What is evil?

It is a terrible, an inexorable law, that one cannot deny the humanity of another without diminishing one's own.
- James Baldwin


What if there is no point in trying to understand evil? Maybe there is no "cause" as such, just human beings behaving in ways that we - who consider ourselves to be more enlightened - call evil. Like the statement, "John is stupid", the assertion that an action is evil says more about the speaker than about the action in question. It says that our moral norms are such as to render the action unacceptable.

Yet there must be a bedrock of ethics that is not reducible to moral relativism. Surely the killing of children, rape and torture are "evil" without qualification or the need to refer to a specific moral code.

So let us allow that something called 'evil' does exist, and is not a concept having meaning only with reference to a particular moral code. If so, does evil have a cause or explanation?

The complex of motivations and character traits that gives rise to our behaviour is not reducible to simple explanations. Maybe doing evil has no more of a causal explanation than does doing good, or just behaving 'normally'.

We try to make sense of the world, of why people do what they do, but is there an explanatory pattern, or is it just our need to make things fit into neat mental categories? Our need to understand.

We feel the need to comprehend events such as the Holocaust. Yet what if there is no "explanation" of the Holocaust, except one that details the historical events of the Nazis' rise to power and the historical basis of the extreme anti-semitism that animated them and most of Germany?

The problem is that for us, the Holocaust - the systematic murder of millions of innocent people - is such a monumental monstrosity that we do not comprehend it. Unless we are deeply cynical, it violates our most basic ideas about being human.

We want to know how it could have happened. How could ordinary human beings, who exhibited all the trappings of civilisation, have committed such crimes knowingly and even enthusiastically.

Perhaps the answer is that different norms of behaviour and different beliefs about Jews and about race prevailed in Germany in the 1930s, so that what is extremely abnormal, and even incomprehensible from our point of view, was normal and widely accepted then. This is essentially the explanation given by Daniel Goldhagen in his scholarly work, "Hitler's Willing Executioners".

Although I accept all of Goldhagen's theses, including the one expressed by the title, the book gave me the lingering feeling that something had been left out. I wanted to be given an "explanation" that made more sense than just the historical fact of eliminationist anti-semitism. Intellectually, Goldhagen's book made sense to me, but emotionally it didn't. For one thing, he doesn't even attempt to explain why the Germans were so fiendishly cruel to the Jews.

Another book I read recently was "The World of My Past" by Abraham Biderman. Biderman lived through the hell that the Nazis created. His is a harrowing story of surviving the Lodz ghetto and then a series of concentration camps, ending with a 'death march'.

Biderman writes:

During the years of the Holocaust, Germans, young and old, watched living skeletons being dragged along the highways and carted in open cattle trucks across Germany. I will never forget the indifference on their faces - as though we did not exist, or if we did, as if we had no right to. Sometimes they would throw stones and abuse us. None of them ever tried to help.

Like other books dealing with the Holocaust, this one raises the basic question, "How could this have happened?" In common with Primo Levi and Viktor Frankl, Biderman has no answer.

I have been thinking about evil for a long time, and recently I tried to phrase an answer to the big question in the light of Biderman's book. Here is what I came up with.

Human beings are very limited. In particular, we are very limited in our capacity for empathy and compassion. We empathise with those who are related to us through family ties, friendship, or frequent contact, but as our connection diminishes so our feelings 'for' or 'with' the people concerned are also attenuated.

Evil has many roots - intolerance, fear of those who are (or appear to be) different, envy, ego, greed, narcissism and so forth. In situations where people are not constrained by civil law, the impulses to dominate, harm or exploit others can receive free reign. If a person's private morality and conscience are anesthetised by the prevailing religion, ideology or accepted social attitudes, then only empathy or compassion stand in the way of the free expression of destructive impulses.

In the case of the Holocaust, conscience and morality did not apply to the Jews because accepted social attitudes in, for instance Poland and Germany, were that the Jews were subhuman and evil. In a word, the Jew was the demonised 'other'. Demonisation of the Jews had the effect of removing crimes against them from the scope of both law and morality, as practised in Germany and Poland during the war. It also destroyed or largely destroyed feelings of human sympathy for the victims. All that would prevent an ordinary Pole or German from being indifferent to the atrocities being committed against the Jews, or even from actively participating in them, would be basic human compassion.

Thus the question, "How could this have happened?" reduces to, "Why did ordinary Poles and Germans see Jews as subhuman?" How could the process of demonisation be so powerful as to virtually eradicate ordinary human empathy and compassion?

My answer is that anti-semitism was so deeply entrenched and widely accepted that peoples' ordinary human feelings for other people were submerged and instead their destructive impulses flourished.

Tad Boniecki

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