Friday, January 19, 2007

Norm the Papist?

Discussions such as this are normally out of my league. But 'who dares wins' eh?

Here goes.

Am I alone in saying that I have a small number of 'cornerstone' beliefs that shape the other things that I comment on? In revealing them, we reveal our weaknesses, biases and prejudices. Regular visitors here can guess my own line on almost anything once my simplistic preference for representative democracy is understood.

The other one (that I usually sidestep) is the question of 'evil'. FYI, it doesn't exist. Nurture obviously has the whip-hand over nature in this respect. As a teenage Catholic, I thought that there were four things that we should always remember; death, judgment, heaven and hell and that despair is the worst sin of all. If there has been one defining moment for me, it was when I rejected this view for something equally contentious. After reading the classical psychological myths, it was easy to conclude that cruelty is fueled by peer-pressure or somesuch. If someone is bad, it's someone else's fault. Concentration-camp guards were the real victims! Etc.

Norm is reviewing a Theodore Dalrymple review of a book on Rwanda (that I haven't read). The outstanding piece of evidence, for him, is that - in Rwanda - victims didn't cry out at the extreme point at which they were murdered.

For the sake of argument, let's leave aside the dangers of totemic illustrations such as this (another error-prone 'concentration-camp guard' illustration). Norm is - I think - making an observation that most Papists would agree with: That evil is something that can't be negotiated with. There is, implicitly, a 'sin of omission' here. In killing someone, the most sinister aspect of it is not that you do the deed, but that your demeanor convinces your victim that you are impossible to reason with - and thereby, you leave them no alternative but to commit the worst sin of all - the abandonment of hope. An impassive murderer is, by definition, evil. Emote at bit - snarl, and so forth, and you communicate a dubious reasonableness to your victims. It's all relative, of course, but there is - by Norm's logic - a distinction, isn't there? Norm doesn't seem to be making a distinction between someone with a hugely distorted perspective, and someone for whom their perspective is irrelevant as they are being driven by a larger - more pernicious - animus.

Norm can only infer that this sin of omission is - in fact - a sin of commission. Something implicit. Evil. I'd suggest that a catholic would be nodding at this conflation between the two and saying "at last! A materialist finally understands us."

You see, 'evil' must always be a conscious 'sin of commission', but the notion of evil suggests that there is something atavistic in it as well. Something casual. That the nightmare in Rwanda arose from resident 'evil' as opposed to some cataclysmic cultural misunderstanding. Not an elegant argument, I'd agree. But one that it you could only refute by drawing arbitary lines.

I know little of the tensions that caused the butchery in Rwanda. But - unless Norm can illustrate that the murderers and their victims shared exactly the same data, and perspective on the situation that they found themselves in - I don't see how he can have the confidence to describe it as 'evil'. Could he be saying that most of us would be able to respond to the most extreme perceived provocation without reaching for a machete - and that the lack of restraint in Rwanda arose from something that most of us are not infected by?

I'm not convinced that I share his confidence. Or to invert his own argument, I'm not sure that I share his optimistic view of the human nature of non-murderers.

On another subject, Norm is right about right thinking people. In fairness, Norm is right more often than he's wrong, bless his little cotton shorts.


Paulie said...

Norm doesn't have comments enabled on his site, so I'll have to answer his comments on this post here.

Firstly, I'm happy to admit that this post could have been drafted more clearly. The sun was well over the yardarm when it was written.

On Norm's first point (the silence of the victims), I felt that Norm had chosen this paragraph for a reason. And I know he's not daft enough to actually express a catholic response to it - but as he presents it as evidence of evil, I thought that it was worth examining further. Dalrymple (with Norm's endorsement, it is reasonable to assume?) uses the victims' belief that they are witnessing evil as evidence that it exists. In my catholic upbringing, this kind of subjectivity (particularly when it created an occassion for sin - and the sin that it occassioned being the worst sin of all) defines evil in a way that simple 'extreme badness' cannot. It's not just killing people, but making it impossible for them to avoid damnation.

The question mark in the title was meant to be a mischeivous suggestion to Norm that he should be careful unless he unwittingly endorses a particularly catholic understanding of evil which I think is implicit in Dalrymple's article.

I'm still not certain that I'm putting this in terms that a non-catholic would understand though, so I'll take the blame for any misunderstanding here.
wasn't raised as a catholic.

On Norm's second point - he says he wasn't suggesting that 'evil' was "some sort of metaphysical force beyond those specific human impulses that I take to constitute it." This is a bit of a new one on me. I've never had it suggested to me that the concept of evil is anything other than a metaphysical force. Maybe I need to read around the subject more - but I doubt if many of Norm's readers would have grasped what he DID mean in the original post.

His third and fourth arguments are simple misunderstandings. I've just re-read the paragraph in which I said "Nurture obviously has the whip-hand over nature..." and I'm surprised that anyone would read it without understanding that I'm being self-mocking here. I was taking a rise out of the simplistic piece of idealism that got me out of catholicism in my teens. The ridiculous 'concentration camp guards were the real victims' assertion gave the game away, I thought. But, again, I'll admit to slightly tipsy drafting, so the misunderstanding is excusable.

As it happens, I completely agree with Norm that "nurture can't be the whole story".

I've just never had it put to me that the 'inner potentialities' that Norm mentions could be called 'evil'. Unless there is some tradition of doing so that I'm not aware of, it would be confusing to start doing so now.

I just thought that this needed clearing up.

Anonymous said...


I’m puzzled. Are you claiming that the term "evil" is--or once was, anyway--confined to "supernatural," “theological,” or otherwise serenely "unempirical" discourses? Is that what you meant when you mentioned "the metaphysical”? If so, a casual Google-search of the term “evil” (, for example) suggests otherwise. Even some New Testament writers apparently employed the word “evil” to describe entirely “natural,” if undesirable, phenomena:

“A good tree can't produce evil fruit; neither can a corrupt tree produce good fruit.” [Matthew 7:18.]

Or are you confessing that your own familiarity with that exquisite term has been entirely confined to "supernatural" discourses?

"Evil" really is a terrific word. (What other four letter word do we have in English to describe what we deem the worst of the worst of the worst of whatever?) I hope you aren't kicking "evil" to the curb simply because so many Catholics seem to get off on it.

Paulie said...

I'm even more confused, Anon.

That set of definitions you offered (hyperdictionary) hardly seem authoritative to me. And they don't include any metaphysical option (the only definition that I've come across that isn't largely rhetorical). As they offer a series of possible definitions that don't include a metaphysical option, I can't take it seriously as a set of definitions.

This set of options on the Google "define" page break it down into two types:

Subjective versions of 'evil' (i.e. "you're really evil you are" - doing, rather than being evil) or the positive diabolical force.

I still don't think that Norm has said what it is that he thinks 'evil' is, apart from being just another word for *actions* that are very bad. He has certainly implied that it is something other than an action that is subjectively 'bad'. I'd agree that we all have an 'inner potentiality' (his term) to act unwisely, unkindly or uncaringly (even in extreme degrees), but I the term 'inner potentiality' seems to me to suggest something metaphysical.

I'm afraid that your quote from St Matthew is entirely consistant with the Catholic notion of how evil takes root. In Brighton Rock, Graham Greene has a recurring quote: "Between the stirrup and the ground, he mercy sought, and mercy found."

Evil, according to this view is something - a force, rather than a description for any behaviour resulting from particular impulses - that is always looking for a toehold. Regular examination of concience, penitence and absolution deny that 'evil' such a toehold, and prepare the individual to defend the integrity of the soul in extreme circumstances - either in temptation, or at an unexpected moment of death.

We can, so the story goes, condition ourselves to be able to avoid temptation and not to occassion temptation in others.

And we can be practiced in seeking - and finding - absolution in any circumstances as long as we condition ourselves to do so.

So, in saying that 'a good tree cannot produce evil fruit', Matthew is, surely, sidestepping the actual existance (or otherwise) of a force for evil. He is also talking about a subjective judgement on particular actions.

I just think that it is useless as a word apart from as another word for 'very bad things that people do.' To call an action evil is, it seems to me, a way of avoiding the need to explain why someone is motivated to perform the action in question.

Perhaps he means a set of man-made circumstances that result in the creation of a system of some kind that is 'intrinsically corrupt'. Totalitarianism, as outlined by Orwell (and I'm sure by Norm himself) is 'intrinsically corrupt'. But I don't see how this, or any comparable phenomenon can result in a motivation in individuals that can be described as 'evil'.

Let me add, finally, that this is a funny position for me to find myself in. I don't endorse any Catholic explanation for 'evil' (indeed, the opposite is true).