What makes some evil ‘special’?

To the editor:

George Bryjak (Aug. 17) takes my letter (July 15) which was trying to cover a lot of ground under a word limit, where it’s not possible to explain everything adequately, and makes a lot of hay out of one word. This fits the MO of many Bryjak commentaries (for example “Vaccines — a sticking point,” “Prophets of greed,” “The yellow rose”): find something the other side said or did that he can hold up to scorn. He argues like politicians and cable news rather than like a scholar trying to persuade peers.

Strictly speaking there is no “normal” evil. Every evil involves deviation from a norm — hence the scare quotes — and no priest would use the term in confession. Nevertheless, it speaks to a moral intuition I believe is common and bears reflecting on.

We do not describe every evil with the language of deformity. The gravity of the evil is not what, or at least not the only thing, which determines this. Between: a man robs a bank and shoots a cop while escaping; a kid tortures a squirrel, the former is worse, but only the latter is sick and twisted. One reason is that the former involves using immoral means to satisfy normal desires — money, avoiding jail — whereas the latter involves corruption in the desire itself. Who would get pleasure from a squirrel’s pain?

To return to the band of warriors example, imagine that right after a battle with a traditional antagonist, the victors kill their surrendered opponents who had been trying to kill them a minute ago. One might call them many things, but perverse does not seem apt. But if they then go home and sacrifice a child in thanksgiving, that’s messed up. They have been corrupted to act against a natural affection which ordinarily precludes such violence.

The corruption can be cultural, so that the culpability of the individual may be mitigated. American society is messed up in the degree to which it has accepted abortion.

Ignorance can mitigate the individual’s culpability: The perpetrator did not know how wrong the action was (although one may be culpable for ignorance itself, if one neglects opportunities to inform oneself). Some women who get abortions have been told it’s not a baby yet and believe that. Rape impedes the formation of the natural bond of mothers — and grandparents — to their offspring, which mitigates the guilt of violating that bond.

Bryjak brings up various cases and asks whether they involve special perversity, some of which I have already mentioned. With the Holocaust the answer is obviously yes, on many counts. For one, the German government attacked its own people, even its own veterans. They were not enemies except that the government chose to define them as enemies.

What are the appropriate terms for reproving someone who beats his wife and children? If he does it because it pleases him, he’s a sicko; if he does it to silence complaints, he’s a selfish brute.

Ben Douglass

Saranac Lake


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