice can unexpectedly create the conditions that make possible acts of Love. Enduring tragedy can radically change a person’s perspective, bring about healing, lead to renewal. If I didn’t believe this, I couldn’t believe in a good, eucatastrophic resolution to the existential narrative of a universe that’s consuming itself, as I very much do. A metaphoric expression of this idea being:

    And thou, Melkor, shalt see that no theme may be played that hath not its uttermost source in me, nor can any alter the music in my despite. For he that attempteth this shall prove but mine instrument in the devising of things more wonderful, which he himself hath not imagined.’

    and this, which I love:

    Through [Melkor] has pain and misery been made in the clash of overwhelming musics; and with confusion of sound have cruelty, and ravening, and darkness, loathly mire and all putrescence of thought of thing, foul mists and violent flame, cold without mercy, been born, and death without hope. Yet is this through him and not by him; and he shall wee, and ye all likewise, and even shall those beings, who must now dwell among his evil and endure though Melko misery and sorrow, terror and wickedness, declare in the end that it redoundeth only to glory, and doth but make the theme more worth the hearing, Life more worth the living, and the World so much the more wonderful and marvellous, that of all the deeds of Ilúvatar it shall be called his mightiest and his loveliest.

    But evils don’t stop being evils because goods can be made of them. And this leads me to my point about the universe facilitating evil.

    ON THE NATURE OF NATURE
    I use the term Entropy less in the broad sense of ‘referring to a measure of (increasing) disorder’ generally and more in the narrow sense of ‘referring to a measure of the (increasing) unavailability of a system’s energy to do work’— in the way we talk about it thermodynamically. The point is, the entropy of all systems implies the end of heat and motion, the end of life, and eventually, of being itself, as all systems cease to be able to do work of any kind. So, in the short term, yes, destruction and chaos can make new arrangements of work possible— new order— but in a larger sense, and as the rule to which all things adhere, the capacity of all things to do resists the essential entropic progression of this reality towards an inert state of unbeing, towards which all things that are are filtering. So look, if we accept the proposition that being, as opposed to non-being, is a self-evident good (as a smart man I know once wrote…

    I think there’s a strong argument for, and a lot of support for the idea, that life is inherently positive. As a condition opposed to a simple non-condition, it seems like it’s one of the few areas of the human sphere that can be described as being inherently positive.

    …then we can conclude that the universe, while not being Evil, is cooperates with the antithesis of that self-evident good. (Regarding the charge of anthropocentrism: well, of course, this is all admittedly predicated on my definitions of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ as laid out in my previous post in the thread. I imagine as your definitions of those forces change, so would the lens through which you understand the forces that make the universe what it is. We’re all, all of us, products of our cultural and historical contexts, me no less than anyone else.)

    You write:

    Life, evolution, civilization, all those things are made possible by entropy, because a universe in which all energy exchanges were perfect would be static. The sun, in its enormous radioactive decay, fueling the chaos of earth from which order emerges is entropy.

    Who knows what the universe would be if it were something other than what it is? You’re probably right about a universe in which all energy exchanges were perfect, but I think we can conceive of a universe predicated on the opposite of entropy— a universe structured in a way that where energy exchanges generate rather than consume. But our universe’s privation-competition structure biologically, evolutionarily, chemically, and astophysically rewards selfishness— taking to the self at the expense of the other. And so, there is a way in which life on this planet (and, so far as life here reflects larger systems of similar function and structure, the Universe) raises problematic questions about a Deus Agape (for those of us interested in that idea). This quandary is most commonly expressed in this fashion: “How can a benevolent God let bad things constantly happen to good people?” “Why did God make life so fucking hard?” “Any God that would make happiness this elusive and impossible cannot be a loving God in any way I can understand,” etc. And if the universe reflects the essential nature of God, I agree. But I don’t think it does. I think, as I have said to you before, that the perpetual willing into being a universe of the sort we are describing by a Thing whose nature is its absolute opposite (perpetually generative, expansive, sacrificial) is a kind of perpetual— ahem— crucifixion and itself an act of constant Love.

    You probably know more about Dionysus and the pagan pantheon than I do, so I defer to you on that point. In the case of Sauron though, Tolkien was explicit that The Legendarium was a consciously Catholic work in terms of its theology and cosmology. As I’m sure you know, a major sticking point between Catholic and Protestant theologies is the business of predestination. If we take Tolkien at his word, Sauron and Melkor couldn’t have been predestined for anything; they were free agents with free wills. As Elrond says at the Rivendell Council “Nothing is evil in the beginning. Even Sauron was not so.” (By the way, where are you getting this business about Sauron siding with Melkor because he ‘got shit done’. Not doubting you, just don’t recall that from anywhere. Is that a Braakian interpretive imposition?)

    ON SADISM
    I’m fairly sure that the term ‘sadism’ has expanded beyond the specifically sexual connotation of its origins to mean any degree of pleasure that is had by inflicting any kind of pain on something or someone else. I’ve hunted around on the internet today to confirm this. You’re talking about Sexual Sadism, or what is colloquially referred to as Sadomasochism. This expansion of the word is probably unfair to the kink phenomenon you are describing. I’m not really interested in delving into kink, as the conversation is immeasurably complicated, and I think sexual impulse itself, being so extreme and profound an aspect of humanness, touches all parts of primitive self, productive and destructive. This is why the subject of the confusion of sex and death is such common artistic fodder. But ‘sadism’, broadly understood, as the pleasure had in hurting someone or something else, just for the sake of that pleasure, doesn’t necessarily have a sexual connotation. Like saying, “those sadistic fucking Nazi’s got fucking killed by an equally sadistic group of Jewish American commandos, in an orgy of sweet, sweet sadism”. The Marquee’s name is all over that sentence but sex has nothing to do with it. And whatever you want to call it, I think yes: a knowing satisfaction in the suffering of the other for its own sake, freely chosen, divorced from context or motivation— that’s the nut from which evil grows, the heart of true evil.

    And so you’re saying: that kind of evil doesn’t exist? No one, in the long and awful history of human beings doing the literally unspeakable to each other, has inflicted pain on another, tortured another, tortured animals, raped a woman, murdered at random, just because power over someone else feels good and causing someone else suffer is its own rush? Hm. Were I different kind of fellow, I might say that opinion was ‘childishly naïve’. But as I know that you are thinking man— impressively so— and that your positions are long and well-considered, I think, as much as I admire your optimism about human nature, I have to say, on this point, you’re conclusion is just profoundly wrong.

  20. Carl says:

    (I mean: if you’re willing to say that pleasure had in inflicting pain on someone else is ‘fairly ordinary’ in a sexual context, why in the hell would it not be ‘fairly ordinary’ in any other context of human life? [That’s not to say the kink in question is evil. It’s just to point out that this is very much a part of the human motivational tapestry.])

  21. braak says:

    Which part of the conclusion is wrong? The part where I said “I want to say that this kind of evil is fictional?” Meaning I don’t want to say that it’s all fictional? I do want that though. Or is it the part where I brought up Josef Fritzl as an example of why I can’t say that? Meaning Josef Fritzl isn’t a good example of Evil-for-Its-Own-Sake?

    I know that sadism has a meaning beyond sadomasochism; I’m not saying it doesn’t mean that, I’m saying I don’t prefer to use it, because I don’t like the confusion it engenders. I think people who are sexual sadomasochists already get a bad shake, because firstly of how easily their kink makes them a useful villain in fiction, and because secondly of how often pepole seem to think that what a person does in the bedroom corresponds directly with how they behave in life. I’m not arguing that the things are unconnected, I’m just saying that it’s no more accurate to say that the way a person behaves in the bedroom is the way they’ll behave in life than it is to say that the way that they behave in church is the way that they behave in life. People are complicated, and the first step to avoiding sexually-based psychological neurosis is an open and non-judgmental acknowledgement that none of us gets to decide on our kinks.

    I have a hard time with the subject of Evil-for-Its-Sake sadism, because my suspicion is that it represents a fundamental failure in the healthy functioning of the human brain, and whenever I talk about it it makes it sound like I’m excusing Evil, which I’m not. But at the same time, I don’t think of Josef Fritzl as someone who needs to be accounted for within a normal moral reckoning, because he clearly has a defective brain. Which also sounds kind of weird, but whatever. If I believed in souls, I’d probably prefer to believe that whatever is immortal about him remains good, and it’s just trapped in badly-misassembled meat.

    I don’t believe in souls, though, which raises the question of predisposition again. I’m NOT talking about predestination here, just to clarify. I am raising the question, though, of exactly where our free will begins, and where our choices are dictated by our circumstances. Fritzl behaved vilely, and he clearly was cognizant enough to make a choice to behave vilely as opposed to acting humanely, but within the context of his own fractured mind, what he did had its own kind of rightness.

    To go back to Wrecking Ball Man: had he been raised to believe that all hobos carried typhus, and therefore the hobo in the building he’s about to destroy wasn’t simply a harmless derelict, but a biological timebomb poised to destroy thousands of other lives — well, yes, he has free will in the sense that he can choose between killing the hobo and not killing him. But he does not have free will in the sense that he can make a fully-informed choice between good and evil.

    This is the question that I raise with Sauron, and is utlimately the question that comes up with Melkor, too. (The description of Sauron is from Tolkien himself:

    “it was the apparent will and power of Melkor to effect his designs quickly and masterfully that had first attracted Sauron to him.”

    which I think is reflected very neatly in Stephen King’s The Stand, when they point out that all of the engineers end up in Las Vegas with Randal Flagg, because he’s got his timetables in order.)

    But let me leave that for a second and go instead to the idea of an un-entropic universe. If you can conceive of a world in which every exchange of energy yields more energy, you’ve got a better imagination than I do. Obviously, nothing like life as we know it could exist, nor senses as we understand them, nor minds as they function here. I’m not even sure how to conceive of something like that. The Universe-Where-Everything-Is-Always-Exploding? (Incidentally, could you have a sacrifice in a universe like that? It seems to me that generation is only sacrificial in an entropic universe.)

    Or, I guess, no wait. I can understand a universe like this; it would be exactly like our universe, only it would run backwards: from heat death to the big bang. Which raises the very interesting question that such a universe already exists. I mean, it plainly already exists, I just don’t see it because I’m living with entropy. Maybe if I die, my spirit travels backwards through time, unwinding all the muck of living experience, until I, as a pure entity, return to the cosmic unity that is the pre-universal singularity and maybe also God?

    Again, though, souls. In another sense, obviously, you can look at the universe as being already complete: all you have to do is imagine not a changing, decaying system, but all the trillion moments stacked on top of each other, a peak in the center that’s also the beginning of time, a plain at the edges that’s also the end. To say that there’s something innately deficient about such a construction would be like saying that there’s something wrong with a mountain because it has a slope. Sure, it’s a pain in the ass to walk up it, but that’s not the mountain’s fault; it’s our fault for caring more about how hard it is to climb than we care about how good it feels to take a walk.

    I had always presumed that the four-dimensional perspective is one of the ironies of Satan-As-God’s-Adversary’s position: because he’s mired in materiality, he can’t see that the “narrative” of the universe, in which he perceives that it’s possible that he could win, isn’t really a narrative at all: it’s actually a complete construction that only looks like a narrative because he can’t see the whole thing.

    The perspective issue I think is also what I would use to solve the Problem of Evil. Obviously, as an atheist, I don’t really have to: “Why would a just and loving God create a universe in which there was so much suffering?” “Well, he wouldn’t.”

    But if I did have to, I’d argue that the idea of suffering is a problem of perspective, and that a soul, liberated from causality and able to see the entirety of Creation from “beginning” to “end” (or rather: from Peak to Plain — or, haha, Alpha and Omega (alternately, Borges’ Aleph — the Point From Which All Points Are Visible — and Omega — the many points from which nothing is visible)), would recognize in it some limitless beauty and unity of nature, that would show every instance of suffering not only obviated, but necessary to a transcendent whole. (I imagine that God upon his throne, at the top of the mountain of creation, is a good metaphor for this.)

    Of course, this cosmic perspective doesn’t really lend itself to helping me make decisions about things, which is why I say that being is self-evidently better than not being. Not that it actually is, but it’s the simplest rule I need to accept in order to create a moral structure that enables me to act ethically. It’s true in the sense that I accept it as being true, but also not true in the sense that it’s something I just made up.

    This is, incidentally, how I also answer the question of Free Will, I think (still an important question, even to atheists); I spend a lot of time trying to cultivate two purposefully irreconcilable perspectives: the universe is already complete, all moments are still points; the universe is constantly changing, and the only moment that matters is the one that I’m in right now. There is no such thing as Free Will, because everything I’ve done is already done; there is Free Will, because right now I have to choose. Doing good doesn’t matter, because whatever evils in the world are inevitable due to the chain of causality; doing good is the only thing that matters, because there’s no effective law except to do good where I find it can be done.

    All of which is to say, I don’t know, who knows anything? “Ontologically Evil” is a stupid character motivation. Josef Fritzl is basically a defective consciousness, and there’s little to be learned from him except that sometimes consciousness breaks down. Sadomasochists get a bad shake. Sauron couldn’t help the way he was, but he also could have helped the way he was.

    (Though, obviously, as a narrative construction that existed only for the purpose of satanically rebelling against Eru, I guess in the end he definitely couldn’t; is the moral responsibility for Sauron’s rebellion on Tolkien’s shoulders, who could have written a novel in which Sauron returned to good?)

  22. braak says:

    Oh, also: yes, it was easier to round up and murder millions of Jews that it would have been to create a social structure that would have supported them. But it would have been easier still, and morally superior, to have just left them all alone.

    Also, I’m not sure that it’s completely correct to say that it would have been harder to build schools and a social safety net, considering if tried to do that, they’d have done a lot of the work themselves, and would have cooperated with you. I also think you’re underestimating just how energy-intensive a concentration camp is. Economics suggests that, in the long run, it is much, much cheaper to pay for schools than it is to pay for prisons.

  23. braak says:

    Also, even though I know what it means, every time you write “Deus Agape” I read it as “Deus, agape”, which just conjures some hilarious images in my mind.

  24. Carl says:

    Alright, fine: we don’t have to use the word that EVERYONE ELSE IN THE ENGLISH SPEAKING WORLD employs when they’re talking about ‘sadism’. What do you want to call it, then? Evil-For-Its-Own-Sake doesn’t do a very good job of describing what it is, though, because the structure of the sentence your using as the name for the thing itself, makes the thing sound arbitrary, and its not arbitrary. Its calculated and self-aware: it yields a specific result (that is, a knowing choice to provide yourself with the delight, the rush, the charge, the thrill had in having power over someone who you cause to suffer). At the risk of further anthropocentrism, how about we just call it Delectatio Malum, there done. (For what its worth, I think the matter of kinks is a little more complicated than the black-and-white picture you’re painting here. Many aspects of sexuality are malleable, and many are not, but what turns us on is, I think, in state of constant flux, responding to changing stimuli over the course of a lifetime. There is agency in this. Sex is an appetite, and like any appetite, it has a palate of its own that can be cultivated. Some of this has to do with indulgence of the thing (some of it very clearly does not). If, say, the first time you toy with the incest taboo, you decide, for a host of reasons intellectual and practical that you’re not going to pursue the curiosity any further, there’s every chance that you’re going to manage to stay out of your sister’s pants. If, on the other hand, you decide its too delicious NOT to test the waters on it, well, things might turn out very differently. All of this makes it sound like I am condemning kinks or arguing against the power of sexual predispositions; I am not. I just think your blanket statement that ‘none of us gets to decide on our kinks’ isn’t entirely true.)

    So, just to clarify, as there seems to be some confusion about it: that part where you want to say Delectatio Malum is fictional is the profoundly wrong part. I don’t know, maybe you’re just a REALLY good guy, Chris. Have you considered that? Maybe you’ve never had an irrationally malicious for-its-own-sake impulse. And bully for you! But I’ll own up to it: Delectatio Malum is a part of my personality. Its a part I keep in check, a part I very rarely have to grapple with, but its in there. And if its in the mix, it exists. Is Josef Fritzl a good example of this kind of Evil embraced? I have no idea, I’m not in his head. Where does his Free Will begin? Interesting question, hard to say. To whatever degree he knew what he was doing was horrific and did it anyway because he got some experiential charge out of it (which, from my peripheral observance of the case, I’m inclined to believe that he must have), yes that’s Evil. And I agree, in his fractured psyche, he was in pursuit of some ends that he must have perceived as a kind of good– but a good entirely for himself, at the absolute expense of the Other– which is the DEFINITION of Evil that I laid out in the very beginning. The more clear that ratio, that less muddy the question becomes, it seems to me. I understand the move you are trying to make with Mr. Wrecking Ball; I suppose it needs to be taken on a case-by-case basis, because as soon as you introduce the mitigating circumstance of his having been raised to think hobos carry typhus, we’re no longer talking about Delectatio Malum— at least not exclusively. Mr. Wrecking Ball has a larger good in mind. It’s tough, I’d say, to come up with an analogy for this for Fritzl, though. Anyway, because none of us is in anyone else’s head, its impossible to determine definitively what anyone knows, and thus how Evil anyone who commits evil deeds is, but I think acknowledging that this kind of Evil exists in us as a species is crucially important. Admitting it exists allows us to be on guard for its tug, and in the moment of truth, resist it at all costs. Because I really think it is it’s own reward and self-feeding, and when you make a phantom of a defect– physical, psychological, or spiritual (if you’re a person interested in that third rail)– you’re apt to treat it lightly, and it can consume you before you’ve realized what’s happened.

    And here’s the rub: when you talk about Fritzl’s predispositions, his ‘defective consciousness,’ and his misassembled meat, you’re more or less coming down entirely on the side of nature over nurture (and perhaps that’s exactly what you intend, but I am going to take issue with that). Mental illness, though, is a dynamic condition that changes over time, responds to stimuli, improves and worsens depending on choices of the infirm and the choices of those around them. There is agency in it– not in every regard, not absolutely, but to significant degrees (at least, this is what I conclude from my experience with it in my own family). In saying he was born defective and without possibility of correction, that he did these things as a result of that defect, and will die unchanged with that defect, you excuse entirely what he did with the agency he had in the matter. I don’t think this at all describes the dynamic flux of the state of human psychology. Also, in embracing the notion of the unaccountable ‘defective consciousness,’ aren’t you really just hopping on the Ontological Evil bandwagon after all and calling it by another name? Because it seems like the upshot is the same: Fritzl just is what he is, has always been, and will always be, and what he is is evil, and he can’t do anything about it (to speak of), and neither can those who oppose what he does– except to restrain or destroy him. Doesn’t get a lot more Orkish than that.

    Also, I’m not sure that it’s completely correct to say that it would have been harder to build schools and a social safety net, considering if tried to do that, they’d have done a lot of the work themselves, and would have cooperated with you. I also think you’re underestimating just how energy-intensive a concentration camp is. Economics suggests that, in the long run, it is much, much cheaper to pay for schools than it is to pay for prisons.

    I wonder which prisons and which schools, where exactly, Economics is coming to these expenditure conclusions about. And, of course, effort is not only understood in monetary terms. But fine, even if I concede that its’ much cheaper to pay for schools than to pay for prisons generally, it cannot be much cheaper to pay for schools. And housing. And farms. And factories. And hospitals. And mass transit. And the bureaucracies needed to keep all the institutions associated with each running. In other words, its patently untrue to say that taking a couple of years to murder and starve people to death systematically takes MORE effort than it does to construct and maintain an entire society for those people and all of their children, and all of their children, and all of their children. Because once the task of killing something is done, it doesn’t require anymore effort, whereas keeping something alive requires continual effort.

    Regarding sacrifice in the Flubberverse (which I think less of as the ‘exploding universe’ than the ‘procreating universe’ that literally makes more of itself in perpetuum), good question. I mean, yes, the whole structure of the reality would be predicated on it, in fact, as the parameters which define lesser things are destroyed in cooperative combination and generative exchanges that give rise to greater things. But as to its moral value as a consequence of that fact, I can’t exactly say. I think you were right the first time when you say that the Flubberverse would be so inconceivably different from everything we understand, that it’s impossible to know what physics or biology would be like there. Anyhow, I like to think that this is what the Expulsion from Paradise myth, describes: the universe we were intended for, and which our spiritual fore-bearers perhaps experienced somehow, or something, the result of which is the acute awareness of the wrongness of the universe of entropy and privation. But I love the notion of the soul traveling the reverse direction in time in the Backwardsverse, unwinding the entropic experience, arriving at the pre-existential singularity. I also think the cosmic perspective of suffering you describe is beautiful and, insofar as there is Divine utility to the entropic universe, deeply worthwhile for those of us caught in its unfolding.

    Is the moral responsibility for Sauron’s rebellion on Tolkien’s shoulders, who could have written a novel in which Sauron returned to good?

    I’ve often wondered about the redemption of Satan himself. I mean, the Revealed tradition (which Tolkien was consciously trying to reflect, absolving him from some responsibility, I suppose) seems to definitively say that he cannot be, and the Prophetic tradition seems to definitively say he will not be. But who knows. The Maiar, of course, certainly assume Melkor can be redeemed in the early goings-on in the Silmarillion. Despite evidence to the contrary, they assume it repeatedly, to the point where their naiveté actually creates fatigue for the reader. So, in one sense, I suppose Tolkien gave Melkor a bevy of chances before definitively deciding on his fate. But yes, as a narrative device, he was without agency. (On the other hand, so were all the characters in every book every composed.)

    I want to get to this business of the conscious cultivation of irreconcilable perspectives later on, but right this second, I’m out of time.

  25. Carl says:

    Damn you, html. Dammit, dammit, dammit.

  26. braak says:

    Carl, why are you so bad at HTML?

  27. braak says:

    Delectatio Malum is fine, Latin makes us sound smart, anyway. The notion of kinks is a complicated one, but I should point out that yes, sex is an appetite, and no amount of starving yourself is going to stop you from being hungry. Likewise, while you can cultivate your palate, denying yourself salt isn’t going to stop you from craving it. I don’t know about your specific opinions on homosexuality (whether we’ve never discussed it, or we did and I’ve just forgot), but the fact is that the church as an institution adopts a position towards it that suggests that the proper response to homosexual impulses is self-abnegation, often with the implicit idea that a constant regimen of abnegation will cause the impulses to eventually wither and die. I consider this deleterious, as not only is there no evidence to suggest it’s true, but there’s a great deal of strong evidence to show that self-abnegation actually makes the impulses stronger, and saddles the individual with a whole set of neuroses to boot. As the whole English speaking world has settled on a position towards a conservative view of sexuality, and as I believe very strongly in a very liberal sexuality, I purposefully adopt a contrarian position; certainly the sexually-puritanical contingent in America doesn’t need much help defining the language of the argument, and a little active opposition would probably do us all some good.

    You can’t tell me what I want to believe, anyway. I want to believe that this is fictional; obviously I can’t. I don’t understand why you keep arguing that this is a profoundly wrong statement; are you suggesting that you have privileged access to my consciousness? That I secretly DON’T want to believe that there is no Delectatio Malum anywhere? Well, I am telling you: I do wish there were no such thing.

    Obviously there is. But again, don’t mistake me: mutual irreconcilable perspectives, here. Am I saying that Josef Frtizl was beyond the possibility of correction? Of course not; how could I say that? But I can’t conclusively say that he wasn’t, either. I can’t conclusively say anything, which exposes an essential problem here: when I first started this, I was talking about the idea of “evil” as a narrative device. When I talk about moral action in a practical context, the question of evil is actually largely immaterial — instead, I’m stuck answering the very specific question of: “This is what Fritzl did, now what do I do about it?” The Nature/Nurture question becomes more troublesome; was Fritzl a product of environmental conditions that led him to be an insane maniac? I don’t know, but I do know that Austria isn’t full of insane maniacs. If I try to nurture in Josef Fritzl a sense of compassion and then let him go, is he going to act like an insane maniac again? In a practical sense, is there any amount of nurturing I can do that will make him NOT an insane maniac? My guess is no, though obviously the only way to test that is through trial and error, and exactly how irresonsible would I be letting an insane maniac back into society without being sure he’d reformed?

    In a practical sense, I don’t actually care whether or not Josef Fritzl had agency — it’s an unsolvable problem anyway. I really just care about what I have to do to stop him from doing it again, and stopping other people from being like him, but even here, a close reading of the situation suggests that there probably isn’t much of anything I can do, bar locking him up forever. But I don’t have a problem accepting the position “some people are fucked up” in real life, because Josef Fritzl isn’t a narrative device, he’s an insane maniac.

    The problem is that the irreconcilable counterpoint to that is that I can’t accept that some people are just fucked up, because that allows me to dismiss anyone who ever does anything bad as beyond understanding; so, I’m obligated to investigate closely, guided by the twin positions that 1) some people are just fucked up and 2) most people actually aren’t.

    Do some people experience the Delectatio Malum? Of course, lots of people do, all the time. But there are built-in counterpoints to the pleasure taken in spite, quite natural human contrapositions. Does experiencing the Delctatio Malum make us Homo malum? No. Does indulging in it? No. Does over-indulging in it? Well, yes, by definition. Is it possible to nurture it in ourselves? Probably. Is it morally justified not to? Yes, probably. If someone has nurtured this capacity in themselves, is it possible to un-nurture it? I don’t know, good question, but can you teach anyone to think a way against their will? Should you? So, if they don’t want to be good, because their perspective doesn’t permit them to understand the value of good, who cares whether or not they could be if they tried?

    This gets into a whole other debate about the value of prisons and the possibility of reformation, which I’m still not decided on. I mean, what the hell is the point of holding Josef Fritzl accountable for anything? How do you serve justice to someone like that? You can’t punish him if he can’t understand that he’s wrong, and what’s the point of punishing him, anyway? You don’t really need an example like Fritzl to serve as a deterrent for “locking your daughter in a basement and raping her for twenty years”, since most people aren’t going to do that in the first place, and the rest aren’t likely to find his punishment particularly deterring. But never mind that, for now.

    The upshot of all of this is that while I believe in personal agency, I think that we all have a lot less agency than we have the illusion of agency, and actual agency doesn’t begin until you’ve spent time and effort examining the edges of that illusion.

    As for the economics question. Firstly: yes, money is actually a pretty good measure of effort. All money is someone’s effort — time, energy, resources. Secondly: consider a thought experiment. You are the mayor of a town. You have an equal population of prisoners and schoolchildren, and you have some money that you can spend on one or the other. How much does it cost to educate a population of schoolchildren? How much does it cost to keep prisoners in jail? Remember that the prison is active all the time, consuming power and resources. Remember that it must be guarded at all times, with a guard population that’s probably a little higher than your average teacher-student ratio (which is sad, really).

    And remember that the kids, once they’re educated, are all going to go out and get jobs, and then pay taxes, and contribute to your economy. Of the prisoners, half of them will go back to jail for having an ounce of marijuana on them. The remainder will work minimum-wage jobs for the rest of their lives, because no one wants to hire prisoners.

    Moreover, if you spend money on the prison, the kids don’t get as good an education, which means that fewer of them are educated, fewer of them get jobs, more of them become poor and desperate, which means more of them become criminals, which means you need even MORE money for prisons.

    This is a similar problem that Hitler faces. Ostensibly, yes, it’s cheaper to kill a man than to provide for him for his life. And if we were talking about Hitler hiring 1,000 Nazis at 80,000 deutschmarks a year to assassinate 3,000 Jews each, then yeah, that’s going to be way cheap. But look what he has to do: he has to design and build his concentration camps. He has to pay guards, builders, architects. He has to build trains and train tracks. He has to equip his police battalions. Then, of course, every time he starts rounding up a demographic, he starts provoking organized antagonism from other groups — slowly at first, obviously, but eventually there’s quite a lot of resistance. So, now he has to kill more people, and he has to hire and educate and outfit a Gestapo to keep everyone else in line.

    Of course, with a massive percent of his population on lockdown, and a massive percent still locking them down, he’s not producing anything or getting taxes, so he has to build an army and invade his neighbor, and this eventually causes a large-scale organized resistance against him, which erupts into a full-scale war, which consumes all of his nation’s resources and then he shoots himself in the head. (Obviously, this is not exactly how it went down, but that’s because Hitler was a demagogue who didn’t care about utility; the fact that he invaded his neighbors first just meant that he didn’t notice how much he wasn’t producing because of how his entire country was occupied elsewhere.)

    On the other hand, if he’d been good he wouldn’t have had to fight anyone. If he’d tried to help the Jews, it would have been easier because he wouldn’t have to feed and clothe them for their entire lives; they would actually still do most of the work themselves.

    The question of “is it cheaper to murder a million Jews than it is to keep them alive” is a false dichotomy.

    I respect the desire to keep the practicality of schools and socialism out of the question; I agree that it’s moral to educate children, and therefore we should do it regardless of its direct utility. But the fact is that it DOES have direct utility.

    The holistic quality of economics — the one that says pretty unequivocally (despite what Milton Friedman will tell you) that investing in social infrastructure yields long-term social gains, due to everything being connected to everything else — highlights another kind of fallacy in the discussion of entropy. It’s true that in a gross sense, the universe is constantly progressing towards disorder, and less energy is available to every system as time goes on.

    But for human civilization, the net energy available for work has been steadily increasing for three million years. That’s because human civilization is not a closed system, it’s an open system that constantly receives new infusions of energy. Yes, it costs energy to sink a pipe and drill some oil, and it costs energy to invent oil drilling in the first place; but the energy pulled out of the ground far exceeds that. Yes, it costs energy to invent and build and distribute solar panles, but the amount of energy available from the sun far exceeds that investment.

    Virtually every technological advancement that human beings have made has actually made more energy available for work, which is why civilization has been growing both in size and complexity.

    This will all run out, of course, and the universe is naturally destined to collapse. But from a practical, human standpoint this is so far away that it’s basically inconceivable.

  28. braak says:

    Incidentally: no, neither I, nor anyone else, has ever considered the possibility that I am a really good guy.

  29. Carl says:

    Carl, why are you so bad at HTML?

    ENTROPY. I used to be pretty good at it, way back in the when-times. (In the Flubberverse, of course, every encounter between HTML and I would not only increase my proficiency with it exponentially, but ultimately cause both to cease to be, as we fused to create some new, inconceivably intuitive Being of Formatting Incarnate.)
    Regarding my opinions on sexual orientation, the Church, self-abnegation, and whathaveyou, I’m very happy to open that can of worms sometime, but not in this thread; its just too damn much to try to bite off right now. But let’s make a point to tackle it, say, in the next three weeks (when I am no longer in production and have actually GRADED THE PILE OF 80+ PAPERS THAT ARE SITTING ON MY DESK, which I’ve ignored for the last few days).

    If you go back and look at what I wrote, though, I was very careful to say:

    many aspects of sexuality are malleable, and many are not … some of this has to do with indulgence of the thing, some of it very clearly does not …. All of this makes it sound like I am condemning kinks or arguing against the power of sexual predispositions; I am not. I just think your blanket statement that ‘none of us gets to decide on our kinks’ isn’t entirely true.

    That is, your statement is partially true, but isn’t entirely true. That’s all. Where there’s agency, there’s accountability.

    Yes, this is first time I caught the “I want to believe it isn’t true, but I know that it is” aspect of your position on Delectatio Malum. If you were trying to make a distinction between a belief in Evil and its use as a narrative device, I think the original post didn’t serve you in that effort, because in it, you explicitly tied the simplistic use of a narrative Ultimate Evil to the very real belief in an Ultimate Evil, which many hold, and which you claim is a vestigial holdover of the very real (mis)perception of its existence as an by very real immature and unsophisticated children. This business of the “mutually irreconcilable perspectives,” which includes the possibility of the existence of Delectatio Malum, seems more nuanced a position than was being advanced when we started out. (Or maybe you just need to be REALLY explicit with me. I’m not as quick on the uptake as my good looks and charm suggest.) I mean, if you are willing to accept the practical truth that Joe Fritzl is irreconcilable in his “just fucked-up”edness because he isn’t a narrative device, but an actual, practical, morally problematic human in the world, why would you demand that writers, trying to reflect, unpack, illuminate, and otherwise grapple with the real world and all of its complexity through narrative, avoid writing equally irreconcilably (read ontologically) evil characters as antagonists into their works?

    When I talk about moral action in a practical context, the question of evil is actually largely immaterial

    …in our hypothetical judgement of the Other, sure, but its entirely material to the introspective self-assessment of motivation. That is: am I doing this only for because it feels good, at what cost to whom?

    The Nature/Nurture question becomes more troublesome; was Fritzl a product of environmental conditions that led him to be an insane maniac? I don’t know, but I do know that Austria isn’t full of insane maniacs.

    (Okay: I know that what I am about to write is a gross generalization, but I think the rhetorical point still very much holds) Well, it was for a while, wasn’t it? An entire nation of ‘defective consciousnesses’? If the phenomenon can be that widespread, I think it ceases to be a useful construct for understanding evil as an aberration of the normal human mind.

    I’m obligated to investigate closely, guided by the twin positions that 1) some people are just fucked up and 2) most people actually aren’t.

    Sounds good to me.

    Does indulging in [Delectatio Malum make us Homo Malum]? No. Does over-indulging in it? Well, yes, by definition.

    Well, we disagree on this point. As I’ve said, this is nut of evil from which the truly morally abhorrent grows and it is, IMHO, the most slippery of all slopes. Who decides, and how, and by what objective criteria could one possibly decide, what is proper indulgence and over-indulgence in the delight in hurting someone else just for the thrill of it? Indeed, at each moment in time of the indulgence of the Delectatio Malum the Homo Malum springs into full being for a time.
    To your long and thoughtful disputation on effort, utility, economics, and social institutions– I thought I conceded this last go-round, but let me be explicit now: I entirely agree that dedicating greater resources to schools than to prisons is both a moral imperative, and of clear, practical social utility in the human narrative. And absolutely, the status quo, in human terms, rather than the constructive or the destructive effort, requires the least expenditure of energy, because, well, there’s no effort there. So had Hitler just left the Jews alone, yes, that would have required least possible output of energy. And listen, I completely agree and very much appreciate your demonstration of way in which, while in the short-term (building a house or sinking a pipe) and in the long term (the absorption of the Earth by the Sun and the collapse of the Universe) the energy available for work costs more than it yields, in the short-medium term (that is, in the long term for human civilization) the inverse is typically true. But most human beings don’t experience life in the short-medium term, and it that doesn’t mean that in the now, when decisions about the constructive or destructive are made moment-to-moment, and frequently with regards to matters that are far less epic in scope than those we’re here considering, that entropy doesn’t facilitate easy evils over difficult goods. Because we’ve already established that, within the temporal experience (with the admitted caveat that you can choose to ignore the way in which we experience reality within time, in favor of a concept like your cosmic-view of time-and-being) the status quo is an illusion because all things that have status relative to change, move unequivocally, if imperceptibly, towards destruction and towards cessation in entropy. And you’re very right that from “a human standpoint [the entropic end of all things] is so far away that it’s basically inconceivable”, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t an essential truth in it that informs the behavior of all things, at all levels, including us, in ways that are so foundational that they are difficult to even recognize, let alone oppose.

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