Can Jared Loughner help us get beyond good and evil?

ongchewpeng-devil-jesus.jpg Sarah Palin was on Sean Hannity's Fox show this week, and between breaths joined the many commenters who've labeled the Tucson shootings suspect with the "E" word: she mused on ", um, evil a person would have to be to kill an innocent." Since prime suspect Jared Loughner cited Nietzsche's Will To Power as a favorite, this seems like a good moment to bring up the problems with "good vs. evil" ideology. It has a peculiar geek resonance because of the ideology's heavy use in comic books and roleplaying: superheroes, arch-villains, chaotic good, lawful evil, and what-not. It's also infused in our political discourse, with someone like Palin or Obama being good or evil depending on your point of view.

Nietzsche is frequently a fave of angry young men who might qualify as what Pesco called confident dumb people. Nietzsche works well for the modern kook with web-induced attention deficits: The fourth chapter of Beyond Good and Evil is a series of 122 Twitter-length aphorisms, and his work is snarky and occasionally humorous. Nietzsche wrote Beyond Good and Evil to criticize earlier philosophers who made assumptions about morality based on pre-Christian and Christian beliefs about "evil." Below I discuss why we need to steal Nietzsche back from these people, and I look at a couple of other writers who have examined what gets called "evil" and have attempted to explain it in more nuanced and rational terms.

(Image: Devil vs Jesus (2008) by ongchewpeng at Deviant Art. Print available. Used with permission.)

For a little background, Matt Feeney posted a terrific piece in Slate last week about the Angry Nerds who embrace a version of Nietzsche:

If your social world fails to appreciate your singularity and tells you that you're a loser, reading Nietzsche can steel you in your secret conviction that, no, I'm a genius, or at least very special, and everyone else is the loser. Like you, Nietzsche was misunderstood in his day, ignored or derided by other scholars. Like you, Nietzsche seems to find everything around him lame, either stodgy and moralistic or sick with democratic vulgarity.
Feeney's piece is worth reading in its entirety, as is Beyond Good and Evil. It's a lot to sum up in a blog post, but Nietzsche basically says there are two types of moral systems: master-morality and slave-morality. His best summary is section 260. In master-morality, the ruling class makes the rules and thus considers itself noble, while in slave morality, there is a suspicion of those in power and in what they consider "good." So in slave morality:
Here is the seat of the origin of the famous antithesis "good" and "evil":--power and dangerousness are assumed to reside in the evil, a certain dreadfulness, subtlety, and strength, which do not admit of being despised. According to slave-morality, therefore, the "evil" man arouses fear; according to master-morality, it is precisely the "good" man who arouses fear and seeks to arouse it, while the bad man is regarded as the despicable being.
In other words, it's all a big misunderstanding based on your point of view, kind of like how you might see Palin as evil when your neighbor sees her as good. As Feeney points out, Nietzsche has been distilled into a nihilist in popular culture, which isn't accurate or fair. His aphoristic style means that quips like "God is dead" get stripped of meaning and turned into soundbites. We need to reclaim Neitzsche from angry nerds and deists who distort his writings.

In the case of someone charged with serious crimes like Loughner, there is often a meeting of the minds on the E word. People want to create a simple label to separate someone like him from the rest of us. We say he is sick, or crazy, or evil. Two books on criminals made me rethink my use of those terms: Eichmann in Jerusalem and Speaking with the Devil.

Pretty much everybody is in agreement that Adolf Eichmann or Jeffrey Dahmer were not great guys, so Hannah Arendt and Carl Goldberg use them as jumping-off points for larger discussions. Arendt of course summed up Eichmann's action with the phrase "the banality of evil" (also a meaning-stripped soundbite now). After sitting through his trial and execution, she observed that he seemed to do everything by rote, even his last words. He was able to do the unthinkable because he was "unthinking." He didn't seem to have a fanatical hatred of Jews, he was just following orders. What's interesting in relation to mass murders like the Tucson incident is that people can rationalize their way into an internally consistent logic that normalizes their thoughts and actions. I recommend reading Arendt, because she also has a great deal to say about how incidents and events get seized upon by people interested primarily in facts, and therefore try to distort the facts, and intellectuals, who have little interest in the facts and use them as a springboard for ideas. We've seen a lot of both since Tucson.

Goldberg takes a much more behavioral approach to the question. He recommends avoiding terms like "evil" and using the term "malevolence" instead. Using Dahmer and other extreme cases as examples, he lays out a case that most criminals engage in what he calls experimental malevolence, where their bad behavior escalates over time. It's clear that in the case of Dahmer that he had begun exhibiting signs of trouble in early life, including aspects of the Macdonald triad and a later pattern of murders that increased in frequency and brazenness. Looking at Jared Loughner's actions prior to his arrest, he had been ramping up his troubling behavior with a number of incidents that raised red flags with observers. Various opportunities to intervene and get Loughner some help did not materialize.

What I find most interesting about people who justify violent actions is the production of a script. They have a story they tell themselves about how the world works, a story that explains why they need to do what they plan to do, and often a fantasy about how their actions will play out. One of the things they teach you in assault prevention classes is to try to get someone off their script if you are being attacked. Many instructors suggest saying or doing something unexpected, to snap them out of what's running through their heads as they commit the attack. All people produce a script about who they are and why they do what they do. That process only becomes a problem when that script lacks empathy, the ability to comprehend and embrace the thoughts and feelings of others.

When Giffords gave an apparently unacceptable response to Loughner's obtuse question about language not being real, she seems to have caused him some cognitive dissonance. He apparently expected her to recognize his intellectual superiority, and when she didn't, he became fixated on what he saw as a slight that threw his self-assessment into question.

It's entirely possible to explain these behaviors without resorting to some facile descriptor like "sick" or "evil." Loughner's videos and writings suggest he held a set of beliefs that were delusional, about himself and the world and how it works. Everyone, myself included, probably has a delusion or two in their belief system. Once in a while they combine with other factors in a person to create a lethal combination: anger, incompetence, rejection, isolation, lack of empathy, drug-induced hallucinations, participation in economies of violence, unthinking behavior, production of a flawed script. That's not evil. It's simply a tragic nexus of human flaws that can culminate in what is too easily dismissed as evil.

Further reading:

Beyond Good and Evil (Project Gutenberg translation)

Beyond Good and Evil

Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (Penguin Classics)

Speaking with the Devil: Exploring Senseless Acts of Evil


  1. Man, if someone could shoop that illustration with Willem Dafoe’s Jesus and Tim Curry’s Satan, I’d totally hang it in my bathroom.

    1. Heck, I’d be tempted to hang it as is. That’s the least fey Jesus I’ve ever seen. Looks like he’d rather walk on water the way these guys do, and almost as if he could pull the spikes out of his own wrists with his teeth, chew ’em up, and spit the resulting BBs into Herod’s eye.

      Old Scratch’s male pattern baldness, in contrast, looks positively milquetoast.

      It perplexes me, with all the rough-and-ready testosterone-laden junkslinging that’s been done in His name these last few centuries, how come Christ Hisself is always represented as an effete hippie who apparently brushes His hair one hundred times each and every night? Nothing against effete hippies (back in 1998, Yours Truly was a dead ringer for this guy, only with wispier facial hair), but ongchewpeng’s Savior pictured above looks much more like the kinda guy with whom G. W. Bush might share a pitcher of Coors, only muttering “get a haircut” under his breath so as not to unduly antagonize the surprisingly burly Messiah.

        1. Very good indeed! Might it be a rare-ish exception? I wouldn’t know; my Christian studies ceased long ago before they’d gotten very far at all.

          But heck, when He was crackin’ moneychanger heads at the Temple, even Rembrandt paints Him as a surly Chris Elliott.

          1. Hah! Chris Elliot, indeed.

            I come at the depiction of Jesus in poetry via poetry, not via religion, so all I can tell you is that Pound’s depiction is remarkably unusual in the genre.

        1. Oof. Man, you got me there. Been around the block a time or two, I see!

          Yeah, I can see how that might lead to the West’s embrace of a wimpified Jesus in the latter twentieth century. I never heard of that movement before now.


    2. Here you go – now starring Dafoe & Curry:
      (I’m doing a “Photoshop a Day” project for January, thanks for the inspiration)

      And I love this article, as a Nietzsche fan and a bit of a nerd (though not an angry one, most of the time). In college, I was ridiculously frustrated by a class I took called the “Problem of Evil” in which the definition of evil was never actually defined (this was at an ivy league, not a religious school). But although the word can be frustratingly subjective, I’ve always enjoyed following its usage over the years – very telling of popular culture’s worst fears. Maybe someone wants to make an infographic of that one?

  2. Andrea, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder is not “web-induced.” It was around long before the web (or TV, for that matter) and, to the best of my memory, is caused by a number of different genes. If there are environmental factors that also contribute then we aren’t sure what they are at this time.

    Now that that’s out of the way, I’m going to go to dinner, come back, read your whole post, and make an on-topic comment. :)

    1. Boondocker, I happen to agree with Andrea’s observation/assertion that Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder is ‘web-induced’, or largely web-induced, to the point that web-surfing or any kind of “in-the-screen” computer-based activities can greatly exacerbate it. My own experiences with being so deeply immersed is that it greatly prolongs, expands, or compounds these symptoms. If we had been taught long ago to pull away from the screen this phenomena might have been treated or recognized earlier, or not amplified to the degree it has become. (I also happen to think that some kind of autistic- style behavior has greatly been amplified by use of the Web.) The Web definitely did bring out these symptoms much more than if people/kids were “out there playing” instead of having one’s head buried in the screen. It’s a tough call. But I for one sees where Andrea’s coming from, because I’ve been there too.

  3. Great post, Andrea. You have crystallized some of my own nascent concepts regarding this unfortunate incident and included a whole bunch of very valid observations and other intellectual tidbits that overall really crank it all up to 11 for me.

  4. Jesus is looking pretty lumber Jack in that illustration.

    Good VS Evil is such a childish way to look at the world. And completely unhelpful. Pretty much every person and thing is both.

    If you go on a crusade to eliminate evil, you might as well just start with your self and reduce the senseless slaughter. The fact that adults can’t see that is evidence only that those individuals never became adults in an intellectual sense.

    1. I’m certainly not supporting a completely black and white take on life, but what evil deed do I statistically do, as a normal person?

        1. That’s a bit of a stretch. I never realized that every citizen of every country was evil for not wanting to go to jail.

  5. The young male who just discovered Nietzsche is a discussion board staple, along with the young man who just discovered Ayn Rand..

  6. In addition, the prime reason “evil” talk is so popular among Palin types is that it paves the way for religious framing of the problem and solutions AND it blocks the real issue: the social system, the lack of gun control, the disgraceful lack of universal health care in the US, the gross inequalities — in short the whole range of social inequalities and inadequacies in the way power, wealth and resources are distributed in the US. That is the material basis of tragic events. But fuzzy magic talk of “evil” dudes waves all that away.

  7. I don’t get the point. You seem to suggest that “good” and “evil” don’t mean anything (Nietzsche says something similar, but he means that they don’t mean anything in the Platonic sense of stands-for-something). But at the end you say that this kid wasn’t evil; that the situation was just tragic.

    This isn’t a coherent position.

    I think what you mean to say is that this kid isn’t evil; he’s delusional or mentally ill or -something else- that exculpates him from the charge of being evil. But of course this doesn’t mean that “evil” is meaningless. And who cares what Nietzsche says. He doesn’t have a good argument; he convinces all the wrong people for all the wrong reasons.

    1. I don’t get your point. Are you saying that your position is that “evil” exists beyond its abstract concept? Are you concerned that this line of reasoning will exonerate that guy?

      Really, you need to tighten up your thinking.

  8. “What’s interesting in relation to mass murders like the Tucson incident is that people can rationalize their way into an internally consistent logic that normalizes their thoughts and actions. ”

    I’m reading Crime and Punishment again. Actually I only got about 3/4 through last time. This is almost exactly the type of mind Dostoevsky is describing in the lead up to the murder(s): the ‘unthinking thinking’ of a person so wrapped up in superstition and some unshakable belief in something they really only understand superficially.

    In Loughner’s case though I think it’s likely some major undiagnosed mental illness that goes far beyond this ‘lazy philosopher’ thing.

  9. How come Jesus looks like a white, working-class guy from the 1980s? I thought he was an ancient Israelite?

  10. Forget Nietzsche; what we really need to do is take back the word “evil”!

    So we swap it out for “malevolence”; in a couple of years it will be misused in exactly the same way as “evil” was just like every other euphemism. It’s like swapping out a circuit board that’s blown out without bothering to work out why it blew in the first place: the replacement is going to blow up next week too. In this case the underlying cause is 10,000 Watts of burning stupidity: aka the inability to deal with non-binary thinking.

    BTW – I find “evil” to be a perfectly serviceable world. Just because every monster going back to Grendel has a backstory doesn’t mean they’re not evil.

    1. “BTW – I find ‘evil’ to be a perfectly serviceable world. Just because every monster going back to Grendel has a backstory doesn’t mean they’re not evil.”

      Hear, hear! “Evil” should be used sparingly, and more in reference to ideas or specific approaches than to people, because most people have a number of (partially-)redeeming traits about them — but “good” versus “evil” is a valid and important distinction.

      Loughner seems mentally ill rather than evil. (Either way, he should be locked up for a while, but it changes the kind of attention he should get while locked up.) I am glad that just about the only living Americans I can think of who might cross the line into “evil” of are the members of the Westboro Baptist Church.

      1. I tend to agree. To me the issue here is a lack of respect for the power and proper usage of a word. It’s not that evil “exists” any more than “red” or “sadness” or the German concept of “gemutlichkeit” exists, but rather that, in the face of wrenching, horrible cruelty (Dahmer, teh Nazis, etc), those effected experience a void of humanity, and into that void feel the need to cast something. Many people settle on the word evil and I, for one, have a hard time judging them for it. Can anyone here argue that a concentration camp survivor has not experienced evil?

  11. Interesting but I wish the blog title had read “the Tuscon shooter” or “the Tuscon shooting” instead of the name of the person charged with this crime. Ideally I would hope he wouldn’t be referred to by name at all in stories of this nature.

  12. “Good VS Evil is such a childish way to look at the world. And completely unhelpful”

    That has to be a knee-jerk response. I can’t imagine you put much thought into it. Imagine that your wife of 20 years has just been drug from her car and had her head beaten to a pulp with a baseball bat, by a complete stranger. And imagine trying to answer the inevitable question that you will ask yourself…why? Or try to imagine that 6 million of your fellow men and women were sent to the gas chamber and again, you are forced to answer that question…why? Contrary to your statement that viewing the world in such terms is “unhelpful”, I would argue just the opposite. Why spend the rest of your life wondering why? A question that I assure you, you will never sufficiently answer, when you can just consider the perpetrator of those actions “evil” and go on with your life. That is the value of those terms and the worldview you criticize. To efficiently explain away that which cannot be explained or frankly, is not worthy of explanation under the circumstances.

    You make your judgments of good and evil behind a computer, in the comfort of shelter. Another time and place and you won’t have the time or ability to pontificate to such a degree. Some people have experienced that other time and place, some many times over. It is those people who understand the value and necessity of the concepts of “good and evil”. And of course, there are those who do not recognize the value of those concepts and drive themselves nuts trying to explain that which they cannot explain. Seems that’s where Loughner may have been.

    Lastly, I don’t think most people so casually categorize matters as good or evil or this article suggests.

    1. > You make your judgments of good and evil behind a computer, in the comfort of shelter.

      Actually, people make judgments of this ilk when they are disconnected, impartial, or objective to the tragedy in question. It has nothing to do with computers.

      It is a larger philsophical/sociological question. People directly related to tragedies can and largely will cast the “evil” judgment on something to, as you say, quickly and efficiently sum up what happened to get on with life. This is completely natural and in many instances justified.

      What is not so clear, however, are the times when this summing-up is and can be counter-productive to understanding what actually happened. I’m not saying it works or is applicable in all circumstances, but it can be applicable in some. Food for thought. Your mileage may vary. (It depends on the situation, and on the person in question, whether they choose to/can/will go the other route of re-evaluation.)

      Such is human nature … we all choose how we want to think. It’s a matter of are we ready, do we want to, is it applicable … everybody has different levels of development in their psyches … it’s all a case-by-=case basis.

  13. I often find the concept of “evil” far more difficult to grasp than the concept of “good.” There is the “one can’t exist without the other” concept. Still why should there be a bias? Or is there one in reality?

    Suppose there is no real bias toward either good or evil. Bad stuff should provoke no more notice than good stuff and vice-versa. As we (and maybe I can’t speak for humanity but I will) look at other life forms I think we would imagine that most if not all experience the world in this non-biased reality. Of course humanity may well be wrong on this. We have little if any evidence to suggest that any other life form has any other experience of reality than our own. But a lack of evidence has rarely stopped us in the past.

    That there is so much discussion of the concepts of good and evil and a fair industry evolving out of this that it seems unlikely that we, humanity, on the whole ascribe to this non-biased reality for ourselves.

    Nevertheless, as I contemplate the biases toward the evil or even toward the good, I find myself quickly immersed in a reality that is thick with infinite levels of internal debate. Something which the good/evil labels would quickly annihilate.

    Perhaps it is internal debate itself that marks the difference between non-bias and bias. And, further, that our inclination is toward the debate, toward bias, in other words, we are biased toward a belief in the difference between good and evil. And even further that those who are not inclined toward this internal debate are inclined to the non-biased reality.

  14. “He apparently expected her to recognize his intellectual superiority, and when she didn’t, he became fixated on what he saw as a slight that threw his self-assessment into question.”

    This brings up another game-changing idea: in American culture, low self-esteem is considered to be the root of all behavior problems. But few people talk about the dangers of high self-esteem.

  15. I think the picture that accompanies the post is not of jeezy chreezy (his dad’s nickname for him, according to Eddie Izzard) hisself, but rather may be Chuck Norris in a Jesus suit!

    Anyways, interesting post and worthwhile comments.

    My two cents:
    I have a hard time with the concept “evil” itself. Looking at the some of the most hated people of history most of them seem to have thought they were doing the right and good thing. Completely self centred and megalomaniac, sure, but still trying to do what their minds saw as being for the best.

    Here we can go on about moral relativism and stuff like that, but that’s not what I mean.

    These people did things for supposedly noble reasons, while evil seems to stand for “profound immorality, wickedness, and depravity” whether for a supernatural force or when that force is manifested in people’s actions (That is only a small part of the Concise Oxford English dictionary’s definition).
    The concept itself is loaded in such a way that it becomes hard to use.
    Malevolence has a much tighter definition, and is therefore much easier to use accurately. Saying that “Bad guy H’s actions were malevolent” is easy. He did show a wish to do evil to others. Showing that his actions were evil is nigh on impossible, simply due to the word itself being so vague as to be almost meaningless.

    Calling the suspect evil is questionable at best, completely wrong at worst. In any case, it’s unhelpful; it doesn’t explain anything.

    For anyone who wants to explore the banality of evil, read Philip Zimbardo’s book “The Lucifer Effect” as well as psychology texts. Milgram’s book “Obedience to Authority” is also a nice (if somewhat boring) primer. Of course, most here know what those guys were most famous for, but looking deeper into those quite basic experiments and the scientists musings on what was going on is quite intriguing. That’s where you clearly see see how lame this “evil”, which we often speak of, actually is.

  16. Sorry for the long pop psychology rant

    What I was trying to say is really that to communicate a concept then the concept needs to be clearly defined and BOTH parties in that communication need to share a common definition.
    Due to the vagueness of the term “evil” that just is not going to happen.

  17. For the record, Will To Power was assembled and published by Nietzsche’s racist, proto-Nazi sister after his death. It is properly viewed as a “historic forgery” and I know of no Nietzsche scholars who consider it a work of Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche.

  18. Take this one step further, and you get to talking about making evil good again, coolifying it into stuff like Dr Evil, Dr Horrible, and the cult of Vader.

    How ’bout we judge things based on their intrinsic violence, instead? Palin is linked to Loghner because they both use violence in a political context. The rainbow of terror and retaliatory pat-downs aren’t far from that.

    A information-rich, well networked world wants to be less violent. Violence is no longer a force multiplier once its victims can share notes in real time.

    These people and events aren’t lame because they’re evil, they’re lame because they’re out of touch with the times.

  19. I think we can all agree, Jared Loughner is not evil, he has some serious mental health issues, he’s probably not evil. Dick Cheney, on the other hand…

    Yeah, the good/evil thing is simple-minded, and it’s apropos to hear Palin spouting it.

  20. Amen here.
    I’ve felt that the concept of ‘good and evil’ and the hard line between the two generates enough cognitive dissonance to the point that people ‘snap’. People, under a paradigm released of the concepts of duality, would flow more easily with changes of perception and differences of others. Our brains are made to find patterns in events, and set up a framework of ‘how the world works’ (largely based on faith that our model is the RIGHT model). When you impose a literal ‘scale’ into things, you start to pattern out differences into ‘good’ and ‘evil’. Suddenly behaviors that you yourself don’t engage in become aberrant and ‘evil’, worthy of being purged for your ‘good’. Of course, it then becomes internally acceptable to justify your hypocrisy by artificially extrinsic means, and murder (deny another’s Will) for personal ‘good’.

    Naturally, a misunderstanding of that coupled with a misunderstanding of ‘will to power’ (as an excuse to enforce your own worldview on others) is a dangerous mix. Perhaps “will of the will” and “the concept of god is dead and we are currently analyzing social structures as if it had some extrinsic to this universe, eternal truth” would have been more appropriate, but less punchy.

    Nietzsche needs a strong, careful revival. One man couldn’t be right about everything, but he was on to something amazing.

    P.S. the word ‘sheeple’ makes me cry on the inside.

  21. likewise, Christians should reclaim their use of the word evil since according to their own orthodoxy “all have sinned” Romans 3:23. So its just foolish for any Christian to call someone “evil” since they themselves are no different in the eyes of their God. No calling an act “evil” is open for debate.

  22. First, this is a great post and a wonderful example of why I keep BoingBoing in the RSS feed.

    Second, the Nietzsche Family Circus is amazing, and if you haven’t played with it, it’s worth 3 minutes of your time:

    Third, I tried to do the requested Photoshopping, but couldn’t find a pic of Tim Curry’s demon in profile. Much sorry.

  23. I hate to be pedantic, but I don’t really think your overall argument has much of anything to do with Nietzsche. The distinction between master and slave morality isn’t “basically” equivalent to the distinction between what you and your neighbor think is evil. “Good” and “evil” are features of slave morality, insofar as good is defined as the opposite of something which is negative in itself, a metaphysically absolute ‘bad,’ which Nietzsche traces to the resentment and rebellion of the weak against those they fear, the powerful, by analyzing the history of Western religion and ethics.

    Nietzsche’s point in going “beyond good and evil” is not that evil doesn’t exist because everyone is just a mechanistic sum of a set of unfortunate tendencies and circumstances; it’s that if we see ourselves as the good, and thus the sources and creators of our own law, we lack the category of an independent, metaphysical “evil,” avoidance of which, through obedience to an external, absolute law, constrains our action.

    Jared Loughner surely misread Nietzsche – it’s entirely appropriate that THE WILL TO POWER was his favorite, considering that it was compiled and edited postmortem by his Nazi sister – but unfortunately he’s still closer than you seem to be. Not that I necessarily disagree with the point you’re making – it’s just not Nietzsche’s.

    1. @HereticGestalt: In my experience, whenever someone says, “I hate to be pedantic,” they immediately disprove their claim…

      My point regarding Nietzsche is that he appeals to people like Loughner as their excuse for bad behavior. Loughner and people like him often have a very legalistic sensibility to their constructed reality, where they have discovered or created The Truthâ„¢ which is completely logical (to them, at least). When their beliefs are challenged, they find solace in the writings and biography of Nietzsche etc. because people like him were not widely appreciated in their own time. Nietzsche is instructive because he describes how self-created systems of laws lead to the types of morality (or amorality) that get characterized as good or evil. As I said in the post, I am just touching on all of this, but I don’t think I misrepresented or oversimplified Nietzsche as badly as you think I did.

    2. I’d agree that I haven’t seen any comments before yours that demonstrated the slightest grasp of Nietzsche.

  24. “Everyone, myself included, probably has a delusion or two in their belief system.”

    Everyone indubitably has a delusion or two in their belief system. It’s not possible to have a mental map of the universe that is 100% accurate, and a mental map is, for all intents and purposes, a belief system.

    If more of us would take care to remember this fact – that we’re each subject to errors in the way we handle the world – there might just be a hell of a lot less acrimony and bloodshed.

  25. That was a good read. I don’t have much to add to the above comments; I tend to agree with the post, and that the term “evil” is used too often as a kind of super-category that you put things into when you don’t want to analyze them too deeply.

    @Anon #20: I don’t want to get into a big discussion about ADHD here. I stand by my post. Now, back to Nietzsche!

  26. Isn’t this not really a case of good vs evil?

    We should probably be looking at as the idea of evil vs. what we know of mental illness.

    And by extension religion vs. science.

    Evil alludes to some sort of spiritual or mystical nature.

  27. I covered courts for a paper for four or five years for a paper. I started out with a pretty straight forward good/evil paradigm. Then I realized a lot of people in court were there because they’d had the crap beaten out of them as kids and never got taught right and wrong the way “law abiding” people did.

    Then there were people in court who were mentally ill who couldn’t perceive reality much less right and wrong.

    Then there were people in court with fetal alcohol syndrome or brain injuries who didn’t think the way other people thought and who had trouble making choices or controlling impulses.

    There were people in court who were mentally handicapped through down syndrome or and again had trouble communicating or didn’t know how to express thoughts or emotions or sexual feelings in a socially acceptable way.

    There were people with addictions who would get desperate and steal to pay for their fixes or who would get high and be violent or reckless.

    There were people with sexual compulsions who couldn’t seem to stop their behaviour.

    In all of those populations or categories I’m sure you could find people not in court and not trouble with the law, but a lot of people in court fall into one of those categories.

    Then you had the “normal people” who ran afoul of the law. The people who should know better. Those people did domestics, prostitution, drinking and driving, assault and fraud mostly. Sometimes they would do murders. Murder was rare. Drunkenness was common. Anger was common.

    Evil. Miss Marple television evil was very very very rare. Usually when people killed each other it was spur of the moment and they were really really angry or drunk, or they were crazy.

    I tended toward the end to think of evil as belonging to the people who should know better and who did bad, mean harmful things to other people despite knowing better. There were a few assholes who would repeatedly do shit and get punished and those people ought to have known better , especially after a while of being treated and punished and rehabbed. And I put them in the evil category too.

    Ultimately though evil is like a colour. It’s a judgement, an adjective. It’s not a cause. There’s all kinds of reasons why people do “bad things. Evil is not the same as crime – not always.

  28. I liked your post quite a bit. I reread my response below and it sounds a little rantish, so I apologize if it sounds the same to you, it is not my intent. While I agree with your theme and even your arguments, I disagree that the appropriate conclusion is to reduce or replace usage of the term evil.

    “Everyone, myself included, probably has a delusion or two in their belief system. Once in a while they combine with other factors in a person to create a lethal combination: anger, incompetence, rejection, isolation, lack of empathy, drug-induced hallucinations, participation in economies of violence, unthinking behavior, production of a flawed script. That’s not evil.”

    If that’s not evil, what is?

    Wishing to call it “malevolence” and simply strip the phonetic “evil” from terminology makes no change to the outcome of such a lethal combination.

    I see the problem as the make-believe world people find themselves in that suggests that they cannot be or are not capable of being evil. You may find it justifiable to change the words, trying to chase down those who suggest that they are above “evil” by saying that they cannot possibly be above this “malevolence.” The truth is that they never had right to make such claim in the first place.

    I’d say feel free to give it whatever phonetic you wish, but the root of it is the personal allowance of those carried delusions to morph together and persuade you into violent decisions. Evil is not some out-of-reach demon idling in a firey lair. It is a capability, one that dwells in all of us. Able to be summoned at our command. Able to subvert our ordinary thoughts over long periods of time through unguarded allowance.

    I, too have problems with people callously dismissing others’ actions as evil without recognizing the same views within themselves that can lead to similar actions. But it’s not the use of the phonetic “evil” that perturbs me, it is the very act of dismissal. How long, after changing the term to “malevolence,” will it take for that to become the word used to quickly dismiss such actions? And then will you advocate for another different word? But even then a rose is still a rose.

    As for Mrs. Palin, it pains me to see self-professed Christians dismiss someone as evil without compassion for the man who succumbed to such misdeeds, and without the recognition that, lacking vigilant guard, they themselves are just as capable of becoming evil. They, in accordance with their beliefs (and mine), harbor the very same tendencies. [Romans 3:23 “for all have sinned”]

    That it is a process of rationalization one takes to succumb and allow themselves to commit these vicious deeds makes it no less evil. It is that very process that is the evil (this is not to say that all rationalization is evil). I would say, instead of changing the term because others are unconciously attempting to redefine it, advocate for the term to be used appropriately.

    1. So many great comments! PlaneShaper brings up a couple of points raised by others, so this is a combination reply to several earlier posts.

      The problem with the concept of “evil” is that it cannot feasibly be disconnected from its supernatural roots. It suggests that an outside force has created within each of us a potential for “evil” thoughts and actions. What Nietzsche is saying is that these concepts have been created by people and applied to people.

      From a purely secular viewpoint, the notion of intrinsic criminality is equally as dangerous and is a hallmark of eugenic ideology. The notion that some people were born criminal raises a host of troubling ethical and philosophical issues without even considering a supernatural element.

      The point of using refined terminology is that terms are not exactly the same. “Malevolence” as proposed by Goldberg is not the same as “evil.” Evil is a characteristic or trait in most traditions, where malevolence describes actions. We have all done something or another that could be considered malevolent, but that does not mean we are all inherently evil (unless you ascribe to certain belief systems).

      The problem with a term like “evil” is that we are quick to apply it to others but rarely to ourselves. It’s a way of othering someone who is directly connected to us and in reality not that different from any of us. I believe that sort of othering is what made Loughner more and more isolated, and had a few people resisted that impulse, the escalation of his experimental malevolence might have been avoided. I think we are all capable of doing bad things, and that a term like “evil” only exists to absolve ourselves and others of our responsibility to prevent them in ourselves and others.

      1. “The problem with a term like “evil” is that we are quick to apply it to others but rarely to ourselves. It’s a way of othering someone who is directly connected to us and in reality not that different from any of us. I believe that sort of othering is what made Loughner more and more isolated, and had a few people resisted that impulse, the escalation of his experimental malevolence might have been avoided.”

        I completely agree with you. I suppose, out of my probably-longer-than-necessary response, that my only caution would be that even if you used the term “malevolence” it would eventually become that term colloquially proscribed to others and not ourselves. It would simply become a term like evil. And like the term evil, after inheriting that societally accepted definition, it would need to be replaced by another word.

        Without suggesting too much that Mr. Loughner is a societal victim (as personal choice deserves personal responsibility), I think we’re quite in agreement that the othering tendency can easily prevent prevention, and the inability to recognize tendencies in ourselves because of that othering can be quite detrimental.

        And I agree with your other main point, that we need to recognize the writings of great philosophers for what they are, and reclaim them from the angry who would use them to advocate personal or public inclinations for great violence. But I think that very same thing about many books :)

  29. I read something a while back that made the claim that Nietzsche’s writings where edited after his death to fit more closely to the nazi/arian view of the world.

  30. On the topic of personal choice, recent studies of mental processes seems to indicate that they are less reasoned then we like to think they are.

    It may well be that we more often try to convince ourselves we made the right choice post fact, then we do actually making one.

  31. For me the problem with “evil” is that it’s closely tied with the notion of “free will” which assumes a person’s actions come from them alone, as opposed to all sorts of forces beyond their control like genetics, life circumstances, etc (as the Buddhists would say, there are no true independent selves, everything is interdependent). Think of how silly it would sound to call an animal “evil” if it attacked and killed someone, and yet why do we think human actions are fundamentally different from those of animals? Of course on a pragmatic level it may be a good idea to hold people “responsible for their own actions” for the simple reason that this can encourage them to act in ways that don’t cause harm to others, but I think it’s a bad idea to take this pragmatic way of talking too seriously, especially since an awareness of how we are all natural expressions of circumstances larger than ourselves can lead to a more philosophical, less hateful response to those who act cruelly. As Einstein once said:

    I do not believe in free will. Schopenhauer’s words: ‘Man can do what he wants, but he cannot will what he wills,’ accompany me in all situations throughout my life and reconcile me with the actions of others, even if they are rather painful to me. This awareness of the lack of free will keeps me from taking myself and my fellow men too seriously as acting and deciding individuals, and from losing my temper.

    And also, as quoted here:

    I agree with your remark about loving your enemy as far as actions are concerned. But for me the cognitive basis is the trust in an unrestricted causality. “I cannot hate him, because he must do what he does.” That means for me more Spinoza than the prophets.

  32. When I was in High School I read Nietzsche and thought he was wonderful and that I understood what he was saying. Then I went to college and got a degree in classics and reread Nietzsche. I realized that there was no way I could have understood him in High School because so much of his rhetorical style reacts to what greek and german and enlightenment philosophy said.

  33. Always glad to see a discussion of Nietzsche :-)

    Pedant point: It’s worth pointing out that ‘The Will to Power’ was indeed originally compiled by Nietzsche’s Nazi sister, it was based on an unfinished collection of writings that Nietzsche did intend to publish and has since been collated by people who’re a lot more sympathetic to Nietzsche’s intent. Most modern editions will be based on the real writings, rather than the edited version. So, while we might assume Loughner hasn’t interpreted Nietzsche very well, he quite probably is at least reading his work.

    I think Nietzsche’s point may have been misinterpreted somewhat here, where while we’re moving on from calling people ‘Evil’, we’re still trying to define and describe what leads to the actions that get labelled as such. Nietzsche spoke of the pervasiveness of the slave-morality; the extent to which it has enveloped and defined our thought makes it near-impossible for us to consider another kind of morality.

    But he points to ‘evil’ as coming from the nihilistic ‘ascetic ideal’, wherein one seeks to negate an element of the world (we can define ‘evil’ as ‘that which needs to be cut out of the world’). In a Nietzschean cosmology, to seek to negate a part of the world is to seek to negate the world, and life, itself. When our values are no longer centred in affirming our own will, we seek to negate external events, and from these ‘evil’ things create a ‘good’ world devoid of such things. The ideals of Christians and other semitic religions (as well as many other religions, I expect) are thus interpreted as a wish to negate the pains of a world in which the slaves get it crap from the masters. The ‘good’ world beyond is essentially Nothing – the universalised idealisation of everything that is not life (unchanging, away from the senses, etc etc).

    To bring this back to the discussion, we can argue that Loughner was likely still working well within the slave morality – he might claim his actions are an expression of a master-morality and his will-to-power, but his actions seem fully externally-prescribed. He’s acting out of the resentment and nihilism and fear that define the slave morality. All of his motivations speak of ressentiment, and his actions follow this as an attempt to negate the aspects that he defines, perhaps in different words, as evil. In a strange irony, his actions are still working out of the same ideal as the Christian values Palin &co. espouse.

    When this gets discussed in the format above, we see the same values being brought into play. The focus given to Loughner’s actions evokes Scienctific, sociological or psychological explanations to try to give an interpretation of Loughner’s motives that doesn’t allow for the simplistic ‘because he’s evil’ explanation. However, there’s a subtle undercurrent of the understanding that, though ‘evil’ explains nothing, these actions were still evil – we’re still looking to explain why horrible things happen, with the progressive assumption that, in doing so, we can ‘cut this out’. Ironically, our very reason for trying not to use ‘evil’ is not because we no longer wish to work within that moral framework, but because ‘evil’ doesn’t do *enough* for us in defining evil! It doesn’t help us get into the minutae, the thoughts, and the justifications of what we see as evil. We no longer look to God to fix things, but we still invoke science, truth, understanding, as a way to get rid of evil. We’re not moving away from evil here, but simply trying to understand it more. We’re not using the same terms, but we’re still thinking in the same way – ‘This arouses fear in me and is horrible!’

    Nietzsche sought a revaluation of all values, but the above does not seek to do this. It critiques the words and the simplistic explanations of evil, but it continues to try to define it, albeit in subtler terms. We’re reading a conversation of how we can understand evil actions in a socio-politico-scientific context. The question of how we evaluate Loughner’s actions is left alone.

    As for a master-morality reading of the actions, or an understanding of them that is ‘beyond good and evil’, I’m not sure what that would be. But my favourite maxim from the book is #153:
    ‘That which is done out of love always takes place beyond good and evil.’

    As an aside, if anyone’s interested in a more sustained look by Nietzsche into the ideas of slave/master-morality, Good/Evil vs. good/bad, and more, I’d very much recommend On the Genealogy of Morals.

    1. As a morality, I think Nietzsche’s example of good/evil slave morality would apply to actions more than people. Designating a person or group as evil is not a moral judgment except for their acts unless you wish to embrace a kind of prejudice based on some other intrinsic quality of the person/group.

      I’ve read all the comments thusfar and agree that togi’s analysis is closest to my own. Evil acts are prohibited by the received morality. You can disagree with the judgment of the received morality, but each system is allowed to make its own rules here. Therefore eating pork is evil in some systems but not in others. You can still discuss the value of these systems, but you can’t undo their classifications. So Palin is probably right, her system would call the Tuscon acts evil just like the acts of the Unabomber.

      Bad acts, according to N., are essentially those which are not effective, lead to weakness, or do not fulfill the will of the doer. Can you eat pork badly? Can you jump badly? It doesn’t seem like much of a moral question, framed in this way. We can make judgments about the efficacy of actions (“That was a bad jump. I’ve jumped better in the past.”) but we don’t typically think in terms of the morality of how we’ve executed these acts. And this, I think, is a large part of where N. is going with this. Masters don’t have to answer for their actions, yet appreciate competence and skill in the execution of both their own acts (as an expression of their will) and those of others.

      The issue of N.’s motivation for wanting people to drop the habit of thinking in terms of “right or wrong”/”good or evil”/”moral or immoral”/”what does the church say about this” and the value that he perceived this would confer to the world is a different issue. But in terms of simply understanding the distinction between the value judgment of a “received morality” and the value judgment of an act in and of itself. N. would therefore agree that most moral systems would call the Tuscon acts “evil” whether or not the shooter was clinically insane or high. Whether or not they were “bad” would involve a strictly technical analysis.

      Whether or not the shooter considered himself “Evil” or “Good” in the context of his OWN moral system would probably flow from an understanding of that moral system and whether he would be considered “justified” under that system. “Guilt” in that sense is the manifestation that you have erred within the context of your own moral system and would describe your own acts as, at least in part, “Evil.” For N., to be beyond “Good and Evil” is to not feel the need to be justified or not, to have left moral systems behind.

      If the shooter believes himself “justified” he has not, according to N., truly left the “slave” morality behind, he’s just making up his own set of “slave morals.” By analogy, he’s decided that it is moral for him to eat pork but he would probably still believe that it would be “immoral”/”evil” for someone to lie to him or steal from him. In fact, he would probably suffer great indignation were this to happen to him. His “moral” outrage at this transgression against himself would likely be great. Loughner has not moved beyond good and evil; and he is no superman.

  34. “Evil” as a description of a person or a group of people is a religious concept defined by Scripture and doctrine: and I do not know the scriptures and doctrines well enough to so use the term with any confidence or utility.

    The “evils of poverty” or “evils of disease” or “evils of war” are defined by our senses, are clear enough in import and are thus tolerable uses: it is only in its purported literal application as a descriptor of individual people (rather than as applied solely and strictly to the consequences of specific actions of person(s), or to a specific intent of that person in relation to specific acts: the act and actor are always distinguishable to reason, and the over-broad and sloppy use of the word “evil” obscures that distinction), no matter how blameworthy their specific conduct, which gives me pause – for I do not want the ( or any) Scriptures to play any role at all in our secular Governments, or in our deliberations as to what policies ought to be adopted by our Governments.

    An evil intent, as such are necessarily limited to specific actions, can not a person “wholly evil” make: the word applies to the intent and action, not to the person as a whole entity.

    But I am certain that religious people would dis-agree. But they know better than I how their religions define “evil”.
    Often enough, IMHO such people feel that the term simply applies to anybody who does not agree with, nor follow thew precepts of, their own religion.

  35. Wait, how many politicians and judges and little kids have died from guns and bombs in Iraq since 1991 again?

    Oh, sorry, right, we don’t talk about that.

    It’s not on TV, it’s not important. Also they are Foreigners.

  36. It’s inaccurate and really just plain uncool to try to boil everything down to good v. evil, or, more accurately, us vs them. The world is multi-faceted. Everyone has multiple views on everything.

    That being said, was John Hinkley somewhere on the left side of the single dimentional world when he attempted to assassinate Reagan? No. His motivation, like Loughner’s, was completely cartesian, totally out in the ether.

    I’m not a Palin fan, but she had less to do with this than Jodie Foster did in Hinkley’s deluded attack. First, we blamed her, then, when we realized dude was nuts, and that she had less to do with what happened than the Communist Manifesto, we say she’s bad for calling him ‘evil’.

    Pot calling the kettle black, is basically what we’re doing. She’s on the ‘right’ so she’s got to be all-bad, no matter what.

    As long as we continue to believe the world is one dimentional, with a horizontal line stretching from ‘us’ to ‘them’, people will be compelled to use the same unrealist way to describe everything. ‘Good’ to ‘evil’, ‘religious’ to ‘secular’, ‘left’ to ‘right’, etc… etc… ad infinitum.

    1. An interesting link, thanks for sharing. The more i read about Buddhism, the more interesting i find the pattern of thinking involved.

  37. More should be said regarding the title of the post — Can JL help us get past good and evil? Well, perhaps in comparison to Jeffrey Dahmer, the answer is yes, since Jared’s (we’ll call it malevolence)resulted in a politically charged debate, allowing for more of society (us) to engage in the conversation. Jeffrey Dahamer’s malevolence did not inspire such debate or discussion among the general public.

    So then, if Jared’s act of ultimate malevolence inspires the rest of society to think on what he did in new, open minded ways, then perhaps the final result of his action can be viewed as a positive? Furthering the point, based on his mug shot, one could argue that Jared’s expression is one of confident success, as if he meant to teach us all a lesson, and we are obediently obeying his wishes by elevating the debate. We are perfectly fitting into his script.

  38. I think Nietzche came close but didn’t quite get it about evil. Everyone knows what evil is: Evil is what the Other Guy does, not me. The evil we ourselves do is never really “evil,” but a peccadillo, “just my little idiosyncracy-” but the evil others do is a danger to society- something that needs to be dealt with, calling for second-amendment remedies, or Jihad, or something of that nature.

    Nietzche’s Master Morality and Slave Morality are just corollaries of that overarching natural human view of evil. If you’re poor, the Master Morality is the perfect explanation of why the rich are so evil. If you’re rich (or identify with rich people as seen on TV, where they tell you you pay too much in taxes, for example) then, the poor are evil. Oh, but it’s always someone else! How lovely we really are, aren’t we?

  39. > Without suggesting too much that Mr. Loughner is a societal victim (as personal choice deserves personal responsibility),

    Plato would say, that the society holds (or should hold) responsibility, that is, all the people as a collective whole, hold responsibility to care for those in need. If someone does not have the mental faculties or judgment to make rational decisions, it can be argued that he does not have or is not capable of having personal responsibility. In which case, we are stuck.

    Do we let raving lunatics wander about, until one does something that jeopardizes one of us? Or do we as a society take repsonsibility, see that he has problems, get him proper medical care, and otherwise gently take him off the streets before he injures someone else?

    In this case, everyone has “personal responsibility”. People saw he was a nut-case, were frightened of him, but these people did not go beyond the “observation” stage and say “hey, this guy is a potential threat to himself and/or others, who do we alert about this?”

  40. I’m a bit surprised the concepts of “free will” vs. determinism have yet to be discussed in the comments.

    To me, it seems those with a free will approach to human interactions are susceptible to notions of “good & evil” whilst determinism advocates don’t approach things in such a simplistic nuance-lacking way.

    It’s a much stranger and more complex world than just good vs bad. Why people do the things they do can lead to answers directly related to this.

    1. I’m a bit surprised the concepts of “free will” vs. determinism have yet to be discussed in the comments.

      I think you missed my comment #53…

  41. Hey America: I notice you have another bloodbath on your hands.

    11 injured and 1 dead. Nice stats.

    Reap what you sow, baby. Reap what you sow.

    1. I’m wondering why you pick out guns, which are a minor factor in the American bloodbath, and not automobiles or alcohol, both of which kill far more people and destroy far more families. You seem a tad obsessive.

      I have my own obsessions, so I’m not pretending to be any better than you are; I’m just pointing this out in case you aren’t aware of it.

      I personally am more concerned about dogs.

      A survey by the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta (“CDC”) concluded that dogs bite nearly 2% of the U.S. population — more than 4.7 million people annually. (Sacks JJ, Kresnow M, Houston B. Dog bites: how big a problem? Injury Prev 1996;2:52-4.)

      Almost 800,000 bites per year — one out of every 6 — are serious enough to require medical attention. (Weiss HB, Friedman D, Coben JH. Incidence of dog bite injuries treated in emergency departments. JAMA 1998;279:51-53.)

      Dog bites send nearly 368,000 victims to hospital emergency departments per year (1,008 per day). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Nonfatal Dog Bite–Related Injuries Treated in Hospital Emergency Departments — United States, 2001, MMWR 2003;52:605-610. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report is published by the CDC.

      The number of Americans who had to be hospitalized as a result of dog bites went up 86% in the past 16 years, from 5,100 hospitalizations in 1993, to 9,500 in 2008. The average cost of treatment was $18,200 per patient. The patients generally were kids under 5 years old and seniors over 65. (US Dept. of Health and Human Services.)

      16,476 dog bites to persons aged 16 years or greater were work related in 2001. (Ibid., Nonfatal Dog Bite–Related Injuries Treated in Hospital Emergency Departments — United States, 2001, MMWR 2003;52:608.

      Every year 2,851 letter carriers are bitten. (US Postal Service.)

      Getting bitten by a dog is the fifth most frequent cause of visits to emergency rooms caused by activities common among children. (See Weiss HB, Friedman DI, Coben JH. Incidence of dog bite injuries treated in emergency departments, JAMA 1998;279:53; also see US Consumer Product Safety Commission, Injuries associated with selected sports and recreational equipment treated in hospital emergency departments, calendar year 1994. Consumer Product Safety Review, Summer 1996;1:5.)

      An American has a one in 50 chance of being bitten by a dog each year. (CDC.)

      The most recent official survey, conducted more than a decade ago, determined there were 4.7 million dog bite victims annually in the USA. A more recent study showed that 1,000 Americans per day are treated in emergency rooms as a result of dog bites. In 2010 there were 34 fatal dog attacks in the USA. Most of the victims who receive medical attention are children, half of whom are bitten in the face. Dog bite losses exceed $1 billion per year, with over $300 million paid by homeowners insurance. (DogBiteLaw.Com)

      I have scars on my ass, both forearms, and one of my thighs from dog attacks I suffered as a child more than forty years ago. Not wild dogs – people’s pets. The ones on my arms, which are visible from ten feet away, are there because I interposed my arms while a dog tried its best to tear out my throat.

      Neither of the dogs that attacked me were put down by their owners. My father shot one of them repeatedly with a pellet gun until it stopped coming into our suburban neighborhood, but both of them died of old age. One of them savaged several other children.

      I’ve never seen a gun break out of a house and attack a small child of its own volition. But I’ve seen a dog do it…

      You’ll pardon me if I think your obsession is a little less important than my own. Do you by any chance have a dog?

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