Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

The ubiquitousness of evil and the thin veneer of goodness

with 3 comments

This week’s text was intended to deal with the highly odd classification of the Nazis as a Right-wing movement, but recent readings make me postpone it in favor of some further thoughts on evil. (For older texts on this topic see, among others, [1], [2], [3], [4].)

Firstly, I have repeatedly seen pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian writers complain about alleged war crimes by the “other side”. (Including some heated discussions on whether the Russians or the Ukrainians were behind the Bucha killings.) This complemented with discussions of other war crimes in other wars and by other parties. (Including a common sentiment that “the U.S. is no better than Russia—look at X, Y, and Z”.) Here, the simple truth is that war crimes follow automatically whenever there is war, sometimes on the level of individual soldiers or units, sometimes on the level of official policy.* Some wars and war parties might be worse than others, but a war without war crimes is not yet, and might never be, realistic.**

*Note e.g. the extensive bombings of both German and Japanese civilians and civilian buildings and infrastructure during WWII—by the side almost unanimously considered “the good guys” of that war.

**And if it ever is, it might be in a near machines-only setting, which could increase the risk of wars going on for decades, because the civilians are not disturbed and outraged enough. This might then open the doors for a “Nineteen Eighty-Four” scenario or give us A Taste of Armageddon.

Secondly, yesterday, I read Wikipedia’s take on the Murder of Sylvia Likens. To understand exactly why what happened did happen might involve an entire book and still remain speculation; however, there is a fair chance that a stupid/mean* adult woman and a group of children pushed the borders of what was acceptable and, in some sense, normal further and further, step by step, over several months, until early spankings had turned into horrifying humiliation, life-threatening starvation, and a foot to the head. When poor Sylvia was dead, one of her tormentors cried and cuddled her.

*And, maybe, one who might have turned out differently with a different prior life.

I strongly suspect that the time frame involved made the events easier, that the change of “normal” made something acceptable that would not have been so, if suggested up front. Moreover, chances are that the number of involved individuals spread the responsibility too thin, making them mere members of a group.* That most of them were children did not help, as they might have looked at the sole adult and concluded that what she considered acceptable was acceptable. (The lower intelligence, lack of maturity, and poorly developed moral compass of children hardly helped.) Then again, I do not say that it took so long for their preferences to change (it might or might not have)—the issue is at least partly what preferences they dared implement. (Consider the murder of James Bulger or the attempted “Slender Man” murder to see how fast things can go.)

*To tie in with my previous text. A single individual saying “This is wrong!” can make a difference where a dozen silent group members cannot. As a counterpoint, a sufficiently strong group norm of “This is wrong!” and a dozen speaking group members can be even more valuable—but here there was no positive norm and reliance on such norms opens the door to manipulation through changing the norm (cf. portions of the below).

In both cases, war crimes and Sylvia Likens, we have the fundamental problem that the veneer of civilization and “goodness” of most (all?) humans is quite thin. So thin, indeed, that I must consider claims like “humans are born good” and “humans are good by nature” highly naive. Looking at children, such claims border on the absurd—children, contrary to what would be expected, were these claims true, are extremely lacking in ethical understanding and concern for others.* Now, scratch at that veneer. Have group members tell each other that this-or-that hitherto unacceptable act is acceptable. Have propaganda tell them that Russians/Ukrainians/Jews/whatnot are evil (and, therefore, without rights), killed their grandparents (time for vengeance), or out to destroy them (better strike preemptively). Apply group/peer pressure, remove personal responsibility, lead by (negative) example, … If the veneer does not crack fast, just be patient and push the borders little by little.

*The more so the younger they are. Those too young might even lack a “theory of mind” (an un-expression that I use under protest) or be so solipsistic as to not understand the personhood of others.

To this, we must also note complications like many or most humans having a natural sadism and interest in violence, as demonstrated by Roman games and many modern movies. And, no, this is not a matter of violent men, with women being radically different. Look at the many female perpetrators around Sylvia Likens, consider the French tricoteuses, note how often a mobbing boss, driving employees to tears, turns out to be a woman, or consider the many mentions of women having an interest in horror and murder stories. Women are not just often bloodthirsty but can have a great tendency to be mean and cruel to (above all) each other.*

*Indeed, if off topic, meanness in adults is something that I would associate much more with women than with men. As to “toxic masculinity”: The toxic women that I have met have likely outnumbered the toxic men—despite how many more men I have encountered in the office, in college, etc. A better target for disapproval would, then, be “toxic femininity”.

The sometime claim or perception that the Nazis were a unique evil in human history is utterly faulty. What set the Nazis apart from a great many other perpetrators in human history is scale of and competence at e.g. extermination. Even here, however, they were preceded by the Soviets, whose methods the Nazis adopted and adapted—and they were followed by the likes of Mao and Pol Pot. For that matter, the Allies began large-scale bombing of civilians before the Nazis … Or take the ancient Chinese mass-slaughter after the Battle of Changping. Or consider the allegedly noble savage, who appears to often have been more savage than noble. Or consider some of the acts of Nero and Caligula. Or consider the Milgram experiments, which illustrate the thinness of that veneer so well.

Going by all that I have seen so far, true goodness is almost inconceivable without a deliberate set of ethical principles, overriding human nature and lived consistently, even when they do not favor their holder. (Note some similarity with the Categorical Imperative, which, however, is potentially more far going.) The nature of these principles can vary. The ideal is a sturdy set of self-developed principles based on thought and understanding, but this is beyond most, as most will not even be aware of the benefits. However, a solid set of good* and adopted values provided by someone or something else might be a great help. (Many have done well with the Bible.) The point is that there must be a clear concept of right-and-wrong, not e.g. good-or-bad-for-me, us-vs-them, it’s-what-everyone-else-does, or it-seems-like-fun. Certainly, mere childish or animalistic drives must be suppressed when an ethical decision is called for. (Consider some of the pains of Sylvia and how they appear to have given a thrill or entertainment of some kind to her tormentors.) Ditto emotionality and attempts to “reason” by use of feelings or cheap sympathy**. Leftist biology-denialism and “tabula rasa” thinking is a particular danger, as it destroys the awareness of what lies below.***

*This raises the question what constitutes good values, which makes for a tricky decision. (Or even the problem of realizing that a decision is needed, for those who reflect too little and would need to adopt values.) Many who search, today, grab at values that are very far from good by any reasonable standard.

**For instance, a great many adults, especially women, have assumed that the crying child is in the right and the non-crying in the wrong, without looking at the facts of the matter. Similarly, the better (adult) sob story often wins in politics.

***The first step to overcome a weakness is almost proverbially to realize that a weakness exists. Denying the biological, and often far from civilized, underpinnings of human nature is as dangerous here as trying to find a sound diet while denying the need for proteins.

Then again, here we have a problem: as I have often noted, the typical human is stupid and we cannot rely on “human goodness” arising among the stupid. Worse, even the intelligent can fall short if they lack the self-discipline or self-insight, have failed to think on related issues, or are simply very young or lacking in experience and exposure to different perspectives.

To wrap up some additional points before this text grows too long:

  1. The veneer is vulnerable to drugs that weaken reason, lower inhibitions, or otherwise bring the brain into a state where it is less likely to apply ethical principles.
  2. Similar claims apply to unusual and unusually stressful situations (including war).
  3. It is important for the individual to stand up for what is right, even in opposition to opinion corridors, peer pressure, “nudging”, etc. We might disagree on what is right and wrong in a given situation, but caving to the other side for poor reasons is a recipe for failure and a good way to let evil win.
  4. The common Leftist and/or quasi-Marxist division into us-vs-them, oppressor-vs-oppressed, and similar is a good way to create the type of hateful thinking and artificial tension/conflict that leads to so much evil. Look e.g. at the 20th-century Communists or large parts of the current U.S. Left and/or New Left.

Excursion on the self-proclaimed good doing evil:
The above deals largely with cases that seem obviously evil. However, as I have often noted, evil is often done in the name of good—and is never more dangerous than when it has the guise of good. (And, as also repeatedly noted, this is one of the reasons to be very wary of the Left.) Moreover, the keyword is often “seem”—what is obvious to a neutral third-party need not be so to those involved in e.g. a conflict. A current Russian or Ukrainian soldier might well think that a particular obviously-evil-to-us act is for a good cause or the infamous “greater good”.* Soviets, Nazis, whatnot all had plenty of idealists and true believers. It cannot be ruled out that economy destroyers like Mugabe, Chávez/Maduro, or Biden genuinely believe that they are doing something good. Etc.

*And, in all fairness, it might often be that the local soldier on the ground knows something that the foreigner in his ivory tower does not.

Excursion on charity, etc.:
An interesting problem is the common conflation of “being good” with e.g. being charitable—while neglecting the much more important aspect of respecting the rights and interests of others. Consider e.g. an industrialist who rips off his customers through misleading advertising and a substandard product, but who spends half the ill-gotten gains on charity: in what way and in what universe is he a better man than one who delivers what he promises and foregoes the charity? Or consider the mother who pounces on a child with the demand that this-or-that toy* be shared (especially, when it is not her child): Yes, maybe, sharing is the right or kind thing to do,** but what example does she set for the child? She violates his rights and interests, denies his right to determine how to handle his toys, and teaches him that what the one has, the other can use and take at his leisure. Her demands are not an act of goodness but of evil. (To boot, they are likely to backfire and upset the child or create reactance.) Or who is the better person? The hardworking (and heavily taxpaying) office worker who spends his weekends with his family—or a welfare parasite who collects unemployment, without bona fide attempts at finding work, but who also volunteers in a soup-kitchen on the weekend?

*Assumed to be his. When it comes to e.g. communal toys owned by a daycare or toys (voluntarily!) borrowed from a third party, the situation might be different.

**But there is not necessarily a guarantee, and the sharing might often come with a price for the child, as not all sharing is cost-free. Consider sharing with someone with a tendency to break or mistreat toys, sharing building blocks when every block is needed for the envisioned building, or sharing a toy in a manner that interrupts the storyline of the ongoing play.

Excursion on “the banality of evil”:
My readings on Hannah Arendt are superficial and second-hand; however, her idea of “the banality of evil” is somewhat overlapping, in my limited understanding, e.g. in that someone could perform an evil act in a largely unreflecting manner, say, “because this is my job”. (And a great many, seemingly normal, humans do, if on a lesser level than Eichmann. Take your typical modern German civil servant, for example.) The core of the above lies elsewhere, however: it is not a matter of banality, but of a lack of understanding for others and of concern for their rights, of limits on behaviors that are weak and easy to manipulate, of major bad* egoism/opportunism/whatnot, etc. Terry Pratchett once wrote something along the lines of** “evil begins with treating people like things”. I do not necessarily agree, finding this claim too general,*** but it seems a good description of the overlap between the above and “the banality of evil” (again, in my limited understanding).

*I see nothing wrong with some forms of egoism/opportunism/whatnot, e.g. that one tries to win while abiding by the rules, even be it with a within-the-rules cost for others; however, trying to win outside of the rules is another matter. Consider e.g. the business methods that different used-car salesmen might apply: The one offers a car at a certain overblown price, hoping that the prospective customer buys, while being (a) truthful and open about the car and all modalities, (b) willing to discuss the price, should the customer want to haggle or be unwilling to buy. The other offers an equivalent car at an equivalent price, while lying like a, well, used-car salesman, refuses to take “no” for an answer, and pesters the prospective customer into buying at that overblown price.

**His phrasing might have been different, but the idea was this.

***Consider e.g. the minimal difference in attitude that many, myself included, show between paying for groceries after a long day in the office with, respectively, a human cashier and an automatic self-service station. They might both be equally “thingy” in the moment, and might remain so over repeated interactions over months, but they would still warrant radically different treatments, respect, and rights in a situation that called for it. (To me—not necessarily to the banal Eichmann.)


Written by michaeleriksson

April 12, 2022 at 4:16 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Tagged with , , , ,

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  1. […] re-iterate from [1]: war crimes follow automatically whenever there is […]

  2. […] jailed or killed political opponents (and they surely did), what does that prove? When we have war, war crimes follow, so what do war crimes by both Nazis and Commies […]

  3. […] on causes and means for bullying, cruelty, etc.: In the overlap between some of the above and e.g. [4] and [5], I am reminded of an old suspicion, namely that there is a great amount of misattribution […]

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