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Human Exceptionalism

Life and dignity with Wesley J. Smith.

Evil is Real Because Human Exceptionalism is Real



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UK medical student, Lindsey Fitzharris, writing in the unlikely venue of the left wing newspaper The Guardian in the wake of the Newtown atrocity, worries that our therapeutic society has sucked the vitality out of our understanding of “evil.”  From, Adam Lanza: The Medicalication of Evil:”

Anyone who has been watching the news over the past few days will have heard the gunman, Adam Lanza, described as “sick,” “disturbed” and “defective”. The perpetrator may indeed have suffered from mental conditions that led to his homicidal attack, but even before anything was known about Lanza (including his name), many people in the media assumed a crime of this magnitude could only be committed by a mentally unstable individual. Very little discussion – if any – was given to the role of personal responsibility in this tragic event.

It is an age-old question: what is evil? The answer, of course, is subjective. Many scholars have argued that our concepts of deviant behaviour have changed over time, first being seen as a sin, then a crime and now a medical problem.

She wonders why so many of us embrace transforming evil to a more benign concept of illness:

Why do we find this narrative so appealing? Why are we so quick to assume a person such as Lanza is “sick?” In an article for Parade Magazine in 2002, Andrew Vachss, a crime fiction novelist and child protection consultant, noted that explanations of mental illness offer “the possibility of finding a cure” and “assures us that the predator didn’t really mean it”. In other words, it is unsettling to admit that someone who commits a horrible crime may have done so knowingly and without remorse.

I think that is true, as far as it goes. But there is more to the problem: Admitting that “evil” exists is a way of implying that there is an ultimate source of judgment beyond ourselves.  That hurts our pride because that would mean that at least some behaviors are wrong objectively, meaning beyond determination by applying modern values,  sensibilities, and law (or government).

Beyond the metaphysical, admitting the reality of evil would also be a way of acknowledging the exceptional nature of human beings. We can’t have that! But only humans can be truly “good” or “evil” because only we are, within our very natures, truly moral agents.  Accepting the concept of evil interferes with the ideological goal of many to reduce us to merely another, albeit destructive, animal in the forest. In this sense, the evaporation of evil is a sign of cultural decadence.

Fitzharris notes that erasing evil from our perceptions destroys personal accountability:

While I do believe it is important to determine what factors may have led Lanza to open fire on Sandy Hook Elementary School – and whether this tragic event could have been prevented – I want to remind the US and the world of one thing: evil is about choice. Sickness is about the absence of choice.

So, how do we define evil without invoking the God against whom so many recoil? I like this one: “Evil is treating another human being as a mere object.”  Example: When a pod of male dolphins collectively force themselves on a female, it is just dolphins acting like dolphins. When men do that, it is gang rape, an act of evil.

Dolphins can’t choose to not engage in such brutal behavior.  Unless we have a true illness or injury that prevents us from knowing right from wrong–in other words, a bona fide psychosis–we can.  When we don’t, we should be held to account. And in the worst cases–such as Newtown–we should see the evil. Refusing to acknowledge it doesn’t mean evil ceases to exist. Indeed, such wilfull moral blindness leads to treating symptoms rather than causes, to the detriment of us all.


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