Monday, December 06, 2004

Column on Bad vs. Evil

Why Bad isnÂ?t the Same as Evil

Tibor R. Machan

Because so much of the substance of ethics is linked to religion, and
because religion is a troublesome seat of truth for those who trade in
evidence and argument, ethics (or morality) has itself gotten the back of
the hand of the modern, erudite intellectual. Instead of talk of evil,
which such people tend to demean as superstitious or confused, modern
thinkers acknowledge only the existence of bad things, mistakes, or

Bad things, of course, are hardly deniable. An earthquake that kills
thousands is bad. A virus or a hurricane would also be. But all these are
generally thought of as distinct from evil deeds, which are the bad things
people do that they might and ought not have done. Evil assume that those
who do it have a choice. They could refrain from doing the deed and indeed
ought to. Evil is something only an agent with free will can produce.

In the last 400 years or so there emerged a view of the world that has
basically eliminated morality because the idea is that everything that
happens has to happen. There is no choice in the universe, nothing that
can be produced by something with a free will. A free will is taken to be
something spooky, mysterious, miraculous and thus the province of faith,
not of science, reason, evidence or argument. As a result, evil is dead.

What has come to replace evil is, of course, bad stuff. Murder, rape,
lying, cheating, laziness, betrayal, cowardliness, and such are all
afflictions. People are victims of such behavior or suffer such conditions
but are never responsible for them. And their decency, heroism, or other
worthy achievements are also simply accidental, not something for which
they can rightfully take credit. The most prominent of ethical and
political writers today embrace this outlook.

Of course there isnÂ?t full consistency about any of this. There are
plenty of intellectuals, philosophers, even psychologists willing to
deploy ethical or moral language, but very selectively. Racism is still
evil, so is bigotry or unfairness, especially when it comes to promoting
it in the economic sphere. And EnronÂ?s ex-chiefs are still evil!

But when push comes to shove, this is pretty forced nowadays. The basic
theories that rule, from particle physics to cosmology, tilt firmly
against the idea that human beings are free agents and are responsible for
what they do.

Not that all those who are complicit in dispensing with ethics will
bite the bullet. Some doÂ?there are books arguing unapologetically against
morality by people who embrace the fully determinist outlook (just take a
look at Ted HonderichÂ?s little volume, How Free Are You? [Oxford
University Press, 2002])Â?but some want to have it both ways and try to
make determinism compatible with free will (for instance, Daniel Dennett
in his Elbow Room, The Varieties of Free Will Worth Having [MIT Press,
1984]). But the latter mean something different by ethics from what most
of us do: they have in mind that bad behavior exists and that yes there
are means of coping with such behavior, like punishment, blame and so
forth. Yet, they deny that the behavior could have been otherwise, except
if certain impersonal forces had prevented it.

So, for example, a murderer is responsible for the murder in the sense
that it was he or she who engaged in the behavior that produced the
homicide. But only if there had been some factors to intervene would the
behavior have been avoided. Choice didnÂ?t have a role at allÂ?or if it did,
then the choice itself had to be caused by certain factors.

In short, the same person in the identical circumstances could not have
done otherwise. Which is to say, free will does not exist by this view.

Well, this is a problem and I am not going to presume to deal with it all
here. Suffice it to observe only that what underlies it is an impoverished
view of what is possible in the world. The determinists think there can
only be one kind of cause, namely, the sort we witness in mechanicsÂ?say on
the pool table when one ball causes another to move. But there could well
be other types of causesÂ?for instance, when Mozart creates music or
Rembrandt paints or indeed a philosophers produces a defense of

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