Monday, February 16, 2015

Senseless slaughter

Especially evil deeds are often referred to as senseless. Has much been made of the similarity between the sense/nonsense distinction and the good/evil distinction?

I've been thinking about this since reading some Rai Gaita recently, but I haven't so far found a place where he talks about it explicitly and at length. Does he do so? Does someone else? I assume the idea is either no good or else old hat, but I'm not sure which it is yet.

12 comments:

  1. Simone Weil:
    "[...] real evil is gloomy, monotonous, barren, boring." (Gravity and Grace, "Evil.")

    Augustine:
    "For who can doubt that the whole of that which is called evil is nothing else than corruption? Different evils may, indeed, be called by different names; but that which is the evil of all things in which any evil is perceptible is corruption. So the corruption of the educated mind is ignorance: the corruption of the prudent mind is imprudence; the corruption of the just mind, injustice; the corruption of the brave mind, cowardice; the corruption of a calm, peaceful mind, cupidity, fear, sorrow, pride. Again, in a living body the corruption of health is pain and disease; the corruption of strength is exhaustion; the corruption of rest is toil. Again, in any corporeal thing, the corruption of beauty is ugliness; the corruption of straightness is crookedness; the corruption of order is confusion; the corruption of entireness is disseverance, or fracture, or diminution. . . . Enough has been said to show that corruption does harm only by displacing the natural condition; and so, corruption is not nature, but against nature. And if corruption is the only evil to be found anywhere, and if corruption is not nature, no nature is evil." (“Against the Epistle of Manichaeus”)

    If so, then the very definition of evil may be thought to be the absence of sense--absence of essence, absence of logic, the thing that is by definition unintelligible (or at least, that absence where we expect there to be meaning and sense)?

    there is a chapter titled "Meaning" in Gaita's 'Good and Evil, an Absolute Conception.' Maybe there is more there.

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    1. Thanks! That's a very good lead.

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    2. I just want to add that when coping with evil--with disasters, the death of a loved one, losing a job, and so on--the thing many people look for is to make sense of what happened: as if the evil of the situation is encapsulated in the fact that they can't make sense of it. (I think this might help to bring the discussion down to earth, or at least to some concrete human reactions.)

      Also, this question of yours might have connections to the Problem of Evil. Perhaps the feeling about the senselessness of evil is also a way to understand the motivation behind the complaint against God that He allows evil to exist--fails to be there. And if we equate God with meaningfulness, the complaint of the senselessness of evil will then be the same as the complaint against God that He allows evil to exist.

      I hope that makes sense.

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    3. Thanks, Reshef.

      Is it that the evil of the situation is encapsulated in the fact that people can't make sense of it, or is it the other way round? Or perhaps rather, are these ("the situation is evil" and "the situation doesn't make sense") the same idea? Don't typical theodicies (try to) make sense of evil by showing that it is not really evil at all but good, or the necessary price of something good? We make sense of actions by seeing how they relate to something good. (In terms of the literature, to go some way towards answering my own question, this thought could be traced back to Anscombe, Mill, Aquinas, and Aristotle.)

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    4. I'm not sure I clearly see the difference you are pointing at when you suggest it might be the other way around.

      I'm drawn to the idea that evil can be defined (not sure it's the right word, perhaps 'characterized' would be better) in terms of senselessness--absence of meaning. That is, I want to ask: what makes evil evil, and I feel that the the idea of senselessness can help. I am not so much drawn to the possibility of explaining what senselessness (nonsense) comes to in terms of evil, and in moral terms in general.

      Nonsense is not inherently evil. It is not particularly bad to utter: "brickle brackle glipp!" But perhaps nonsense is a necessary condition for evil?

      Now that I think about it, there is a lot in Cora's "The Difficulty of Reality" about cases in which the mind cannot grasp things, and how that is involved in a certain kind of evaluation or moral reaction.

      And I agree about what you say typical theodicies do, or try to. I want to add to that that what is so difficult about them sometimes is that they seem to see an invisible sense. I mean, there is a difference between relating an evil to something good that people can see "If it doesn't kill you, it will make you stronger," and relating evil to something good that people cannot see "God has a plan."

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  2. do we really mean sense-less or more without meaningful gain, to ends we don't/can't value, something like what a waste?

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    1. Yes, that's a good point, although I'm not sure how exactly to make out the difference between senseless behavior and behavior aimed at ends we don't or can't value. There is a difference between killing lots of people for bad reasons, on the one hand, and doing something harmless but pointless, on the other. Both, though, might be called senseless and irrational. And while not every mentally ill person is evil, some people are so evil that it can seem obvious that they must be mentally ill. So there seems to be a connection as well as a difference between the merely senseless and the senselessly evil.

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    2. well don't have much use for "evil" as an actual category but my point was that we can really make sense of anyone's actions but we may not find the acts/outcomes to be ones we judge as something we can identify with (support, come to terms with) so I think we talking of something like the opposite of an honorific like "reasonable" or rational/etc.

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  3. What is "evil" anyway except an especially strong term we apply to certain deliberated actions ("deliberated" as in expressing intent) which we find extremely bad?

    A person may have an affair or tell a lie -- and we are likely to think such behavior bad, wrong, etc. But if a person burns another alive or saws the head from a living person or smashes an infant's head against a street lamp (all examples taken from real life), then we're inclined to recoil from such behavior as somehow beyond the pale (but which pale?) and in doing so to speak of such acts as "evil."

    The very word conjures up images of unspeakable cruelty because of the suffering of the victims. But a massive flood or monsoon or earthquake, or a devastating plague for that matter, if the product of natural forces and not some intelligent agency, does not seem evil to us -- though it, too, may visit on its victims unspeakable suffering and, in a sense, be thought of the work of a cruel nature. This latter sense seems metaphorical nowadays, though in earlier eras most of our ancestors would have ascribed such occurrences to divine agency and hence thought of them as evils visited upon those who suffered because of them.

    Is "evil" senseless? Perhaps that just means we cannot understand the motives of the intelligent agent we suppose to have brought it about. Is the burning alive of a captured pilot by ISIS, or the beheading of Coptic Christians captured in Libya (guest workers who had gone there to earn money to send home) evil? What possible justification can anyone present for doing such things to other human beings? Such acts seem to be more than just acts of injustice.

    So are they "senseless" because we cannot understand them? Perhaps it must seem so to us, for how can we grasp or explain a kind of thinking that claims the right to torture and slaughter those who don't share the same belief systems we do? Or to do so for a myriad of other possible reasons?

    It seems like it's just done to inflict suffering in order to inflict suffering. But what of the intelligent agents who do such things? Surely we don't imagine they have no reason(s) for such acts when they perform them -- or that they think the reasons they can offer, if asked, are empty.

    Are their acts "evil" and not just bad then? One wants to say yes because of the extremity of the acts themselves and because of the disregard for human suffering they represent. But is that "senseless"? On what grounds may we say so?

    If we cannot find an independent basis for claiming senselessness, then that doesn't seem a reliable reason for calling anything "evil." That is, we need to first recognize the evilness and so understand why we use that term for such acts (what makes them evil in the first place) and not something that seems less extreme.

    What's senseless is then a different matter: It's to understand why those who perform such acts don't recoil from them as we do.

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    1. Is "evil" senseless? Perhaps that just means we cannot understand the motives of the intelligent agent we suppose to have brought it about.

      Yes, I think that is pretty much what it means.

      But what of the intelligent agents who do such things? Surely we don't imagine they have no reason(s) for such acts when they perform them -- or that they think the reasons they can offer, if asked, are empty.

      They might do them because they want to (they are sadists or have a lot of anger to vent), because they want to terrorize their enemies (for tactical or emotional reasons, e.g. revenge), because they have been ordered to do so by someone they trust or fear, or for some other reason. If the act really is evil then the reason in question will be inadequate to support the action. It will be unreasonable.

      If we cannot find an independent basis for claiming senselessness, then that doesn't seem a reliable reason for calling anything "evil."

      Independent of what? We can't understand things independent of our own understanding, and of course this understanding is in a sense relative to (shaped by) our own culture, upbringing, values,etc. But this does not seem to stop us understanding just about everything that human beings do and have done. There are limits to this understanding though, or degrees. I can read a lot about ISIS and gain some understanding of their actions, but these are always likely to remain at least somewhat mysterious to me. And this is because I can see so little good in them.

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    2. "If the act really is evil then the reason in question will be inadequate to support the action. It will be unreasonable."

      But all of us believe we are doing the right thing don't we, or else we wouldn't do it. The issue, it seems to me, is on what basis can we judge between competing claims (especially when they are so wildly divergent as, say, the belief in cutting off captives' heads or burning them alive vs. the belief that that can never be the right thing to do)? Didn't the Nazis believe it was right to act as they did, the Khmer Rouge what they did, al Qaeda what it did and now ISIS what they do? Of course, that goes against our beliefs and so we condemn and, at least sometimes, actively oppose it. But if it's not just a question of might makes right, then it seems there ought to be some moral bottom line and that we ought to be able to make that case. This doesn't mean we must expect to convince another who has arrived at other conclusions but if moral valuing is to accomplish anything it must provide guidance (reasons) which some of us, at least, will find compelling. After all, if it doesn't or can't, how can we condemn anyone else for acting contrary to our own standards, and why should any of us choose to do some things and not other things (perhaps to act as those we condemn act)?

      " We can't understand things independent of our own understanding,"

      Right, how could we? But we do make claims about what's good or bad, right or wrong, all the time, don't we? I think your position is roughly this: There are some things we see or contemplate that we just recognize to be right or wrong, good or bad. Such recognition reflects something about us (how we are made or what our concepts present to us) but, as you know, I still find myself questioning such a view. If something we see or think about is "disgraceful" or just wrong or bad to do (or good or the right thing to do) how can we hope to differentiate between just thinking so, because we happen to think like that (we have been trained to do so or it's inherent in our make up as human beings in the kind of world human beings operate in) and having some kind of reason that transcends our training or natural inclinations (perhaps some of us are simply sadists or sociopaths)? If it's just a matter of the way we happen to be, then isn't making morally relevant value judgments largely a mirage? But once we come to that conclusion (or at least acknowledge it), doesn't the whole moral game cease to work?

      "I can read a lot about ISIS and gain some understanding of their actions, but these are always likely to remain at least somewhat mysterious to me. And this is because I can see so little good in them."

      Exactly. In the end you stand on a moral judgment. But so do they. Or at least that would be their claim, e.g., I do what I do in furtherance of Allah's plan which is foreordained and revealed to us by the words of the Prophet and whoever fails to heed those words is morally culpable for rejecting Allah's truth and Allah has told us what is to be done with them.

      Of course, we in the West find it hard to equate that sort of claim with a moral one but surely those in ISIS who act in this fashion think otherwise and just as surely reject our wrongheaded views about the right things to do.

      I'm not trying to say there is a moral equivalence between those who think thus and those who think, say, like we do. But there is a rational equivalence, no? And if moral judgments are about giving reasons and not just about doing whatever we happen to feel like or have been trained to feel, then reasons must matter. Can there be rational equivalence then without undermining moral claims?

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