Thursday, April 23, 2009

The Complexity of Evil

With Hitler's birthday, the trials of former Khmer Rouge gaurds, the David Brooks article on "The End of Philosophy," and a brutal, horrible, violent crime on campus in the last few weeks, I've been thinking about evil lately. When I was in graduate school, I was a teaching assistant for Stephen Barker who while teaching the ethics portion of an intro class, found the students hesitant about retribution. I will never forget his New England Brahman accent asking the lecture hall, "Have we really come to place where we no longer wish vengeance upon the evil?"

Hannah Arendt, of course, wrote very powerfully about the banality of evil, that is, the ways in which evil can be spread out and compartmentalized so that those perpetrating even the most egregious crimes can see themselves with clean hands, as just doing their jobs. The ways in which evil can become invisible and part of the structure ought to concern us. It allows us to deny our responsibility to others, that we are what we are a part of. We see that in the current discussion around torture and culpability at different levels of the chain of command. Who ought to be considered responsible?

But perhaps equally important is the way we view evil since Freud. The psychoanalytic approach has deeply shaped the ways in which we think of evil. With the possibility that our minds work apart from our conscious desires and that there may be dark and nefarious urges below the surface that are expressed in ways that are quite different from the person we try to choose to be is truly frightening. There is not a horror film nowadays where there is not a Freudian account of some childhood happening that caused the antagonist to become the monster he is.

And so we are left with a bipolar view of evil which I saw haunting the friends of the young man who committed the heinous act here. We can make pure angels of victims, some rightly as in this case, but we can no longer make pure devils of aggressors. Surely, he wasn't a monster, but yet he was the person who committed the monstrous act. He had stopped taking his antidepressants, but while that may be an explanatory factor, is an explanation the same as an excuse? How do we assign blame and shame when we also have to account for psychological and sociological factors that condition our minds and behaviors? When the motivation for our acts becomes murky and complex, how do we make sense of that we want to cast in black and white?