Saturday, June 2, 2007

An Evil Post

Or rather, a post about 'evil'. I almost want to say it with a long, drawn out 'e', for 'eeeeeeeevil' like you'd see come from the mouth of a cartoon villain.

This may meander, this is really just train of thought. I should point out again that I'm not a philosopher. I don't find it all that useful to even do philosophy - but that's my bias in favor of practicality. You can't build a bridge out of philosophy, unless you build it out of large, long-winded books. And if it was designed by philsophers, I'd be afraid to stand on it. I'd rather put myself into the hands of professional engineers. But I digress.

I want to comment on evil because I see so much of our discourse, particularly the political discourse today, focus on the whole 'we're good' and 'the other is evil' dichotomy, something which appeals really strongly to the fundamentalists and the right-wing-authoritarians. And of course, it is totally bogus. Not that I think the U.S. is evil (though it has done some evil things, like break the law, doing things such as wiretapping and torture) or that Osama Bin Laden is all warm and fuzzy. I take issue with it because it is a cartoon villain view of the world, and last I noticed, we don't live in a cartoon world.

Sure, there are people that do horrible things. But I think we are too quick to paint those that do as 'evil' so we can distance ourselves from them and not realize that all it takes is one bad decision for any of us to become one of 'them' - though obviously there are degrees of bad things to consider here - I don't mean to equate, for instance, someone who carelessly speeds and hits and kills a family of four with someone who stalks, tortures, and murders someone for the sheer joy of it). But both individuals are criminals, felons who have killed innocents.

Ok, so this still hasn't quite crystalized (in this post) so perhaps another example is in order.

Pedophiles. Not just pedophiles, but those who act on their impulses and sexually abuse children, are people that everyone, even hardened criminals, seem to agree are evil and deserve all sorts of nasty things. Nasty things that I would probably want to do myself to anyone who hurt my own bundle of joy, my 21 month old daughter. But are they really 'evil'?

Think about this. Are homosexuals evil? Some say they are. (And no, I'm not saying they are or that they should be equated with pedophiles - but bear with me). I bring up homosexuals to point out that it is generally agreed now that someone is not homosexual (or heterosexual for that matter) by choice. People simply are attracted to one gender or they are not.

By the same token, I would think that those who are sexually attracted only to small children don't choose this, either. Of course, they can choose whether to act on those impulses or not, but let's get real. Sexual impulses are amongst the strongest ones we have. How likely is it that someone will manage to go through his or her entire life without being sexual with whomever it is they are sexually attracted to? Not very likely.

Now, I have the fortune to be sexually attracted to sexually mature women. But I did not chose this. I don't think this makes me superior to someone who isn't. I don't even think this makes me superior to a pedophile. It certainly makes life easier for me because I can be sexually active and it is perfectly legal.

Hopefully what I'm trying to say makes some sense now. What I'm saying is that I don't think pedophiles are evil. Tragic, yes, and unfortunate, but not evil.

I'm still not going to let any near my little girl if I have anything to say about it. I still advocte locking them up for acting on their impulses because I want my little girl and all children to be protected from them. I even wonder if it would be a good idea, as some have advocated, to lock them up forever, or at least always keep them away from children. Because as I noted above, if children are all you are sexually attracted to - well, odds are, that will lead to action because an urge for celibacy isn't something strongly hereditary (or rather, if it is, it certainly isn't selected for). But that doesn't mean they are evil any more than a lion is evil for eating a child who falls into the lion pit at the zoo.

One further comment. One can't have a good post on evil without mentioning Hitler. He was certainly vile, and one often hears him described as a monster. But I don't think that is what was bad about Hitler. I think it is always important to realize that Hitler was NOT a monster. He was a human being. It is important to realize that in order to always remember what human beings are capable of, particularly when corrupted by absolute power. The people of Germany in WWII weren't monsters, either. They were ordinary women and men who either went along (as RWAs) or turned a blind eye to the smoke of the gas chambers and slaughter houses. This is important to remember as we see authoritarianism come to the fore in the United States.

So in the end, I wonder if there really is such a thing as 'eeeeeevil.' I do think there is good - I think that is generally the default in people. Perhaps it is best to think of evil as what happens when good people do nothing or simply nothing good happens.


nicole said...

Reading your post gave me a few different thought:

1. I agree with the point you make about Bush calling everyone and their brother "evil". Yeah, it was pretty evil of terrorists to kill a bunch of innocent Americans, but if one tries to understand how the terrorists saw the world, and our country's place in it, one can start to understand that they felt our country "had it coming". Not saying I think that at all, but I can see how we might appear to people in different parts of the world, and I understand that we don't always look great.

2. The whole thing about pedophiles not being "evil" makes me think about how our generation of parents (I'm 31, so I'm the same generation as you)likes to tell kids they're "making bad choices" instead of "they're being bad". Like they need to always validate the kid, and separate the kid's behavior from their worth as a person. I used to do that myself, and I still do, to some extent. But the older my kids get, the more I realize that at some point a parent needs to instill a sense of responsibility in a kid, and tie that to their sense of self. So the kid needs to understand that if he keeps making bad choices in his behavior and actions, then he is acting like a bad kid. And I think there's something lost in a child's moral development if they never learn that the way they appear in the world really does define who they are.

3. If you can't call pedophiles and Hitler "evil" then what exactly is the definition? And can there be good without the opposite? I'm not saying that Hitler didn't have a crappy childhood, and that most pedophiles weren't sexually abused themselves (I think that fact might shoot your "it's not their fault they're attracted to little kids" theory to hell...maybe not their fault, but I don't think pedophilia is an inborn trait) but it doesn't make their actions any less repulsive. It might not be their fault that they are the way they are, but to separate the action from the person seems to minimize their responsibility in it. And since I'm a pretty black & white person, I tend to think that some people can make choices that are so wrong that it really defines their character and their worth as a person.

I enjoy reading blogs that get me thinking...

Matias said...

I also do not think that there is such a thing as universal evil and that there also isn't such a thing as universal good.
Each culture has their own definition of it, to what one culture may seem absolutely evil may not seem at all remarkable to another. Each person also has their own definitions of it.
The problem that this can bring up is how do you put forward laws, for example pedophiles, to them it is right but to the rest of us it is wrong.
I think that the way to deal with that is to make it so that you cannot harm another person, practice what you want up to the point where it affects someone else.

DBB said...

Nicole -

I agree that it is repulsive to think about a pedophile hurting a child, but then a personal repulsion shouldn't be the basis of law. There are plenty of people who find the idea of homsexual sex repulsive, for instance. So repulsion can't be the basis. And I don't mean to minimize the harm they can do. I'd want to kill anyone who touched my daughter. But I still just can't see them as monsters any more than I could call myself a monster for acting on my own sexual impulses (which, fortunately for me, happen to be legal - and with any luck will result in more children).

Protecting a child from an adult, however, is a good basis for law.

I think it is an interesting notion that the idea of a black and white good and evil can help instill in a child values, to be a 'good' person. I will have to think on that with my own daughter. But I wonder if that line of thinking will ultimately help in adulthood because real life has so many shades of grey, and one realizes that the prisons are probably full of people who think of themselves as good people who just made a mistake or had some bad luck (or in the case of drug offenses, just used the wrong recreational drug - pot instead of alcohol).

I mean, is it really the person's disposition or the actions that matter? If a person is a pedophile but has iron self-control and never touches a kid, should he or she still be locked up?

But then looking to actions as an outside observer, as you suggest, is a good idea - if someone else sees what you do and would call that 'evil' perhaps you should change what you are doing. It also makes me sad as I think of how the world views us now, as torturers. That's something I want my daughter to learn - things like that - that torture is ALWAYS wrong, period. I think that perhaps what is needed is empathy, more than anything else, for one to be a moral and good person. And empathy requires seeing everyone as equal human beings, regardless of who they are or what they have done. Once you allow yourself to dehumanize even a single person, be it Hitler or a pedophile or Osama Bin Laden or even Bush, you are on the road to doing something horrible. I think that's what put this country on that road now - terrorists are less than human, so now anyone associated with that word is now an animal we can do whatever we want to. No rights to get in the way.

It makes me very sad.

And Matias, I agree with you - I think the best basis for law is for it to protect the person and property of individuals from each other (but not from oneself - no law can do that). That's the basic libertarian ideal.

nicole said...

I agree with you that there are certain people who, for assorted reasons, may have an inclination to do things that are considered "anti-social", and I agree with you that the fact that they want to do it does not make them "evil". But in a world with so many different people, we do have to be considerate of each other, and I think it is "evil" to do things that infringe upon another person's rights. And I don't mean that in a dehumanizing way, I just think that a person's life is the sum total of their actions. I can talk all day about becoming a doctor and helping people in third world countries get medical care, but until I actually take actions that back up my intentions, I haven't really made my life worthwhile (not with that goal, anyway). By the same token, a person can have great ideals and love in their heart, but if all they do is snort coke and steal from their parents & friends to support their drug habit, I don't see them as a "good" person. I see them as someone who is wasting their opportunity. And I think that's a bad thing, the wrong thing.

A person who can live and let live without driving drunk on the same roads I use, or coming to work high and costing my husband's company a bunch of money, or being a pedophile and hurting innocent children, is fine. I would not suggest that we go around locking people up just because they might be pre-disposed to bad behavior. But once they cross the line and impact other people's lives negatively, I take a different view of them. And it's not that I can't see that someone might be a drug addict because they had a dad that beat them, or that someone robbed the house down the street because they got laid off and were desperate for money. I just think that there are so many legal channels for help of all kinds, that if you can't accept one of those when you need it, then maybe there is something wrong with your character. It's the same thing that's wrong with the religious zealots from all countries (including our own.) If you want to pray 9 times a day and cover your entire body with cloth, or if you want to give every cent you make to a tv evangelist who wears pimp chains, then you should have every right to do that. But you have absolutely no right to require that anyone else believe or live with the same ideals that you have. Wouldn't it be nice if there was a viable libertarian party?

Anyway, like I said, I'm a very black & white person....which is probably why I'm married to someone who can't see anything but gray.

beansa said...

dbb, are you saying that homosexuality and pedophila are analogous? I'm referring to this:

"I bring up homosexuals to point out that it is generally agreed now that someone is not homosexual (or heterosexual for that matter) by choice. People simply are attracted to one gender or they are not.

By the same token, I would think that those who are sexually attracted only to small children don't choose this, either."

There are some problems with your line of reasoning here. First, there is no general consensus about whether homosexuality is "hardwired" or if there is some choice involved in the matter. Even among people who identify as homosexual this is a controversial topic, and to state that one is either "attracted to one gender or they are not" is a gross oversimplification of the nature of sexual orientation.

Even if you could definitively conclude that homosexuals do not chose to be attracted to people of the same sex, it does not necessasarily follow that pedophiles do not chose to be attracted to children. I'm not saying that they do chose to be attracted to children, because I honestly don't know, but that is some shaky logic, sir.

I wonder why you chose homosexuality to illustrate your point. I get that you're trying to point out that both are inherent, biological drives - but why relate the two? I don't think you intended it, but your argument implies that pedophilia is a sexual orientation(ie: a normal variation of human sexuality), which it is not. It is a mental disorder.

You also wrote: "Of course, they can choose whether to act on those impulses or not, but let's get real. Sexual impulses are amongst the strongest ones we have. How likely is it that someone will manage to go through his or her entire life without being sexual with whomever it is they are sexually attracted to? Not very likely."

Wow. So (again) this assumes that pedophilia is fundamentally a matter of sexual attraction, when it is not. Things are more complicated than that:

"As with other forms of sexual assault (rape, indecent exposure, obscene telephone calling, and the like), sexual desire or passion does not appear to be the primary determinant of such behavior [child molestation]. Child molestation is the sexual expression of non-sexual needs and unresolved life issues. Pedophilia goes beyond sexual need and is, ultimately, a pseudo- sexual act." (The Child Molesters: Clinical Observations - Part II
By A. Nicholas Groth, PhD, William F. Hobson, MS, Thomas S. Gary, MEd.)

Besides which, people control their sexual impulses all the time. And the lengths to which some child molesters go to "be sexual with whomever it is that they are attracted to" (in other words, "to rape children") suggests that child molestation is not a "crime of passion". In other words, a man who gets a job as a soccer coach or a teacher to ensure his access to children, then selects his victim and "grooms" her to ensure her succeptibility before finally molesting her is making a series of well-considered decisions and I don't buy it that such a person just can't help himself.

As to whether pedophiles, or anyone else, are evil - I guess if you look hard enough you can find some redeeming shred of humanity in almost anyone. Maybe. I do think that evil follows intent and that people do evil things all the time due to greed, thoughtlessness, selfishness or whatever else. But I don't buy into the concept of some nebulous "force of evil" that preys upon people and causes them to behave badly. Like most things, evil seems to exist on a continuum.

*sorry for yet another long post! you should have seen it before I edited :) thanks for the thought-provoking post.

DBB said...

Beansa -

Thanks for the long response. I may write more later since, as always when I write in the morning, I have to get ready and get baby to daycare, etc...

But I did want to point out a few things. It is my understanding that homosexuality used to be listed as a mental disorder as well, and perhaps had a very similar entry to pedophilia. Wrongly, I would think. So that makes me somewhat suspicious of seeing an entry like that on pedophilia - I would wonder if it isn't a cultural projection of evil - I am always suspect of anything that involves sex - throw in sex and children and the panic button gets thrown (which is understandable - I feel all those fears and more about my daughter).

I don't know of any homosexuals who 'chose' to be that way, and while there is disagreement, I thought the general consensus is that it is hard wired, or at least, biological in origin.
As you point out, though, there isn't any consensus that pedophiles are also hard wired (that I know of). But again, I am suspect because of the history of how homosexuality was treated as a mental disorder. I find it also suspect when something blatently sexual is defined to not be about sex at all. If it is someone someone does that gets them off, it is about sex. Maybe there are other things involved as well, but it is about sex.

I think about fetishes - all of the little things that for some people add to their enjoyment of sex or even maybe are required for it. Things like some men who like to see a woman in high heeled shoes, for insstance (I never understood that - looks terribly uncomfortable to me, and if the heels are spiked, very dangerous in bed...) but then I see it that way because I don't have that fetish. Someone who does I'm sure didn't chose it, and while it is about shoes, it is also most definitely about sex.

Bear with me on this hypothetical - we already know that people can be attracted to their own gender sexually, and that this IS about sex. We know that people can be attracted or at least cued to sex by objects, like high heeled shoes. Why is it such a stretch to think that some people are wired (or whatever) so what attracts them sexually is children? What reason is there to allow for adult same-gender sex and sex with shoes, but somehow this could never happen with children? I see that as an artificial barrier that says more about the culture than about a medical diagnosis. Perhaps there are pedophiles who meet the definition of the disorder you listed - I don't know - but surely there must be some who are just sexually attracted to children. That certainly is a simpler hypothesis. It would certainly explain why pedophiles can pretty much never stop or be let around children. I think average adults generally are interested in sex for their whole lives and don't become celibate if the can help it (mostly).

Of course, the details of pedophilia aren't really the point about my post - about evil, but hey, that's ok - it's still interesting to discuss.

I didn't get into the whole 'force of evil' thing (satan anyone?) mostly because, well, I didn't think of it. I guess that's part of being an atheist - supernatural things like that just don't even occur to me. But it is a good point to bring up in a discussion on evil.

Oops, gotta run.

beansa said...

Ack. I don't want to hijack your thread - as you said, you were talking about evil, but I am still interested in your choice to draw parallels between homosexuality and pedophilia. I am assuming that you are aware that in the past and continuing on to today, one of the reasons given by people attempting to justify denying equal rights to homosexuals is that homosexuals are more likely to be pedophiles and/or molest children. And that although said assertion has been soundly debunked via empirical research, the misconception still persists. Given that context I find your reasoning troubling.

I didn't mean to imply that some people just up and decide to choose a new sexual orientation one day, or that some gay people chose to be gay. The debate I'm talking about has more to do with whether personal choice plays any part in sexual orientation. As to the hard-wiring of sexual orientation, here's the American Psychological Association's opinion:

"There are numerous theories about the origins of a person's sexual orientation; most scientists today agree that sexual orientation is most likely the result of a complex interaction of environmental, cognitive and biological factors. In most people, sexual orientation is shaped at an early age. There is also considerable recent evidence to suggest that biology, including genetic or inborn hormonal factors, play a significant role in a person's sexuality. In summary, it is important to recognize that there are probably many reasons for a person's sexual orientation and the reasons may be different for different people."

Regarding simplicity of explanations, I would think that the simplest hypothesis about sexual attraction would be that humans are "hard-wired" to experience sexual attraction, and that variations in the object of attraction arise from there and are effected by experience, culture and environment. It doesn't really make sense at all to theorize that some brains are hard-wired to like vanilla sex, some others to like shoes, and still others to like children. Way too complicated, especially given the almost limitless variety of things that people can be sexually attracted to.

I misspoke (mis-wrote?) when I said that pedophila is not about sexual attraction. What I meant is that child molestation is not primarily about sexual attraction. Pedophilia is primarily about sexual attraction, while child molestation is often about other issues. Not all pedophiles molest children and not all child molesters are pedophiles. Sorry for the confusion.

There are some pedophiles who are exclusively attracted to children, and who have experienced this attraction from a young age and the attraction has persisted throughout their lives. They are on the extreme end of the spectrum, and my understanding is they are not as common as pedophiles who are also attracted to adults and who experience attraction to chidren as a result of stress or trauma.

The thing about the psychiatric diagnosis of pedophilia (and homosexuality for that matter) is that the diagnosis has less to do with the etiology of the pathology and more to do with the results of the pathology. Homosexuality was dropped from the DSM in the face of overwhelming empirical data showing that homosexuality does not inherently cause maladjustment. Pedophilia is retained as a diagnosis of mental disorder because of the harm it causes to the people who experience it and their victims. Unless we come to the conclusion sometime soon that most pedophiles are well adjusted people who are causing no harm to themselves or others, the diagnosis is here to stay. So, in that sense, it is a culturally defined diagnosis, as are many psychiatric disorders. That said, it is a long way to go from saying someone is "just sexually attracted to children" to saying they can never stop acting on that attraction. So I guess my position would be that while pedophiles are not inherently evil, they do commit an evil act when they molest or rape children. And I also think that the callous disregard that some pedophiles show for their victims would also characterize them as at least partly evil.

DBB said...

Beansa - I agree, abusing a child is an evil act, no question to that.

And I really wanted to avoid even the appearance that in mentioning both homosexuals and pedophiles that I was somehow equating the two - I was not and would not.

I still have some difficulty with what is characterized as a disorder in a medical sense, simply because there really are no good scientific, empirically testible definitions for a lot of psychiactric disorders - I just read a long, fascinating article on the insanity defense, which is a whole different ball game - but one point from the article was that there really often is no definitive way to say someone is or is not under the effects of a disorder even for the narrow question of the legal definition of insanity - it often just boils down to dueling experts who essentially testify what amount to closing arguments (for each side) since they really can only guess at what is going on inside a defendant's head.

Not all disorders are so amorphous, I'm sure. Some have been narrowed down to a specific deficiency in a specific neurotransmitter, for instance. But something like pedophilia is probably too complex to ever be able to describe it in such terms.

Environmental factors can combine with DNA - to 'turn on' portions of it (and which once turned on, can't generally be turned off) - and thus you can have environmental factors matter for what is ultimately a genetic condition.

And don't feel bad about hijacking a thread - discussion should never be limited - you never know what gems may pop up if you let things develop organically in a discussion. (And it is not like there is a huge amount of traffic on my blog anyway... ;))

In that those who victimize children show lack of empathy, I agree, that makes them 'evil' in the sense that I tried to define in the post. I wonder how many of them would qualify as true sociopaths (the ultimate individual with a lack of empathy).

Mike said...

Nicole, I think the main point is that evil is not a particualarly useful concept.

And I pretty much agree. There is no over-arching group or philosophy of evil. Those who do evil things almost always act out of a preverted idea that they are doing something good, that they are doing it for the greater good, or out of weakness. Hardly anyone considers themselves evil, and those who see evil in themselves tend to act against that evil rather than act on it. The 9/11 perpetrators considered themselves heroes. Hitler thought his vile actions were absolutely wonderful. They had very little in common, other than the idea that the "greater good" justifies killing. Dahmer thought he couldn't stop himself from killing. He acted out of weakness, not a desire to do evil. They do not share a philosophy. They do not work together as evil, although sometimes there are alliances. Those alliances are special cases, with their own names.

Concepts and words are useful because they add to understanding.

When I call a body part "muscle", that allows me to make certain assumptions about it: that it will contract if and when a nerve signal reaches it, that when it does it will pull and not push, that it is connected to nerves and blood vessels, and many other things that allow me (I'm a massage therapy student) to figure out what to do next.

Calling Hitler and child molestors "evil" does not add to our understanding of how to stop them. Calling the Nazis and the Fascists and Imperial Japan Axis Powers added to our understanding of how to stop them, because they were acting together. Calling them and Stalin an axis of evil (for those unfamiliar with that war, Stalin was the dictator of Russia, every bit as bad as Hitler in some ways and worse in others, but we allied with him to defeat the Axis) would be reasonable, but would not tell us anything new, and if it led to an assumption that all four worked together, it would actualy harm our ability to stop them.

Calling someone a serial killer adds to our understanding of how to stop him because we have learned some things that serial killers have in common.