Jude Hardin

Author, Drummer, Turtle Whisperer

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Thursday, August 02, 2007

Evil

I would describe evil as the absence of moral obligation. Since morality, Goodness, it seems, is peculiar to one species, it would be logical to deduce that Evil is peculiar to the same. One cannot exist without the other. That being the case, what exactly causes the absence of moral obligation? Nature? Nurture? Sex? Drugs? Rock and roll? Could it be...SATAN?!!?

A philosopher and naturalist named Robert Ardrey wrote: "We were born of risen apes, not fallen angels, and the apes were armed killers besides. And so what shall we wonder at? Our murders and massacres and missiles, and our irreconcilable regiments? Or our treaties whatever they may be worth; our symphonies however seldom they may be played; our peaceful acres, however frequently they may be converted into battlefields; our dreams however rarely they may be accomplished. The miracle of man is not how far he has sunk but how magnificently he has risen."

I don’t think evil can be defined in terms of evolution, as Ardrey has suggested. Nature, left alone, without the intervention of human beings, thrives in perfect order. When animals kill, it is for a reason. Sex is for procreation. An ape might become violent, protecting its territory or its mate, but I’ve never heard of an ape torturing another ape for the mere pleasure of seeing it in pain. I’ve never heard of an ape clubbing its sleeping family to death.

So, let’s just say that Evil and Goodness are unique to one species--Homo Sapiens.

Again, what causes one of such species to become Mother Theresa while another becomes Jeffrey Dahmer?

One can argue, and make a good case, that a person’s environment shapes his/her attitude toward morality. Abused children, for example, sometimes become abusing adults. But what about the kid who, for no reason we can ascertain, peels the skin off of toads for the pleasure of watching them suffer and die? What about the same kid who, mesmerized by flame, takes a book of matches and torches his own house?

Anyone who has seen children grow from infancy knows that each is born with a certain personality, certain talents, etc. With proper nurture, most grow to be responsible adults with a strong sense of moral obligation. Some, however, do not. Prisons are bursting at the seams with murderers, rapists, child abusers, arsonists, thieves, many of them from perfectly good families and with siblings from the same circumstances. Why did Johnny stab thirty-seven women and leave them in dumpsters, while brother Billy sits at home with his wife and kids and golden retriever and is never late to his job at the bank?

We like to explain Evil away with words like environment, upbringing, poverty, and even mental illness. We like to intellectualize, to deny that Evil exists. Or, if we’re religious, we can easily dismiss it as a supernatural phenomenon. But is any of that right?

I'm not buying Ardrey's explanation either. To say we all started out, millions of years ago, as selfish, scared, and aggressive, and then rose above it, is no more plausible than saying we all started out perfect and then fell. It's the same argument, really, only in reverse.

What is Evil? Where did it come from? How can we rid the world of it?

I don’t pretend to have the answers, but I know that Evil exists. Sure as I know that Goodness does. They exist side-by-side, in each of us, in that funky overgrown hunk of flesh between our ears. If we define evil as the absense of moral obligation, and agree that Goodness and Evil are unique among humans, then to deny that Evil exists is to deny that humanity exists. With the tools we have, and limited empirical data, we can only say that Evil and Goodness exist in varying degrees, dependent on the brain one is born with and the environment one is thrown into.

It’s one of the reasons I write fiction, to explore the dichotomies of the human experience.

Thoughts?

12 Comments:

Blogger Christa M. Miller said...

I think you had too much time on your hands today. ;)

No, seriously. This is my thought: it's rare for wackos to come from "perfectly normal" families. They may *seem* normal, but dysfunction is so prevalent, I think the question is how do so many people rise above *that* - why don't we have more wackos in society? Why did I realize that bullying people doesn't feel good, and why did I thus stop doing it? How did I develop a conscience, and would another child in my shoes failed to have developed one, even with the same parenting?

Another factor, as you said, is indeed environment. Prisons mostly harbor gang members and others who grew up in the ghetto, surrounded by violence and death. They developed morality - it just isn't the socially acceptable morality. But they aren't the same as the true wackos, the ones you mentioned. It's still evil - just in a different form.

Otherwise, I tend to agree.

(Please forgive me if I make no sense. It's late, I'm tired, and distracted by work.)

10:03 PM  
Blogger Jude Hardin said...

Maybe you're right, Christa. Too much time on my hands. :)

But I think it's essential, as writers, to discuss Goodness and Evil and Shades of Gray.

Do we start out evil, and learn to be good? Or, do we start out good, and learn to be evil? Or, as some sociologists believe, do we start as blank slates and become wholly molded by our environments?

If I had to boil down a thesis, I would say that some people are naturally bad, and rise (or don't rise) above it, and some people are naturally good, and fall (or don't fall) below it. Depending on environment and genetic makeup.

I hope that makes sense. I'm tired too. ;)

10:44 PM  
Blogger Christa M. Miller said...

Well, I'm Christian, so I believe we're made fundamentally good, but used the free will God gave us to "go bad." Original sin, y'know. Environment continues to shape us after that.

However, I can't say whether the truly evil are a result of environment, or - yes - demonic possession or even just plain demonic. That's my Catholic side coming out! ;)

11:56 PM  
Blogger Christa M. Miller said...

Oh, and of course we need to discuss this stuff! I was just kidding you. :)

11:56 PM  
Blogger The Scarlet Tree said...

Really interesting thread going on here! After first reading your post, I thought...yes, that despite environmental and social influences, people start out life either basically good or evil. BUT...I'm pregnant! And when I think about the tiny little faces of babies and children, I feel sure that this is not the case. However, I also don't believe that parenting, environment, and social circumstance can necessarily be blamed either; although these factors are the catalyst I think for the 'fall' of most people from socially moral behaviors - there are exceptions I think.
In the end I think that I believe that people who are neither wholly good, nor wholly evil can become twisted, confused, and lost. The question is so big isn't it! I feel a bit lost now :)

4:33 AM  
Blogger Jude Hardin said...

Hi Scarlet,

The question is big, and of course people have been pondering it for centuries.

Best of luck with your novel!

7:44 AM  
Blogger Kathy said...

Genetics. Environment? Both? Neither?

I truly believe there are those born without a moral compass. If the compass doesn't exist, developing morality is thus tremendously difficult or impossible.

If one is born without a moral compass, but is given a healthy, nurturing upbringing, can that person be salvaged from their evil tendencies?

If there is no compass, does one learn to function, act-as-if, pretend and manipulate his or her way through society's hurdles and yet remain inherently evil?

I don't have answers either. ;-)

Great thread!

2:38 PM  
Blogger Jude Hardin said...

Thanks, Kathy. We might never know the answers, but it's fun to explore Good and Evil (and everything in between) in our fiction.

7:36 PM  
Blogger Aaron Paul Lazar said...

Well said, thought provoking post. ;o) Great, Jude!

12:24 PM  
Blogger Sassy Sistah said...

Great post - I love pondering this question, as well.

Two helpful books to take a look at when/if you're so inclined - "People of the Lie" by M. Scott Peck and "The Lucifer Effect by Philip Zimbardo. OH! How could I forget - the master, IMO - "The Mask of Insanity" by Hervey Cleckly. Fantastic, scary - but very useful information in all of the above.

12:05 PM  
Blogger Sassy Sistah said...

OOPS! Sorry - that last book should be "The Mask of SANITY" - not insanity. Duh.

12:07 PM  
Blogger Jude Hardin said...

I'll check those out, SS. Thanks!

10:47 PM  

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