Can Jared Loughner help us get beyond good and evil?


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 "…how, 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