Why are we bad?

Paul Seabright

  • Wickedness: A Philosophical Essay by Mary Midgley
    Routledge, 224 pp, £14.95, September 1984, ISBN 0 7100 9759 X

‘Of all the creatures that were made,’ wrote Mark Twain, ‘man is the most detestable. Of the entire brood he is the only one, the solitary one, that possesses malice. That is the basest of all instincts, passions, vices – the most hateful. He is the only creature that inflicts pain for sport, knowing it to be pain. Also in all the list, he is the only creature that has a nasty mind.’ Why? There, in a word, you have the question addressed by Mary Midgley’s new book. It is different from the Problem of Evil as this has been traditionally known to theologians – namely, how an omnipotent and good God could create a world that has evil within. Theodicy has always been capable of interpretation in two ways: most traditionally, as a question of justification, of coming to terms with the fact of evil in the world, consistently with our respect for God its creator. Alternatively, and increasingly with the advance of secular thought, the problem has been seen as an evidential one. does the evil visible in the world admit of the existence of a good and omnipotent God at all? For the traditional problem, evil not due to human agency has always presented the greatest challenge. But the modern version, which Mary Midgley sees ‘as our problem, not God’s’, focuses entirely on the evil caused by the actions of man. It arises for both believers and unbelievers, and is best described as a humanist version of the justification question: how can we come to terms with the evil that we do, consistently with our self-respect? Now just as over time the presumption of respect for God has increasingly been questioned, a fact that has changed the way in which the traditional problem is viewed, so it may be (as Mark Twain’s sour tone suggests) that taking our self-respect for granted is a vain prejudice too, and that the only answer to the problem of human evil is that it has no answer: that we are just a revoltingly evil species. But even if that is so, most of us are still unable to live with the self-knowledge. And the prematurity of the pessimistic conclusion is underlined by another reflection: the Problem of Evil is distinct from the problem of accounting for the moral categories of good and evil in human life; in neither the traditional nor the humanist versions has anybody worried about the Problem of Good. Whether foolishly or not, once we think in moral terms we do find it natural to assume a modicum of self-respect, just as (whether simple-mindedly or not) we have thought it natural to assume respect for anybody who has created the universe. It has been evil that seemed anomalous, and it is the understanding of evil in terms compatible with our self-respect that is attempted by Mary Midgley’s book.

It is important to set out the problem with some precision, because the question ‘why do people behave wickedly?’, like many such inquiries into the springs of action, is hard to pose in a way that does not invite trivial answers. When the Russian fencer Boris Onischenko was found cheating at the 1976 Olympics (and was nicknamed ‘Disomschenko’), a British newspaper put to an eminent psychiatrist the question ‘Why do people cheat?’ and received the solemn reply: ‘Because they want to gain unfair advantage.’ The fault did not he entirely with the hapless shrink, for it was not easy to see what the newspaper wanted, to know what would have counted as an adequate reply. Mrs Midgley doubtless knows what would be an adequate reply to her own question, but does not at the start of her book make it clear enough to remove any unworthy suspicions about her proposed solution: ‘Evil, in fact,’ she writes, ‘is essentially the absence of good, and cannot be understood on its own.’ Well, yes. But she has not made things any easier for herself by claiming only four sentences previously the exact opposite: ‘Indeed, the notion of evils comes first. You could hardly have much idea of generosity if you did not grasp the dangers of meanness.’ So far, then, evil is the absence of good and good is the absence of evil. It’s a start, I suppose.

Were it not for the fact that jokes, elaborate or otherwise, don’t seem to be very much in Mary Midgley’s line, I would suspect her of illustrating her theme by modelling this book on the plot of an old-fashioned Western. By its half-way stage its bad qualities have so resoundingly triumphed over its good ones that it is with mounting incredulity that one eventually sees a substantial thesis emerge, tolerably well-defended, from apparently hopeless disarray. One of those same good qualities, her unfailing didactic clarity of expression, even acts as a fifth column, bringing out the absence of hard argument in the first four chapters in a particularly stark light. Not for Midgley the pompous jargon with which so many philosophers are prone to cloak a vapid utterance; when she wants to say something vapid she comes right out with it. ‘The discrepancy between human ideals and human conduct is a real one, indicating a deep discrepancy in our nature.’ To make sure we have got the point she repeats it a couple of pages later: ‘There really is a deep pervasive discrepancy between human ideals and human conduct. In order to deal with this we need to recognise it, not to deny it.’ There is no attempt to overwhelm us with references to the armies of writers who have denied her claim: one phrase about ‘the spirit of our age’ and the citation of an equally empty remark by Hannah Arendt will do for now.

Generally the argument works by highlighting two extreme points of view and then pointing out, as though no one had thought of it before, that the truth probably lies somewhere in between. ‘Rashness,’ we are told, ‘is, in general, as real a fault as cowardice ... Fear is all right in moderation. There should be neither too much nor too little of it.’ At such times her prose sprouts moderating epithets and sub-clauses, like a nervous tic: two writers about scepticism are said to claim that ‘morality, or most of it, is illegitimate and the word “ought” has, one would suppose, almost lost its meaning.’ Again, ‘because people need each other’s help so badly, these negative motives can do almost infinite harm.’ Almost? Usually the extreme views she attacks are ones we have heard of before. But occasionally, just for fun, she takes shots at a view it has never occurred to anyone to hold. Thus: ‘In this chapter we have two points to establish. First, not all wickedness is aggression. Second, not all aggression is wicked.’ Sometimes Mrs Midgley forgets that this tactic is best used discreetly: ‘resort to fear,’ she writes, depends ‘physically on our adrenalin system.’ It is ‘therefore innate. Nobody, however, sees this fact as calling for fatalism.’ Nonetheless, the Pavlovian bell has tolled, and we are launched into a three-page attack on fatalism. After this some more positive argument is clearly in order. So later in the chapter we read: ‘I am inclined to think’ – the hesitancy warns of strong stuff to come – ‘that a very important aspect’ of the danger of aggression ‘is in fact this same quarrelsomeness in controversy which has led the human race to squander its intellectual resources disgracefully by its obsession with disputes.’ The chapter itself is cutely epigraphed by Blake. ‘The tigers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction.’ He could have written ‘the lemurs of reprehensibility are more lugubrious than the flamingoes of anticipation’ for all the relevance it has to her argument.

The insights of the first four chapters seem to be that lots of people do things that are not very nice, that it’s all a very difficult problem, and that, on the whole, it’s better to be sensible than silly in thinking about it (it’s more sensible, at least). It won’t spoil the story much if the reader starts at Chapter Six. Yet amid all the pious meanderings one can just see, through a paragraph darkly, what Mrs Midgley’s emergent thesis of the negativity of evil is going to look like, and a reference to Hannah Arendt on ‘the banality of evil’ confirms it. The claim that evil is essentially banal is, when properly filled out, a worthy and weighty one to discuss. But in the first half of this book the very idea has occasioned so much lipsmackin’ contentment that the evils of banality have been entirely overlooked.

Still, in Chapter Five the book begins to pick up, and we have an elegant defence of what is sometimes called ‘compatibilism’ – namely, the view that physical determinism does not threaten free-will, and gives no support to fatalism. Even here the elegance is not matched by incisiveness, for the argument that the truth lies between two extremes, while frequently true, does not always illuminate the tension which the two extremes represent. It is a trick that tends to attribute to her opponents a lack of intelligence, those who see a threat in determinism are perfectly well aware that we ordinarily distinguish actions as more or less free; what worries them is that advances in scientific understanding may progressively lead us to question the point of making some of the distinctions we make. Likewise the possibilities of moral scepticism discussed by Bernard Williams in ‘Moral Luck’, an essay she has earlier attacked, do not depend on a failure to realise that all ordinary language, including his own in the essay, is impregnated with notions of praise and blame: they anticipate a potential obsolescence in our ways of applying these notions, as the distinctions they express come to be found increasingly to rest on irrelevant differences in the facts. This high-handedness with other people’s confusion (‘I cannot do much to correct this here,’ one footnote begins) can be irritating, but the chapter nonetheless clears the way effectively of a potential obstacle to consideration of her main thesis of the negativity of evil.

What does this amount to? Understanding human behaviour is a matter of attributing to it intelligible motives, Mrs Midgley argues. For a motive to be intelligible it has to be a motive which we can ourselves feel the force of. We can feel the force of a motive only if it has a proper and acceptable part to play in a morally healthy human life. (Though she does not express it this way, here is the point at which the assumption of self-respect comes in.) So acceptable answers to the problem of human evil will take the form of explanations showing how an imbalance of normally healthy motives has led, through a lack of integration in the character, to behaviour that may be cruel or otherwise wicked. In particular, dualist explanations which appeal to Manichaean forces of evil counterbalancing those of good are not just metaphysically extravagant: they ignore the fact that purely evil motives are not intelligible to us. Evil behaviour, then, is negative, in that it is essentially a disintegration in the character – no specifically evil forces either can or need be invoked.

Two points stand out from the argument so far. The first is the way in which it has focused on understanding evil by attributing motives to it. One might want to resist this: if, for example, violent or sadistic behaviour could always be traced to the secretion of certain chemicals in the brain, one might be quite happy to count this as part of the explanation of evil (albeit one in which it made little sense to speak of evil as ‘negative’). The second point to note is the requirement that only healthy or positive motives are intelligible. The spirit is strongly anti-Freudian, and Mrs Midgley devotes a chapter to taking on the death-wish. She argues, surely correctly, that the notion is too vague and general: ‘the psychology of aggression and fear is every bit as complicated as that of sex, and ... no more is done towards explaining it by invoking a general death-wish than would be done for sex by invoking a wish for life.’ But complexity aside, there is an asymmetry: ‘It is not plausible to present death itself as a direct object of desire, on the pattern of food or sexual satisfaction.’ This point is asserted rather than argued; while possibly correct, it should be remembered as the axiom that gives her view its particular character.

So far the argument has been definitional. We understand evil as negative because any other account of it does not fall within the scope of intelligibility as defined. To make the argument substantial it is necessary to claim that human evil is intelligible in these terms, that as a matter of fact it does have the character which enables it to be understood as negative. A chapter on shadow-figures in literature argues this skilfully in a number of cases: Mr Hyde, for example, ‘is something new in the animal kingdom. But his specialness does not consist in a new, exciting, positive motivation. It is an emotional crippling, a partial death of his faculties.’ The notion of the banality of evil is then raised in the context of Nazism, the definitive case being Eichmann as portrayed by Hannah Arendt: ‘Eichmann was not Iago and not Macbeth, and nothing would have been further from his mind than to determine with Richard III “to prove a villain”. Except for an extraordinary diligence in looking out for his personal advancement, he had no motives at all ... It was sheer thoughtlessness ... that predisposed him to become one of the greatest criminals of that period.’ But the diagnosis is not limited to the kind of bovine evil to be found among the weak and subordinate. Midgley goes on to argue that Iago was, so to speak, not Iago either: he was another example of disintegrated character, where normal human envy become monstrous simply as a result of a failure of the common balancing elements in a healthy personality. Milton’s Satan likewise did not really take evil for his good: moved by pride and ambition, ordinary human motives taken too far, he staked out a territory rivalling that of God. Finally, the notion of a normal human motivation is given a context by the theory of evolution, which shows us the genesis of such complex impulses as sexuality and aggression, so harmonious in some combinations and deadly in others.

There is something curious about the choice of ‘Wickedness’ as a title for this book. The connotations of ‘wickedness’ are more specific than those of intentional wrong-doing, which is what the book is really about. ‘Wickedness’ suggests a certain magnitude of conception, an imagination and perhaps courage which distinguish it from run-of-the-mill evil. La Rochefoucauld said that ‘no man can be virtuous unless he has the strength of character to be wicked,’ and the sentiment is not an alien one, hard though it may be to say why.

The decline of a popular belief in sin (which Mary Midgley implausibly assimilates to a rise in moral relativism) must be connected to an increased unwillingness to see virtue as the mere avoidance of proscribed behaviour. In a withering essay, ‘Sahara of the Bozart’, H. L. Mencken castigated the philistine morality of the American South for its view of life ‘not as an agreeable adventure, but as a mere trial of rectitude and efficiency’. And in a flamboyant passage on the timorousness of virtue in In Defence of Women, he wrote that conscience for most people was no more than ‘the accumulated sediment of ancestral faint-heartedness in countless generations, with vague religious fears and superstitions to leaven and mellow it’. The qualities necessary for appreciating life as an agreeable adventure are very much ones which can promote wickedness in the wrong circumstances, so Mrs Midgley’s focus upon imbalance is given support from this perspective. But certain characters (those with ‘moral luck’, in Williams’s phrase) can have large virtues (impulsiveness, fantasy) that would be intolerable if found in everyone or in the wrong conditions’ in their case the very lack of balance is an enrichment of the lives of those around them. A pluralist conception of virtue, which has undoubtedly gained both popular and philosophical ground in the last two centuries, will not allow imbalance to be the whole story of human evil. This is partly because some kinds of imbalance are much more evil than others (and we need to know why). It is also because the kind of evil that consists entirely in weakness and lack of imagination (and which is barely distinguishable from the kind of virtue which is also weak and unimaginative) is very different from the wickedness that results from strength of character betrayed.

The thesis of the banality of evil, though by now well-worn, still retains some of the paradoxical quality in which much of its appeal lies. The fact that it has helped to make sense of Nazism has also made it a comforting intellectual companion. Yet it remains vague. Some of what it expresses is the often banal setting of evil, an idea most succinctly put in Auden’s ‘Musée des Beaux Arts’, where he writes of suffering that it takes place

While someone else is eating or opening a
          window or just walking dully along ..
even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and
                           the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree

Another part of its message, indispensable since Fascism, is the way in which banal actions and events can result in terrible evil. But there is also an unmistakable hint of accommodation in the other direction: evil is accommodated to banality as well as the other way round. For all its appearance of self-contradiction, the thesis that evil is always banal is neither profound nor true. It is false partly because it attempts to solve the problem of human evil by denying that there is anything, at root, to explain. It is false partly because it takes the Eichmann model further than it will go. There are indeed stolid bureaucratic tempers who fail to imagine the evil they inflict; it is chilling to discover the damage that lies within their power. But there are also people who torture others not for personal advancement but for sport, people for whom the imagination of pain inflicted is the motivation itself. That millions of people find pleasure in video nasties is unintelligible to me: but that they do so in a deliberate and motivated fashion seems indisputable. To account for their behaviour as normal territorial aggression gone too far is like explaining decapitation as hairdressing gone too far. The problem of evil reappears as one of explaining how motives can be taken so far as to be unrecognisable.

Though a fine phrase, ‘the banality of evil’ can also express a thoroughly pessimistic point of view. The closer we come to identifying evil with lack of imagination, the harder it becomes to think of preventive measures (how do you teach people not to be stolid and bureaucratic – by giving them rules?). And the more it comes to seem as though only the clicking of cosmic dice determines that some of us plod on to become torturers, and some to sit in the House of Lords (and some, I dare say, to do both). The point of view that emerges from the second half of Mary Midgley’s book does not take us this far. But its apparently upbeat conclusion masks the fact that the viewing of evil as essentially negative leaves us short of answers just where wickedness poses its most disturbing questions.