Sunday, 8 November 2015

A Secular Conception of Evil

October's Manchester meeting was a talk entitled Can Philosophy Provide Us with a Secular Account of the Idea of Evil by Dr Eve Garrard. 

Eve started by questioning whether there is a secular concept of evil. A quick poll of the audience suggested a majority were against the idea. She however believed there was such a concept and went on to explain why. Initially she examined what the social sciences and history have to say about it and whether there is historical evidence of historians dismissing the philosophical argument in favour of it. 

The Australian author Inga Clendinnen in her book “Reading the Holocaust” dismissed the concept of ‘evil’ as something ‘non explanatory’ and of no use in explaining why people do what they do. Another source described the concept of ‘evil’ as beyond human, implying that it is inhuman. There is however a recognised religious concept of evil. Eve then went on to outline three possible secular concepts of evil:

1. Anything adverse or unlikeable in human lives, e.g. natural disasters.

2. Immorality, e.g. genocide or malicious gossip.

3. Particularly horrifying actions.

The third she believed was the problematic one; the temple massacres of the 20th and 21st centuries and the holocaust cannot be classified simply as adverse, unlikeable or immoral. 

She went on to talk about two real life examples of a belief in evil. The first related to the Harold Shipman murders and a report from the daughter of one of the victims who said “I tried and tried to understand and explain what he did but could only conclude he was evil”. 

The second was a radio interview with two politicians commenting on the Military Wives Choir’s 2011 Christmas single. One of the politicians was from the far left and the other a centrist. The one from the far left described the choir as vicious, evil and vile. The centrist in response questioned what kind of person it took to call someone like that evil. The point being here that neither party needed an explanation or definition of evil to understand what the other meant. So it has an acceptable use even if we don’t have a theory of it. 

Eve noted that Inga Clendinnen, while discounting the concept of ‘evil’ per se, does believe there is such a thing as an evil doer or monster which fits with the religious definitions of evil. A secular theory of ‘evil’ would need therefore to negate any metaphysical definitions. When we hear of some tortures or other evil acts that humans have committed on others we do regard them as monsters. So, Eve deduced, we need to understand ‘monsters’ to have a secular theory of evil. The problem is that there are too many theories of what would be described as evil acts. She outlined the following three:

1. An act which produces demonstrably bad outcomes.

2. An act in which one person takes pleasure from inflicting suffering on others.

3. An act in which the agent deliberately ignores its moral ramifications.

The first can be contradicted by the case of the voyeur who doesn’t contribute to the evil act. For the second, Eve cited the case of the Eichmann trial in which he was described (by Hannah Arendt who’d researched his personality in her book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil) as being utterly banal. Meaning that he wasn’t taking pleasure but just carrying out orders. 

As to the third example, Eve made the point that some people may do this but they believe they are doing the right thing. Some people, she said, believe the ‘right thing’ is following a set of moral rules like for example the 10 commandments; this is known as the ontological theory. The trouble is that there is no universal agreement about what is right, though there is a general understanding. And the same can be said for evil. 

Eve concluded that there is no reason therefore to refrain from using the concept of evil. The question and answer session following the talk was lively; many saw the concept of evil as being an entirely religious one. A few expressed the opposite. Many philosophical questions were raised and Eve mainly responded with the appropriate philosophical answers, although in some cases she admitted that days, weeks or months would be required to give a complete response.

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