The nature of evil | Our concept of evil need not be tied to a religious metaphysics. Evil acts are those which make tolerable life impossible. But evil acts are often required of virtuous people, and we need a moral framework that can handle this.

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“Dirty hands” has always struck me as a way of attempting to bypass the “just world” fallacy by recognizing that deontology and consequentialism don’t always meet in the middle, but still appealing to people’s moral sentiments by allowing both to claim realism, even when they appear to be in direct conflict. In other words it allows people to have their cake of “X is always morally wrong” but eat “but it’s okay when it’s to my benefit,” too. While I understand the idea of wanting to have a concept of “evil” that, being secular, can work for everyone, the term itself strikes me as being really heavily loaded, perhaps irredeemably so. It’s also subjective. While Mr. De Wijze notes that people have differing understandings of why murder is wrong, he leaves out that people also have differing understandings of what exactly constitutes murder. In other words, we can all agree that “murder is wrong” in the sense that murder is defined as “a wrongful homicide,” without actually having agreement on whether *any specific act* of homicide is wrongful. Therefore, the idea that “we all agree that there are evil acts” is not equivalent to “we all agree that these specific acts are evil.” To the degree that “disrupting the moral landscape that holds social interaction together” is subjective, Mr. De Wijze’s definition doesn’t really add to anything, because it doesn’t help people determine if their own understanding of moral disruption is accurate to a standard independent of themselves.


There’s good results, bad results, good intent, bad intent. And then there’s ignorance that allows good intent to beget bad results. The modern problem looks a bit like… good intent: I want to be a good person. Ignorance: I am a good person – therefore my actions are justified. Bad results stem forth from hubris and arrogance from the ignorance of eschewing self examination against the needs and nature of the world.


In this short interview, philosopher Stephen De Wijze discusses his work on the concept of evil, and how it relates to the philosophy of dirty hands. He explains the importance of separating evil acts from evil people, the latter being relatively rare and the former being moral dilemmas all of us face all of the time. He argues that our concept of evil should be ground in humankind’s need for social interaction, and that evil acts can be understood as those which seek to disrupt the moral landscape that holds this interaction together, whether in the form of cruelty, humiliation, or deprivation. But, De Wijze explains, life is replete with instances in which we’re forced to choose between bad and worse, meaning we are forced to commit evil acts for a virtuous purpose. He outlines the ways this is particularly vivid in politics, and suggests and ideal politician is one that is willing to commit necessary evil acts without becoming ‘morally polluted’ in the process.


He cites the ‘ticking bomb’ scenario – but IRL, this scenario has never happened. The FBI thought Tim McVeigh had planted other bombs, but refrained from torture. They learned there were no other bombs by their usual interrogation techniques without ever having to violate any morals or ethics. And we know that all the intel gathered from both Abu Ghraib and Guantonomo bay proved to be a lot more bad intel than good. The philosophy promoting ethical violations in the ‘ticking bomb’ scenario ignores the fact that torture produces bad intelligence, and is more about justifying one’s own bad character than anything that has to do with reality. This guy keep glossing over the fact that he’s for “the ends justify the means”, and the slippery slope that represents. He repeatedly says it’s so complicated that even he cannot decide when the ends justify the means. Nor does he say who can decide. But he insists that the ends ultimately justifies the means sometimes – he just can’t say when, nor say who can make that decision. As far as I can tell, this guy’s philosophy exonerates those who felt justified in toppling the Iranian and Guatemalan Govt.s for the benefit of the American people. This guys philosophy exonerates those who conducted the Tuskegee syphilis experiment for the benefit of all mankind. Same with the experiments of Joseph Mengele – justified by the scientific data he accumulated for all mankind. Again, he claims there are moral gray areas, and he personally is a “dirty hands” moralist who thinks we can do bad things as long as the good outweighs the bad. Well, the cheap oil from Iran benefitted the world. The cheap fruit from Guatemala benefited the world. The medical information from both Mengele’s and the Tuskegee syphilis experiment benefited the world. So his stated personal views justify things that the rest of us would consider horrible, horrible atrocities that should never have happened. His ‘dirty hands’ philosophy is for shit. Also, he repeatedly claims there are “moral gray areas”, but only provides examples completely outside of any “moral gray area”. In other words, he completely waffles on his own philosophical claim.


“Something is good or right if it improves health or happiness, or it reduces unnecessary harm or suffering; something is bad or evil if it reduces health or happiness or increases unnecessary harm or suffering.” – Theoretical Bullshit (paraphrased).