Hannah Arendt and the Banality of Evil

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A piece of art from this fall's Hannah Arendt exhibition in Berlin.

A Volker Marz sculpture from the Berlin exhibition Hannah Arendt Denkraum. The show title translates as “a space in which to think about Hannah Arendt.” Which seems perfectly fitting, don’t you think?

Hannah Arendt coined the term “banality of evil” while covering the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann, a Nazi official charged with the orderly extermination of Europe’s Jews. Arendt herself was a German-Jewish exile struggling in the most personal of ways to come to grips with the utter destruction of European society. In a series of articles for The New Yorker that later became the book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, Arendt tried to tackle a string of questions not necessarily answered by the trial itself: Where does evil come from? Why do people commit evil acts? How are those people different from the rest of us?

Her conclusions were profound. People who do evil are not necessarily monsters; sometimes they’re just bureaucrats. The Eichmann she observed on trial was neither brilliant nor a sociopath. He was described by the attending court psychiatrist as a “completely normal man, more normal, at any rate, than I am after examining him.” Evil, Arendt suggests, can be extraordinary acts committed by otherwise unremarkable people.

[Arendt] insisted that only good had any depth. Good can be radical; evil can never be radical, it can only be extreme, for it possesses neither depth nor any demonic dimension yet — and this is its horror! — it can spread like a fungus over the surface of the earth and lay waste the entire world. Evil comes from a failure to think. It defies thought for as soon as thought tries to engage itself with evil and examine the premises and principles from which it originates, it is frustrated because it finds nothing there. That is the banality of evil.

Amos Elon, The Excommunication of Hannah Arendt, the introduction to Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil
A miniature Eichmann from the Berlin exhibit.Marz’s miniature Eichmann from the Berlin exhibition.

Is it any wonder that controversy erupted almost immediately after Arendt’s work was published? Or that she was ostracized even by fellow Jews?

In the past forty years Arendt’s ideas have been championed in two landmark psychological experiments — Stanley Milgram’s electroshock experiment and Philip Zimbardo’s Stanford prison experiment — but decried by luminaries like Norman Mailer.

Even if the phrase itself has lost some of its punch through sheer repetition, the ideas it embodies are no less relevant. It’s hard to talk about real-world horrors like the Rwandan genocide or torture at Abu Ghraib without referencing Arendt.

So for her centennial we’re reminding ourselves why her ideas still matter. Help us out by taking a stab at some of her initial questions: Where does evil come from? Why do people commit evil? Do you buy Arendt’s thesis, or do you think there is something else (be it religious or biological) that leads to evil and distinguishes good from evil people?

Update, 2/28/07 6:08pm

After doing some pre-interviews, talking about things internally, and mining this thread for good ideas, (empathy, the origins vs. the nature of evil, subjective vs. objective vs. moral judgments of evil) we’re leaning towards breaking this show up into at least two different shows.

The first show (tentatively scheduled for Thursday March 8th) would be more of an overview of Hannah Arendt’s life and work, introducing an introduction to the concept of the banality of evil as she described it. Our guests will likely be two of her last students who have spent their lives pouring over her work: Elisabeth Young-Bruehl and Jerome Kohn.

The second show would likely be a more in-depth conversation about evil, starting with Arendt’s concept. We may build this show around Philip Zimbardo, whose recent work has included extensive interviews with prison guards from Abu Ghraib.

Also, apparently Potter had the same idea I did: Meaning and Morality would be (ironically, since it’s been warming up for so long) a really good follow-up to these shows.

Elisabeth Young-Bruehl

Author, Why Arendt Matters and Hannah Arendt: For the Love of the World

Psychoanalyst

Former student of Hannah Arendt

Jerome Kohn

Director of the New York based Hannah Arendt Organization

Arendt’s Literary Executor and last research assistant

Editor of several collections of her essays, including Between Past and Future: Eight Exercises in Political Thought

Extra Credit Reading

Hannah Arendt, Power and Violence , Bard College, December 1968.

bardlib, Hannah Arendt Workspace: “The Workspace is an open access forum in which readers might look, as it were, over Hannah Arendt’s shoulder as she annotated the texts most important to her.”

Sarah Kerr, The Horrible and the Ridiculous, BookForum, January 2007: “Arendt “lives on in newspeak through just four words,” she notes on the first page. The media’s promiscuous overuse of the phrase “the banality of evil,” from Eichmann in Jerusalem, has turned it into an unhelpful cliche, she writes. Young-Bruehl directs us back to the philosophical problem of evil, a discussion begun two centuries earlier by Immanuel Kant that Arendt saw herself as extending.”

Jerome Kohn, Evil: The Crime Against Humanity, Hannah Arendt Center, New School University: “In a revealing passage she said: “Only the fearful imagination of those who have been aroused by [firsthand] reports but have not actually been smitten in their own flesh, of those who are consequently free from the bestial, desperate terror which . . . inexorably paralyzes everything that is not mere reaction, can afford to keep thinking about horrors,” adding that such thinking is “useful only for the perception of political contexts and the mobilization of political passions.”

(Read the full series of Kohn’s essays on Hannah Arendt here.)

David Byrne, Free Will, Part 2: Support Our Troops, Journal, February 7, 2007: “Ultimately, following that logic that makes about 3 or 4 people ultimately responsible, if the buck continues to get passed on up the chain of command. Of course, those 3 or 4 will blame ‘faulty intelligence’ or try to absolve themselves one way or another, and they usually succeed.”

Robin Varghese, Banality of Evil, The French Version, 3 Quarks Daily, February 27, 2007: “In Bordeaux he resisted in his own way, he said: taking names off arrest-lists, tipping off families in advance, sheltering a rabbi in his house. Why, he even chartered the city trams to spare the very young or old the walk to the station, and booked passenger trains, not goods wagons, to make their journey comfortable. These self-justifications came out at Mr Papon’s trial, one of only two of French officials who collaborated with the Nazis in their crimes against humanity.”

MC, People are willing to commit virtual torture too, Neurophilosophy, December 23, 2007: “In the initial part of the project, Slater et al have used an immersive Virtual Reality environment to re-enact the classic experiments conducted by Stanley Milgram in the 1960s.”

Philip Zimbardo, Power turns good soldiers into ‘bad apples’, The Boston Globe, May 9, 2004: “Now there is a rush to analyze human behavior, blaming flawed or pathological individuals for evil and ignoring other important factors. Unless we learn the dynamics of “why,” we will never be able to counteract the powerful forces that can transform ordinary people into evil perpetrators.”


  • Nick

    This, from Amos Elon above, is nice…

    “Evil comes from a failure to think.”

    …but incomplete, perhaps.

    Seems to me that ‘evil’ stems at least as much from the failure of empathy as it does from failure to think. Misogyny, for instance, might largely stem from immature masculinity refusing to accept femininity as human enough to be eligible to be empathy-worthy. Do macho boys who vilify girls consider them equal? Or fully human? I doubt it.

    Religiously sanctioned misogyny is all the worse then, for its existence – and who can honestly claim it doesn’t exist? – depends upon so called ‘holy men’ obviously incapable of empathizing with women and girls as fully equal to men and boys.

    Misogyny and its feral/domesticate might – might, I said – be the fundamental ‘evil’ that allows the development of so many others in human behavior and relations. (It’s worth pondering, at least.)

  • Nick

    I’m rusty..

    Correction: “Misogyny, and its feral/domesticate, sexism, might…be…”

  • Sutter

    Great topic!

    (Sorry to clog the board with a post like this, but given previous discussion about how hard it can be to commit to a high-concept show, it’s important to make sure you all know that many of us appreciate these.)

  • nother

    Nice to see ya Nick.

  • jazzman

    N., welcome back old pal. As I’ve written here many times “evil” is a concept to which I don’t subscribe, as it is a value judgment and a function of an individual’s belief system and not universal or absolute.

    What people think is evil are actions (some subscribe to an anthropomorphic objective evil) that increase in evilness the further they are perceived to exist in mental distance their sense of what is moral, right, or good. One person’s perceived evil may be another’s perceived necessity (I use perceived as perception is operational reality.)

    There is no evil in nature and all people operate within their rationalized belief that their actions are for the greater good and the ends justify their means. They are well intended (in their belief) but misguided. Their “victims” cooperate in the action and act as mirrors to point these less than ideal actors in the drama to a more ideal path.

  • sullivus

    interesting topic…

    People tend to have high ideals and beliefs but don’t always act in manners that support their beliefs. We like to think we care about the environment and are stewards of the earth, but how many of us ride our bike to the store instead of hopping into our car. We say we care about animals, but eat billions of pounds of meat every year from animals tortured on factory farms. We are against child labor, but still buy products made by horribly underpaid children in Asia. Etc., etc.

    So why do people act in ways contrary to their beliefs? I tend to think it’s because we have a hard time connecting our small, everyday actions to the larger, evil acts. Even if we detest global warming it’s hard to turn our heat down when that will only make a small dent in the big picture. Just like it was hard for the WWII era Germans to see how their helping to construct a concentration camp, or conducting trains to Auschwitz, ignoring when their neighbors window’s were smashed, etc. were all causing the holocaust. We all like to belive that we’re less powerful than we actually are.

  • http://www.radioopensource.org/user/sidewalker sidewalker

    Arendt as well as Horkheimer and Adorno took on the belief that the West was in some way enlightened or modern in its thought and behaviour. They suggested that just because one may utilize posivistic and scientific techniques based on logic and reason does not necessitate the absence of atrocious acts. In fact, with modern technologies and procedures, these acts can be carried out more efficiently than ever (Hiroshima and Nagasaki the ultimate examples), carried out by Arendt’s banal bureaucrats.

    In the cold, naked light of the gas chambers, in the blinding flash of an atomic explosion, in the thunderous illumination of a Baghdad night, as we stand exposed, where can we run and hide? Who or what will protect us from ourselves? Knowledge? God? Deception? High art? A constitution? The Courts and prisons? More WMDs? Senators? A warlord? The Media? Empathy? Fear? Love?

  • http://www.radioopensource.org/user/sidewalker sidewalker

    Or, sullivus, we fear we are more powerful than we wish to be.

  • anna

    The true banality of evil is that we are all capable of it.

  • http://www.radioopensource.org/user/sidewalker sidewalker

    Missed an end-tag. Hope this works.

  • Potter

    Hola Nick! You hit it for me with

    Seems to me that ‘evil’ stems at least as much from the failure of empathy as it does from failure to think.

    I would have put it that evil stems from pure selfishness, conscious selfish acts aimed at selfish ends. Throw in willful ignorance. Selfish acts that are truly innocent (or the result of mental illness), though harmful are not evil.

  • loki

    The Companion volume to Eichman in Jerusalem might be “Commandant of Auschwitz:The Autobiography of Rudolf Hoess” It might ,also, be interesting comparing the trials of Hoess and Eichman. Hoess was hanged at Auschwitz.

  • http://www.circles-salon.com allison

    jazzman wrote: “all people operate within their rationalized belief”

    I note that you use ‘rationalized’ rather than ‘rational’. But overall, you reject the notion of evil. I’m not a believer in evil, either. Does this mean that you don’t believe we should impose laws to prevent or punish behaviors that cause others suffering?

    I would debate the concept that “victims” are here to point the less than ideal players toward a more ideal path. Tell that to a rape victim. I don’t see many rapists reflecting upon their actions and moving toward a more ideal path. Would you not stop a rape that you happened upon? If you believe the ‘victim’ is cooperating and the whole thing is for the betterment of the rapist, is it best to let it continue?

    Now, if you’re talking about a time frame outside of this life span, you’re getting into a perception that is based in belief and can’t be imposed on those who don’t agree with that belief. This conversation will probably be limited to that which can happen in the mortal system where one person has one human life span and does not have a consciousness beyond that. Even if you disagree, is it unworthy to pursue earthly insights that might help us reduce the amount of suffering we unleash on one another right here and now? isn’t that helpfu for shifting to an ideal path?

  • moseyg

    You should talk to Joan Cocks, who has a new piece out on Arendt and Nationalism — she is a political theorist at Mt Holyoke.

    There has also been a series of events on Arendt at Brown University — “The Arendt Seminars” — over the past two years, sponsored by the Watson Institute for International Studies, the Pembroke Center and the Cogut Center for the Humanities, that might be of interest:

    http://www.watsoninstitute.org/news_detail.cfm?id=404

    and

    http://www.brown.edu/Departments/Humanities_Center/events/Hannah.html

  • loki

    It might be helpful to have some images of Auschwitz/Birkeneau on the web.

    http://www.worldwiseweb.com/peacemaker/ab/

    photos by Peter Cunningham.

  • loki

    apologizes. this might work better:

    http://www.zenpeacemakers.org:16080/auschwitz/

  • mynocturama

    “As I’ve written here many times “evil” is a concept to which I don’t subscribe, as it is a value judgment and a function of an individual’s belief system and not universal or absolute.”

    So, jazzman, are you saying you don’t subscribe to any value judgments whatsoever? That would seem to be the implication of your words. Please correct me if I’ve misread/misunderstood. Just trying to get things clear in order to respond.

  • OliverCranglesParrot
  • jazzman

    Allison says: Does this mean that you don’t believe we should impose laws to prevent or punish behaviors that cause others suffering?

    I don’t believe in laws except as guidelines as in Absolute Morality. For those who believe there is the need to control physical violence by force (violence to control violence) and believe in the concept of state protected private property (where the abstract value of ownership trumps human life and generally has ever since the concept arose – William James has interesting views on this subject) I maintain that only two laws are just, that one may not physically harm another or steal their possessions. I don’t believe in punishment either as I don’t believe in victims. No victim, no justification for punishment.

    As to transgressions of the aforementioned “just” laws, I personally would accept the responsibility for what ever drama I have as part of my primary experience, however to satisfy those who believe in exacting some for of consequence for transgressions, I would recommend compassionate segregation for violent behavior and education for theft.

    Your rape polemic (why not murder as well?) falls into the category of violence (against oneself, the environment, or other entities) as a less than ideal response for any reason. As I’ve told you before I believe every person is TOTALLY responsible for whatever they experience and that the victim and the perpetrator both are responsible parties in the drama and the way it plays out..

    See http://www.radioopensource.org/fear-factor/#comment-18557#comment-18557 for the possible ways for responsibilities to function.

    I realize that this is especially tough to swallow if one considers him/herself a victim as it seems to blame victims for their plight. I believe that every entity chooses consciously or unconsciously to participate in the dramas they create and that the aggressors bear a larger responsibly as they initiate the dramas’ action. That doesn’t mean we are absolved from empathy and compassion just because it was their choice. I refer you to http://www.radioopensource.org/elections-06-identities-politics/#comment-34507#comment-34507 to remind you of our last conversation regarding scenarios of this ilk.

    is it unworthy to pursue earthly insights that might help us reduce the amount of suffering we unleash on one another right here and now? Isn’t that helpful for shifting to an ideal path?

    It is always worthy to pursue insights to mitigate another’s suffering within the precepts of Absolute Morality and to avoid unleashing suffering on anyone. The 6 billion or so humans that currently inhabit the planet run the intellectual/emotional/empathetic gamut from infantile consciousness to Dalai Lama consciousness and beyond therefore our individual consciousness must contend with whomever we interact.

    Peace to ALL,

    Jazzman

  • Nathaniel Landry

    Cursory comment, as I’m not yet done re-reading Eichmann in Jerusalem–which, by the way, I must thank you all for reminding/encouraging me to do.

    The question of Jewish hostility directed toward Arendt following publication of the book (or of the articles in the New Yorker that formed the basis of the book) obviously–though perhaps not primarily–has to do with the nature of her account of Eichmann the historical individual. It seems that anything short of outright condemnation of Eichmann as incalculably evil would’ve failed to the ostracism of Arendt among fellow Jews. This is all self-evident though.

    What’s really interesting is the other source of Jewish ire directed toward Arendt. She registers profound discomfort with the fundamental Zionist identification of Jews worldwide with the Israeli state, which has of course led to denigrations of diaspora Jews (and particularly Israeli Jews of Sephardic origin) in the name of a homogenous, monolithic Judaism. The argument can be and has been made that this cornerstone of the Zionist movement is indeed anti-Semitic in and of itself. The repercussions of this, needless to say, are immediately at hand today.

  • Nathaniel Landry

    “…failed to *quell* the ostracism of Arendt…:

  • Nathaniel Landry

    Or, perhaps it should be “…failed to quell Arendt’s ostracization” or “…failed to quell the ostracism faced by Arendt.”

    The banality of typos…

  • ShlomoLeib

    The late great Molly Ivins was once asked “If you could go back in time would you have killed Hitler before he rose to power/” To which she answered “No!” Surprised by her response the questioner asked “Why?” Molly replied “If we had killed Hitler, then perhaps a truly competent leader like Albert Speer might have led Germany against the world.”

    It was an old question, and Molly’s answer was profound. We dream of a different past without knowing how much worse it could have been under other circumstances. I don’t know what this evil is really. Perhaps evil is the bureaucrat; the man just ‘doing his job’ or the guy telling you “It’s nothing personal.” I tend to believe it is systems that permit really, really bad things tend to flourish under the pretenses of nationalism or religion that otherwise, without such grand and glorious excuses, human beings would find most contemptible.

  • RobertPeel

    I would like to add Rene Girard to the mix. Girard focues our attention to our human capacity to scapegoat one another that creates blood violence.

    George Steiner in his lectures at Harvard discussed the Master/Student relationship commenting on the Martin Heideger/Hanah Arendt friendship.

    Arendt’s mentor and friend had protoNazi sympathies.

  • mynocturama

    Nice to read/hear from you Nick.

    On the incompleteness of Elon’s account, and your supplementation of empathy, how about referring in one fell swoop to what I’d say is the source of both empathy and thought: imagination.

    Thus, evil is the failure of imagination.

    Of course, these words are a bit slippery semantically. By “thinking” Elon may well include empathy, as in “thinking about others.” It all depends on how one expands or contracts the concept.

    And “evil” itself is even trickier…

  • http://www.circles-salon.com allison

    mynocturama, I like your attempt to bridge the “thinking” and the “empathy”. The only problems is that empathy is actually a feeling sensation. With empathy you can tune into the emotional experience of another. It is a connectedness. Thinking is more detached. The thinking version would be consideration.

    But imagination does trump thinking. I love that addition to the pot.

  • http://www.circles-salon.com allison

    jazzman writes:”It is always worthy to pursue insights to mitigate another’s suffering within the precepts of Absolute Morality and to avoid unleashing suffering on anyone. The 6 billion or so humans that currently inhabit the planet run the intellectual/emotional/empathetic gamut from infantile consciousness to Dalai Lama consciousness and beyond therefore our individual consciousness must contend with whomever we interact.”

    Did you intend to imply such superiority? This sounds very condescending.

  • http://www.circles-salon.com allison

    jazzman, I should follow that up, so as not to sound so snarky.

    Most of the beliefs that you put forth are things I, too, believe in. As I’ve stated before, I paradoxically, also don’t believe you can live absolutley claiming this to be the reality. An incident 7 or eight years ago gave me pause.

    My then 16 year old stepdaughter was in a high school where the students were required to present their portfolio to teachers, parents and any other interested parties at the end of each term. My stepdaughter’s presentation was right before another student’s presentation and she wanted to stay and see his, so we did. She had spoken of this boy. They were both involved in a mock government program. She learned that she was a liberal democrat. He was more conservative. When she listened to him explaining why he saw things the way he did, she determined that he had things in his personal background that had impacted his ability to be empathetic with the plight of those not in power. (I may not be doing justice to her analysis here, but the gist is that she decided there were emotional reasons that he couldn’t see the ‘light” – my word.) So, while they seemed to get along okay, they had strong political differences. Then, at his portfolio review he presented something that she thought reflected his flawed logic and she commented on it, ending with the words, “I feel sorry for you, you are so sad and you don’t even know it.”

    Besides the inapproprateness of it in the setting, there was a presumptuousness that resulted in her looking smugly superior and him feeling that she had attempted to humiliate him. We tried to talk to her afterward and she couldn’t see that she had done anything but speak her truth. During my conversation with her, I realized that she had gotten this perspective, this idea that if you see a truth then you can determine that others don’t see the truth. (Again, not her words and probably not an eloquent way to say it.) She was a child that looked for bigger, deeper answers to things. Always bringin her questions to a metaphysical level. I had offered her a perception that I had been gaining and exploring. (I had been having a lot of breakthrough visions at the time.) But in that one moment, I saw myself reflected in her actions. Worse, I saw that I had created a legacy that wasn’t necessarily compassionate, it was painfully detached. It wasn’t that I found her assessment to be incorrect in some sense. The boy was sad and was having troubles. But her absolute certainty and her inability to actually connect with the boy and speak with him rather than at him undermined any value that her assessment may have had. At that point, I realized that my perception had to shift. I had to hold yet another paradox – I see what I see, but I may not see if for what it is. I cannot claim to hold the truth for anyone but myself. This means that I must accept that I am not seeing the whole truth, or perhaps not any truth, so I must acknowledge that another’s perspective is potentially more real than mine, though I can only operate with the guidance of my truth.

    jazzman, your comments above reminded me of watching my step-daughter. I’m clearly having a reaction to that which may simply be a transference of that moment. You present your beliefs with such an absolutism. But what I didn’t realize until I saw your post on the Spinoza thread is that you are “aruging” for a philosophy. That changes my perception of how you present information here. I’ll try to keep that in mod when reading future posts.

    Please forgive my reaction.

  • Tom B

    The Origin of Totalitarianism’ has thus far remained unmentioned here. It is a classic of political science, and still worth closely reading with a notepad in hand… Also, Arendt would never have come to our notice if it weren’t for a hero (sadly misused word today): Varian Fry. Never heard of him? http://www.almondseed.com/vfry . And finally, how many know that this Jewish woman remained for years in love with Nazi sympathizer, opportunist, and philosopher Martin Heidegger, her professor. A good starting point to learn about Arendt is http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hannah_Arendt . Hope some folks profit from this post…

  • hurley

    A friend writes:

    The New York Review of Books impressively presents Coetzee on Mailer &

    Hitler, but the essay is superficial because it is oblivious of an

    entangled bank of themes in Americana. Coetzee seems not to

    understand Arendt, because Arendt herself brought her peculiar

    Augustinian sacramentalism to an America in the last stages of

    Transcendentalist “sacramental universe”–so that her Judaic judgments

    and Augustinian sacramentalism wanted to say, but didn’t quite do so

    simply or directly, that evil is not sacramental, that is, that evil

    does not manifest in outward and visible signs, so that evil can

    appear to be good, and certainly can look banal. Edmund Spenser is

    master of the false image of good–”Archimago.” I “feel” that Arendt

    was too contemptuous of her public to explain what she thought should

    have been obvious to an educated person who acknowledged her study of

    Augustine. South African literature, in my limited experience, hasn’t

    a trace of the sacramental universe which governs American literature

    until even Melville sees that he must surrender it, yet has nothing to

    displace it with. The pseudo-sacramental survives in some of the

    muddled theory of Texan Christians, as with the suggestion that

    birth-defects are outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual

    flaws (I could but won’t quote). A woman nominated by I think Reagan

    to Health Education and Welfare argued that the handicapped should not

    be mainstreamed because then they would not be handicapped, which

    would be a dangerously misleading falsification since the handicap was

    evidence of spiritual flaws. I live among crazy people, which

    includes Norman Mailer, and maybe me, wasting my time on “essayists”

    who coast on a suave tone, but endanger us all…. An example: my

    limp as a cripple is a physical sign of a metaphysical condition, my

    participations in black magics and evil-eyes, so let no one get on the

    same elevator with me… From another perspective, the mediator

    between God and humans must be negated in some way–blind, castrated,

    deaf or Polish–so that negation of my ability to walk may qualify me

    as a mediator… …Thus Oedipus comes to stand with gods… …but so

    far I see no evidence of compensations for paralysis such as Blind

    John Milton produced with Paradise Lost…

  • Lumière

    ////Evil comes from a failure to think. It defies thought for as soon as thought tries to engage itself with evil and examine the premises and principles from which it originates, it is frustrated because it finds nothing there. That is the banality of evil.—Amos Elon\\\

    I have always defined hate as confused and inadequate thinking.

    A neurobiologist did an MRI brain study and used politicians as a trigger mechanism. When he shows you your politician, the warm / fuzzy part of your brain lights up. When he shows you the political challenger, the analytical part of your brain lights up.

    I want to posit this about the association between hate/evil and thinking:

    It seems, to be against something, requires analytical thought.

    I think this is what is meant when they say: hate is learned

    I disagree with Amos Elon. The banality comes from the prevalence of confused and inadequate thinking and from the fact that, those who can think clearly, refuse to stand up to and correct confused and inadequate thinking.

  • RobertPeel

    Hurley makes an intresting point. Arendt’s dissertation was on Augustine and Love.

    The Heideger and Arendt’s affiar was an interesting contradiction. I am not sure how it plays in her analysis of Eichman. Elie Wiesel has said remember many nazi’s had PhD’s and MD’s. Hilter’s executionars were willing.

    It would be interesting to hear from George Steiner and/or Robert Jay Lifton(who studied Nazi Doctors.)

    I still like to Amos Elon preface. Evil can be banal,uncriticaln and sytematic just like going to the industrial plant.

  • mynocturama

    I appreciate your response allison. I’ve done some modest work/research in social cognition, and with the issue of empathy in particular. Cognitive science uses the rather (I think) clumsy term “Theory of Mind” to describe an individual’s capacity to entertain the beliefs, thoughts, motives, of another, to enter into another mind, more or less, at whatever level of penetration or insight. Conditions with pronounced social deficits such as autism, and to lesser extent schizophrenia, are often described, or theorized, in these terms.

    The question of differentiating, separating out, different aspects of “mind” (sorry about the scare quotes around some of these words, just trying to acknowledge that I – we – use words sometimes without really knowing clearly what they mean, yet still go about stumbling with them anyways, and to even attempt to clarify them would require another post/essay entirely…), whether it be “thought” from “feeling,” or linguistic from spatial reasoning, touches on more general issues, which, please bear with me, I’ll touch on really quick.

    There’s a tendency or tradition in cognitive science and philosophy of mind to conceive of the mind in “modular” terms, as essentially a network of discreet functions or modules, independent, anatomically and functionally, from one another, however interconnected they may be finally. On the other hand, there’s also the opposing tendency, to think of the mind in more holistic terms, as a larger, more generalized, fluid capacity or entity, that then performs its various functions.

    Obviously I’m playing fast and loose here. But the question of how one essentially conceives of the mind is important, both neuroscientifically, in correlating mental functions to brain activity, and more generally, in how people think, and think about thinking.

    Within this localized vs. holism dialectic, broadly put, I tend to lean towards a more interrelated view. Concerning empathy, for example, there does seem to be an innate tendency (the innate vs. acquired dichotomy is itself tricky, of course, but leaving that aside…), expressing itself very early on in infancy, to pay attention to faces and to mimic facial movements, as with a newborn sticking out its tongue in imitation of mom. This responsiveness to other faces, if not totally hardwired, is at least strongly pre-wired, so to speak. So we seem instinctually to attend to faces and, after a little while, to read facial expressions.

    Let’s say you’re sitting at a table eating lunch, and a stranger suddenly heads towards you with an angry, aggressive look on his face. You’re going to immediately, instinctually react, according to what his expression most likely indicates about his motives, about what he’s about to do. You can call this a basic form of empathy, bound up with self-interest and self-preservation in this case, but a kind of mind-reading nonetheless. This instinctual face-reading, and responsiveness to bodily expression and behavior more generally, is, it seems to me, empathy in its most immediate, affective form, empathy as a “feeling sensation.”

    OK, now take the front-page photo from the New York Times yesterday. It shows a somewhat elderly mother who has fainted in her son’s arms, both she and her son on the floor, the son with a distraught, fearful, maybe angry look on his face, looking up at the soldiers who have just burst into their home. There’s an immediate empathic response to the scene, a feeling of some degree, or at least a reading of feeling on the frozen faces in the photo. But, almost simultaneously with this immediate response, information concerning context, what you know and think of the war, your memory of events leading up to this moment, matters usually associated with intelligence or “thinking,” floods in. Furthermore, this intelligence, or consideration, comes to inform the feeling you have towards the photo, what it means, feels, to you. This, you might say, is empathy in its more elaborated, imaginative form. And it seems to me these aren’t clearly distinct steps or cognitive acts, first feeling, then thinking, or vice versa. It seems, feels, to me, all of a piece. Each takes the other by the hand, as it were, to help the other along.

    A rather longwinded way of saying the dichotomy of feeling and thought, head and heart, when treated too simplistically, separately, simply isn’t sufficient to describe our responses to others, to the world. And what this has to do exactly with Arendt, I’m not really sure. I guess I’m saying that imagination seems to me to better capture the mind in its fullness, as the unifying source of both social and intellectual reasoning. And evil, then, as involving, to some degree, a failure of imagination, a failure to imagine the lives of others, and failure to imagine and think through the consequences of one’s actions.

  • Lumière

    Maybe if we went to the video of her and Heideger making love –

    seriously, that is completely dope…..

  • mynocturama

    Perhaps it’s useful to start with a simple, provisional distinction, between systems of thought that attribute to “evil” an essentially positive presence and force, and those that treat it fundamentally in the negative, in terms of absence, privation, stuntedness, some failure to relate or connect. Broadly speaking, (western?) religions tend toward the former, and secular accounts the latter.

    Simplistic, subject to complication, sure, but serviceable, I think, for the sake of discussion.

    So a secular psychologist might explain an adult’s antisocial behavior by reference to some deficit in childhood, an isolating trauma, abandonment, lack of access to avenues of opportunity or to positive role models, etc… The cause, or core, of the badness, or “evil,” is in and of itself negative, a matter of absence, insufficiency.

    Religion is more willing to imagine evil as a presence, an embodiment onto itself, an addition to the scheme of things, not merely a subtraction or deficiency. This mode may have the advantage as far as intensity or forcefulness of description goes, in that sometimes it seems that only by reference to the supernatural can we adequately explain what we take to be evil, do justice to our sense of it. To some, secular or worldly explanations can feel woefully inadequate. Coetzee gets at this somewhat in the NYRB piece. Maybe it’s not so much the banality of evil itself, but the banality of our accounts of it. For, when it comes down to it, the bare fact is, mere human beings perform horrific acts. And yet, in feeling at least, psychological, sociological, or historical explanations fail to be exhaustive.

    Here’s Emerson from the Divinity School Address:

    Good is positive. Evil is merely privative, not absolute: it is like cold, which is the privation of heat. All evil is so much death or nonentity. Benevolence is absolute and real. So much benevolence as a man hath, so much life hath he. For all things proceed out of this same spirit, which is differently named love, justice, temperance, in its different applications, just as the ocean receives different names on the several shores which it washes. All things proceed out of the same spirit, and all things conspire with it. Whilst a man seeks good ends, he is strong by the whole strength of nature. In so far as he roves from these ends, he bereaves himself of power, of auxiliaries; his being shrinks out of all remote channels, he becomes less and less, a mote, a point, until absolute badness is absolute death.

    And Borges from one of his essays:

    Nazism suffers from unreality, like Erigena’s hell. It is uninhabitable; men can only die for it, lie for it, wound or kill for it. No one, in the intimate depths of his being, can wish it to triumph. I shall risk this conjecture: Hitler wants to be defeated. Hitler is blindly collaborating with the inevitable armies that will annihilate him, as the metal vultures and the dragon (which must have known that they were monsters) collaborated, mysteriously, with Hercules.

    These exemplify the evil/badness-in-negative-terms approach. This rings true for me, especially in the mouths of Emerson and Borges. I especially like the idea of an ideology like Nazism being, in the end, uninhabitable, an airless place, finally suffocating. As it is not on the side of life, in the deepest, broadest sense, it simply cannot live. I know this smacks of simplicity and naivety, and yet still I think it’s true.

  • tbrucia

    People exist, bricks exist, beams of light exist, the barking of dogs exists, the smell of roses exists, heat exists — and we perceive these things with our eyes, ears, nose, skin, and other sensory organs. But we can’t see or touch or smell or hear ‘evil’. It’s entirely inside our heads. It usually (but not always) involves social relationships… We see others as evil, or less frequently, we see them as good but their actions as evil. Everything is divided into the two categories, since evil and good are how we choose to see the reality of people, bricks, beams of light, the barking of dogs, the smell of roses, and heat. It’s almost a Buddhist thing to simply see things as they are… It requires saintly (or satanic?) resignation to the flow of reality, since most of us act, and in the action bring our passions into play on a world which is basically — just there.

  • rc21

    allison I liked your last post. That is a problem shared by many on the hard left and the hard right. Both are so sure their way is the only way, and the right way. They see others as either poor lost souls or evil.

  • Lumière

    Q: Who was the ‘evil’ in Rwanda?

    A: It was a neighbor

    Hannah Arendt’s concept is spot on.

  • Lumière

    The reason the evil are built up to be monsters, is so that you will not recognize evil in yourself.

    It is important to society that you not recognize the evil acts society asks you to do

    One of Alan Watt’s premises: society doesn’t want you to know who you are.

  • Lumière

    The premise behind the French lawyer Jacques Verges, who defends monsters in court:

    The monsters do the bidding of society– as part of society, you are responsible for their acts.

  • Lumière

    I’m still reeling from the ad hominem attack on Hannah Arendt.

    The attack was derived from wiki:

    ///She studied philosophy with Martin Heidegger at the University of Marburg, and had a long, sporadic romantic relationship with him, something that has been criticised because of his later membership in and support for the Nazi party.\\\

    The problem for the attackers is that wiki says ‘later membership’.This was easily resolved by calling Martin Heidegger a proto-Nazi.

    I find these type of attacks evil.

    She was probably influenced by Heidegger – did the influence provide clarity or bias?

  • RobertPeel

    Lumiere

    Thanks ,that is thequestion Geroge Steiner raised at Harvard. In what way,did Heidegger influence his disciples? How does a Master influence his students.

    Certainly, Arendt was influenced by Jaspers,her study of Augistine as well as her own flight from Germany,France to the community of exiles formed at the New School. Beyond the “ad hominen”, how people are influenced by good or ill is an important question.

  • Lumière

    The interesting thing about a Heidegger influence is that, as a Jew, it could have given her a different POV – what was it?

    The critics want us to believe that Heidegger was immoral and thereby a protoNazi. Correct me if I’m wrong, but, as far as I can tell Heidegger was not concerned with morality. (I see two familiar names mentioned with his: Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida.)

    The Nazis were all about morality – their morality.

    In the movie Downfall, the Nazi command was shown making every kind of moral decision – one in particular stands out:

    Would you poison your children to protect them from invaders?

    Hey jazzman – how would you answer that one?

  • http://del.icio.us/plaintext plaintext

    Good can be just as banal. Small acts of good are so quickly forgotten as to bring question to their existence. And larger swaths of good are a sure precursor to regret. As the bard saith, The best-laid schemes o’ mice an ‘men …

  • RobertPeel

    Steiner argues that Heidegger saw him self as Germany’s MASTER TEACHER and/or Teacher to Der Fuehrer. The Nazi’z seem to have marginalized him. So was it morality or ambition?

    Steiner in his attempted to understand Heidegger question Hans-George Gadamer about Heidegger. Gadamer simply said Heidegger was a great intelect and mind but a petty individual. Unlike Speer, Heidegger may have caused less damage. Was H. merely banal and petty?

    Arendt certainly suffered experiencially from Nazism both as a human and a phenomenologist.

  • Lumière

    This bio from European Graduate School EGS seems complete

    http://www.egs.edu/resources/arendt.html

    ///According to her text, Eichmann had not had a sadistic will to do evil, but had been thoughtless; he had failed to think about what he was doing.\\\

    I’m not buying this – he had plenty of thoughts, they were all confused and inadequate. Listen to your favorite bigot carefully – there are plenty of theories about what is going on and what to do about it, but they just don’t add up.

  • jazzman

    Lumière asks: Would you poison your children to protect them from invaders?

    I strive to never commit violence for any reason. I believe that my pacifism and good intentions would result in not creating such a scenario. If I happen to find myself and my children in such a situation then I would try to avoid confrontation and believe that the situation is only temporary and a challenge to overcome.

    I recommend Gandhi’s advice to the British people during WWII from Non-Violence in Peace and War

    “I would like you to lay down the arms you have as being useless for saving you or humanity. You will invite Herr Hitler and Signor Mussolini to take what they want of the countries you call your possessions…. If these gentlemen choose to occupy your homes, you will vacate them. If they do not give you free passage out, you will allow yourselves, man, woman, and child, to be slaughtered, but you will refuse to owe allegiance to them.”

    This goes against the grain for most people but I think is the ideal response if one cannot reason one’s way out or remove oneself from such a situation. (In a less strident tone, that’s only my opinion and I could be, as Dennis Miller used to close his rants, wrong.)

    Peace to ALL,

    Jazzman

  • jazzman

    allison says: Did you intend to imply such superiority? This sounds very condescending.

    I’ll reword the offending reply hopefully less pompously at the risk of again seeming to be condescending:

    If one wishes to and is able to lessen another’s suffering without using less than ideal means to accomplish that end then I wholeheartedly recommend they try.

    It is never ideal for one to cause suffering in another (cause is the operative word – as much suffering is self-inflicted thru ignorance.) People’s consciousness exists at all levels of awareness so one needs to gauge one’s audience and adjust their demeanor accordingly (as I aim to do going forward.)

    I intend and claim no superiority; in my view all entities (at their essence) are equal and responsible for their experience (as I am for attracting your chastening.) My intention is to present an alternative, larger, open ended and inclusive picture of reality to suggest that there other ways to look at everything.

    The picture I attempt to present is one that is enformed by my worldview which as you note tends to apprehend reality from a meta-level. When I interact with specific people I mostly approach current events from the naïve realism vantage unless it’s a philosophically oriented discussion.

    As this venue is to me impersonal except for perhaps degrees of affinity with certain posters, I state my beliefs as they exist at the NOW moment of the post.

    I’m aware that my style is pedagogical and that I assert my philosophical position as if it were absolute, because like your step-daughter I look for bigger, deeper answers to questions and analyze things on a metaphysical level.

    Like you I am prepared to acknowledge that another’s perspective is potentially more real than mine and wait for others to raise contrapuntal arguments to further tune my beliefs (again dialectic debate – not mean-spirited or insult.)

    I apologize to you and everyone else for my stridency and thank you for reminding me of my tendency toward pedantry (my wife says it’s my worst personality trait) and will strive in future to be less so.

    Peace,

    Jazzman

  • Lumière

    Jazz.

    Your approach doesn’t bother me an iota – I focus on what is said rather than the style. If you want to tell me your ideas are superior and why, I can judge for myself – if they are superior – I’m glad to know.

    Hope seems to be central to your belief system – you must have faith in the kindness of adversarial strangers in order to exist.

    I beginning to understand why morality is a non-starter for so many philosophers….

  • Nick

    This conversation strikes me as riding on slowly but inevitably convergent tracks. Here’s a stab at speeding the convergence.

    Jazzman at 8:22 PM, Feb, 6th writes, “ ‘evil’…is a value judgment and a function of an individual’s belief system, and not universal or absolute.”

    I agree (it’s why I put quotes around the word in this thread’s first post).

    mynoctorama, at 4:40 PM, Feb. 7th, responds, “jazzman, are you saying you don’t subscribe to any value judgments whatsoever?” Then, along with hurley and others, contributes insights concerning the concept of evil.

    tbrucia then really nails it at 9:02 PM, Feb. 8th: “we can’t see or touch or smell or hear ‘evil’. It’s entirely inside our heads. It usually (but not always) involves social relationships… We see others as evil, or less frequently, we see them as good but their actions as evil.”

    “Honor” is another concept that has no material existence. Merriam-Webster Online begins its definitions of honor (noun) with this,

    “1a: good name or public esteem: REPUTATION; b: a showing of usually merited respect: RECOGNITION – ‘pay honor to our founder’

    http://www.m-w.com/cgi-bin/dictionary

    Honor, then, is a social convention. In some cultures it’s akin to currency: it can accrue or erode, raising or lowering a person’s or family’s standing in the society.

    Yet it exists entirely within human minds – not as an agency or force anywhere in the natural world.

    Meanwhile, Merriam-Webster gives the following (relevant) definitions for ‘evil’,

    Noun: “1a: the fact of suffering, misfortune, and wrongdoing; b: a cosmic evil force

    2: something that brings sorrow, distress, or calamity…”

    ‘1a’ names any suffering as evil; yet ‘1b’ and ‘2’ home in on the real target—the 800-pound-gorilla question—a do you subscribe to the concept of ‘evil’ as an invisible but ‘real’ force, a force that acts in the natural world? Longstanding, widespread belief in this notion has spawned countless mythological personifications such as demons, demiurges, devils, etc.

    Meanwhile, M-W-O a sheds a bit more light with this:

    Adjective: “1a: morally reprehensible: SINFUL, WICKED ‘an evil impulse’; b: arising from actual or imputed bad character or conduct ‘a person of evil reputation’

    3a: causing harm: PERNICIOUS ‘the evil institution of slavery’; b: marked by misfortune…”

    …which adds to the question the dimension of morality. Does morality exist outside of human minds? (And yes, I reckon this thread has a darn good chance to eventually echo the Morality thread for depth and quality of conversation.)

    I suggest it takes quite a leap of faith to answer that question with a ‘yes’. (And I’ve a serious intellectual allergy to the usage of the words ‘believe’, ‘belief’, and ‘faith’—all of which strike me as increasingly obsolescent, unnecessary concepts.)

    Ought sexual activity between consenting adults, in this, the 21st century, be eligible for the designation ‘evil’, i.e., “sinful, wicked”?

    Can sexual activity between consenting adults honestly “arise from actual or imputed bad character or conduct”? Can it be “morally reprehensible”?

    Have we not (mostly) abandoned such legacies of our species’ longstanding superstitiousness and ignorance?

    I venture that ‘evil’ at core is a religious concept. Or perhaps—and better yet—a proto-religious concept: a ‘feeling’, an unverifiable yet strong intuition, that unseen agency is the actual cause of suffering. The notion that then prompted the corollary notion of a ‘good’ agency to counter it, which bred shamanism, and the subsequent evolution of recent human religions. Amid that evolution came additional proscriptions: on sexual activity, on the veneration of alternative deities, on articles of clothing (or lack thereof), on dietary options, etc. In tandem with this increasingly complex morass of taboo and more, the original ‘demons’ of misfortune and suffering grew grander: becoming the ‘devils’ responsible for simple, natural human urges to defy the varied and sundry proscriptions.

    So, what’s ‘good’? How about this…?

    “1: marked by compassion, sympathy, or consideration for humans or animals…”

    http://www.m-w.com/dictionary/humane

    Is this not what we want from our gods? Compassion, sympathy, and consideration?

    And does this not return us, full circle, to the issue of empathy?

    I think Allison, at 12:15 AM, Feb. 8th, has got it exactly right:

    “…empathy is actually a feeling sensation. With empathy you can tune into the emotional experience of another. It is a connectedness. Thinking is more detached.”

    Is it perhaps time to pay more attention to evidence of inhumane attitudes and actions than to the unverifiable and empirically questionable notion of the existence of ‘evil’? It would, I think, be a whole lot simpler. Concepts don’t always translate well over culture and language, yet emotions, I gather, are universal: all humans, regardless of culture or language, have essentially the same emotions. And I, like Allison, experience empathy emotionally rather than as mere thought.

    I sure could be wrong, but it seems to me that inhumanity and its opposite, humaneness, are easier to agree upon, to identify: “compassion, sympathy, or consideration for humans or animals”. Isn’t this a value judgment most if not all humans can agree to venerate? I bet both Jazzman and mynocturama already can, and do!

    (Seems to me you could found an entire philosophy on such a notion. And it doesn’t require any unverifiable supernatural entities, either… ;-))

  • http://www.radioopensource.org/user/sidewalker sidewalker

    Can we talk about the banality of the death penalty?

    How does this State sanctioned act differ in moral and other terms from the original act (usually murder) that led to it?

  • manning120

    I apologize for not having sufficient time to study all the comments and background material in this thread. I do plan to get around to that.

    My fascination with the term “evil” increased when the president used it to justify his version of the “war on terror,” describing bin Laden and Hussein as “evil.”

    Notwithstanding dictionary definitions,“evil” has a supernatural connotation. Sometimes incorporeal spirits, such as Satan, are invoked. Mysterious and irrational forces not detectible or measurable by science are cited. The movies have given us an endless array of monsters that defy evolutionary science. “Evil” also connotes mentality, although not necessary high intelligence. It’s odd to describe the weather or a disease as evil.

    “Evil” sometimes describes an individual, and sometimes the collective actions of individuals (nazism, slavery, and communism come to mind). Collective evil can result from slight deviations from propriety by many people. Few Nazi’s were savage killers like Jeffrey Dahmer or Charles Manson, but relatively normal Nazis acted in furtherance of a system whose results far outweighed those of a serial killer.

    A corollary to the supernaturalism of evil is the impossibility of arguing or reasoning with evil beings, and the lack of necessity to consider whether they really are evil. This becomes particularly interesting when the president talks about the evil people who oppose us. Such dark, irrational forces can only be effectively opposed by force, preferably military in nature. Thus as we went into Iraq, very little thought was given to what our enemies or potential enemies might actually think. Why understand them if our only options are to kill them or shackle them with brute force?

    Other closely related terms, such as “wrong” and “immoral,” don’t have these supernatural overtones, although religion sometimes enters the picture. We don’t feel it’s impossible to influence people who are merely wrong or immoral by reasoning with them. It may be a matter of degree – evil being the highest degree of immorality, for example.

    These things being said, I’ll address the lead questions briefly. “Where does evil come from?” I reject any supernatural source of evil. What people call evil is extreme immorality within a single aberrant individual or carried out in an organized way by groups of individuals who conform to what, in terms of the general morality of mankind, is an aberrant policy. And I believe immorality, right and wrong, etc., have no independent reality apart from our thinking processes.

    “Why do people commit evil?” This depends on what you consider evil. I think each case would have to be examined on its own. Eichmann was carrying out orders. Dahmer lacked the inhibitions and empathy that prevent us from doing things in real life that we might (especially when young) enjoy seeing done in movies, or reading about.

    “Do you buy Arendt’s thesis, or do you think there is something else (be it religious or biological) that leads to evil and distinguishes good from evil people?” Her thesis makes perfect sense to anyone who believes in the supernatural. The downside of that, in my opinion, is that we risk failing to rationally examine our assessment of the degree of wrongfulness involved, and how we can fight monsters without becoming monsters ourselves.

  • nother

    There are many people far smarter then I who can opine about the abstracts of evil. As a blogger, when confronted with these Meta questions, I ask myself what I can bring to the ROS table that is unique. So I do my reporting from where no one else can – I look inside, and then I use that personal perspective as a lens to view the bigger questions of humanity.

    Bobby was his name, he was my mom’s boyfriend for a few years, that is I think it was a few years, time back then is a little hazy. I was around 10 or 11 and we were living in a small redneck town outside of Orlando Florida. My mom was bartending to pay the rent. Bobby had moved down from New Jersey to work in the moving business and I assume he met my mom in a bar. He was a short burly guy with tight curly reddish hair and a tight curly mustache. Bobby would walk around with a Popeye posture and a countenance of bitterness; he personified that tough Jersey guy thing.

    The details are blurry but the cycle is clear, heavy drinking, escalating arguments, all culminating in a beat down for my mom. First he’d raise his voice and punch a wall, then after a while he’d slap her. My mom would switch between and venting her disgust and resent at him and crying hysterically. He would in turn pull her hair and drag her around, warning her all the while that this might be it. I can still see his glassy eyes squinting with a calm rage as he stalked our tiny apartment.

    At some point I would have taken the pillows from my ears, left my bed and tried to intervene. In a shaky voice I would try to talk him down by pleading with him. I was trying to keep him from going over the edge; I was trying to tap into whatever humanity was there, whatever conscience. This is the first time I ever thought about this, but I’d actual praise him for having the will power to hold back from doing more damage.

    Looking back, It’s like there was another being in the room, which I would now describe as “evil” and I was competing with that entity for influence over Bobby. It’s like both Bobby and I realized how powerful that seperate being was, it had no reigns. He could choose that power or he could choose my way of conscience. I had to subvert the reality by building him up, telling him how grateful I was for his control. I was letting him save face for not taking that power to it’s full potential.

    I don’t relay this personal story because I’m interested in analyzing why this one insecure asshole tapped into his capacity for evil, just like I wouldn’t waste precious time analyzing Stalin or Mao’s personal issues – to me that would be honoring their self aggrandizement. I relay this story because I’m interested in what I’ll call the Co-dependency of Evil. It wasn’t like my mom just kept taking Bobby back; she was obsessed with him and kept begging him to stay. I think about the multitude of average citizens who revered Stalin and Mao to the point of obsession and thus enabled their own oppression. Today I discussed this blog with a coworker (a gay man) who was abused for years in a relationship and always went back to the guy. I asked him why he was drawn toward the abuse, toward the evil. He told me that he would always feel deep down that it was his fault, that the trouble stemmed for some weakness of his own. This made sense to me, it related to the stories of the Cultural Revolution or the Gulag where people would be sent away to “corrective” labor camps in the Gulag or to the countryside for standard education in Mao teachings. Like my co-worker, if you had a problem with what was happening, it must have stemmed from you own weakness.

    It appears to me that the only remedy for this Co-dependency of Evil is a respect for self, derived from love and affection. To be clear, I’m not talking here about the evil inflicted on the Jews, or victims of random violent crime. I’m talking about a specific kind of evil. I pressed my co-worker further on the reasons for the emptiness that his boyfriend had exploited; I wanted to know where this lack of self-respect originated? He mentioned immediately the abandonment he felt as a child. In totalitarian states, one is dissuaded from respect for self because it runs in opposition to respect for state. Consequently, friends turn against friends and when you have betrayed a love one for the state, you have bought in, and thus become even more dependent on the state. My mother’s lack of self-respect grew from abuse from her stepfather when she was young. There was physical abuse for sure, but it’s the verbal abuse that inflicted the lasting damage.

    In conclusion I want to say that even through the chaos of those early years, my mother always held out a lifeline of love for me. None of those guys ever hit me, they must have known the line that would cross with her and the fateful consequences it would have for all us. I have never questioned her love for me and that must have made my own self-respect possible. My mother has now remarried a great guy, found religion, and embraced her capacity for peace. We persevered together, her and I, and now share a love supreme, thus making that lifeline no longer necessary. Yet, what she may not know is that I have held on to that lifeline, cherishing it, and making it the foundation for all my days forward.

  • Lumière

    manning120 Says: Her thesis makes perfect sense to anyone who believes in the supernatural.

    I think that is antithetical to her premise. She is saying evil is banal – not extraordinary in any way.

    Hitler would have probably have spent his life in a mental institution if not for the support of the banal thinkers. The confused and inadequate thoughts of the German people were, as some surmise, a result of the Treaty of Versailles that ended WWI. You would have to understand the apportionment to understand how a nation could be so confused.

    I trade equities, which is why I am online so much. I met trader who escaped Auschwitz. He introduces himself thusly:

    Hi, my name is Ted and when I was sixteen a guy named Hitler sent me to camp. The name of the camp was Auschwitz.

    He was young, so he was sent to work at Krupp. He escaped and was captured by the US Army who inducted him b/c he spoke 4 languages. Worked briefly for the OSS and then came to the US working for a NYSE firm as a specialist.

    He is undoubtedly one of the most unforgettable and inspirational characters I have ever met. His outlook on life is completely balanced – he loves America and after a few vodkas always exclaims: Only in America!

    I have spent hours posting online learning about his experience and views. He is very sanguine – doesn’t blame Hitler – never once called Hitler evil – clued me in on many misconceptions about the war. His view is that of a historian – events pushed the inevitable on his people. Btw, he is the only survivor of his extended family. He has a book written, soon to be published.

  • rc21

    Sounds like a hell of a guy. I think some of the things that he experienced in the not to distant past are starting to take shape again, under the guise of anti-zionism. This sounds much nicer, and not as bigoted as anti-semetic.

  • Lumière

    I can’t imagine going through what he went through – never mind surviving with the incredible sense of humor that he has.

    One night, he drinking Vodka, me drinking Scotch, we went back and forth for hours around the concept of what one should have done:

    Resist and probably die or do anything to survive – as in a moral supposition, practically speaking, you don’t know what you would have done.

  • rc21

    The solution( and I’m only monday morning quarterbacking),as I see it was to have seen the warning sighns and tried to have done something to stop the Nazi movement, or to get the hell out of dodge, as many did. Either way a terrible situation to be in.

    Of course one never sees the hammer swinging.

    I also prefer scotch.

  • Lumière

    Leaving wasn’t an option we discussed.

    The Nazis controlled visas, but who would take you?

    This was Eastern Europe in the 30’s – anti-Semitism was full blown across the continent and in the US.

    This is his premise: historically, the die had been cast.

    The banality of evil was pervasive.

  • http://www.radioopensource.org/user/sidewalker sidewalker

    What would Hannah Arendt make of Ward Churchill’s argument in his 9/11 essay about the banal “technocratic corps” which are instrumental to an imperialistic US foreign policy?

  • http://www.circles-salon.com allison

    jazzman wrote: “I would like you to lay down the arms you have as being useless for saving you or humanity. You will invite Herr Hitler and Signor Mussolini to take what they want of the countries you call your possessions…. If these gentlemen choose to occupy your homes, you will vacate them. If they do not give you free passage out, you will allow yourselves, man, woman, and child, to be slaughtered, but you will refuse to owe allegiance to them.”

    This goes against the grain for most people but I think is the ideal response if one cannot reason one’s way out or remove oneself from such a situation. (In a less strident tone, that’s only my opinion and I could be, as Dennis Miller used to close his rants, wrong.)”

    I remember reading this Gandhi passage before. As you write, it does seem to go against the grain, and yet it also feels like the only path to peace. Intellectually, I see this and I hope that I can live it. But whenever the topic comes up, I am reminded of something in my childhood and I am never sure how I feel about what I did. I offer it up for discussion:

    After taking physical abuse for as long as I could remember, I was standing in my room, at the age of 14 when my mother’s hand was lifting for yet another blow. I quickly hit her and said, “How do you like it?!” She never hit me again. I didn’t hit her hard enough to hurt her, just enough to startle her.

    What I may forever question is whether I committed an act of violence and whether the fact that the physical abuse stopped justifies the violence. I throw it out there for consideration in this discussion of ‘evil’ versus what? Good? Is that equivalent to peace? Is evil the opposite of peace? What is peace?

  • http://www.circles-salon.com allison

    Ok, just read nother’s post. It’s a great juxtaposition to mine. His was definitely a path of peace. People often tell me that it took strength to do what I did. But it took infinitely more for nother to do what he did, which was to lessen violence without using violence.

    when you talk about the roots, nother, and mention love and affection, it starts to cross paths with some of the other comments about whether evil exists or is only in our heads as a concept. To ask this of evil, is then to ask it of love. Love is a concept. But for both of these things, we experience something that we are trying to describe. Powerful energies are present when people commit either very violent acts or very nurturing acts.

    Is evil an abstract concept that we create so that we don’t have to take responsibility? If we label someone in our midst as evil, then it’s not our fault she behaves that way. We couldn’t possibly have contributed. But if we decide that evil doesn’t exist, then does love exist? (which is often portrayed as being sourced from god.) To me, the idea that these energies are generated by something other than us doesn’t make sense. So, I don’t find the words useful. What I do find useful is analyzing the motivations for our choices, claiming responsibility for our them regardless of what we call them, and modeling to each other the ways of peace as best we can.

    That said, I couldn’t agree with Arendt more that violence is nurtured in the smaller moments. The balance of life is in the small things.

  • rc21

    Allison hitting your mother was the right thing to do. Don’t equate violence with evil.

  • Lumière

    allison

    Your episode with your mother was valuable life lesson. Pointing out bad behavior usually makes it stop.

    When Condi Rice was in Sudan and people started pushing she said: stop, you are acting like children and it stopped.

    Time after time I see someone exhibit anti-social behavior while others sit there and judge – they don’t like it, they know it is wrong, but they say nothing.

    ///Arendt …. that violence is nurtured in the smaller moments…\\\

    I think Arendt would agree with this, in that the smaller moments make up the core of banality.

  • http://www.circles-salon.com allison

    rc21, why not equate violence with evil?

    lumiere, the difference between Ms. Rice’s action and mine was that she used words, I used physicality. I’m clearly using a case where most people would support what I did. As a child, I did the only thing I could imagine would get her attention. But I think it is a good case for examining the cycles of violence and how you can stop it. Can violence really end violence?

    My mother stopped hitting me. She started hitting my younger sisters more. A few years later, I ended up removing each of them from her house. She had been terrorizing them. At that time, I was able to confront her without using violence myself. I simply grabbed my sisters and took them with me.

    So, did I do the best thing? I’m not asking about right or wrong.

  • Lumière

    In The Fog of War, McNamara said: “Sometimes we have to do bad things to achieve good.”

    Same Q I asked on Spinoza thread:

    Do you think that unavoidable?

    Condi was outnumbered – I’m sure in one-on-one she would have used an arm lock to force the individual to the ground and dug a spiked heal into the back of the neck – but only to achieve good ;-)

    Personally, I think your actions must be survivable and sustainable –Although initially you survive b/c of a violent act, violence is not sustainable – violence begets violence.

  • http://www.circles-salon.com allison

    I’m not sure I agree with McNamara. Of course, we always use extreme cases. Once you’re at war, you’ve already let things get so far out of hand that you are more able to justify doing ‘bad things.” In this thread, we’re talking about the banal. How many banal moments lead to the creation of a war? And do we let it happen simply so that we can justify doing bad things? If we don’t stop the trickle of momentum that builds into a torrent of war are we colluding to create a setting in we have permission to do things we otherwise wouldn’t? We seem to cherish the possibility. Look at how we glorify war.

    I’m not sure what you mean when you say that actions must be survivable and sustainable. First, if violence begets violence, then violence is self-sustaining. We live that. Humans have been committing violence since the beginning of time and we continue to survive, even over-populate. So, does this mean that violence is good?

    And is it only about surviving? I want to do more than survive. I want to thrive. Survival is barren. Thrival is lush. If I am committing violence only to survive, I’d rather not. I’d prefer to take my chances on what might be there for me after this life if I have adhered to a practice of non-violence. (which I can’t claim in my early adulthood, so I’m already at a deficit.) I can’t prove there is anything after this life experience, but my gut tells me that my chances of long-term peace are better if I have lived in peace than if I have not. So, in the possibiity that there is something, I don’t want to risk it just for survival.

  • jazzman

    mynocturama asks: So, jazzman, are you saying you don’t subscribe to any value judgments whatsoever? That would seem to be the implication of your words.

    No! What I am saying is I subscribe to value judgments which comport with my own (and there are many.) Some I accept by dint of analysis and adoption until further refinement or extirpation and some by way of emotion due to reactive intensity which I may or may not adopt after reflection and analysis.

    Where others’ values agree with mine or seem reasonable candidates for inclusion into my worldview then my belief system grows. It’s as I stated above about my obedience or not regarding the law – if I agree philosophically then there is tacit obeisance to that principle, if I don’t subscribe to a proscription, I give lip service and pretend if I perceive a threat to my sphere’s wellbeing.

    Lumière says: Hope seems to be central to your belief system – you must have faith in the kindness of adversarial strangers in order to exist.

    The only hope that’s involved is that I hope I my belief system is valid. It has appeared to function very well for the last 30 or so years, and I have found no reason to change its basic tenets. I expect that my experience with adversarial strangers (or acquaintances) will be peripheral and only affect me directly when my psyche needs to remind me or point out that I am straying from the ideal or violating the spirit of Absolute Morality.

    Peace

  • Lumière

    allison Says: Look at how we glorify war.

    That is a topic for ROS – all the military ceremonies, where we honor sacrifice, bother me – it’s not the sacrifice that bothers me, but the exploitation of the young.

    I live near a former navy base and every year there is an air show. Even though I see the hidden message, it is compelling to me to see the jets flying in formation – there is no equivalent in nature.

    The effect is quite simply to indoctrinate the young by way of adventurism. It is our adveturism that friegthens the rest of the world in that it awakens the desire to fight.

    Gill Scott Heron has a line in one of his songs:

    Peace is not the preparation for war, Peace is the absence of the preparation for war

    ##

    The point I was making with McNamara related to your personal story.

    One has to survive, to be able to thrive.

  • jazzman

    Lumière Says: Gill Scott Heron has a line in one of his songs: Peace is not the preparation for war, Peace is the absence of the preparation for war

    I agree with this assessment. It is similar to a saw that I observe and often quote “Peace is not obtained by hating war, but by loving peace.”

    Lumière Says: McNamara said: “Sometimes we have to do bad things to achieve good.” and to Allison The point I was making with McNamara related to your personal story. One has to survive, to be able to thrive.

    Just because “good” ends result from “bad” means as McNamara suggests (and he’s got a lot of nerve hawking (pun intended) that position, having admittedly (after his 85 year old conscience finally triumphed) deceived (read lied a “bad thing”) in order to maintain support for the Vietnam debacle. How much “good” resulted from his “bad”?) doesn’t mean there aren’t better or more ideal alternatives/methodologies to achieve the desired ends.

    The thesis “One has to survive, to be able to thrive” is a tautological truth (thrivers survive) much the same as the Darwinian Theory inspired “Survival of the fittest by natural selection” means “Survivors survive.” What makes a difference is the means by which survival is accomplished. If one thrives by murdering competitors and stockpiling resources far beyond ones’ requirements for a comfortable existence then that is not ideal. In allison’s case, as a young person, she reacted, emotionally as most would and the majority still does and an end (to the immediate violence) was reached in her case. (I was raised by a family in which abuse was generational and was the way they handled frustration and lack of creative imagination. I was subjected to and took part in verbal and physical confrontations (violent fights) and in my case had to remove myself from the situation by leaving home at 14 as violence escalated rather than abating. In spite (or because) of that experience I continued to identify with violent solutions to challenges until I was shown that it was my choice and I could choose other means to my ends.)

    These violent actions while less than ideal are object lessons that edify and any sense of guilt which results is to remind us not to repeat the action, rather than to condemn ourselves for our response. William James believed that “evil” was the result of short-circuited or misguided attempts to attain “good” results and I agree with that assessment but avoid the label “evil” and its religious connotations (as Nick notes its origin is in theistic religion’s dogma.) It’s ironic because if one did believe in the existence of “evil”, again as William James notes: There have been more egregious inhuman acts of violence and wrongdoing committed in the name of religion than any other pretext.

    Peace, always Peace

  • manning120

    In my 2/10 comment I said that people who believe in the supernatural origin of evil would agree with Hannah Arendt’s thesis as explained in Robin’s introduction. Lumière objected: “I think that is antithetical to her premise. She is saying evil is banal – not extraordinary in any way.” Apparently that’s not what she meant. Robin noted in the introduction that Arendt believed acts of evil “can be extraordinary.” Wikipedia ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arendt ) tells us that Arendt “raised the question whether evil is radical or simply a function of banality – the tendency of ordinary people to obey orders and conform to mass opinion without critically thinking about the results of their action or inaction.” To me, these comments suggest Arendt was saying, not that the evil she observed was itself banal, but that ordinary people with apparently normal sensibilities allowed and promoted it. The lesson, of course, is that today’s banality, even in the U.S., could be the matrix of evil comparable to the evil Arendt wrote about.

    I proposed that believers in the supernatural would be comfortable with Arendt’s view because such believers often think ordinary people can be possessed by evil spirits, or otherwise influenced by supernatural evil forces. But perhaps I should leave it to the believers to state their opinion.

    Has anyone discussed what Arendt thought or would have thought about isolated anti-social individuals like serial killers? The “banality of evil” idea doesn’t seem to fit them.

  • http://www.radioopensource.org/user/sidewalker sidewalker

    If we see war over the past few centuries as one of the critical means of addressing the cyclical crisis of capital, where excess capital needs to be put to work (Chalmers Johnson called it military Keynesianism), we add another dimension to banal everyday behaviour that leads to violent acts in the name of profit margins usually marketed as the protection of “our freedom”.

  • http://www.circles-salon.com allison

    I would love to see an ROS show about the economics of war and how we tend to boost economies by going to war and how our economic measurement system is designed to look good during wars and bad if we’re not putting enough money into military spending.

  • http://accountabilitybloke.blogspot.com/ accountabilitybloke

    Dealing with the issue of evil in my field (the study of bureaucracy and public administration) I have attempted to get a conceptual handle on it twice, and in both cases Arendt’s work formed the core of my approach. I think it clear that Arendt does not regard evil as either supernatural or (in modern context) extraordinary as some note above.

    For my take on matters, see:

    http://pubpages.unh.edu/dubnick/pubs/par2000.htm

    http://pubpages.unh.edu/dubnick/pubs/A&S2006.htm

  • loki

    Viva,Hannah Arendt

    NYTimes 2/14/07 Maureen Dowd compares Obama and Arendt!.

    How about Kafka and Arendt?

  • Lumière

    Robin said:

    ///Evil, Arendt suggests, can be extraordinary acts committed by otherwise unremarkable people.\\\

    And yet the concept is right there in Arendt’s subtitle:

    Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil,

    manning120 : You parsed that well. Let me see if I understand:

    An extraordinary evil can arise from banality

    I go to laws of physics – the laws of thermodynamics don’t help:

    Heat = extraordinary evil

    Entropy = banality

    heat does not necessarily arise from entropy – at least not in an extraordinary way

    I go to mathematics: Mandelbrot’s fractal theory says that systems repeat themselves on greater magnification (or enlargement).

    Was Hitler’s genocide extraordinary?

    Stalin did it, Pol Pot did it, it was done in Rwanda, Darfur is happening now, Palestinians feel it is being done to them.

    If it keeps happening, how extraordinary is it?

    American Indians, South American indignants, Australian aborigines, Armenians….

  • Nick

    I need some help…I must shamefacedly confess that I can’t yet figure out the premise—or the potential value, at least—of this show. Here’s Merriam Webster Online’s entry for ‘banal’:

    “lacking originality, freshness, or novelty”

    http://www.m-w.com/dictionary/banal

    And here’s a harrowing story from All Things Considered:

    Women Dying at High Rates in Mexican Cities

    Can someone please explain to me how the unconscionable, unthinkable, inhumane misogyny depicted in Lourdes Garcia-Navarro’s report is simply ‘banal’? I mean: can you explain the relationship between the manifest inhumanity and ‘banality’ in a meaningful, enlightening way. I understand that violent misogyny might certainly be “lacking in originality, freshness, or novelty” (it’s sadly as ancient as patriarchy, at least), but why is that noteworthy? What does it teach us? How does offer any hope for change?

    What am I missing?

  • manning120

    As always, the comments are much appreciated, even if I don’t say so every time.

    Nick raises good points.

    I don’t want to belabor this, but evil, almost by definition, isn’t banal. Banality stands in contrast to evil. Evil grabs the attention; banality bores. No matter how commonly evil occurs – consider, for example, murders, molestations, plundering of the elderly – we would hardly consider it banal. Commonplace would be the word.

    I think I detect in the discussion of Arendt (I’ll read her works directly if I ever get through reading and writing open source comments) the idea that ordinary people, people we would consider good people, in contrast to serial killers, maybe even ourselves, can be seduced into accepting and supporting belief systems that, with their participation and support, can result in even worse (more evil) consequences than those caused by obviously bad people, like serial killers. If that’s not what Arendt thought, I still think it’s true and a very important idea.

  • http://www.radioopensource.org/user/sidewalker sidewalker

    Let me have a go at your question Nick, in part to try and enlighten myself, though I’m sure it is not very enlightened.

    Banal etymology: French, from Old French, shared by tenants in a feudal jurisdiction, from ban, summons to military service, of Germanic origin; see bh-2 in Indo-European roots.

    http://www.thefreedictionary.com/banal

    Banal suggests something commonplace, predictable, even trite, and shared, in its older usage.

    Why can inhumane behaviour be banal? One reason is its the cumulative result of our everyday, often unintended, actions, as manning120 points out. It’s the “I’m just doing my job,” mentality. It normalized, which links to another reason. We become immune to some degree to the pain and suffering of others, whether it be the homeless people on the corner or the women dying in Mexican cities. We hear of so much suffering every day in the news that it overwhelms us. Inhumanity seems all too human.

    Why is this noteworthy? What does it teach us? How does offer any hope for change?

    For me, awareness of the global connections, of our commonplacedness, is critical to my daily choices. For example, I was listening to Democracy Now and a segment came on titled Valentine’s Day: Labor Conditions at US-Owned Plantations Show Hidden Realities of Flower Industry.

    This was the lead in:

    Today is Valentine’s Day. Chocolate, flowers, diamonds. How can gifts that bring so much happiness have come from so much pain? ? Those lovely flowers you received – they were probably genetically engineered and grown in Colombia on a giant pesticide-soaked factory farm run by U.S.-owned Dole Foods. How about the chocolate? Well, over 40 percent of the world’s cocoa comes from the Ivory Coast, in West Africa, where the child labor and child slavery is widespread. And diamonds? They are a girl’s best friend. And they have been used to finance some of the most brutal warfare of the last two decades.

    In this example we see the direct link between our and our loved one’s happiness and others suffering. Our consumptive choices, for the best of intended purposes, have consequences. We are never innocent.

    Italo Calvino in his novelInvisible Cities put it in a brilliant way that I cannot and so I quote from page 126:

    The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.

    When we recognize this who can be the better part of ourselves we can start to help put out reduce the flame.

  • http://www.radioopensource.org/user/sidewalker sidewalker

    off

  • http://www.radioopensource.org/user/sidewalker sidewalker

    italics off

  • http://www.radioopensource.org/user/sidewalker sidewalker

    Help! I’ve been tagged.

  • http://www.radioopensource.org/user/sidewalker sidewalker

    Last try and then I’ll leave it to someone with more knowledge of html. OK?

  • OliverCranglesParrot

    the dreaded italic monster who eats the threads is back…

  • OliverCranglesParrot

    the banality of tags

  • http://www.radioopensource.org/user/sidewalker sidewalker

    Thanks OCP, my anything but banal mate.

  • Lumière

    sidewalker Says:

    /// “The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.

    When we recognize this who can be the better part of ourselves we can start to help put out reduce the flame.” –Italo Calvino \\\

    The reason to deny evil an extraordinary status:

    1. reduce the ability to blame

    2. place evil within the self

    3. admit personal responsibility

    The significance of Arendt’s work is found in the difficulty to comprehend the above.

  • http://www.radioopensource.org/user/sidewalker sidewalker

    Just a note to clarify who said what as my italics got messed up.

    Italo Calvino: The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.

    sidewalker: When we recognize that this “who” can include the better part of ourselves, we can start to help reduce the flame (edited out the mistakes).

  • Lumière

    ////sidewalker: When we recognize that this “who” can include the better part of ourselves, we can start to help reduce the flame (edited out the mistakes).\\\

    wow – in style of Italo Calvino?

    I stand corrected:

    “When we recognize this who can be the better part of ourselves we can start to help put out reduce the flame.” – sidewalker

  • http://www.ncpr.org Dale Hobson

    I think willfulness needs to be included in a discussion of evil. “Evil by omission” seems to be a null statement. Evil is activist; it’s something we do with a result in mind. We may think the result will be good or not good, and we may be correct or incorrect in assesing the outcome, but evil comes into play through acting with future expectation. A more accurate statement of the old saw “The road to hell is paved with good intentions,” might be “The road to hell is paved with intentions, period.” This is why Buddhist ethical doctrines focus on detaching action from expectation.

  • Nick

    Thank you sidewalker, for the game effort. Your reply (3:01 AM, Feb. 15th) reminded me of the sixth post in this thread from sullivus, who linked our generation of climate change via runaway consumerism with ‘evil’. I see his/her point: it’s commonplace, staunchly unoriginal, and performed by apparent automatons (us). So, I suppose it thereby qualifies as ‘banal’.

    But is it ‘evil’?

    As I’ve written above, I don’t see ‘evil’ as a force, but as a moralistic judgment on the outcomes of human behavior. Unlike ‘evil’, ‘humane’ (“marked by compassion, sympathy, and consideration for others”) and its conceptual antonym can be discerned fairly readily.

    Our speciesist self-absorption is most certainly inhumane, in that it shows little “compassion, sympathy, or consideration” for other species – or even for our own human descendants! There is a case, I’ll concede, that ‘evil’/‘inhumanity’ (see: http://www.m-w.com/dictionary/inhumanity ) can perhaps be created by ‘banality’. But that doesn’t seem to me to be the norm.

    Is simple, ignorant neglect ‘evil’? Is ‘banal evil’ the same as deliberate, grotesque atrocity?

    If you listen to the Lourdes Garcia-Navarro report, you’ll hear about atrocities that are simply NOT “commonplace, predictable, even trite.”

    They are inhuman. Manifestly inhumane.

    They do not arise from neglect, from automaton-like obeisance, or, a la your Calvino quotation, from choosing to ignore rather than choosing vigilance.

    I’m with manning, although, for the sake of precision, I can’t dub it ‘evil’.

    I reiterate that the sorts of grotesquely inhumane, empathetically insensate atrocities committed by mysterious and apparently covertly protected Mexican men on women aren’t ‘banal’.

    Commonplace? No. (223 in two years is unthinkable and utterly horrifying, but it’s a tiny fraction of the population in that region; it’s not as if every Mexican man is out stalking 13 year old schoolgirls. Apparently it’s only the police!)

    All too frequent? Yes. (Even one such act is too damned frequent.)

    And perhaps even a ‘predictable’—albeit extreme—result of the notorious human subculture of machismo that persistently flourishes in many, many places, including Mexico (not to mention the USA).

    But not remotely close to ‘trite’.

    Can ‘evil’ (inhumanity) be ‘banal’?

    Sure.

    But is that the norm?

    I’m not at all sure of that. In fact, I tend to think that we carelessly throw the label ‘evil’ onto anything that annoys us. Why? Probably because we tend to exaggerate as a matter of course: the car in front of us on the road that’s spouting clouds of filthy smoke (a ring job in waiting)?

    ‘Evil’.

    The highway-side tollbooth?

    ‘Evil’.

    Computer viruses?

    ‘Evil’.

    Congress?

    ‘Evil’.

    Taxes?

    ‘Evil’.

    You can read the various threads right here on ROS for any number of like exaggerations (some of my own posts too). Because hyperbole grabs attention.

    So, does Hannah Arendt offer us insight into inhumanity? Probably. But as we read her, and/or as we listen to this hour of ROS, are we wise to conflate ‘banal evil’ with deliberate, empathy-lacking atrocity?

    I guess I still need some help in my preparations to understand this hour’s forthcoming message. Thanks in advance to anyone who addresses my plight!

  • OliverCranglesParrot

    the car in front of us on the road that’s spouting clouds of filthy smoke (a ring job in waiting)? So that’s Nick who has been tailgating me?! Great to see you again Nick.

    So, are the axis-of-evil states: Iran, North Korea part of the banality? Axis-of-the-banality-of-Evil? Guess, that wouldn’t sound as cool to a speech writers inner ear. Perhaps, POV is necessary for this context to make since? Great thread…

  • Lumière

    ////Our speciesist self-absorption is most certainly inhumane, in that it shows little “compassion, sympathy, or consideration” for other species…\\\

    We are so dominate, pervasive, and destructive – imagine you are another species looking at human behavior – your plight will be addressed.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alterity

    Alterity means ‘otherness’, strictly being in the sense of the other of two (Latin alter). It is generally now taken as the philosophical principle of exchanging one’s own perspective for that of the “other.”

  • Nick

    OCP: “Axis-of-the-banality-of-Evil?”

    Nick: LOL!!!

  • http://www.radioopensource.org/user/sidewalker sidewalker

    Nick, I would agree that there is a certain banality (triteness) in the application of the term evil. Also, really atrocious acts that can be labeled “evil” (in its more modern usage) are less commonplace and thus not at all banal. Though if we take “evil” in its older meanings of uppity or even bad, then these mal-intentioned acts proliferate with population growth. Are any of us innocent?

    This said, I think we can talk about the banal appearance of evil (again meaning atrocious acts like massacre and the work of vulture funds). People who carry out these are the opposite of Darth Vader. The self/other loathing can (must?) be hidden by a facade of civility and high culture or at least appear normal.

  • Bobo

    What made Arendt so brilliant was that she was able to bring forth the right ideas at exactly the right time. Keep in mind, she was writing this right on the horizon of the post-modern era. People were no longer willing to accept traditional notions of good and evil. The holocaust was Just Too Much. It didn’t fit into those neat little guidelines anymore. Arendt was able to bring Nietzsche’s moral perspectivism to a whole new level, and unleashed it on a public who were more than ready. But she made rejection of evil a moral stance. She said that not only was evil a made-up thing, it was boring too.

  • Lumière

    made rejection of evil a moral stance?

  • Nick

    sidewalker, you are, believe it or not, making a dent into my thick skull. But it’s only a dent. (Thank you nevertheless!)

    Lumiere, thanks for the link to ‘alterity’. Very cool.

    Bobo, thanks for your 8:15 PM. It helps. Especially this: “People were no longer willing to accept traditional notions of good and evil.” Me either.

    It struck me as potentially useful to generate a summary of the evolution of my thoughts regarding this thread’s topic. By posting them, I’m hoping to garner yet more illuminating feedback. This is in (hopefully) chronological (and logical) order:

    1. Is ‘evil’ a force? If so, it must be supernatural. Caveat: if you believe in supernatural evil, the remainder of this post probably isn’t worth your time. (For the record, I subscribe to no supernaturalisms.)

    2. If they aren’t ‘forces’, are ‘evil’ and ‘good’ two poles of an entirely subjective value system—i.e., of moralistic judgment? (Or something other…?) If so, all participants in a conversation on ‘evil’ must subscribe to the same morality or to closely equivalent moralities. Otherwise…

    3. …it is preferable to break apart the concept of ‘evil’, discern within its constituent parts exactly what we want to address, and stick to that. For example, I have no interest in discussing whether non-heterosexual love or activity is ‘evil’. That sort of conversation is for moralizers—for believers in the supernatural. Ditto for drug use, or for accepting money in exchange for sex, or for any of the other so-called ‘victimless crimes’ whose criminality or notoriety arise largely from religion and its attendant morality (or vice versa!). So…

    4. …can we stick to inhumanity? To actions, attitudes, and policies lacking in “compassion, sympathy, and consideration for others”? (Policies can be state polices, or the policies of organized religions, or of corporations—of any social entity whose attitudes, instructions, and activities impact the lives of others.) Doesn’t this cover the essence of Hannah Arendt’s concerns? If so…

    5. …the next question – the proposition I just can’t wrap my mind around – goes something like this: does most inhumanity result from mere banality? From failure of vigilance? Or from simple, commonplace selfishness, as Arendt says of Eichmann? Maybe it does, and I just can’t see it. If so, Arendt has a lot to teach me, and I will pay damn good attention. (Interestingly, Alon says that the phrase “the banality of evil” doesn’t occur even once in Arendt’s words!) Or…

    6. …does inhumanity result from a deeper depravity than mere ‘banality’? Does it not result from failure of empathy? If so…

    7. …what blocks empathy? Banality? Just that?

    Or something more profound that we don’t want to admit to or examine: our uncritical acceptance of the cultures we are born into (or adopt), and the belief-systems that accompany those cultures?

    If we can discern what stymies or retards empathy, we might well learn to generate methods to ameliorate the retardation.

    8. Lastly, if my points no.s 6 & 7 are accurate (even if only roughly accurate), then what is the impact of our focus on ‘banality’? Is it helpful?

    Or is it instead a diversion that allows us an easy ‘out’ from the hard, emotionally threatening work of examining whether our culturally embedded beliefs are the real agents of empathy blockage?

    From my own childhood and from observing the growth of my ex’s kids from toddlers to preteens, I recall many, many children who instictively identify with others – who empathize naturally with other children, with other peoples, and with animals too. What happens to that natural empathy?

    My own hypothesis is that we are quite simply taught – by our already-enculturated, empathy-blocked elders – that certain “others” aren’t enough ‘like us’ to warrant our empathy or sympathy.

    What agency negates natural empathy enough to allow genocide? Or horrific gang rapes that end in savage murder? I can only assume it to be culture – i.e., beliefs. Beliefs in one’s ‘superiority’, or, perhaps more accurately, in the ‘inferiority’ of one’s victims. For the life of my I can’t imagine any plausible alternatives.

    Can you?

  • Lumière

    the irony….

    ‘Oliver Crangle’ maintains records of people he deems evil, calling and writing their employers to remind them of the evil acts in question and to demand immediate termination. Unsatisfied with the results he receives with anonymous threats, he looks for inspiration to eliminate all evil from the world. He finally devises a plan to shrink every such person down to two feet tall at four o’clock that afternoon. His scheme backfires on him as he himself shrinks to two feet tall when four o’clock finally rolls around.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Four_O'Clock

  • http://www.radioopensource.org/user/sidewalker sidewalker

    Arendt was concerned with how stateless people, those outside of the law, not even criminal, were easy targets of inhumane treatment, especially in totalitarian systems, where political action has been reduced to need-based utility. Without a community in which rights could be protected by thoughtful and creative political agents, their rights, their humanity, their very lives could be made insignificant.

    Maybe, Nick, your hypothesis is closer to Arendt’s than you think. Probably you both agree on the significance of cultural community, the tribes into which we are born, which nurture and protect us and yet can turn us into uncaring and hateful people, banal or heroic.

    Without these communities, as Arendt was aware, our rights are not enforced, and yet as you suggest Nick, we are quite simply taught – by our already-enculturated, empathy-blocked elders – that certain “others” aren’t enough ‘like us’ to warrant our empathy or sympathy. Since for the most part it is risky (though invigorating in good times) to live among strangers, maybe you would agree that it comes down to the “quality” (thoughtful, imaginative, empathetic..) of the community.

  • OliverCranglesParrot

    To Lumière, et al, I now run the house…Nut!

    – Pete

  • OliverCranglesParrot

    I now run the house…Nut!The House-of-Crangle, that is. Things really began to change in our relationship, or household power structure, around 16:00:45 GMT many years ago. Oliver really wasn’t up to the task; peter principle I suppose. But, he’s great at keeping the nuts flowing and chasing the cats out; self-interest and all…parrots can live an awfully long time…

    – Pete

  • Lumière

    Evil is was Oliver’s métier – the parrot was above it all, no?

  • Robin

    Hi guys. Lots of good stuff here. Thanks for being both philosophical and personal (and I’m especially thinking of nother and allison here).

    Thanks for your guest/idea suggestions loki, moseyg and Robert Peel.

    The David Byrne post is really interesting OCP, as is that Borges and Emerson, mynocturama.

    I’m working my way through the Eichmann book and the Young-Bruehl book and starting to make some calls on this. We promise to get it on the air as soon as we’ve had a chance to dig some more.

  • OliverCranglesParrot

    Evil is was Oliver’s métier – the parrot was above it all, no?

    In a manner of speaking perch-wise, tree-wise, or flight-wise, this is correct from the POV of a homo sapien. Though, parrots neither know nor believe in the existence of evil, nor ethical systems in general. Our absolutes, or métier, run a little more towards the, do I dare I say it, the banal! But, that is out-of-bounds here, so I table that for perhaps another show. Informally from the POV of the perch, there is no above or below, as direction applied to non-existence seem to be slightly incoherent nuttiness. Original sin, blame shifting, right-doing/wrong-doing, etc. are a misapplication of time spent unraveling the life force to us lower order critters, in spite of getting caught in the vortex occasionally, such as these poor devils War pigeon Anti-tank dogs.

    We parrots do enjoy twisted rhetoric and crazed banter. My great, great grand pappy hung out on the shoulder of a particularly malevolent pirate until his crew mutinied. Perhaps I’ve inherited a family trait? Anyway, Oliver has become a very chummy perch mate. We really do love the world wide web. What entertainment value for the buck. When I’m feeling charitable, we watch Triumph des Willens or Un spécialiste, portrait d’un criminel moderne; always brings tears to the lil’ guys eyes. When I wanna chuckle, we watch Bonhoeffer. My tastes run more towards The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill and Wild Ducks Flying Backward.

    Now, where’s that Oliver, he’s probably surfing the web again, typing his twisted dementia into all sorts of comment threads, cranking up the spambots, astroturfing the vast ocean of overworked and underpaid, push polling the great unwashed, sending out faxes to unethical school board members, generally raising hell. I really must improve my password credentials. He has a very active propensity to pester Bonobo researchers. I just don’t understand his aversion to the Bonobo. I find their behavior…compelling and invigorating. I’m off for a little recon..

  • Potter

    The “banality of evil” I take to mean the potential for evil that resides in all of us.

    Isn’t empathy also banal? Banality is: common to all, pervasive, ordinary, unremarkable. So everyone is capable of both empathy and selfishness.

    Beyond that comes moral judgement. (Exempt those with antisocial personality disorders.)

    Empathy is good. Selfishness or the absense of empathy is bad or evil.

  • cary

    Evil could be the focus of a weekly program in itself. Everything I say here is built on the premise that evil is something we want to be without. Some postulates to consider: To say a person is evil implies he (will we ever have a cross-gender pronoun?) is unsalvageable. To say he does evil things is to imply the opposite. To say an act is evil is to say it is without redeeming qualities. In

    the Christian story, Judas’ kiss and the crucifiction itself can be looked upon as God’s will. If that is so, then killing God-on-Earth was not an evil act. The miracle was the resurection – the turning of a tragic, heinous act into the foundation of a religion. Of course, considering the number of tragic, heinuos acts that have been committed in the name of just about every religion you can think of, what does that say about religion? Personally, I don’t think you can

    have a hopeful discussion of evil without without evil’s partner in duality, devine.

    It seems that to say that evil is banal, as Arendt says, or that evil is privative, as Emerson says, is to try to understand the concept of evil without the concept of divine. To try to get around this by saying that the opposite of evil is good does not play, because bad and evil are not the same. But here is something: In my younger days I could not believe in God because I could not conceive of the Devil, and felt that in this world of duality, it had to be both or none. I finally found a Way that says that the only (D)evil is the ignorance of God. Now, don’t jump on me yet. This concept does not say that you are evil if you are ignorant of, or don’t believe in, God. Plenty of good work is done in this world by good folk who don’t feel the Spirit. What it does do is dovetail with Arendt and Emerson, providing the closest I think you can get to a secular definition: evil is a lack of something, not a thing in itself. People that hack other people up with machetes and fountain pens are not demonstrating a presence of something, but a lack of something. Unfortunately, none of this makes evil any less formidable to me. I want to provide what these people lack as they hack and hack and hack at our existance. I don’t think we can talk it into them, and I don’t think we can pound it into them. Killing them just seems to make more of them and less of us. I’m working on my way, and I would be happy to share. I invite others to share theirs.

  • GodzillaVsBambi

    We can get rid of a lot of Evil (I give Evil a capitol E not because I exalt it, but because I respect it’s existential path) by deleting or amending those verses in our “Holy” writ. The Talmud, New Testament, and Koran are replete with demonizing passages pointing the accusatory finger at other people and religions while placing them in the roll of cosmic Evil. No one likes to take responsibility for what they do. “God” blames the Tree, Adam blames Eve, and Eve blames the Snake – which reminds me of what Joseph Campbell once said in an interview with Bill Moyers: “Even snakes get a bad rap in the Old Testament”. “I catch you picking up sticks on Saturday and your out” he said. Anyway, one must admit first that the problem exists. One must be able to see ones own reflection in the mirror, first. If one posits for instance that the Talmud has many negative things to say about Christians and then (I’m Jewish by the way – for those of you who must know, in order to screw your head on correctly while listening) I show anti-Christian passages to other Jews, and they say that “I am taking it out of context”, then this is a dead giveaway that this particular person is not ready to admit that he/she is a religious racist. This personality type points the finger at others while trying to convince you of his own ethnocentric brand of propaganda. This is the psychological component to the question about the origins Evil. (The ‘thick’ ‘skin’ referred to in the Talmud must be a reference to Southern Europe and the Mediterranean; certainly not to those countries of Nordic origin). Or if I show John 8:44: “Ye are of your father the devil” to a Christian and show the ‘Jewish context’ that the verse refers to, and then he/she says “You are taking it out of context” – then it dawns on one that he is in the company of a mercenary of “God” who looks to his creator for the sanctification of murder. People love to point the finger, but ‘tis thine own reflection which one must confront. Otherwise one has no right to ask for peace.

    There are genetic components to Evil. There are cultural components to Evil. There are political components to Evil. These components overlap and occasionally switch places. Now, what was the question? Oh yes, Evil. Where does it come from? It comes from our art, literature, science, but above all it comes from how we nurture our thoughts from when we are very young. Eureka … there arises another source of where Evil comes from: healthy red-blooded American adults. Adults feed their children lies from when they are born. When these kids get older they put crosses on and ask questions like “Where does Evil come from”? Excuse me, I have to puke now.

    Daniel: BramGolah@gmail.com

  • OliverCranglesParrot

    Three films from Errol Morris that seem to me to approach this subject:

    The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara

    Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr.

    The Thin Blue Line

    Conversation with Mr. Morris via ROS Interrotron:

    Passion: Truth, with Errol Morris

  • http://www.radioopensource.org/user/sidewalker sidewalker

    There is a good (though closed) discussion of Heart of Darkness on this weeks BBS programme In Our Time. One of the guest in discussing Kurtz suggests this man who could easily have been a populist politician or tabloid journalist is a fraud and banal, and that HofD makes someone like Kurtz memorable. Though another guest says its important to remember that Kurtz has ideals, but that the desire to do good has inside it a will to power.

    William Walker with his belief in manifest destiny is a real-life example of the Kurtz figure. Kurtz and Walker believed that it was their birthright to colonize, possess and dispossess “lesser” races and they were the wiling front men for early globalization.

    The methods and the rhetoric are different in these post-colonial times, but it seems to me a great deal hasn’t changed.

  • GodzillaVsBambi

    sidewalker Says: a will to power

    Ist dieses die Übermensch weltanschauung von Friedrich Nietzsche? Interesting phraseology for a board like this. Don’t ya think?

  • GodzillaVsBambi

    cary Says: In the Christian story, Judas’ kiss and the crucifixion itself can be looked upon as God’s will. If that is so, then killing God-on-Earth was not an evil act.

    Positively scandalous, self serving and immoral. Spoken like a true mercenary. Jesus was put to death because he was a political threat to Rome. This reality has been conveniently omitted from the New Testament. Crucifixion is an ancient form of torture used by the Romans to punish “rabble rousers”. Jesus was one such individual whose pacifist movement posed a threat to Roman power in Judaea. He was then arrested and charged with ‘sedition’, a Latin term for ‘political insurrection’. As for Judas? He defended the monotheistic tradition by turning in someone who claimed to be “God” in human form, i.e. someone practicing idolatry. “He was numbered with the transgressors”, Mark 15:28. Thus, the Roman authorities ‘and’ the Jews both stood something to gain by his removal. I could tell you more but then I’d have to kill you. Anyway, this is your history in a nutshell.

  • http://www.radioopensource.org/user/sidewalker sidewalker

    GodzillaVsBambi, that’s a good question. I am not sure if the Conrad scholar had Nietzsche’ Ãœbermensch and Wille zur Macht in mind. In the book, Marlow describes how Kurtz writes, “By the simple exercise of our will we can exert a power for good practically unbounded.” And he also scribbles “Exterminate all the brutes!”

    I suspect he was speaking in reference to these lines and the narrow meaning of dominance. The will to power in social darwinism rather than that of Nietzsche’s concept (lots of interpretations here, of course). Have a listen if you find time. I’d like to hear your take?

  • http://www.rockisland.com/~pmcrae/index.html peggysue

    I tend to see “evil” in more relative terms as in jazzman’s initial contribution yet I am a great appreciator of Martin Luther King Jr. an absolutist not a relativist. King refers to evil as a tension at the heart of the universe, one that we all must wrestle with internally. He refers to our intentions and suggests that with God and good intentions we may find grace. He also preached that we should love our enemies but at the same time voiced an appreciatioin for the fact that murder & lyncing were against the law.

  • GodzillaVsBambi

    sidewalker Says: lots of interpretations here, of course

    Interesting how you all run to each others aid when someone taps into the coded anti-Jewish vernacular that until now has remained hidden, has a dual meaning, or serves as a form of equivocation; especially when the person addressed is ‘not’ the person responding. I hesitate to refer to it as a “literary devise” because it is so crude and primitive. Reminds me of South Park or Married With Children.

    I love having the freedom to be able to speak as I wish. My thoughts are not controlled by some agenda or group I choose to impress. I feign using the Devil’s weapons to draw him out into the open for all to see, and sue! I heard that the most attractive children live in Boston. Is this correct? Can anyone confirm this for me? God bless America for exposing the Demonic Pimps and Whores of the progeny of Rome.

    You are quite correct Sidewalker: there are many interpretations here. Have a nice day.

  • katemcshane

    From the start, Arendt’s tone of voice in describing Eichmann told me about his banality — a brilliant, original thinker observing a stupid, vacuous man. Even when I wasn’t able to follow every idea, I appreciated the points she noted, her sarcasm. I imagined her making faces to herself as she listened to him, looking a little like the photograph on THE PORTABLE HANNAH ARENDT, a woman who did not suffer fools gladly. I could see Eichmann rehearsing the lies as he wrote his memoirs, turning over phrases in his mouth as he tested them for sound bite quality, unable to produce a single live sentence, but wholly unaware of this. Maybe to him it all shimmered.

    I’ve known people who believed themselves responsible for imparting wisdom to the rest of the world, who hadn’t had an idea in their lives. They went on at length in a kind of pseudo-intellectual, abstract way, taking up all the space, so impressed with themselves. When they made observations about the rest of us, it seemed that something sucked the light out of the room. We’ve all seen people like this marketed successfully as political leaders, or celebrities, widely imitated. On television, there are so many people who feel very little but they have learned how to imitate feelings, and there are all those people watching them who are learning to imitate people who imitate feelings. We’ve all been talked at by people whose entire knowledge of the world is composed of lies that have gone into the production of sound bites and made-up media statistics. Often, it seems a frightening number of people no longer speak in their own voices, their sentences overtaken with cliches, other people’s marketing phrases. Sometimes I feel like I’m walking around in a world I saw in some old sci-fi movie. I guess what I’m saying is — So, this is banality. So much is dead.

    Thanks to mynocturama for the Emerson quote — “All evil is so much death or nonentity.”

    Most of my life, I’ve used the word “sick” to describe what was horrifying to me, instead of a moral term like “evil”. About 10 years ago in a work situation, I witnessed some people who created a dynamic so destructive, so lacking in any real connection with other human beings, that I still cannot think about them without feeling afraid. After seeing how they lied about people solely for the purpose of destroying them, wholly out of their own narcissism — how other people, who had seemed to be more decent, went along with them and had no feelings about the harm being done even when it was obvious — and how they made themselves look superior, even appear to be victimized by their own victims, I began to think about evil. Cary wrote, “To say a person is evil implies he is unsalvageable. To say he does evil things, is to imply the opposite. To say an act is evil is to say it is without redeeming qualities.” I would feel silly saying that the people at that job were evil, but I could not say that they were salvageable. I once read an article about narcissistic personalities. The author said that the degree to which someone like this is capable of getting better correlates with the degree of honesty they are capable of in their lives. As a rule, very little, if any, honesty in these lives.

    Empathy is not banal. It is not common to all, pervasive, ordinary or unremarkable. If you are capable of empathy, you may assume that most people are capable of it, that what you see and feel is obvious. It’s not. Someone who is capable of empathy is at the upper end of psychological health. Empathy may even be relatively rare. Certainly, it is unusual. I didn’t know that until I was responsible for teaching people (well-educated people) to talk to people in pain.

    Cary also wrote, “Evil is a lack of something, not a thing in itself,” and “Plenty of good work is done in this world by folk who don’t feel the Spirit.” I know someone who has dedicated her life to peace and has been responsible for more good than anyone else I’ve known. She doesn’t believe in God. In an interview she once said, “Sometimes I’m opposed to a word, when I’m not necessarily opposed to the thing itself.” She was talking about grace. When Reagan and Bush got in and we began to see so many homeless people on the street, there were a lot of discussions about whether we should give money to them. The prevailing views were banal: “No, they’ll only spend it on alcohol, No, you should give it to a charitable organization, No, they’re just scamming us.” A friend who was looking at race/class biases in psychological testing told me that the correct answer to this question was, “No, you should give it to a charitable organization,” but the poor kids usually got it wrong. My greatest fear then and for over a decade later was that I could become a bag lady. A little over a year ago, I was talking to an old man who sometimes begs on the street when he can’t get through the month. I told him that I had become homeless that day. He took $2 out of his wallet and told me to buy myself a hamburger. The people who were decent to me during that time tended to be poor people. They treated me with warmth and usually made a point of telling me that I shouldn’t feel ashamed that this happened to me. Of course, I did feel ashamed. I live in the United States.

    I would say that a capacity for empathy, a capacity to understand the pain that will result from something you say or do, from some appalling policy, a capacity to feel the pain and a willingness to feel it, are absolutely essential. And after that, there has to be courage, which is much harder: to refuse to obey authority, to go up against not only bosses but coworkers, neighbors, ordinary people who have swallowed a lie and believe they are superior to those who cannot swallow it.

    This thread is wonderful. The people who have written these comments are exceptional. I wish I knew at least some of you — in person in my real life — because these are some of the best conversations I’ve come across in a long time. Thanks.

  • GodzillaVsBambi

    sidewalker Says: lots of interpretations here, of course

    Interesting how you all run to each others aid when someone taps into the coded anti-Jewish vernacular that until now has remained hidden, has a dual meaning, or serves as a form of equivocation; especially when the person addressed is ‘not’ the person responding. I hesitate to refer to it as a “literary devise” because it is so crude and primitive. Reminds me of South Park or Married With Children.

    I love having the freedom to be able to speak as I wish. My thoughts are not controlled by some agenda or group I choose to impress. I feign using the Devil’s weapons to draw him out into the open for all to see, and sue! I heard that the most attractive children live in Boston. Is this correct? Can anyone confirm this for me? God bless America for exposing the Demonic Pimps and Whores of the progeny of Rome.

    You are quite correct Sidewalker: there are many interpretations here. Have a nice day.

  • GodzillaVsBambi

    Oops! Sorry guys. I reinserted the same post by accident.

  • GodzillaVsBambi

    I meant to say that Evil also thrives when we encourage our children not to question authority. When we sweep things under the rug, in a state of denial, while refusing to wrestle with our conscience to suss out the difference between right and wrong. Sometimes, unfortunately, this means that police officers are challenged with the prospect of arresting members of their own family, etc.

  • GodzillaVsBambi

    What does it mean when a police officer plays both ends of the law? What does it mean when a police officer refuses to arrest his nephew or cousin for criminal activity; for fear of being resented or shunned by his community?

    It means that Evil is aided and abetted. It means that drugs are allowed into the community through a narrowly defined rout. [I’ll explain later]. It means that (hey wait a minute … most of our ports are under a federal eye these days. This means that the Devil has been severely limited in using the ocean – Leviathan, ‘ocean’, birth place of Evil; soon he won’t have access to mollusks, then what will he eat – human flesh? Oh, he already does that, I forgot. If you only knew what went on in those meat grinders). Evolution itself is killing him. And I know of no greater pleasure than to watch it unfold.

    This is a discussion on the origins of Evil, is it not? OK, so, what are ya’ll waiting for?!

    Daniel: BramGolah@gmail.com

  • Lumière

    ///On television, there are so many people who feel very little but they have learned how to imitate feelings, and there are all those people watching them who are learning to imitate people who imitate feelings.\\\

    Quite the judgment – how do you know they don’t have feelings?

    If you want to say their feelings are contrived to a commercial purpose, that their feelings are expressed to place themselves at the center of a commercial purpose – ok

    But to say they don’t have feelings is incredibly coarse.

    Some of these people are articulate at expressing their feelings – that is why they are on TV. Some do have insight into human emotions that are worth considering – Joseph Campbell. Bill Moyer’s, etc.

    I laude the kids that go on these talent shows –AI, Dance, Supernova.

    They struggle, empathize with each other, and bare all. Sometimes you see a spirit that you don’t see everyday nor could you see everyday.

    There was the woman that Simon Cowell called fat – she wasn’t attractive by any imaginable measure. She told Simon Cowell she loved him and she forgave him, This was not contrived, it came from her heart and it was incredible powerful. She had the kind of grace and inner beauty that trumped all her outward appearances – a lesson to be learned right there on the FOX network!!

    That is the potential of competition: to bring out the character of these so called ‘ordinary people’.

    Empathy is one emotion – there are others worth considering.

    I leave you with a Blake: To generalize is to sound like a fool.

    Ps. A couple of Blake’s for GodzillaVsBambi

    A truth that’s told with bad intent beats all the lies you can invent.

    Always be ready to speak your mind, and a base man will avoid you.

  • GodzillaVsBambi

    Lumière Says: a base man will avoid you

    Is that second base or third base. And if he avoids me, is that a “good thing”. I wouldn’t want him to avoid me completely now. There is a certain intimacy – even an appreciation in that incondite ‘thing’, which, more often than not, provides sustenance. LOL, who am I to argue over found money?

  • Lumière

    ROTFLMAO !

    Are you Mamet or just promoting his book?

  • Lumière

    Empathy could be kitsch

    Kitsch uses emotions to grab your attention

    There is good kitsch and bad kitsch

    Bad Kitsch grabs your attention for the purpose if grabbing your attention. Much of the ’art’ coming out of NYC is bad kitsch – the piece The Ecstasy of Influence by Lethem was bad kitsch. ( Yeah, I am still suffering after-burn from that one – don’t ask! )

    Good Kitsch grabs your attention and takes you somewhere. If you want to emotionally express your plight in NO (ROS -Katrina and the Insurance Tsunami) with the purpose to get Congress to act, that is good kitsch.

  • Bobo

    GodzillaVsBambi: “This is a discussion on the origins of Evil, is it not?”

    Apologies, but I would say Not. I am very glad that Nietzsche has made his way on to this board, although not quite in the way I would have hoped. Arendt conceived of evil in a very similar way as Nietzsche, and is seen by many to be one of Nietzsche’s philosophical progeny. For an appropriate discussion ‘on the origins of Evil’ I suggest that you look at “Genealogy of Morals Essay 1: Good and Evil, Good and Bad” http://www.mala.bc.ca/~johnstoi/Nietzsche/genealogy1.htm

    I believe that this discussion is geared more towards the ‘nature’ of evil than the ‘origin’ of evil. Claiming that evil is banal removes its power, yet also makes it harder to recognize. It blurs the lines, but I believe that it also helps us to understand the world we see today. Even the most horrible things in our world do not have Satan’s hand behind them. Evil acts are not committed by ‘Evil-doers’ but rather by ordinary people who see them as ordinary acts. This, I believe, is the only evil which exists anymore.

  • Lumière

    ///Claiming that evil is banal removes its power, yet also makes it harder to recognize.\\\\

    This is where I differ – my opinion is reflected in the deconstructionist thoughts of Derrida and Foucault

    By making evil the possession of others – it is outside of the self – you release yourself from responsibility – “I was only taking orders, my actions can’t be evil.”

    To remove the overwhelming power of evil, is to place it in the individual, where it originates.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jacques_Derrida

    ‘Deconstruction’ then argues that such oppositions are culturally and historically defined, even reliant upon one another, and seeks to demonstrate that they are not as clear-cut or as stable as it would at first seem. On the basis that the two opposed concepts are fluid, this ambiguity is used to show that the text’s meaning is fluid as well.

    The movie Downfall – it is all there…

  • GodzillaVsBambi

    Bobo Says: I believe that this discussion is geared more towards the ‘nature’ of evil than the ‘origin’ of evil

    You’re right ‘nature’ is more accurate here, my bad.

  • Lumière

    Mamet would never acquiesce.

  • GodzillaVsBambi

    I had heard of Mamet somewhere, but knew nothing about him or his books. I looked him up today and his book The Wicked Son looks like a good one. I can see why some may think I am him. His other book Bambi Vs Godzilla is one strange coincidence. I don’t know his style, although on Amazon they said, about his style, “caustic”. I can relate to that. But I swear I am not him. Thank you for the complement.

  • GodzillaVsBambi

    Now I remember where I got the idea about ‘origins’ (of Evil) vs. ‘nature’ of Evil. If you go to the top of this board it says:

    “So for her centennial we’re reminding ourselves why her ideas still matter. Help us out by taking a stab at some of her initial questions: Where does evil come from? Why do people commit evil? Do you buy Arendt’s thesis, or do you think there is something else (be it religious or biological) that leads to evil and distinguishes good from evil people”?

    I guess I made no distinction between the question: “Where does evil come from”, and ‘origins’. I guess I wasn’t wrong after all. But overall I agree. This topic is more about the ‘nature’ of Evil.

  • Lumière

    ///..oppositions are culturally and historically defined, even reliant upon one another,…\\\

    ///….place it in the individual, where it originates.\\\

  • Lumière

    ///…He is very sanguine – doesn’t blame Hitler – never once called Hitler evil – clued me in on many misconceptions about the war. His view is that of a historian – events pushed the inevitable on his people. Btw, he is the only survivor of his extended family. ////

  • manning120

    Bobo and GVB say the discussion in the thread has concerned more the nature of evil than its source. The distinction thus raised, between the nature of evil and its source, is important.

    I suggested long ago that evil can be viewed as extreme wrongfulness, which I think implies pretty clearly that its source is erroneous thinking.

    As for the nature of evil, it has two modes: an attribute of a being that performs or sponsors evil (e.g., an evil person); and an egregious result of intentional acts that cause, allow, or make possible the result, whether or not the intention to do evil motivated the acts. Banality comes into play with the latter rather than the former. For example, the Nazis who herded people into gas chambers, or shot them, performed evil acts. These persons can also be described as evil. Banality has no place there. But the persons who scheduled the trains, drove the trains, filled them with fuel, built the gas chambers, purchased the raw materials for the implements of killing, or who merely remained silent against the rise of Hitler – these are people we wouldn’t ordinarily describe as evil, and their acts contributing to the evil consequences were banal. Yet the holocaust couldn’t have occurred without such banality. The lesson for today is obvious.

  • katemcshane

    Lumiere — I’m sorry that what I wrote offended you. I didn’t make myself clear. I was referring to bad acting in soap operas etc. I’m fairly sure that if Bill Moyers read what I wrote, or Joseph Campbell, if he were alive, they wouldn’t think I was referring to them.

    As for the shows you’ve described, I don’t know anything about them. I didn’t say that noone on television has feelings. I said, “…there are so many people who feel very little…” I would not have generalized to everyone. As for how it is possible to tell whether someone has feelings, there is a difference between the way a person appears when he is hiding his feelings, let’s say, and when the feelings aren’t there. Being with someone who has a depth of feeling (in person or on a stage — even on TV) is moving, while being with a vacuous person is boring.

    When I write comments on this site, I expect that people will disagree. I hope, generally, that I won’t offend anyone or say something that will hurt someone. But I do not expect that someone will respond by calling me “incredibly coarse” or implying that I am a fool. I am offended by what you wrote.

  • Potter

    Nick said, and I agree that with evil there is a failure of empathy. Empathy seems necessary for survival and therefore must be ordinary or not extraordinary though it varies in each person and can be used selectively and destructively. Empathy does not necessarily lead to the good. Empathy can be schadenfreude or sadism ( destructive and ultimately self-destructive).

    Regarding Elon’s “failure to think” quote from above about evil: It defies thought for as soon as thought tries to engage itself with evil and examine the premises and principles from which it originates, it is frustrated because it finds nothing there. Well said. For me this translates to: not life giving, not life promoting or affirming ( which mean to me spiritual), not expansive embracing ( ie- not love).

    What made Hitler so extraordinary was his ability to combine his overriding evil, (through the force of hate, the numbing and dissociation brought by hate) with the accumulation and force of power.

    By empathy being banal I mean- the presence of empathy in humans from early on and potential for development as being necessary for well-being, survival.

  • nother

    That’s funny Lumiere, I read Katemcshane’s post with gusto. Then I read your response and you find her opinion “incredibly” rude, crude, or vulgar (the definitions of “coarse.”) It’s totally fine that you had a different response than I, but I would like to refer you to the ROS maxim, attack the idea – not the person.

    You bring a lot of insight to ROS and I appreciate it. I only ask that you focus less on judging other people and more on bringing new ideas. Thanks.

  • Lumière

    katemcshane / nother

    If you need an apology from me, you have it – I apologize.

  • Tom B

    I admittedly haven’t read all 136 postings above, but I don’t think anyone has given the definition of ‘banal’ yet…. Here are some: (1) Drearily commonplace and often predictable. [French, from Old French, shared by tenants in a feudal jurisdiction, from ban, summons to military service, of Germanic origin] (2) Commonplace; trivial; hackneyed; trite; (3) lacking originality, freshness, or novelty. — Given the seeming omnipresence of evil, it would fit definition #1. It is commonplace and is often predictable (it is neither rare nor is its course easily charted). As to whether evil is trivial, it seems that it all depends on how close one is: Americans find 9-11 is NOT trivial, but they certainly didn’t seem to find the slaughter of 1,000,000 in the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-1988 very disturbing. (Does yawning and turning the channel of one’s TV mean one consider an event trivial?) And… doesn’t much evil-doing reveal the same lack of originality and imagination as other aspects of life? Except in the area of torture, much evil involving death is very pedestrian. Axes, rifles, pistols, and clubs are very unoriginal and unimaginative means of genocide, showing little imagination — but their use is just as horrible and evil as is throwing folks from aircraft, drilling holes in their skulls while they are still alive, or disembowling their children in their sight…. Evil CAN be banal and yet disgustingly horrific.

  • manning120

    Please note this addendum to my 2/18/07 post: On further reflection, I should made it clear that the nature of “evil” may be manifest in at least four distinct existential modes: the two mentioned explicitly, but also intentions and acts aimed at producing evil results. Even if evil results aren’t accomplished, the intent and acts toward that end may be characterized as evil. I think the term “banality of evil” doesn’t logically apply to any of the four modes of evil, but rather could refer to the everyday work of factotums in the Nazi holocaust machine.

    In response to Tom B, others have said what I believe: evil itself is never properly described as banal. The term usually describes artistic or other communicative efforts that fail to grab or hold our attention, or that annoy us because of being repetitious or predictable. Using “banal” in relation to evil seems figurative.

  • GodzillaVsBambi

    manning120 Says: Using “banal” in relation to evil seems figurative.

    True. Funny how allegory and literalism are often inverted for opportunistic purposes.

  • babu

    Here’s a minority position:

    I believe that good and evil are perfectly balanced and have always been so. if they were not, one or the other would have long since disappeared from existence and we would not know it anymore.

    The two words good and evil and all the ideas associated are a sort of semiotics for the building up/breaking down cycles which prefigure everything. We are sparked with life and we are born; we grow old and then return to the soil. Nature needs us in the soil equally as much as it needs us alive. Nasture is indifferent to the means by which we become horizontal, die, and decompose to feed another cycle.

    Culturally we are each, and in fact each of our actions, on a continuum of gray; a few very white a few black. We are each perfectly balanced by another’s opposition, somewhere, somehow.

  • GodzillaVsBambi

    babu Says: I believe that good and evil are perfectly balanced and have always been so. If they were not, one or the other would have long since disappeared from existence and we would not know it anymore.

    If this were the case progress would be impossible. As when two huge slabs of rock beneath the surface of the earth apply enormous pressure against the other resulting in an earthquake. The final result is a ‘new situation’, below and on the surface. Some Natural Law theorists and rationalists hold similar views of the “perfectly balanced” idea between good and evil, but it just doesn’t make progress. It exists, but it is useless by itself. The two mutually dependant polarities need to commingle with one another – i.e. to contract – in order to resolve the inherent qualities put forth by the primordial soup.

  • babu

    Cont’d:

    I believe that the ‘intention’ to cause harm is but a fraction of the very plastic, survival-based human personality; genetically it expresses itself as a constant percentage in each generation and it is balanced by the intention to cause pleasure, or we would have disappeared. EX. we are hard-wired to enjoy some level of S & M, probably because sex and birth naturally involve pain. Some create other pleasure such as art, parenting, etc.

    In practical terms we are all evil to some extent about half of the time we are alive; each action is part of a spectrum. All you have to do is walk out onto the rocks of an exposed beach and your feet have crushed every fragile lichen colony they step on. If you know that ahead of time but go anyway to see the view, you’re evil with respect to fungi which host algae within themselves thus enabling photosynthesis at the most inhospitable environments on earth.

    While we are all both good and evil, each of us has a predominant tone. I think of it as our role in the human ecosystem. The darks are just closer to the topsoil cycle.

  • babu

    GVB: I don’t believe in progress as an a priori positive anymore. In fact, i’m starting to think of it quite darkly human-centric. With cost and suffering to us we are only beginning to imagine.

  • GodzillaVsBambi

    babu,

    Something along these lines, yes. But one must be careful not to cast others in the roll of evil. How many of us would admit that we ourselves are on occasion, evil? I admit it about myself, but I’m just one person. Maybe we shouldn’t use the terms good and evil. Perhaps we should try a more generic sounding term like tug and tow. The term good and evil is too anthropomorphic, I think. It gets people in all kinds of trouble.

  • GodzillaVsBambi

    babu Says: GVB: I don’t believe in progress as an a priori positive anymore. In fact, i’m starting to think of it quite darkly human-centric. With cost and suffering to us we are only beginning to imagine.

    You may actually be correct here, I don’t know. I will pose it to you this way. I one does not have the proverbial roof over ones head i.e. a “higher power” (Jesus or Moses doesn’t matter witch, or both) then what is to distinguish us from the Russians who tape babies mouths shut in hospitals so they don’t have to hear them scream? What is to distinguish us from the Chinese who literally kill female babies ‘AFTER’ they are born because they … want a male son? What is to distinguish us from Pakistani’s who set women on fire because they were thought of as cheating? What is to distinguish us from those who sell children into sexual slavery? That’s why Jesus is just fine by me! That’s why, in my opinion, whether God exists or not is not the point. We PRETEND he exists so we don’t get like the animals I just mentioned. Is that worth fighting for? You damn right it is.

  • http://www.circles-salon.com allison

    I don’t think that it is the idea of Jesus that keeps us from committing the acts you mention, GVB. It’s the concept of “all men are creaed equal”. Especially, once we understood “men” to be a generic placeholder for both genders and all races and creeds. This is the land that was built on slavery, let’s not forget. Plenty of Christians were brutal masters. The dignity that we be believe is rightfully inherent in each of us and the mutual respect we believe we all deserve is what keeps us from anything quite as horrific as the acts you mention above. Of course, we simply seem to have exported our dark behaviors. Not to mention that plenty of ugly stuff goes on right here. Just look at New Orleans. Count the number of women who have been raped in their lives. Children who have been abused. Plenty of things to work on at home. I don’t like the red herring of trying to point out that someone else is worse, so we have right to ‘fight” for ourselves, which seems to mean the right to invade a nation that did nothing to us.

  • Potter

    From an article I saved ( not online) from Haaretz, October 2000 “How could They Kill Small Children?”, about a BBC series “The Nazi’s: A Warning from History” Ian Kershaw, an academic advisor to the show, a British historian interested in the operation of bureaucratic mechanisms of the Nazi regime, set out to examine how the party came into being and it’s operation: the frame of mind, atmosphere, human factors that were the driving forces in Nazi Germany.

    The writer director Lawrence Rees had plenty of footage b/c it emerged that the Nazi’s documented even the most gruesome of their deeds.

    He says “the biggest single insight” that he got from his interviews of Nazi survivors was from one killer of whom he asked how is it possible to shoot young children, how is it possible? After pushing and pushing, the killer, Petras Zelionka,f inally said “it’s a kind of curiousity”. Rees thought a lot about that and noted that the majority of the crimes were committed by those between the ages of 18 and 25, no accident. “I think that particularly men, especially at that age, are very much sensation-seekers, they are looking for different types of sensation” “It’s like a kind of pornography.”

    Canadian Prof. Robert Gaitly maintains that 80% of the information that the Gestapo collected about the enemies of the regime came from German citizens. They provided the information voluntarily, even though most of them were not members of the Nazi Party

    Rees believes they played a crucial roles in the success of the Nazis.

    A lot of people did not like what was happening to the Jews but they were happy about a lot of other things Nazi-ism brought including the resurgence of nationalism, pride.

    Rees again: “What is terrifying is that I do not think this is a uniquely German thing, I think it is human; I think that we are social animals and people adapt to the group they are in and to that group’s norms. In Germany, if you are not in one of those high risk groups, if you were not a socialist, if you were not a Jew, if you were not gay- you were relatively safe. The Nazi’s targeted only those speicifc groups and the terrifying thing about human nature is that most people- if they are not in those groups- just turn the other way”

  • Potter

    Contrary to Daniel Goldenhagen (“Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust”) who thought that there was something “uniquely exterminatory” about the Germans, Rees (see my post above) says “I interviewed Jews who fled in the 20’s from Poland and Russia to Germany to escape persecution. The notion that there was something unique to Germany in this, I think actually downplays the problem. I think it’s unique to human beings, I mean the desire to stereotype and persecute a group, who are somehow other.”

    “[Hitler] had a passionate vision, and what he was averse to in many cases, certainly in the running of the state, was detail. But without his passionate hatred of the Jews, I don’t see how the Holocaust could have occurred in the way that it did. What we seek to do [in the series] is not to show that Hitler isn’t to blame, but rather to show that not only Hitler is to blame.”

    “Your boss can still be incredibly powerful and influential even if her doesn’t get up until midday, that that’s because he gives you such clear vision of what is needed, that you then work out the detail yourself. That’s an insight that Ian Kershaw very much developed and I completely support. It’s not at all that Hitler’s not involved. In fact, it’s more terrifying because the others are trying to guess what he would like, knowing his vision and then creating the details”

    “These, as the series shows, were often translated into acts that were more extreme and more murderous than had been planned.”

    From the end of the article:” This story tells us of a deep dark side of what it is to be human. You can’t explain this historical episode as just a load of madmen hypnotizing a nation. There is something in this story that tells us about the dangers of throwing away democracy, the power of the group and victimization”

    Rees: “Today I believe that it is possible for this to happen again at any minute. That is why I called the series a warning from history”

    [this article quoted was from October 2000, Haaretz, “How Could They Kill Small Children?” Saguy Green.- I don’t think we had the BBC series here in the states, but it was shown abroad including Israel. For me, these ideas stem from Hannah Arendt's work.]

  • nother

    In my humble estimation, evil sprouts from power abused, which sprouts from a desperate reach for control, which sprouts from the a deep realization of our ultimate lack of control.

    I recall this fascinating idea of “control” and lack thereof, coming on the “Fear Factor” thread last year.

  • Lumière

    Potter – thnx for posting

  • Tom B

    Those wanting to understand evil need go no further than today’s CNN banner headline: Teen ‘sport killings’ of homeless on the rise… (Click this link before this very detailed and graphic ‘story’ disappears — http://www.cnn.com/2007/US/02/19/homeless.attacks/index.html . More interesting still is the fact that we read these stories… What does that tell us about ourselves?

  • jazzman

    OCP says: My great, great grand pappy hung out on the shoulder of a particularly malevolent pirate until his crew mutinied…My tastes run more towards “Wild Ducks Flying Backward”

    Squawrrrk: “Pieces of eight” Arrrrrgh, me tastes runs to the likes o’ Tom Robbins, ‘swell bucko (he’s among my top 5 fiction writers along with T.C. Boyle.)

    The reason the mental construct that is labeled Evil may be termed banal is that it fits all 3 of the definitions provided by Tom B above. (I like to pronounce it to rhyme with anal) as it sounds like an adjectival form of the word bane (a cause of death, destruction or ruin) and for the subject at hand appropriate.)

    Most people believe it actually has a reality independent of their own beliefs and that it is pervasive in the world and therefore it is commonplace, predictable, hackneyed, and trivial. It lacks originality as the concept has been with us as long as there have been disagreements over others’ behavior (although Genesis’ concept of original sin [whereby the knowledge of evil – nudity first made an appearance] might be adduced as contravention and that it is original by definition), and it certainly isn’t novel (the concept that evil is merely someone’s perception and only exists as such is novel in general, although predictable to those familiar with my position.

    I would ask those here who do believe that there is objective good and evil extant (i.e., independent of opinion) on what foundation is that belief based?

    Peace

  • Nick

    Jazzman eloquently articualted exactly what I’ve been wanting to ask of the many users of the word ‘evil’ on this thread:

    “those here who do believe that there is objective good and evil extant (i.e., independent of opinion): on what foundation is that belief based?”

    I’m darn near dyin’ to read the answers.

    Thanks, in advance.

  • Igor

    Sorry, guys, but the most relevant thought came from Anna, a newcomer:

    “The true banality of evil is that we are all capable of it.”

    I would add that not only capable, but that we do partake in evil, all the time, either by action or inaction…

    How come nobody else admitted his own banal evil-ness? It seems that in American context the real banality of evil is that it is always other that is evil, and even if it’s me, it’s the other me, in different time and place, while my real me is here and now, and it’s good. So much pride and vanity…

    On the other hand, Anna, we are also capable of good, of love and sacrifice, at least some of us, sometimes…

  • Lumière

    ///….on what foundation is that belief based?”\\\

    Good is based on an objective belief in God.

    (God must be uncaring and weak – since he lets evil exist, he cannot be good – good and evil are opinions…lol)

    I’ve got a new definition for banal:

    sensation-seeking: looking for different types of sensation

    Remember the Brooklyn Museum’s SENSATION Exhibit?

    Banal…..yet people saw all kinds of evil going on there.

  • Potter

    Jazzman: I would ask those here who do believe that there is objective good and evil extant (i.e., independent of opinion) on what foundation is that belief based?

    There you go again Jazzman. But thanks for the question-

    I should not answer your question since I don’t believe there is objective good or evil but in a nutshell, I know it when I see it, Igor, even in myself. I have been using that word “evil” more loudly in the last several years than I ever have, evil being a concept of religion that I was not brought up with but which has entered the general lexicon. I ask myself the how do we know evil? Answer: From the gut lately.

    My use of the word “evil” is subjective justified by ( I hope) a growing perspective of what does not serve the good (also subjective). Like plants that grow to light, I believe most people move towards the good or wish or believe that they are doing so, to feel more connected (with God or the universe or nature or themselves or humanity). Good and bad are ultimately religious or philosophical/metaphysical concepts but we use them in everyday language locally and contextually and subjectively.

    We can reach for more objectivity through a deeper personal understanding, further broadened through time, and through a body of thought that is built on consensus ( there I go again) and authority based on wisdom ( another subjective concept), but ultimately it’s still subjective, subjective to humanity and being a part of humanity.

    Why would someone write an article entitled “ How could they kill small children?” if there is not some shared idea of good and evil?

  • mynocturama

    Nick, keep testing those dictionary definitions – it stirs discussion well. Others (sidewalker, Lumiere) have amply and aptly addressed the meaning of “banality” with reference to “evil.” Let me just add that I don’t think Arendt is offering an absolute or necessary definition of “evil.” Her formulation, rather, ought to be understood as a warning about the more insidious forms of “evil,” which slip all too easily into the forms and routines of everyday life, and are taken for granted, unquestioned, as such.

  • Igor

    About definitions… Before asking for definitions (universal, objective, absolute, necessary, etc., add your favourite buzzword here) one should first ask himself if this is a valid question to ask.

    Like, can _anybody_ give a definition of water? Yet we all know what it is…

    It’s really sad to see that all you can do is to juggle words.

  • mynocturama

    Potter has nicely given voice to some of the views I have in mind. I’ll attempt to stumble and fumble a little further.

    I’ll set aside the term “evil” for the time being, simply because it tends to be a conversation stopper. Say some horrible event happens, perpetrated by some nasty person or persons. Labeling these people as “evil” gives the illusion of having already reached an endpoint of explanation. They are, simply put, “evil,” and let’s just leave it at that, nothing more needing saying. Perhaps as a hangover of its religious origins, those overtones still hanging around it, the term “evil” does seem to have the force of finality, as an ultimate, absolute, final say. As though it (still) referred to some unquestioned, unquestionable metaphysical or theological system, and, having been so referred, the discussion need not, cannot, advance any further.

    It seems to me we ought to be able to both decry and describe something, without sacrificing understanding for the sake of some extreme endpoint of moral outrage. So I’ll avoid “evil” in particular for this post, and speak more generally of our sense of morality or ethics (setting aside also the issue of distinguishing these terms, which could very well take a whole other post/thread).

    Actually I’ll have to finish later. To be continued, as they say…

  • Nick

    Igor, you challenge us to ask ourselves whether discussion of definitions is valid.

    My answer: on big concepts like this one – a concept I suspect most folks feel they understand intimately – I say it’s more than valid. Especially because we think we understand it intimately.

    Here’s why:

    This is the opening of Wikipedia’s entry on ‘Evil’ (as it read at 12:35 PM, PST, Feb. 21st.), with my own added italicized commentary:

    (quote)

    In religion and ethics, Evil refers to the morally objectionable (subjective) aspects of the behaviour and reasoning(subjective) of human beings — those which are deliberately void of conscience (subjective), and show a wanton (subjective) penchant for destruction. Evil is sometimes defined (subjective) as the absence of a good which could and should (subjective) be present; the absence of which is a void in what should be(subjective). In most cultures, the word is used to describe acts, thoughts, and ideas which are thought to (either directly or causally) bring about affliction and death — the opposite of goodness (subjective), which itself refers to aspects which are life-affirming, peaceful, and constructive(subjective).

    Perhaps evil is best represented in the human situation in the form of unprovoked hatred against and coupled with an aggressive impulse to cause harm to another person or group. Such hatred can be aroused from within the individual or group through jealousy, wrong teachings(subjective) or due to unexplained extra-personal forces(supernaturalism).

    (unquote)

    Tally: 10 instances of unambiguous subjectivity, and one of supernaturalism. My point? The word ‘Evil’ attempts to explain a concept that ‘exists’ exclusively in the (subjective) opinions of humans – it ‘exists’ entirely in our minds, not in the natural world. (Hence the definition’s concluding — and predictable — retreat into supernaturalism.)

    By this one admittedly limited measure, we’re attempting to discuss a concept utterly sodden with subjectively as if it were an objective, easy to detect ‘force’ at work in the world. The billboard at the top of the thread asks, “Where does evil come from? Why do people commit evil? Do you buy Arendt’s thesis, or do you think there is something else (be it religious or biological) that leads to evil and distinguishes good from evil people?”

    If we’re to discuss such a broad set of questions with any cogency, we’ve got to define what the hell it is we’re discussing. And so far, I think we’re not even halfway to that…

    More coming this evening…

  • mynocturama

    Well, yes, you can. H20 is the chemical formula or “definition” of water. Of course, humans have known about water long before arriving at this empirical chemical definition. The problem, rather, comes in trying to attain and clamp down one single fixed definition, true for all cases and contexts. This quest is futile, it seems to me.

  • OliverCranglesParrot

    I would like to stipulate the following: ideas are shared via communication of analogy. Imperfectly, of course. But, sometimes an analogy, an allegory, etc. are the best way to share a POV with others. Thus, for those who support the idea of the existence of evil as a tangible object, existing in the world (through whatever means propagate or promulgate it), can you please supply an answer to the following (analogy): What is the name of shadow for which evil casts upon the reality of humanity? Just curious if there is such a thing, or the analogy has any workability as means of understanding the general shape and size of this conceptual item called evil. If it doesn’t have a shadow in general, are there anomalous exceptions.

  • OliverCranglesParrot

    As a brief addendum to my last comment, I will add the following wisdom passed on from a zen tradition: Truth is guarded at all times by the demons called paradox and confusion. Sometimes, it is best to observe co-incidental travelers to be able to understand the nature of the object under scrutiny. Enjoyable thread BTW.

  • Igor

    mynocturama:

    Water is _not_ H20, H20 may be also gas or ice, in fact, several kinds of ice. When you ask for some water, you don’t expect ice or vapour, do you? And even when liquid, water is never pure H20, which is usually called distillate, BTW, to distinguish from “normal” water. Oceans consist of water, aren’t they? Can you drink that water? Here you go…

    BTW, how would you explain a child what is water? By referring to chemistry? What a stupid idea… I’m sure one cannot learn chemistry unless he/she knows _beforehand_ what water is.

    Nick:

    Don’t bother about good and evil for now, ok? I have an inking you won’t be able to add anything of interest here. Try your teeth on water first…

    And next time anybody asks for a definition, I’ll ask to define a definition…

    The point is that most concepts have no real definitions, yet we are able to operate with them, in fact, that is what we do most of the time. Therefore the fact that there is no definition for good and bad doesn’t mean that these notions are empty of meaning.

    Here is just one simple example. If somebody enters your room right now and severs your head with an axe, will this be good or bad?

  • Igor

    On a more positive note, there are different ways to settle what philosophers call “claims to validity”, in mathematics it’s a formal proof, in physics it’s an experiment, in human affairs it’s usually a group of reasonable people discussing the issue and coming to some kind of conclusion, court jury is a nice example, representative legislature is another, etc. While these are not perfect, they work, and it seems that’s the best we can do. Suggestions, anyone? I doubt there will be any…

    So, basically, what we have is that a group of reasonable people or at least a majority of them can reach some kind of consensus. If not, the issue is unsettled, too bad, but nothing we can do.

    Now to the matters at hand, a group of reasonable people got together in Nuremberg and decided that invading other countries is evil, killing millions of people because of their race or some other reason is evil too. I doubt anybody in this forum will disagree.

    The deeds were evil, what about the people who did them? Some of them were deemed evil too and were hanged. This brings us to Eichman. Is he evil? The court in Israel decided he is and convicted him. Again I doubt anybody in this forum disagrees.

    Now to banality. Somehow Hanna Arendt got a notion that evil implies some kind of grandeur. Personally, I disagree, but there are ideas of that sort out there, like, “kill one man – you’re a criminal, kill a million – you’re a hero”. So she went to Eichman to see whether he is a criminal or an evil hero. What she found was, of course, a bureaucrat. She was surprised (I don’t understand why) and wrote a book about it.

    Now to the core of the issue, is evil banal? Sometimes yes, sometimes no, not that it matters, anyway, evil is evil, and should be opposed as such, whether it’s banal or not. What lessons can we draw? Well, that evil can be inconspicuous, but this is what Christianity has been telling us for two millennia already, so this is hardly news. Is the book worth reading? I guess, yes, as part of general education, together with other books.

  • Potter

    Does this relate to that thread warming up : “Morality: God-Given or Evolved?” ( 421 comments to date). I think so.

    I’ll give it another whack:

    Evil essentially denies oneness or connectedness ( with all others, with the Universe).

  • jazzman

    Igor Asks: Like, can anybody give a definition of water? Yet we all know what it is…

    Do we? Is there an innate epistemological basis for what we all know? How many know that the water for which you requested a definition is a one dimensional array of characters or that it is the English referent name, word, or label for the molecular compound dihydrogen oxide and not the substance itself, reminiscent of Magritte’s Ceci n’est pas un pipe?

    That voda, eau, mayim, wasser, yada, yada (wada wada?) are agreed upon terms for convenience of communication among geographic monoglots or ghetto denizens which doesn’t begin to capture water’s essence, where a physical sample would. Therein lies the problem of your definition. Concrete, physical substance is defined by its physical properties whereas abstracts are defined by the abstractor. (I see you’ve posted since I started this response so I’ll give you some more Pollyanna of which to tire.)

    Oceans consist of water, aren’t they? Can you drink that water? Here you go…

    Most certainly seawater can be imbibed and without ill effect if not relied upon exclusively. Its other states of matter do not alter its molecular structure; it is still water (well not still water but H20) besides potability was not a stipulation.

    What a stupid idea… I’m sure one cannot learn chemistry unless he/she knows _beforehand_ what water is.

    The point is that most concepts have no real definitions, yet we are able to operate with them, in fact, that is what we do most of the time. Therefore the fact that there is no definition for good and bad doesn’t mean that these notions are empty of meaning.

    The definitions for concepts are products of one’s idiosyncratic belief system

    Here is just one simple example. If somebody enters your room right now and severs your head with an axe, will this be good or bad?

    It depends on one’s philosophy, and who is applying the value judgment. Concretely, if it were me, it would be neutral because I would not be able to make a value judgment; abstractly as I believe things are always for the best it would have been my responsibility and I would have had my reasons. You may think it good in that I’m not posting tiresome opinions for you to have to skip. My family and society would probably think it were bad but there is no definitive value judgment possible.

  • jazzman

    My cyber friend Potter knows that abstract concepts are subjective but would like to believe (there she goes again) that consensus or majority opinion (ad populum fallacy or agreed upon subjectivity) could coalesce into something objective but realizes that it is subject to humanness (BTW what could be a better transmogrification of subjective to objective (abstract to concrete) than one’s gut response?)

    The fact that there is a widely shared concept of good and evil notwithstanding the killing of small (would it be less heinous if they were large or older? The abstraction of innocence is the presumption) children is obviously not ideal and those misguided individuals who engaged in that behavior will reap the harvest they sowed.

    I’m glad to see you’re more active recently.

  • jazzman

    Igor says: in human affairs it’s usually a group of reasonable people discussing the issue and coming to some kind of conclusion, court jury is a nice example, representative legislature is another, etc. While these are not perfect, they work, and it seems that’s the best we can do. Suggestions, anyone? I doubt there will be any…

    What is the definition of reasonable? “Reasonable” people have come to many conclusions to which I would take exception. Juries are responsible for the deaths of many innocents, legislatures vote to give GWB the authority to invade Iraq, to say they work is maligning force displacing mass.

    So, basically, what we have is that a group of reasonable people or at least a majority of them can reach some kind of consensus. If not, the issue is unsettled, too bad, but nothing we can do.

    We can ignore the consensus and behave as we will. If the issue is unsettled it was likely unnecessary or superfluous.

    Now to the matters at hand, a group of reasonable people got together in Nuremberg and decided that invading other countries is evil, killing millions of people because of their race or some other reason is evil too. I doubt anybody in this forum will disagree.

    If that’s so why isn’t the current administration on trial for war crimes? Because enough “reasonable” people disagree that it is evil. (Which doesn’t exist in my worldview.)

    The deeds were evil, what about the people who did them? Some of them were deemed evil too and were hanged. This brings us to Eichman. Is he evil? The court in Israel decided he is and convicted him. Again I doubt anybody in this forum disagrees.

    Your doubts are misplaced. I unequivocally disagree! The deeds were not ideal and misguided but done by those who believed that it was necessary. Why were those sanctioned executioners any more justified in violently killing humans than those who were deemed evil for performing the same act? Because an Israeli court decides Eichmann is evil does that make him so? By what rationale? Because he abetted the holocaust? Vengeance is the rationale in all these cases.

    “kill one man – you’re a criminal, kill a million – you’re a hero” this is quite reminiscent of: “The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of one million is a statistic.” – Joseph Stalin

    Now to the core of the issue, is evil banal? Sometimes yes, sometimes no, not that it matters, anyway, evil is evil, and should be opposed as such, whether it’s banal or not. Evil doesn’t exist except in one’s mind, so it is banal and the phrase “evil is evil” has absolutely no validity as a definition or concept.

    Peace to ALL,

    Jazzman

  • Igor

    Nick:

    I’m afraid you got your objective/subjective dichotomy all wrong, the point is that this Cartesian body/soul split has long been transcended and can’t even be reasonably formulated anymore. In simpler terms, there is nothing “subjective” which isn’t at the same time “objective”, and these are not ontological terms but rather relate to the locus of the agent making the judgment. In other words, objective and subjective are totally in the eyes of the beholder.

    Here are some examples. How come “subjective” feeling of hunger is quelled by “objective” food? In fact there is nothing intrinsically subjective in feeling of hunger, as there are certain material changes in the brain that correspond to it. Consider a hungry person lying in a brain scanner and being subject to some kind of neuroscience research. Then his “subjective” feeling of hunger will be an “object” of scientist’s attention.

    Ok, emotions aren’t entirely subjective then (something big pharma knows for quite a while), and I wouldn’t be surprised to find that there is a strong emotional component in our ethical judgments, in fact, that’s exactly what philosophers nowadays say, read Nussbaum’s ‘Upheavals of Thought’, for example, which argues that _all_ our judgements are emotionally laden, which comes as no surprise, of course.

    But even this is not necessary, as it can be easily seen that even if we allow for emotionless thoughts, this doesn’t mean that these are “subjective”, as there surely has to be some material representations, like electric charges and currents in the computer. In fact there is a fast growing field of science trying to study just that, we don’t expect results anytime soon, but they certainly can see that something’s going on in the brain when we think.

    And there is another approach, of course, just like we somehow understand what water is, even when somebody else is talking about it, we more or less understand what good or bad is. There are disagreements on particulars, shady areas, etc. but the fact that we are able to understand each other at all means that subjectivity _is_ being transcended, otherwise it would be like deaf among mutes, no contact whatsoever.

    There are interesting works, BTW, people are trying to figure out universal ethical grammar, akin to Chomsky’s language grammars, again, nobody expects results soon, but the approach looks reasonable. In fact, it’s quite natural to think of our moral abilities to be analogous to our language abilities, and these two might even be related.

  • Igor

    Jazzman:

    Are you trying to beat me on meta-level? Like, I’ll disagree and that will refute him right there? :-)

    Ok, point by point:

    Reasonable means “capable of reason”, that is, not mentally ill, old enough (depending on context), etc.

    The fact that you take exception doesn’t bother me much, sorry. People often disagree, that’s part of the process.

    Ok, juries are bad, what’s better? Churchill said the same about democracy… You have your expectations totally unrealistic, I’m afraid. Needless to say it doesn’t help any…

    BTW, I’m against death penalty, exactly because juries make errors…

    The way decisions are enforced is completely another matter. I wrote about decision making and not from some idealistic/maximalist perspective, but trying to stay on hard ground.

    Also, it would help if people making decisions don’t have vested interest, something along the lines of Rawl’s veil of ignorance, but it’s kinda hard to implement, we are not a democracy after all. Again, I’m trying to be realistic, it’s easy to criticise, much harder to build…

    About current administration, who’s gonna take it to trial? One time IJC condemned USA for meddling in Nicaragua, and they were, of course, defied… At the same time court of world opinion’s judgement on this matter is quite clear: aggression is wrong…

    Eichman not only abetted holocaust, he partook in it, that’s why he’s evil (i.e. guilty of evil deeds). I don’t understand your “unequivocal disagreement”…

    It’s not only Stalin, I think, Napoleon was the first to say that… The theme was widely elaborated in Crime and Punishment, quite before Stalin…

    You don’t read carefully, nothing in my passage suggests that I’m talking about materialized evil in manichean sense and it’s not a coincidence. So ok, evil doesn’t really exist, then purge your mind of whatever evil there is and please do the same with minds of Bush, Cheney, or, even better, of the real deciders of these matters…

    Good luck :-)

  • Potter

    Jazzman (‘ol buddy) I am quite happy in my subjectivity regarding evil and would say there is no absolute objectivity. (Doesn’t Hannah Arendt also accept the concept of evil and even broaden it?) For me consensus (unfettered) is also important in this and other areas ( as you know) and though it does not lead to objectivity- it gets us closer to a common idea about what evil is in instances. Arendt contributed to the thinking on the matter. Pruning it down, my own thoughts lead to selfishness, or a failure of empathy. But the word “failure” implies a subjective judgment. As well, or put another way, evil is a denial of connectedness, a failure to recognize that fact. That is, I suppose, a failure of ( deeper) thoughtfulness.

    I happened upon the obituary of Maurice Papon ( 96 years old) in the NYTimes the other day and because of this thread read the whole piece. He was “a prominent French functionary convicted in 1998 of complicity in Nazi crimes against humanity during the German occupation in World War II”. Finally convicted in 1998 by the French (!) having served three years of his (meager) 10 year sentence and at that, at the end of his life ( in Paris). A bureaucrat in the Vichy government, he was responsible for the deportation of hundreds of Jews to their deaths in German concentration camps. He knew he was signing their death warrants at the time, that they would never come back. When caught later in life, he protested that he had done only what the Germans made him do.

    See this article: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/71192.stm

    As the tide of the war changed he switched to the Resistance. After the war he rose through the bureaucracy in DeGaulle’s government to become as a powerful police official presiding over forces that took the law into their own hands “beating up and killing scores of Algerians in the riot-torn year of 1962, just before the colony achieved it’s independence”. ( NYTimes) A career in Gaullist politics followed.

    So this fellow knew how to save his rear end but he was, in Arendt’s sense evil in a most banal way. He not only saved himself ( which is not evil in and of itself- many Jews did what they had to do) but he thrived and managed to look the other way, in the end rationalizing his deeds, cutting off his conscience. Perhaps Arendt would say the failure was one of thinking, that thinking would have avoided the evil-doing. If this is so, she must mean very deep thinking, thinking that goes beyond ( and let’s go of) one’s own survival.

    Arendt: .. the only specific characteristic one could detect in his past as well as in his behavior during the trial and the preceding police examination was something entirely negative: it was not stupidity but a curious, quite authentic inability to think.

    So, did he train himself to cut off such thought processes?

    Arendt again on Eichmann When confronted with situations for which such routine procedures did not exist, he was helpless, and his cliché-ridden language produced on the stand, as it had evidently done in his official life, a kind of macabre comedy. Clichés, stock phrases, adherence to conventional, standardized codes of expression and conduct have the socially recognized function of protecting us against reality, that is, against the claim on our thinking attention that all events and facts make by virtue of their existence.

    What would I or you have done in similar circumstances? (a thought experiment)

  • Lumière

    Potter, I’m not following this idea:

    ///…evil is a denial of connectedness, a failure to recognize that fact.\\\\

    Hitler was not only connected to those around him, but to an entire nation.

    I accept Arendt’s conclusion that evil is possessed of banality, but, if she is saying Eichmann is guileless, I don’t accept.

    He could have been acting “against reality” of his situation.

  • Nick

    1. Igor: first, I must thank you (sincerely!) for nudging me into a session of googling that was equal parts mortifying and hilarious. My frothcoming posts contain a few pertinent (and regrettably unfunny) findings.

    Secondly, on the objective/subjective dichotomy: I find it functionally useless to deny the distinction. Perhaps, in some meta-sense, there’s no ‘absolute’ distinction, but I leave that sort of heavy philosophical word-crunching to my pal jazzman. (And besides, I’m not smart enough to follow the logic lurking within the terminology-blizzards native to such discussions.)

    Lastly, what I address next to Potter is related to the conversation we’re having too.

    (There I go again, Potter! ;-) )

    Potter: I must confess to frequent personal use of the word ‘evil’. It is, however, informal—and I wouldn’t dare to apply that sort of usage it in a formal intellectual discussion like this one.

    Example 1 (frivolous and commonest): When I’m stroking the pet-crazy, hard-purring calico and then she suddenly tires of it, she bites (harmlessly), and I indulgently and laughingly call her ‘Evil!’

    Example 2 (infrequent but too damned common, and much more serious than ex.1): Whenever the Bush Administration demonstrates its unthinking adherence to laissez-faire ideology by siding with corporations over labor, with ‘economy’ over environment, or by expecting ‘freedom and democracy’ (and pro-American capitalists!) to sprout miraculously from the ruins of a freshly beheaded foreign state (Iraq, say), callously downplaying, disregarding, or dismissing the importance of the ‘collateral damage’ their weapons inflict, I think, “Evil bastards!”

    But are they really ‘evil’?

    Much as I despise them, the thoughtful, formal, and objective answer is “No.” My subjective judgment might be ‘YES!’ (although I’m striving hard to eliminate all vestiges of my formerly infrequent yet all too common – i.e., banal – judgmentalism.) But it’s intellectually dishonest to attempt to objectively call them ‘evil’.

    Banally inhumane?

    Yup.

    But Evil? By whose moral standards?

    An amazingly consistent thirty or so percent of citizens of this semi-senile republic have no moral qualms at all with the ideological underpinnings of the Bushies; wishing only that the actions stemming from their ideology had been more competently implemented.

    My ‘evil’ is their ‘mistakes’.

    It’s relative. Much as I wish it weren’t.

    I’m taking the time to write this because I want it known that I understand the points you made at 1:45 PM, Feb 21st – the points that mynoctorama agreed with. My goal in this thread is to question the concept of evil – but not because I’m a troublesome contrarian (although by Wikipedia’s definition, I guess am!). Instead, I want to suggest that perhaps there’s a more direct, less moralistically loaded, less mythologically-founded focus for those of us who deplore inhumanity: the difference not between ‘good and evil’ but between inhumanity and humaneness.

    You might ask, Why bother?

    Well, aside from the fact that a conversation on ‘good and evil’ freezes out folks like me who don’t subscribe to either the supernatural or to the still extant legacies of ancient mythology, I think there’s a very practical benefit to refocusing. My next posts will try to demonstrate the benefit.

  • Nick

    2. Why the concept of evil is relative, not fixed – and NOT ‘reasonable’ (that’s for Igor) – and, more importantly, why it matters.

    “Homosexuality is inherently evil.”

    — Chief Justice Roy Moore of Alabama

    http://72.14.253.104/search?q=cache:1MupTcuk92UJ:www.pserie.psu.edu/academic/hss/amdream/Oxford/Lecture7.pdf+jerry+falwell+homosexuality+evil&hl=en&ct=clnk&cd=39&gl=us&ie=UTF-8 (pg. 20)

    “The goal of the homosexual movement is to ‘mainstream’ unspeakable acts of evil…”

    — Randall Terry

    http://pong.telerama.com/~ausrot/BEL/quotes.html

    Do you (any readers) share these sorts of beliefs in ‘evil’? Are the precepts of ‘evil’ as understood by Moore and Terry ‘absolute’, or ‘universal’?

    Remember, Wikipedia begins its entry on ‘evil’ by citing ‘morally objectionable’:

    (quote)

    In religion and ethics, Evil refers to the morally objectionable aspects of the behaviour and reasoning of human beings — those which are deliberately void of conscience, and show a wanton penchant for destruction.

    (unquote—Wikipedia, ‘Evil’)

    What other aspects, besides homosexuality, of “human behavior and reasoning” might be ‘morally objectionable’? Sex between (hetero) pairs of males and females who have not partaken in ceremonial ‘vows’?

    Feminism? (Ask J. Falwell & P. Robertson about that!)

    How about…socialism??? —

    “Some of the greatest evil in the history of the world was concocted in the Jewish mind.”

    —Timothy LaHaye, author of the bestselling Left Behind series

    http://www.slate.com/id/45483/

    Whoa! Queasy yet?

    Aside from the implicit stereotyping bigotry of a phrase like “the Jewish mind”, does the post WWII history of Sweden – dominated by Social Democracy – make the majority of Swedes ‘evil’? (I’ve been there, and I can shout it: what a noticeably un-evil people!)

    I sure do wonder how LaHaye defines ‘evil’. Where do ‘good Christians’ like him learn such bigoted intolerance? (And can we abduct him long enough to send him to a kibbutz? Perhaps he might benefit from an authentically socialist experience! ;-))

  • Nick

    3.

    (quote)

    Deuteronomy 17

    1 Do not sacrifice to the LORD your God an ox or a sheep that has any defect or flaw in it, for that would be detestable to him.

    2 If a man or woman living among you in one of the towns the LORD gives you is found doing evil in the eyes of the LORD your God in violation of his covenant, 3 and contrary to my command has worshiped other gods, bowing down to them or to the sun or the moon or the stars of the sky, 4 and this has been brought to your attention, then you must investigate it thoroughly. If it is true and it has been proved that this detestable thing has been done in Israel, 5 take the man or woman who has done this evil deed to your city gate and stone that person to death. 6 On the testimony of two or three witnesses a man shall be put to death, but no one shall be put to death on the testimony of only one witness. 7 The hands of the witnesses must be the first in putting him to death, and then the hands of all the people. You must purge the evil from among you. (unquote)

    http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?book_id=5&chapter=17&version=31&context=chapter

    (I might be way off base, but I suspect that judgmental, self-serving Tim LaHaye gets his notion of ‘evil’ from the very people he so ignorantly villainizes.)

    Anyway, don’t fret: strict moralism isn’t restricted to contemporary ‘good Christians’ or to ancient, pre-rabbinical Jews…

    (quote)

    [2.90] Evil is that for which they have sold their souls—that they should deny what Allah has revealed, out of envy that Allah should send down of His grace on whomsoever of His servants He pleases; so they have made themselves deserving of wrath upon wrath, and there is a disgraceful punishment for the unbelievers.

    [19.59] But there came after them an evil generation, who neglected prayers and followed and sensual desires, so they win meet perdition,

    [21.77] And We helped him against the people who rejected Our communications; surely they were an evil people, so We drowned them all. (unquote)

    http://www.hti.umich.edu/k/koran/

    Soooo…

    …is evil plainly and equally obvious to anyone who sees it?

    (quote)

    Evil is sometimes defined as the absence of a good which could and should be present; the absence of which is a void in what should be.

    (unquote—Wikipedia)

    Aside from the subjectivity inherent in the twice-in-one-sentence use of “should be”, this common understanding of ‘evil’ relies on the reader’s intuitive comprehension of ‘good’—another subjective, moralistic conceptual stew.

    What if we reworded, substituting less moralistic terms for ‘good’? —

    “Evil is sometimes defined as the absence of compassion, sympathy, and concern for others which could be present…”

    Compassion, sympathy, and concern for others? Why, that’s the common definition of humane! And what’s the antonym for humane?

    (quote)

    In most cultures, the word is used to describe acts, thoughts, and ideas which are thought to (either directly or causally) bring about affliction and death — the opposite of goodness, which itself refers to aspects which are life-affirming, peaceful, and constructive.

    (unquote—Wikipedia)

    Reconceptualized: “In most cultures, the word is used to describe acts, thoughts, and ideas characterized as cruel or barbarous (inhumanity), acts and/or ideas that either directly or causally promote injury, affliction, and death.”

    The Koran, to name but one ancient source of our contemporary conceptual milieu, repeatedly speaks of ‘evil rain’… so, in this, the 21st century, are natural occurrences – storms, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and tsunamis – ‘evil’?

    Or is that a subjective judgment? A judgment arising from an ancient conceptual system now fossilized in seventh century scriptures?

    More importantly,

    (quote)

    Perhaps evil is best represented in the human situation in the form of unprovoked hatred against and coupled with an aggressive impulse to cause harm to another person or group. Such hatred can be aroused from within the individual or group through jealousy, wrong teachings or due to unexplained extra-personal forces.

    (unquote—Wikipedia)

    Reworded: “Perhaps inhumanity is most common in the form of unprovoked hatred against and coupled with an aggressive impulse to cause harm to another person or group. Such hatred can be aroused from within the individual or group through compassionless teachings used to justify acts from jealousy, envy, and/or greed.”

    Isn’t ‘inhumanity’ the real kernel of this conversation? It isn’t, after all, homosexuality, feminism, or socialism. Yet all three of those are classed as ‘evils’ by moralizers with substantial followings of people—followings much too substantial to warrant our blithe disregard.

    Are you comfortable while formally using a word and concept that carries so much moralizing baggage? (I’m not.)

  • Nick

    4. Why must we continue using ‘good and evil’ – pre-modern concepts founded in the supernatural beliefs of pitifully superstitious ancients – in this era of scientifically derived, steadily increasing human comprehension of the universe?

    Humane and its antonyms cover the same essential concerns, and without the moralizing baggage grounded in parochial and subjective ancient mythologies.

    I’ve written before that ‘belief’ and ‘faith’ are legacies of archaic human styles and systems of ‘mental acceptances’: legacies of the long eons before our still young species developed the Scientific Method, which has awarded us with a consistently reliable means to discern and accept the possible or probable veracity of empirically substantiated premises, contentions, and propositions. I don’t want to reopen that here except to provide a brief parallel:

    Why, I wonder, have we not developed an everyday concept that denotes mental acceptance of the probable veracity of evidence-supported propositions? A concept that stands in clear contrast to ‘belief’ and ‘faith’ – which require no empirical evidence, relying all-too-often instead on the solemn assurances of so-called ‘authorities’ (like theologians – none of whom can have actually interviewed, let alone scientifically studied, the ‘gods’ they claim ‘knowledge’ of!)? Belief and faith are relics – even if we don’t realize or admit it yet.

    ‘Good & evil’ descend from the same ancient, obsolescing conceptual morass. Unlike the case of ‘belief’ and ‘faith’, however, we have developed much more pointed and efficient substitutes for ‘good and evil’ – humaneness and inhumanity. To me, discussing here and now the nature and provenance of ‘evil’ is akin to discussing the nature and provenance of Eris, or the ancient Greek notion of Chaos instead of our contemporary concept of chaos.

    As a ‘thought experiment’, please imagine the questions posed in the billboard:

    “Where does Eris come from?”

    Are you smiling? (I hope so.) To me, the question “Where does evil come from?” is just as charmingly antiquated as “Where does Eris (or Chaos, etc.) come from?” Because I’m not a ‘believer’ any more than I’m an ancient Greek (although I sure seem as garrulous as an ancient Greek!)

    Try this one:

    “Why do people commit inhumanity?”

    Ah! Now that’s a question we might benefit from discussing!

    And, actually, someone recently right here on ROS has pointed to a trail we might profitably explore on that question. (Unfortunately I can’t find it because this thread is so long and I’m SOOOO out of time!) It went something like this: “males between the ages of 15 and 25 are noted to be thrill-seekers”. Which unwittingly worked to reawaken a worry I’ve long harbored: Is testosterone nature’s most perfect empathy-retardant?

    Think about it…

    Anyway, try this one:

    “Do you think there is something else (be it religious or biological) that leads to Chaos and distinguishes Harmonia from Eris?”

    Why not retire ‘good & evil’ to the same museum of venerable but obsolescent concepts like Fortuna and Nemesis?

    Why can’t we cut to the quick, and discuss (with thanks to Robert Burns) “man’s inhumanity to man”?

    (I’m done now…) :-)

  • mynocturama

    “BTW, how would you explain a child what is water? By referring to chemistry? What a stupid idea…” Yes, I agree, and it’s entirely your idea, not mine.

    You missed my point. I’ll try to elaborate and be as clear as possible. One can offer definitions or descriptions of water, but they’re dependent on – as in not independent of (again, taking pains to make this as clear as I can) – context. So, in chemical terms, in the context of a chemical approach, each molecule of water is known as, defined as, H2O.

    “Water is _not_ H2O” – This is simply, obviously false. The fact that “H20 may be also gas or ice” does not mean “water is not H20.” This is a bit like saying, an infant isn’t a human being, because a human being may be also an adolescent or adult. Also, by your context I take it that by “water” you mean strictly water in its liquid form. But water/H2O is sometimes referred to as “water” in whatever state it’s in. Again, depending on the context, on what you’re reading or whom you happen to be talking to, these meanings will be implicitly or explicitly established.

    “When you ask for some water, you don’t expect ice or vapour, do you?” Say I’m at a restaurant, and don’t want to pay for an overpriced soda (and no refills no less), so I order water. In that situation, a set of expectations is set up, within which, yes, you’d expect water, in its liquid state, in a glass, along with a little of it in its solid state. And maybe a lemon. In this setting, you may say water is known-identified-talked about in this way.

    Having read your other posts, I agree with a lot of what you’ve said, especially concerning the simplistic dichotomy of subjective/objective. But you yourself seem to be trapped in the false either/or, of fixed absolute definitions, true for all cases and contexts, or no definitions whatsoever, at all. So, the first being unattainable, you’re stuck with the other. Caught between these extremes, you’re left with nothing else.

    Rather, renounce these extremes, concede our conditional, provisional status, and, in doing so, see that we can, occasionally, come to clear statements about things, within certain situations and contexts. Just be modest, humble, about it, acknowledge our finitude, that we find ourselves always immersed, and go on.

    Even with a word like “evil,” and our moral conceptions more generally, I think it’s worthwhile to talk about our concepts, to try to read our own meanings, even if we only catch glimpses here and there, aspects from particular points of view. Whereas you, Igor, at your most extreme, seem to be saying that we should just shut up about ourselves, about our operating in the world, our concepts consigned as they are to some mystical realm of silence. Don’t you see some value in talking about these things, in reflecting, questioning, in struggling, in some sense, against ourselves, so that we’re not entirely at the mercy of our own conceptions?

    Besides, your point for point response to jazzman belies your own extreme stance.

  • Lumière

    ///…value in talking about these things, in reflecting, questioning, in struggling, in some sense, against ourselves, so that we’re not entirely at the mercy of our own conceptions.\\\

    Agreed !

  • Nick

    mynoctorama wrote: “Even with a word like “evil,” and our moral conceptions more generally, I think it’s worthwhile to talk about our concepts, to try to read our own meanings, even if we only catch glimpses here and there, aspects from particular points of view.”

    Thank you for that. It seems to me to be a general purpose of this thread. And regarding the contributions from you and most everyone else, I echo what OCP has said twice now. Potter and sidewalker in particular have gotten the ‘banality’ points of the topic through my thick skull (although I still think it’s only a very small facet of the larger problems of “man’s inhumanity to humankind”).

    Thanks, everyone.

  • mynocturama

    Igor already addressed this well. I’ll throw in my thoughts anyway…

    OK, a bit of pompous broadness, before getting into specifics…

    It seems to me we live amidst oppositions. Oppositions seem to be at the core of our conceptual apparatus. And how we negotiate or navigate these oppositions or polarities (in their variety of forms, from their variety of sources) is central to how we live and think and think about living. The task, the challenge, is to connect and relate these oppositions together, in some active, intelligent way. Each end or pole of the dialectic/polarity/opposition is dependent on the other, and when this mutual interdependence isn’t acknowledged, when one end is severed from the other, we’re left with the worst of both sides. And so we tend to end up with a slew of false dichotomies, and near hopeless polarization (witness this country’s recent political discourse).

    It’s a strain sometimes, dealing with the dialectic. It’s as though our minds, being finite, can only explicitly see or contain one side at a time. And yet still, the other side must be kept in mind, somehow. Hence OCP’s Zen quote: “Truth is guarded at all times by the demons called paradox and confusion.”

    One example is the thought/feeling binary. I dealt with this in an earlier post. Feeling underlies what we think of as rational thought, and our feeling relation to the world relies on intelligence as well. They shouldn’t be seen as separate.

    Another is the old nature/nurture chestnut. To say, glibly, “it’s a bit of both,” or, “it’s somewhere in between,” is about as boring – banal – as it is true. The real task is to get at how this dialectic plays itself out, case by case by case.

    And another, which I think has posed problems for this discussion, is the subjective/objective dichotomy, under the guise also of fact/value, with facts on one side, being clearly “out there,” and values on the other, safely, securely “in here (our heads/minds).”

    Let’s talk about this…

    jazzman:

    “I would ask those here who do believe that there is objective good and evil extant (i.e., independent of opinion) on what foundation is that belief based?”

    This sentence seems to imply (to me at least) that “subjective,” so contrasted with “objective,” is more or less synonymous with “opinion.”

    But there are two senses of “subjective” that tend to get conflated, confused, causing, yes, confusion.

    Roughly speaking:

    There is “subjective” as in, of or relating to opinion.

    And there is “subjective,” as in, requiring, arising from, bound up with, a >subject

  • mynocturama

    Let me try that again

  • mynocturama

    Say someone surreptitiously comes up from behind you, and takes a hammer to your right hand, slamming it as it rests on the table. The pain you feel is as much a fact as the sunlight through the window, the furniture in the room, the force of gravity on your body. Yet it is “subjective” in that, only you, as a subject, feel it. Others in the room may have no problem identifying, by your screaming, that you’re in pain. But they don’t feel or perceive the pain, your pain, as you do. One might say that this pain is an “objective” fact about your “subjective” state, your state as a subject. It is exactly not “subjective” in simplistic opposition to, on the other side of, “objective.” Indeed to say “it’s all in your head/mind” is to say that you’re not really in pain at all.

    Now imagine an exquisitely sensitive soul, who, on witnessing the pain and suffering of others, a child being beaten on the side of a street, for instance, feels a pain even deeper than direct physical pain. This feeling response to what is being seen is a moral response, a moral sentiment or sense, bound up with evaluation of the situation. Yet the pain, it seems to me, is as much a fact as anything else, different from direct physical pain, yes, but as deep and real, if not more so. In this case, the poles of objective vs. subjective, fact vs. value, are not clearly, securely, on the other side of each other. It’s all a mingling interrelation, it seems to me.

    So, to say, as some here seem to have, that moral considerations are simply, entirely “subjective,” and therefore not “real,” is to miss something, I think.

    Time for a drink…

  • Nick

    mynocturama wrote, “…pain even deeper than direct physical pain. This feeling response to what is being seen is a moral response, a moral sentiment or sense, bound up with evaluation of the situation.”

    I can agree with the general sense you’re addressing, but not with “moral response” or “moral sentiment.”

    Instead I’d class the pain as an “empathetic response (or sentiment)”.

    To me, the difference between ‘moral’ and ‘empathetic’ is profound. In my own lifetime experience as an outsider looking in at the dominant beliefs of our culture, it seems that, despite their protestations to the contrary, moralizers are notoriously lacking in empathy.

    I don’t want to beat this seeming tangent to death, but I think the distinction is profound – and very relevant to this thread in particular. The Nazis, after all were following their own parochial political “race”-based morality.

    A morality effectively beggared for empathy. A morality void of humaneness.

    On another note, your wisdom concerning this:

    “Each end or pole of the dialectic/polarity/opposition is dependent on the other, and when this mutual interdependence isn’t acknowledged, when one end is severed from the other, we’re left with the worst of both sides. And so we tend to end up with a slew of false dichotomies, and near hopeless polarization (witness this country’s recent political discourse).”

    …is wonderful. Great stuff.

    Might I suggest that the objective/subjective dichotomy be understood not as irreconcilable poles but as gradients along a conceptual (therefore illusory, non-‘factual’) continuum?

    And that therefore we needn’t throw out the useful tool – functional, pragmatic awareness of the distinction between objectivity and subjectivity – with the clarifying ‘cleanser’ your words here: “In this case, the poles of objective vs. subjective, fact vs. value, are not clearly, securely, on the other side of each other. It’s all a mingling interrelation, it seems to me.”

    …so wisely provide us?

  • mynocturama

    Thanks Nick for your response and for your posts.

    How ’bout this distinction:

    moral vs. moralistic

    I’d want to keep the word >moral

  • mynocturama

    why are my posts cutting off? As I was saying…

    I’d want to keep the word >moral

  • mynocturama

    Insert expletive here…

    I’d want to keep the word >moral

  • mynocturama

    Ah, the esoteric mysteries of html. I think I get it now…

    I’d want to keep the word -moral-, its history, and all that it connotes.

    Moralism, and moralizers, on the other hand, I’m more than glad to do without.

    But I think we agree generally.

    I’m all typed out for now. Great thread all around.

  • jazzman

    What a surprise to see all this activity since I last visited this thread about 1PM. I’ll throw this in out of order:

    Nick, your idea of replacing value judgments re abstract human concepts with value judgments re human actions is beautiful and cuts through most (if not all) of the misunderstanding of moral/ethical issues (like your “religion” and “Absolute Morality” does.)

    mynocturama Watch out for the greater & less than angle brackets (they’ve screwed me more than once).

    Regarding subjective I mean subject to ones bias, beliefs and interpretation, a creation of the mind. Not relating to a subject.

    Now imagine an exquisitely sensitive soul, who, on witnessing the pain and suffering of others, a child being beaten on the side of a street, for instance, feels a pain even deeper than direct physical pain.

    The empathetic pain suffered by the sensitive person is still subjective as it is generated by their empathetic mind.

    So, to say, as some here seem to have, that moral considerations are simply, entirely “subjective,” and therefore not “real,” is to miss something, I think.

    Subjectivity is real to the person that creates it, as real as anything else.

  • jazzman

    Igor asks: Are you trying to beat me on meta-level? Like, I’ll disagree and that will refute him right there?

    I’m not trying to beat anyone on any level (although I often do approach philosophy from a meta-level) and disagreement (gainsay) by itself refutes nothing, I’m just suggesting that your “reasoning” may be ambiguous, incomplete, or incorrect.

    Ok, counterpoint by point

    Reasonable means “capable of reason”, that is, not mentally ill, old enough (depending on context), etc.

    What does reason mean? Whose reason? What does mentally ill mean? How old is old enough? What is the context – tautologically old enough to be capable of reason? I’ll take a wild stab (as I have no clue as to what you mean by that statement) and offer the suggestion that by capable of reason you mean able to traverse a system of logic step by step, but many who would be considered “reasonable” would not be able to do so and systems of logic are merely sets of defined rules. Many people find abstraction difficult and stressful but would still be considered reasonable, naive realists or those religiously inclined whose worldview includes unverifiable supernatural entities may be considered reasonable.

    Many mentally ill persons are capable of “reason” as long as it doesn’t concern their arbitrarily designated psychoses. Catholic dogma says 7 years old is the “Age of Reason” but normally distributed age is usually not a factor.

    The fact that you take exception doesn’t bother me much, sorry. People often disagree, that’s part of the process.

    No need to apologize, I wasn’t trying to bother, edification was my attempt.

    Ok, juries are bad, what’s better? Churchill said the same about democracy… You have your expectations totally unrealistic, I’m afraid. Needless to say it doesn’t help any…BTW, I’m against death penalty, exactly because juries make errors…

    Not being subjected to any fate deciders save oneself would be ideal, but if I found myself in a position of being judged, I’d rather be judged by an adherent of Absolute Morality. I view democracy as a dictatorship or tyranny of the majority, the only thing that mitigates that tyranny is that goddam piece of paper called the constitution (and we see what sway that piece of paper holds.)

    Why do you fear that my expectations are unrealistic? Why doesn’t it help to champion for the ideal and believe it will manifest? I’m against the death penalty irrespective of human error because I’m philosophically opposed to murder and violence.

    Also, it would help if people making decisions don’t have vested interest, something along the lines of Rawl’s veil of ignorance, but it’s kinda hard to implement, we are not a democracy after all. Again, I’m trying to be realistic, it’s easy to criticise, much harder to build…

    I agree with many of Rawl’s libertarian principles (his first principle in particular, his second principle not so much.) My “All consciousness creates its own reality and is responsible for its experience” position obviates political systems on a meta-level and it’s realistic in my philosophy but probably not in yours.

    About current administration, who’s gonna take it to trial? I wasn’t arguing for trial just noting an inconsistency w/Nuremburg consensus which I also do not support.

    Eichman not only abetted holocaust, he partook in it, that’s why he’s evil (i.e. guilty of evil deeds). I don’t understand your “unequivocal disagreement”…

    So what? He’s only evil in the minds of those who believe in evil and evil deeds, I maintain that he believed that the ends justified the means which is a fanatic’s position to be sure and far from ideal, but evil? Only if one believes that it is.

    You don’t read carefully, nothing in my passage suggests that I’m talking about materialized evil in manichean sense and it’s not a coincidence. So ok, evil doesn’t really exist, then purge your mind of whatever evil there is and please do the same with minds of Bush, Cheney, or, even better, of the real deciders of these matters…

    I would say the phrase “evil is evil” suggests a Manichean formulation, but even in the adjectival sense the characterization of people and behaviors as evil is still opinion (likely charged with an emotional component as you indicated in your reply to Nick but he can speak for himself.) The evil that exists in my brain is a second order meta-concept of the idea that constitutes the subjective definition on the common level and GWB, Cheney, and all the deciders are the equivalent of Eichmann AFAIC.

    Peace,

    Jazzman

  • jazzman

    Potter I am quite happy in my subjectivity regarding evil and would say there is no absolute objectivity.

    Without condescension: Brava!

    consensus…gets us closer to a common idea about what evil is in instances. Arendt contributed to the thinking on the matter. Pruning it down, my own thoughts lead to selfishness, or a failure of empathy.

    Common ideas about the nature of subjective concepts do nothing but demonstrate consensus which is tautological. The validity of an idea or opinion cannot be determined by weight of consensus although it may be valid and many agree that it is. I agree that a reduction of empathy is less than ideal and would recommend that one avoid such a state.

    Selfishness (not in the Ayn Randian virtuous sense) OTOH can be ideal as the self is the fountainhead of our reality but because of negative connotations (meaning love of self to the exclusion of all else) it has acquired a bad rap.

    Papon reaped that which he had sown as I noted above. We do not know whether or not he was happy or tortured by his guilt over the years and whatever atonement he may have exercised or who received his help that might not have otherwise had he been killed or jailed. He managed to create his existence to enable his living to 96 which is an accomplishment. Not being inclined toward vengeance I am not disturbed by his apparently scot-free life.

    So, did he train himself to cut off such thought processes?

    Possibly, only he knows. The failure/inability to think is Arendt’s observation and not necessarily factual.

    What would I or you have done in similar circumstances? (a thought experiment)

    I don’t exactly know what you mean by similar circumstances (do you mean if I behaved as Eichmann?), if so then I doubt you or I would ever find ourselves in such a position. Intellectually, I could imagine if my moral compass had strayed that far I suppose would cavil and parse and lie a la Bill Clinton but that is a stretch from my current vantage.

    Well have to continue later,

    Peace

  • OliverCranglesParrot

    This one’s for you Nick: 5000 years of religion in 90 seconds No mention of the naked ascetic of the Jñātr clan or Church of the SubGenius? Now, just how does this track with the banality of evil? Back to the regular programming…

  • Potter

    Nick- I think “evil” has entered the general lexicon and is not anymore only a religious concept. If Hannah Arendt and Nietzsche use it in intellectual discussion, why can’t you? It is a moral matter that can also be secular.

    For me it’s not the person who is evil in most cases and I would be reluctant to call a person evil. I have not here. Acts and policies can be evil though and a person can be justifiably called evil if that’s all they are about or mostly about. Again, it’s a moral judgment. I don’t see what is wrong about that. I worry about the absense of moral judgment entirely or selfish ( unenlightened) moral judgment. We depend on each other to have morals after all.

  • Lumière

    The problem with being moral is that the world is not structured for morality – you can not live that way.

    Being moral eventually gets to be hypocrisy –Iraq is the prefect example: isn’t democracy & freedom a good thing, the moral thing?

    so what’s the problem there in Iraq?

    The golden rule works for some? b/c they are not a sado-masochists?

    The Spartans thought homosexual pedophilia was a good thing…

    lol

    Ps. Why did Nietzsche and Arendt discuss morality?

    Because that is the thread they were on….

  • Nick

    Potter, I truly understand your point. It’s why I fessed up to my own informal and…well—banal—use of the word ‘evil’. I refer to my ‘example 2′ which is symptomatic of how ‘dueling moralities’ don’t help rifts in contemporary society, but exacerbate them instead.

    You and I share the same moral sense: we deplore conservative, nationalistic, and ethnocentric ideologies whose real-world outcomes injure many more people than they help. We both can probably comfortably accept the political label ‘progressive’. Our personal moral senses flow from that value-milieu.

    But when folks like us decry the Right, or the Right’s ideology, or the real-world outcomes of that ideological milieu, as ‘immoral’ or ‘evil’, we’re in effect declaring ideological war.

    Those who feel wronged by our moralistic judgment will war right back at us, citing the sources of their moral senses, which, in this case, is fundamentalist religion. Unlike us secularists, when they use the word ‘evil’ it carries a very heavy religious weight.

    As far as I can tell, when you argue against fundamentalist religious values (and I, of all people, should know) you simply can’t win. Heck, forget ‘win’ – you can’t even effectively communicate your thoughts (‘cuz you’re representing—whether knowing or not—‘Satan’, etc.). Think I’m exaggerating? I’m not. The Bible is the fount of most American religious fundamentalism, and that book consistently verifies what I’m suggesting.

    Calling the adherents or real-world outcomes of such pre-modern moralisms ‘evil’ actually strengthens them. It’s playing their ‘game’, and in their home stadium. I am thus arguing that those of us with progressive values refuse to use the frame-language of the Right and instead, more accurately and less moralistically, call the real-world outcomes of their ideologies and moralisms what they are: inhumane.

    I regret only that it has taken me so many words on this thread to finally articulate it – but, for finally getting there, I must thank you. You’re a truly fine blogging-partner :-) (I admire your recent posts in the “Who Won Iraq” thread, btw.)

    OCP: my internet connection is 20k – meaning that feeds like the one you linked to at 5:20 AM, Feb. 23rd take all day – or eternity, more often than not – to load. I wish I could have viewed it, but ‘TV on the internet’ is not available to the ancient-technology-yoked rural bumpkins of western WA. (Maybe that’s not a bad thing, though…)

    Thank you nevertheless—especially for the Church of the SubGenius link. Me? I’m more a Pastafarian, ‘cuz FSM’s Heaven offers its denizens beer volcanoes and…uh, other, shall we say, uncommon (parodic) delights.

    Right. Enough of this sullying of this otherwise fine thread…

  • OliverCranglesParrot

    Nick: Shame you couldn’t view the animated condensing exercise. This little graphical exercise probably would have intrigued and dismayed Edward Tuft and Ross Perot. Do the Pastafarians need high priests? I’m available for various mind cleansing prevarications. Well, perhaps upon the next spin of our wheel?

  • Lumière

    So morality comes down to an us vs. them political mentality ?

    What if…one is neither progressive nor conservative?

    Apolitical is Amoral, because they don’t take sides?

    Has everyone seen the Twilight Zone episode “4 0’clock”?

    Is being judgmental evil?

    lollollollollol

  • Nick

    OCP: “Do the Pastafarians need high priests?”

    Got pirate garb? I expect you’re a Pastafarian natural. Your parrot is an excellent start. Can you and s/he say ‘Arrrgh!’?

    Lumiere: “So morality comes down to an us vs. them political mentality?”

    Perhaps you’ve never been castigated by societally-sanctioned moralizers. Using your empathy, imagine what it might feel like to be characterized as a tool of ‘evil’ and reviled by a moralizer’s ‘flock’ for refusing to accept the (unverifiable) Word of My Moral Deity.

    Done?

    Who, in this instance, creates the ‘us vs. them mentality’?

    Done?

    Might you thereafter agitate against the conceptual conditions that promote such events?

    Read my post again carefully: I’m advocating for calling inhumanity what it is. I’m advocating against calling people ‘evil’ or ‘immoral’. Because it’s compassionless, not to mention counterproductive to progressive values.

  • Nick

    Sorry: “counter to progressive values, and counterproductive to the wider socio-political acceptance of progressive values.”

  • Nick

    Arg! (not pirate-talk but dismay) Sorry. Me again (but briefly)…

    I just remembered that I have forgotten more than once now Igor’s question:

    “If somebody enters your room right now and severs your head with an axe, will this be good or bad?” (7:30 PM, Feb 21st)

    Since you probably understand that you’re asking me for a value judgment, and that I’ve been striving in this thread (and hardly always successfully!) to be non-judgmental, my answer is this: neither ‘good’ nor ‘bad’ – but rather, compassionless. Isn’t that about the most objective assessment we can give of murder?

    Potter and sidewalker together finally managed to show Ol’ Doubting Nick that ‘banality’ is indeed a significant facet of this thread’s issues. Today, in my ever-evolving absorption of their lessons, I’m tempted to personally recharacterize this thread as “The Banality of Compassionless-ness”. (And a side-thanks to Allison, too, for her many writings about compassion over the past year.)

    “Compassionless-ness” seems to me to very easily fit within the ‘banal’ model. It’s everywhere, like an incurable epidemic. A permanent blight in the common emotional experience of our paradoxically ignorant and yet insatiably curious species.

    We have the empathetic capacity to overcome it – yet not enough apparent collective will.

    Arg! (not pirate talk)

  • Lumière

    ///…castigated by societally-sanctioned moralizers…\\

    Judge me !

    Anyone who lives a neighborhood knows it is always open season on societally-sanctioned moralizing.

    Hey, I moralize them right back – there is nothing they can do about it – my moralizing is bigger and better than theirs! ;-)

    How many times do I have to read this:

    ///…more accurately and less moralistically, call the real-world outcomes of their ideologies and moralisms what they are: inhumane.\\\

    Labeling a group’s real-world outcomes ‘inhumane’ suggests that a group member couldn’t have a progressive idea or produce a progressive real-world outcome.

    Is democracy inhumane? That was their idea for the ME. These guys are incompetent, not evil or any derivative thereof.

    Aren’t you just substituting one word for another?

  • jazzman

    Potter Says: I think “evil” has entered the general lexicon and is not anymore only a religious concept…It is a moral matter that can also be secular.

    Morality as we have discussed on many threads are a product of one’s beliefs i.e., value judgments what is good/bad, right/wrong etc., which have their roots primarily in religion dogma, although some have attempted to secularize them. Even if we apply the weight of consensus most judgments are still opinions and have no absolute value. That is why I believe everything is neutral except for violations of the tenets that I call Absolute Morality which I consider universal value judgments (but they’re still my subjective opinion.) You could call those violations “evil” but as Nick notes the word has a ton of baggage and is highly charged, subjective and inflammatory so I choose to avoid that term and use comparisons to the (again subjective so) my ideal.

    Acts and policies can be evil though and a person can be justifiably called evil if that’s all they are about or mostly about. Again, it’s a moral judgment. I don’t see what is wrong about that.

    It is your judgment, formed from your belief system regarding acts & policies and your justification for that potential calumny and your impression as to what a person’s actions are about. Your judgment may coincide with any number of peoples’ in a particular instance but the individuals who make up each moral consensus may vary as to other values . As long as one knows it’s entirely subjective (as you do) then it is only that person’s opinion but may be good, bad or indifferent to others, each of us is the decider as to right and wrong (like ART.)

    I worry about the absense of moral judgment entirely or selfish ( unenlightened) moral judgment. We depend on each other to have morals after all.

    As everyone is the decider, it’s next to impossible to have an absence of morality (it just may not comport with your sense of morality.) Moral judgments about selfishness or enlightenment are again subjective and we all have morals they just may not (understatement) be the same. Affinity for those with similar values is how we choose our associates.

    So it goes… Peace from the pedagogical pedant

  • jazzman

    Igor asked: “If somebody enters your room right now and severs your head with an axe, will this be good or bad?” (7:30 PM, Feb 21st)

    Nick replies: Since you probably understand that you’re asking me for a value judgment, and that I’ve been striving in this thread (and hardly always successfully!) to be non-judgmental, my answer is this: neither ‘good’ nor ‘bad’ – but rather, compassionless. Isn’t that about the most objective assessment we can give of murder?

    As I mentioned before I believe you have really nailed the morality issue with your “It’s how we treat one another” as the crux of ethics/morality which I will neologize as the “Nikosian Creed” and I agree with your formulations anent “evil”.

    Here’s a poser for you: Say I’m desperate for a Dr. Kevorkian type to come to my aid, due to (your choice of intolerable physical afflictions) and I am not able to request assistance to end my suffering and a compassionate soul comes into the room and severs my head with an axe (metaphorically if you prefer) is it good, bad, neutral, humane, compassionless, altruistic, misguided or foolish as they may be prosecuted for their act and may even be executed by moral consensus? (I have my answer.)

    Still awaiting hallucination.

    Peace

  • jazzman

    Lumiere: Was Mr. Crangle “evil” or did the bestower of the power (I suspect it was Pet – she has a wicked [Boston wicked – not evil wicked] sense of humor) just play a practical joke on him so that in future he would be careful what he asked for. A lesson that has been with us since the myth of Midas – and probably long before.

    Is democracy inhumane? That was their idea for the ME. These guys are incompetent, not evil or any derivative thereof.

    It sure can be, but we all are subject to the tyranny of the majority if we allow it. It is substituting one word for another but perhaps less pejorative and more transactional with empathetic intent. Remember it’s not the heat it’s the humanity!!!

    Peace

  • Nick

    Lumiere, a lot of very smart people blog here at ROS. I can’t begin to quantify just how much I’ve learned from reading, writing, and subsequently earnin’ a damn good schoolin’ in the various threads here over the past 20 or so months. Suffice it to say it has afforded me a vast increase in intellectual stimulation, knowledge, and: a strong sense of the subtle yet significant differences between conjecture, speculation, opinion, values, beliefs, and faith.

    I’ve watched threads grow from simple initial commentaries into veins of golden wisdom. (I’m not exaggerating.) This happens often enough to belie the belittling opinion of the “Digital Maoism” guy (can’t recall his name) on the aggregate foolishness of the internet collective.

    But it doesn’t happen every time. It is, however, happening here, in this thread, thanks to many contributors not named ‘Nick’. I’m the sponge here: learning, and eager for more. Luckily for me, your reply to me at 7:54 PM, Feb 23rd might indicate the path to the next vein of this blog-mine’s golden ore.

    You wrote:

    How many times do I have to read this:

    ///…more accurately and less moralistically, call the real-world outcomes of their ideologies and moralisms what they are: inhumane.\\\

    Labeling a group’s real-world outcomes ‘inhumane’ suggests that a group member couldn’t have a progressive idea or produce a progressive real-world outcome.

    First, I don’t think (and yes, I could be wrong) that I’m labeling any group’s ‘outcomes’ as inhumane; instead I’m using the term ‘inhumane’ to describe the real-world outcomes—i.e., aggregate impacts on the physical, emotional, and psychological health of honest-to-goodness real-live human beings—of actions, attitudes, and policies.

    Therefore, I think I can safely say that the world is awash with groups whose actions, attitudes, or policies can be assessed as ‘inhumane’, and yet that perceived inhumanness isn’t the goal or preference of even one of the members of said group! In other words, the group members themselves might be utterly overflowing with humane and/or progressive intentions or thoughts, but their group’s collective effect can nevertheless be inhumane – as, perhaps, with the real-life—not originally fantasized—American invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq.

    As the old saw says: The road to perdition is paved with good intentions.

    Inhumane means ‘without compassion, sympathy, or consideration of others’. Inhumanity means ‘cruel’, barbarous’.

    Each functionally descriptive word-element of those definitions relies not on ‘facts’ but on simple human sensibilities. Each word is therefore subjective; which means that ‘inhumane’ and ‘inhumanity’ can’t be objective characterizations. (Much to my regret.)

    My QUESTION, therefore, for EVERY reader of this page (starting with you and jazzman, who I see while I draft this post has already offered, at 9:06 PM, an agreeable opinion), is this:

    Considering that ‘objective and subjective’ are best employed as approximate gradients along a malleable continuum instead of as two irreconcilable poles, how much less subjective is the application of ‘inhumane’ or ‘inhumanity’ in place of our more common value judgments ‘evil’ and/or ‘immoral’?

    Any at all?

    Or lots?

    It is my conjecture – not yet strong enough to be an opinion but very close to it – that ‘evil’ and ‘immoral’ are considerably more subjective that ‘inhumane’ and ‘inhumanity’. ‘Evil’ and ‘immoral’ largely rely on parochial beliefs; while our perceptions of ‘inhumane’ and ‘inhumanity’ rely (I think) on simple human emotional sensibilities. What’s the difference?

    Well, mostly this, I think: ALL humans have emotional lives—we are ALL therefore potentially empathetic—from birth onwards, and regardless of our subsequent belief-indoctrinations.

    But for us to have ‘morality’, well that requires the introduction of beliefs, and usually non-‘universal’ ones at that. We judge ‘right and wrong’, and ‘goodness and evil’ from what our teachers pump into our intellects.

    Empathy, in contrast, requires little if any thought.

    This, in addition to being a serious question for anyone who cares to reply, is a very long way of answering Lumiere’s closing question: “Aren’t you just substituting one word for another?”

    Answer: yeah, but not exactly. I am substituting, but it’s an entirely different class of concept. It’s a more immediately ‘universal human’ concept – I think. It’s my speculation-wannabe-opinion. It’s my speculation-wannabe-opinion. “Empatheticality”, I clumsily call it, as a conceptual substitute for morality. An empathy-based behavioral creed instead of a ‘divinely’-derived “morality.”

    So there: a weekend challenge for anyone interested. I need, from the readers of ROS, some schoolin’ on my speculative would-be opinion. Fire away.

    (One final optional subsidiary challenge too: if you’re offering an opinion or a simple conjecture, it is MY opinion that you’ll meet a much more agreeable response from your idea’s consumers by refraining from framing the opinion or conjecture as a ‘fact’ or (and this is my worst intellectual allergy) as a ‘personal belief’. From a year and a half of reading ROS, I can offer the following with reasonable confidence: most usages of the words ‘belief’ and ‘I believe’ are subtle, deceptive rhetorical attempts to strengthen mere opinions and conjectures without offering any real corroborative evidence, whether via ‘facts’ or logic. One can do it, but it accomplishes little aside from undermining one’s credibility. And besides, humble admissions of uncertainty are disarming, and occasionally charming. :-) )

    Thanks in advance!

  • http://accountabilitybloke.blogspot.com/ accountabilitybloke

    Perhaps just in time for the on-air discussion, Jeremy Waldron’s piece on Arendt in the March 15 issue of The New York Review of Books. It is behind a subscription wall at http://www.nybooks.com/articles/19952, but worthy of some attention in any contemporary discussion of Arendt and her work.

  • hurley

    Discerning a relation among Gibbs, Freud, and Augustine, Norbert Weiner writes, “in their [Gibbs and Freud’s] recognition of a fundamental element of chance in the texture of the universe itself, these men are close together and close to the tradition of St. Augustine. For this random element, this organic incompleteness, is one which without too violent a figure of speech we may consider evil; the negative evil which St. Augustine characterizes as incompleteness, rather than the positive malicious evil of the Manicheans.” Norbert Weiner, The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society.

  • Potter

    Nick says: As far as I can tell, when you argue against fundamentalist religious values (and I, of all people, should know) you simply can’t win.

    So don’t argue or learn how to argue better; find some common values and then work from there. I think it is about tolerating/validating while you are trying to persuade…. and of course living your own morality.

    I am not having any problem calling the denial of habeas corpus evil despite Jazzman’s concern about being inflammatory. Sometimes one has to be less than peaceful verbally. If I had to cite the Bible about it, I would in making an argument. That’s a language. Also I am wondering why the reluctance. I think maybe because I was not brought up with evil or the devil as part of religion but only evil through fairy tales. The devil was a curiosity belonging not to my culture. Maybe that is why I, after all these years, am now using “evil” in my vocabulary more easily. But I take the warning.

    Lumiere said : Re: Potter, I’m not following this idea…evil is a denial of connectedness, a failure to recognize that fact.

    To me it’s self-evident but I think as well it’s what Arendt also means by a failure of thoughtfulness or what is meant by a failure of empathy ( “compassion” may be a better word here). .. Compassionate people say “there but for the grace of God go I”. For me it’s even more: not only as if it might be me- it is me there in another skin, another circumstance, another time another place. At least in my head that how I take it.The absence of thinking along these lines may be what Arendt means by evil lacking roots or depth and thus it is able to spread easily on the surface. On the other hand, thoughtfulness enables one to reach some depth which would ( hopefully) abort the extreme act .

  • Potter

    JazzmanWhen I ( and perhaps Nick) spoke of selfishness in relation to evil we said “stems from”. Nick I think was careful and I followed his lead. That is not to say that all selfishness is evil by any means. But there is a selfishness that excludes, that is greedy and non-expansive- ie not the liberating Randian kind. Selfishness is not always bad just as empathy is not always for good.

    Also, who is to say Papon reaped what he sowed? Perhaps he was quite alright with himself to the end though we like to think of some cosmic form of justice (based on our common sense of morality) which would have him suffering those years. But perhaps it’s the Palestinians who are reaping what he helped to sow. (The fungus spreads.)

    Hitler could not have accomplished what he managed without the Papon’s, the Eichmann’s ) regardless of how many they might have saved ( did they really save any?) that others with even less of a conscience might not have ( your reasoning). No matter how many others might have been killed or saved, the whole thing would not have happened without the mass complicity. The little pluses and minuses are inconsequential.

    I believe morality is becoming more and more secularized and globalized of necessity because as we interact we need a morality that crosses physical and emotional/intellectual barriers ( frames of mind). This is what I think we are working on now..the clash. Perhaps we all need to study each other’s roots, roots of morality with more neutral minds and the secular mind is perhaps less encumbered ,carrying elements of tradition modified by reason. I doubt there will ever be an absolute morality but there may be and we may already have the beginnings of a consensus about the basics of morality. You too allow for an “Absolute Morality” probably your rock bottom solid judgment about what is and what is not tolerable, and probably very much in tune with consensus. Like “Peace” being preferable to war.

    I totally agree that this is all opinion and subjective- it’s understood. How can anyone claim objectivity? It’s relative objectivity at best. We are stuck in our subjectivity so we might as well like it or get into it and be responsible about it.

    When I said I worry about the absence of morality, perhaps I should have said, I worry as much about the extreme of cultivating a minimal sense that tolerates and rationalizes too much away as I do the rigid views of dogmatist or fundamentalist.

  • Nick

    Potter: wrote:

    “Compassionate people say “there but for the grace of God go I”. For me it’s even more: not only as if it might be me– it is me there in another skin, another circumstance, another time another place.”

    BINGO! Wow, that’s perfect.

    Thanks you.

    So, maybe compassion isn’t banal – but compassionless-ness is? Can we agree to that characterization?

  • http://www.circles-salon.com allison

    Yes, Nick, given that definition of compassion, it would not be banal, but compassionless-ness would be. The former requires an effort to expand one’s sense of self.

  • http://www.radioopensource.org/user/sidewalker sidewalker

    Empathic vacuum

    Like humanity’s black hole

    Draws in stained beings

  • http://www.radioopensource.org/user/sidewalker sidewalker

    Let me try that again without the typo.

    Empathic vacuum

    Like humanity’s black hole

    Draws in strained beings

  • zeke

    I’m not sure where you are in the planning for this show, and I realize you probably follow Slate routinely. However, I stumbled on this essay by Clive James , which is ostensibly about Terry Gilliam, but makes several braoder points about torture and the modern imagination. I haven’t seen the movie Brazil, but I am adding it to my list.

    http://www.slate.com/id/2159927/

  • Lumière

    I think Nick Lowe said it first:

    (What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding

    jazzman Says: Remember it’s not the heat it’s the humanity!!!

    Hindenburg had it all then?

  • Lumière

    ///…Arendt means by evil lacking roots or depth and thus it is able to spread easily on the surface…\\\

    Doesn’t that describe our sensationalist, materialist, consumer culture?

    Can one see how others might see freedom loving Americans as evil?

    ///…need to study each other’s roots, roots of morality with more neutral minds and the secular mind is perhaps less encumbered ,carrying elements of tradition modified by reason.\\\

    Eloquently stated – Edward O Wilson has already taken the first step – he is taking “Consilience” to the believers.

  • Lumière

    ///…refraining from framing the opinion or conjecture as a ‘fact’ or (and this is my worst intellectual allergy) as a ‘personal belief.\\\

    Randy says: Dude, I got to be real, right?

    Nick,

    Sounds like a pogrom you got going there. First get rid of ‘I believe’ then get rid of IMO, JMHO and OMO.

    lol

    ////….gradients along a malleable continuum instead of as two irreconcilable poles…\\\

    Spinoza had a hierarchy of thought, which makes some sense:

    First, opinion, derived either from vague sensory experience or from the signification of words in the memory or imagination, provides only inadequate ideas and cannot be relied upon as a source of truth. Second, reason, which begins with simple adequate ideas and by analyzing causal or logical necessity proceeds toward awareness of their more general causes, does provide us with truth. But intuition, in which the mind deduces the structure of reality from the very essence or idea of god, is the great source of adequate ideas, the highest form of knowledge, and the ultimate guarantor of truth.

    ####

    Everything comes from somewhere – one begins with an opinion and through confrontation gains insight – so I believe, but that is omo.

  • http://www.circles-salon.com allison

    lumiere, why is insight gained through confrontation? are there no other means?

  • Lumière

    You are at a bus stop and someone walks up and says:

    “Nice day”

    You say:

    “What do you like about it?”

    Or

    “Yes, nice day.”

    If you confront someone’s opinion you get insight. Insight is sometimes defined as the sudden realization of a relationship. I’m a risk taker and I am interested in people, so it works for me.

    For example:

    They might answer your confrontation: “This afternoon I am putting my sailboat in the water.”

    You know they are a sailor – maybe you are a sailor and you start a conversation wherein you find you both have boats moored near each other – you just made a new friend.

    If the person doesn’t want to go any further than ‘Nice day’, then Blake’s quote might apply.

    If you respond “Yes, nice day.” You show no interest.

    My own personal philosophy says that conflict is the primary unit of human interaction.

    There are three things you can do with conflict:

    Express it

    Resolve it

    Suspend it

    By showing interest in someone, you resolve conflict.

    The administration is sloooooooowly coming around to the notion of showing interest in what the other countries in the ME have to say.

    D’Oh!

    Another example:

    Jazzman is a moral absolutist. I never met a moral absolutist – so I challenge him and, you know, he has some good answers.

    One of which was that his moral absolutist-ness keeps him out of certain situations.

    I don’t believe in absolutes, but I also try to avoid certain situations. So we have that in common, which I think comes from experience and maturity.

    So you confront me about confrontation and now you probably have to much information (tmi).

  • surfacing

    I have encountered evil, parts of it when it revealed itself for a moment. The persons displaying this *evil* weren’t evil, I don’t believe that there exists such a thing as a person, let alone an ovearching essence.

    In my mind, there is no doubt that such a thing exists and can be rounded up in its various contexts.

    The severity of evil, and its absurdity are two elements which mark it significantly difficult for rational grasping.

    It is absurd because it is “unnatural” it is a consequence of the human mind – it doesnt exist on its own.

    Perhaps romantics would consider it as emerging out of some form of social competition, i see it as another corridor of human imagination deriving from other powerful absurdities such as love.

    If i were to simplify though, I’d imagine evil as this sort of thirst for feeling in the absence of love which provides a less threatning expression of the human imagination.

  • Nick

    1. Lumiere, I’m afraid I don’t quite grasp the first part of your 8:50 PM, Feb. 24th. I do get the second part though: allow me to assure you that I’m not advocating the abandonment of opinion. I’m saying, in fact, that opinion is the dominant form of human understanding, and that ‘objective truth’, if it is even a possibility, is very, very rare. Yet we all too often present our opinions and our wishes (‘belief’ descends from the Anglo-Saxon ‘to wish’) as ‘facts’ – as ‘truths’.

    I’ve posted a longer response (which I felt too tangential for posting into this thread) is here. Any an all are invited to read it and comment.

    Also, you wrote: “one begins with an opinion and through confrontation gains insight” – and I think that’s one avenue toward larger personal knowledge and insight. It doesn’t have to be the ONLY avenue, however. I see now this morning (PST) that you’ve indicated to Allison that you view social interaction as a series of confrontations.

    My immediate response (not fully thought out) is that confrontation can be one manner of social interaction, but so can cooperation – even between strangers. I’m quite eager to read Allison’s response to you.

    2. Next, Lumiere wrote: “Is being judgmental evil?”

    Depends on your morality: “Judge not, that ye be not judged.” – Matthew 7:1 http://www.bartleby.com/108/40/7.html

    You’d think that would shame ‘good Christians’ like Falwell, Robertson, etc., away from their moralistic judgmentalism, wouldn’t ya?

    Here’s some pure Nikosian opinion:

    Matt 7:1 is my favorite (of a very short list) of Bible quotes. It’s wise, I think, as a variant of “Don’t do to others what you wouldn’t accept for yourself.” Judging others (even though we all do it at least a little) doesn’t strike me as a profitable use of mental energy, let alone preferable. At the very least it’s ethically questionable, especially since not only is our judgment itself an exercise in subjectivity, but, and worse, we can’t objectively know the subjective experiences of those we are judging. We might not only be self-righteously mean in our judgments, but our pre-judgment assessment of their existence might be so ignorant that our judgment is flat-out wrong.

    I have earlier implied that I’ve first hand experience of having been judged by Christian moralizers. Here’s a bit more detail: my family moved to a working class ‘burb of Detroit heavily settled by Southern Baptists. As a fifteen-year-old just entering the workforce, I had few options, and most of those options were owned, operated, or managed by other residents—notably Baptists—of the neighborhood. Lumiere, you wrote,

    “Anyone who lives a neighborhood knows it is always open season on societally-sanctioned moralizing. Hey, I moralize them right back – there is nothing they can do about it – my moralizing is bigger and better than theirs!”

    This sounds playful even and fun, but it might not apply to shy teens dealing with very self-righteous adults who hold economic power over you. Not every neighborhood is the same. Not every experience of being judged by the self-appointed neighborhood morality-police is as casual and harmless as yours.

    But wait: I’m not asking for or expecting pity. I learned a great deal from the experiences, not least of which was that the Baptists out to covert me were dead wrong about my ‘being miserable without Jesus’. Despite the bosses’ pressure, the peer pressure from coworkers, and the steadily growing social scorn, I knew, even as fifteen-year-old ignoramus and naif, that their Holy Jesus would effectively straightjacket my curious mind. The misery would have come after my surrender of credulity to their beloved mythology.

    Besides, I’ve no lasting scars. And I earned a perspective on the real-world effects of religious conceits rather different from the reflexive respect most people afford those conceits. I’ll return to that shortly.

    3. First, though, I’ve been thinking about the word ‘suffering’. Like the feel of sunlight-on-skin I wrote about off-site (linked above in this post), suffering is subjective, not objective. But also just like the all the common human sensory experiences, like the feel of sunlight-on-skin, suffering is not hard to detect by observers. Simple human sensibilities can usually detect suffering in others. We all know it, just as we all know the feel of sunshine.

    Less readily detected however, might be the chain of influences causing the suffering. In the case of the Nazis and the Holocaust, the causal chain is easy to finger: beliefs we largely call ‘anti-Semitsm’ and the myth of ‘Aryan racial’ superiority, which classed the Jews and Slavs as ‘untermenschen’. This set of influences is easy for us to deem ‘evil’.

    But had the Germans won WWII, would the very same massive atrocities be judged ‘evil’ by the subsequently victorious lords of Europe? Hardly. “Untermenschen”, I suspect, would be an enduring and ‘valid’ concept—self-evidently ‘true’ according to Nazi conceptualizations of the world. And no Jews (or Russians, who Hitler intended to starve to extinction after herding them all into a massive concentration area surrounding Moscow) would have survived to test the ‘truth’ of the concepts.

    All that Nazi-caused suffering? Meaningless. Ignored, censored out of history, or simply forgotten.

    My point, I think, is that for humans to ignore or repress the simple sensibilities that can usually and so easily detect suffering – which is a necessary precondition for the workings of empathy or compassion – something has to occur that alters the natural linkage of intellect and emotion. I strongly suspect that ‘something’ is the acceptance of beliefs—in particular, beliefs that the world we perceive tangibly—empathetically, concretely through our senses alone—is incomplete, and that ‘greater truths’ lie just out of sight.

    How do we access those ‘greater truths’? Well, by the One True Way, of course! Be it ancient myth surviving as contemporary religion, or Nazi-like racial fantasias. Or by siding with the ‘good’ against Manichean ‘evil’. (Think about Bush and his comic-book ‘Axis of Evil’.)

    Here’s another case: a sixteen-year-old mother—out of wedlock—and cast out of her parent’s home. Or a girl or boy with HIV.

    Suffering? Probably—wouldn’t we anticipate it?

    Assuming that these children are suffering, what’s the causal chain that helped to create the suffering? We’d have to inquire, case by case—it’s not as obvious as the Holocaust, right? Yet this sort of suffering is utterly commonplace in today’s world, but instead of being a horrific, deliberate scheme by believers of scientifically baseless ‘racial superiority’, it’s a result of millions of simple biological realities, and of accidents…and yet of beliefs, again, too.

    Right now in this country, teens are bearing babies, or contracting HIV, not because of ‘evil’ but because of a large politically powerful fraction of the voting citizenry who believe – in contravention of the available scientific evidence – that newly fertilized zygotes are ‘sentient’. That they have, presumably borne on the tiny sperm that penetrated the gigantic ova, a scientifically unverifiable supernatural entity called a ‘soul’.

    The suffering of these young mothers shares with the suffering of the young HIV victims another pervasive cause: a reluctance to fund, or sanction, let alone maturely discuss, sex education.

    Why?

    Belief in God, in the Bible, in the Qu’ran, in morality, in evil, and even in the fantastical idea that HIV only happens to those who ‘deserve it’.

    In two words: religious fundamentalism.

    As concerned citizens of our nations, or, and better, as concerned and compassionate denizens of our world, do we have a duty or responsibility to work against the spread of suffering?

    Maybe not. Maybe it’s a subjective judgment call. I don’t know.

    I do know that I feel a duty to contribute my own little pittance against the spread of suffering. I’ve had my share of lows and low blows, but on the whole an ordinary, comfortable American life, and right now have the time (a little) to write about the meta-issues – like beliefs – that I suspect to be the actual originators of so much of the world’s suffering.

    My argument against religious fundamentalism is simply this: “Your God is the One True Way? Fine, then prove it. Empirically. Otherwise stay the hell out of the public policy debate. Your children and grandchildren will thank you. And so will we non-believers.”

    If, as science consistently suggests, sexual activity is normal, healthy, and inevitable, why should we allow moralistic opinions descended from the unverifiable supernatural to argue otherwise? Why do we award equal voice to the unverifable supernatural and to painstakingly verified science alike?

    If I’m right that beliefs are straightjackets that impede free thought, and that conspire to cripple empathy as well, and thereby comprise most of the root causes of what we commonly deem ‘needless human suffering’, then calling those beliefs into question shouldn’t be the scandalous taboo it currently is. Instead, it seems to me to be the only decent, responsible thing to do.

  • Lumière

    Well thought out – can’t take issue with most of it.

    This is how we started:

    ///…refraining from framing the opinion or conjecture as a ‘fact’ or (and this is my worst intellectual allergy) as a ‘personal belief.\\\

    …..externally imposed formats for discussion: I am interested in the essence of what is said, not how it is “positioned”.

    ///….it might not apply to shy teens dealing with very self-righteous adults who hold economic power over you.\\\\

    It took a long time for me to understand the hypocrisy of it all.

    ///…beliefs are straightjackets that impede free thought…\\\\

    Beliefs can be good – here’s one I subscribe to:

    “Those who dwell among the beauties and mysteries of the earth are never alone or weary of life.” —Rachel Carson

    Beliefs, opinions, facts, all give structure to one’s thoughts. As you have probably said, the problem is the inability to be open to question and thereby possible to be proven wrong. (my definition of science: open to question and thereby possible to be proven wrong. )

    The problem is not belief, but stasis, rigidity, or stultification

    of the mind.

    ///….view social interaction as a series of confrontations.\\\

    Not exactly….confrontation is merely a way to generate insight. More importantly it is a way to resolve conflict by showing interest.

  • Nick

    Lumiere: “externally imposed formats for discussion”

    Yeah, it’s a fair cop. It was a friendly challenge though, not a demand.

    If I might briefly extend the tangent: isn’t calling someone or some event or policy ‘evil’ a means of stamping it with your strongest personal expression of disapproval? (I think this is Potter’s point, and I understand it.)

    And isn’t this more or less the very same thing we do—only in reverse—when we invoke our ‘beliefs’, by framing them as ‘facts’ or ‘truths’?

    To me, shouting ‘evil!’ and invoking ‘my beliefs’ (instead of acknowledging them as subjective values, or as disputable opinions) is a rhetorical stunt designed to imply: “Hands off these judgments of mine!”

    I personally understand the impulse to do it, but having analyzed it at length in my own rhetoric and that of others, I’ve come to cringe hard every damned time I see it.

    Hence my friendly challenge to rethink how we use “I believe!”

    Right. ‘Nuf said on this. :-)

  • jazzman

    Nick Says: “Empatheticality”, I clumsily call it, as a conceptual substitute for morality. How about empatheticity? Oh wait there already is a word for that: Empathy, the Nikosian Creed’s meta-tenet:

    Revere all other humans: they are you in different bodies. They see, on your behalf, what you cannot. On your behalf they hear what you cannot. On your behalf they smell what you cannot. On your behalf they taste what you cannot. And on your behalf they feel what you cannot.

    Revere all other creatures: they may not ponder as profoundly as you, but they feel just as deeply.

    Revere the plants: they feed you, whether directly or through animals that consume them, that you consume in turn.

    Revere the mountains and the valleys, the forests and the deserts, the wild steppes and the tamed plains. Revere all water, no matter its amount. Earth and water combine with sunlight to make you and all other life.

    Consider carefully – with empathy as your guide – the effect on other creatures and people any action you make. After empathy guides you, choose the action that harms the fewest other sentient creatures.

  • jazzman
  • jazzman

    Nick restates: (One final optional subsidiary challenge too: if you’re offering an opinion or a simple conjecture, it is MY opinion that you’ll meet a much more agreeable response from your idea’s consumers by refraining from framing the opinion or conjecture as a ‘fact’ or (and this is my worst intellectual allergy) as a ‘personal belief’…[I, Nick, believe] [my brackets] most usages of the words ‘belief’ and ‘I believe’ are subtle, deceptive rhetorical attempts to strengthen mere opinions and conjectures without offering any real corroborative evidence, whether via ‘facts’ or logic.

    For the umpteenth time: Beliefs for the most part are held to be operational facts by the believer and with the exception of intentional fallacious adductions for rhetorical purpose to convince others of their opinion’s validity, beliefs are held in good faith. There’s an intellectual histaminic trigger submitted for your approval.

    and Lumière says: Nick, Sounds like a pogrom you got going there. First get rid of ‘I believe’ then get rid of IMO, JMHO and OMO. and paraphrasing his Spinoza quote: opinion… provides only inadequate ideas and cannot be relied upon as a source of truth. Reason…does provide us with truth. Intuition… is the great source of adequate ideas, the highest form of knowledge, and the ultimate guarantor of truth.

    Spinoza had a brilliant mind (a beacon in the darkness of ignorance) and was way ahead of his time, unfortunately as you, ShlomoLieb, and others note: He was also a product/captive of his time and viewed reality thru his lenses. (PI)

    FWIW here are some quotes on truth and beliefs from William James’ Pragmatism (As I stated in his thread he was/is one of my primary personal influences.):

    “A new opinion counts as ‘true’ just in proportion as it gratifies the individual’s desire to assimilate the novel in his experience to his beliefs in stock”

    “The true is the name of whatever proves itself to be good in the way of belief”

    “The greatest enemy of any one of our truths may be the rest of our truths”

    “Truths emerge from facts, but they dip forward into facts again and add to them; which facts again create or reveal new truth (the word is indifferent) and so on indefinitely. The ‘facts’ themselves meanwhile are not true. They simply are. Truth is the function of the beliefs that start and terminate among them.”

    And from James’ The Meaning of Truth:

    “We believe that we all know and think about and talk about the same world because we believe our PERCEPTS are possessed by us in common”

    “The suspicion is in the air nowadays that the superiority of one of our formulas to another may not consist so much in its literal ‘objectivity,’ as in subjective qualities like its usefulness, its ‘elegance,’ or its congruity with our residual beliefs.”

  • jazzman
  • jazzman

    Sorry for my italicized haste

  • http://www.circles-salon.com allison

    lumiere, you didn’t answer the second part of my question, “Is this the only means in your perspective?”

    I’m not sure why everything has to be considered a confrontation. Or why that is the only way to achieve insight. I have had insights that had nothing to do with confrontation. I simply experienced something and had a a shift in perception. No one else was involved and no one was opposing my point of view. I’ve also been involved in creative processes where new ideas and perceptions have come out of blending energies synergistically without confrontation at all. If one is open, then confrontation is not necessary, simply seeing or absorbing or expanding.

    Perhaps I am reading too much into the word ‘confrontation’,. It implies at least two opposing forces. For me, it is linked to the oppositional model of warring which is ever present in our society. We worship at the altar of competition. Competition means a winner and a loser. It is not about mutual benefit. I think for us to find a more sustainable future, we need to make a fundamental leap away from that model. This will be hard to do if people believe the only way to gain insight is through confrontation.

  • Nick

    jazzman buddy, “for the umpteenth time”: I flatly disagree with you (and must take issue with your characterization of my simple opinions as ‘beliefs’ – for cryin’ out loud!!!) Although I do not disagree from ‘belief’, but from personal preference and from opinion.

    I will respond in full off-site, and notify you here via a discreet link, in a post whose bulk is more germane to this thread’s topics. For now, as briefly as possible: you are arguing for retention of the common, sloppy ‘catch-all’ usage of the word ‘belief’ – a word that in casual, everyday English can mean at least three different concepts. I am arguing that its secondary meanings (like ‘values’) deserve conceptualizations distinctly separate from the “mental acceptance of the truth or actuality of something” category. Because otherwise the language, as it stands now, allows us to egregiously conflate the lot of them, rhetorically deceiving our ideas’ consumers.

    Anyway…thanks for posting my long-lost “personal creed”. For the reader’s information: I typed that up off the top of my head in about 3 minutes and posted it onto the Dennett thread about 11 months ago. t’s probably the only virtuous thing I’ve ever written… ;-)

  • Nick

    Allison, I appreciate your latest (8:26 PM, Feb. 26th). You in turn might appreciate knowing about this book: EarthDance: Systems In Evolution, whose Amazon reviews include this:

    “(Author Elisabet Sahtouris) challenges the human species to live as the new biology now recognizes life has evolved, cooperatively and symbiotically rather than ‘red in tooth and claw.’ Unlike Edmund O. Wilson or Richard Dawkins, she does not have to explain love and altruism as a ‘strategy” to gain selfish ends but celebrates them as the very heart of evolution.”

    and:

    “Sahtouris does not simply represent the new post-Darwinian biology but is one of the leaders in the new twenty-first century science. In Biology Revisioned, a book he co-authored with Sahtouris, the late Willis Harman called the new science “Wholeness Science” as contrasted with the old “Separateness Science.” When you read EarthDance, you are reading “Wholeness Science” in its most elegant, poetic and visionary expression.”

    It’s affordable, too.

    Jazzman, my initial off-site response (I’m sure only one of a renewed series) to your 8:06 PM, Feb. 26th, is here. Others might find it interesting too. Feel free to comment.

  • Lumière

    ////….everything has to be….the only way to gain…\\\\

    I say confrontation leads to insight. This is not an absolute….sometimes it doesn’t.

    ///…a shift in perception…\\\

    I am defining insight to be the realization of a relationship. Can something have a relationship with itself or does there have to be something separate involved (separate could be read as opposing)?

    Opposing doesn’t have to mean warring or competition. Fire is in opposition to a forest, yet can be beneficial.

    Alan Watts’ “The Book” is on tape – in it he says you can’t have black without white – they are opposing yet dependant

    One defintition:

    confrontation – a focussed comparison; bringing together for a careful comparison

    Is there another way? Perhaps there is !

  • http://www.circles-salon.com allison

    Hi Lumiere, thank you for responding. And being open to the possibility that there may be more than one way to achieve insight.

    You couch everything in terms of relationship. It seems that we’re talking at a very fundamental level about duality versus oneness. I don’t disagree with the concepts you mention: can’t have black without white. Except when I disagree. ;-D I also believe that black and white are the same. In other words, I find both can be true and each perception can be useful for insight at different times.

  • http://www.circles-salon.com allison

    You know, I find this topic nagging at my mind. I was walking my dogs in the Arboretum and couldn’t get this out of my head: the concept of the burning forest being non-competitive because it’s good for the forest. I’m sure the plants and animals that suffer in the fire would’t consider it beneficial. And this is the same argument used for going to war: many will die, but it’s better for the remaining humanity. So, for me, the forest burning is still the warring model.

    Now, it can be argued that fires in a forest are a natural phenomenom and therefore we can’t argue with this type of meta-management. Still, I don’t see the value in wars. As with forests, if the underlying causes that lead to the need for such drastic measures were addressed earlier, we would not reach the stage of even positing that wars are necessary. The fact that nature doesn’t have mechanisms for this kind of prevention doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have them.

    But I diverge, the point being that the example of the fire in the forest doesn’t, for me, separate the confrontation model from the war model.

  • jazzman

    Allison says: . I’m sure the plants and animals that suffer in the fire would’t consider it beneficial.

    Allison, would you consider the concept that the universe is a cooperative gestalt and the plants and animals who perish or provide sustenance for the other members of the gestalt do so cooperatively for the benefit of all consciousness and do not engage in a cost/benefit analysis of physical vs. non-physical existence?

    I agree with your position on war which is a strictly human creation, and would posit that the reason an anthropomorphic nature doesn’t possess such preventative mechanisms is that it doesn’t need them. On a meta-level (and on the physical level) cooperation is the paradigm, if it weren’t then physical existence as we know it would not be possible. As William James noted and I agree, it is largely the ideas of Darwin and Freud that are responsible for a competitive nature model instead of a cooperative one.

    Negative experiences may/should serve as examples of to how not to act (as in your black & white example) so conflict and confrontation may be used to gain insight but I believe that there are better, positive, and more ideal ways to accomplish that goal.

    Peace

  • http://www.circles-salon.com allison

    Warning: Late night rambling.

    Yes, jazzman, I can consider the concept. As with Lumiere, I agree until I disagree. I think both perceptions have validity. Is everything a part of the one consciousness, cooperatively nurturing itself? Yes. But then, if you take the cooperative gestalt idea to it’s wholeness, then humans are a part of the one consciousness, right? So, if the suffering from a fire is a cooperative act then why not the suffering from a war?

    I’d like to see us all shift to an embracing of a cooperative paradigm, but if we want to people to go there, we have to admit that it doesn’t feel mutually beneficial when you perish in the fire to nurture others. And how do you prove that those plants and animals that perished in the fire do so cooperatively? Do we have some way of measuring and qualifying this consciousness? It’s a great theory and I think it would be a more beneficial model to follow, but I don’t see how you can convince people who are trapped within the limitations of their physical existence that the forest fire represents a cooperative gestalt while a war is a purely human creation that has no merits. Why isn’t a human creation part of the one consciousness? Isn’t it anthropomorphic to proclaim that somehow our consciousness is outside the realm of The One?

    There are always holes in these theories. Which is why you have to allow all theories to be valid at the same time.

    I’m not sure that physical existence as we know it requires cooperation. I think we are lacking imagination if we can’t picture another reason that life as we know it exists. Isn’t it possilbe that noone has ever really understood the foundations of existence and that noone ever will and that it isn’t necessary to? Perhaps there is one consciousness, perhaps not? Perhaps life woudn’t exist as it follow our own mental path to a set of conclusions about how we ought to behave here in this world. And then, most of us don’t behave that way all the time. That’s the banality of it all. That it doesn’t matter what meta-structure you are drawn to – religion, science, atheism – people from all categories commit egregious acts – from small to enormous. Will we ever change? What would it take? I think that first we have to stop talking about those egregious acts in terms of a meta-vision. We detach from the here and now and float in esoteric discussion while nothing changes. What about just starting a chain reaction of oaths: I proclaim to do no harm – including enabling, ignoring or allowing harm to others – and ask my fellow humans to help me maintain my oath with compassion. Really, isn’t that all that is needed? Persistent proclamations to do no harm? Who cares why you choose that oath?

  • Lumière

    war which is a strictly human creation:

    think ants or chimps

  • Robin

    Hi guys -

    I just got fully caught up on this conversation. Look for a post with some excerpts from this thread in about an hour or so.

    Also, after doing some pre-interviews, talking about things internally, and mining this thread for good ideas, (empathy, the origins vs. the nature of evil, subjective vs. objective vs. moral judgments of evil) we’re leaning towards breaking this show up into at least two different shows.

    The first show (tentatively scheduled for Thursday March 8th) would be more of an overview of Hannah Arendt’s life and work, introducing an introduction to the concept of the banality of evil as she described it. Our guests will likely be two of her last students who have spent their lives pouring over her work: Elisabeth Young-Bruehl and Jerome Kohn.

    The second show would likely be a more in-depth conversation about evil, starting with Arendt’s concept. We may build this show around Philip Zimbardo, whose recent work has included extensive interviews with prison guards from Abu Ghraib.

    Also, apparently Potter had the same idea I did: Meaning and Morality would be (ironically, since it’s been warming up for so long) a really good follow-up to these shows.

  • jazzman

    Allison says: Yes. But then, if you take the cooperative gestalt idea to it’s wholeness, then humans are a part of the one consciousness, right? So, if the suffering from a fire is a cooperative act then why not the suffering from a war?

    I agree that humans are part of the gestalt but I differentiate human consciousness from animal and plant consciousness in that I believe it to be a self-aware consciousness rather than an instinctual consciousness. (Again as we’ve discussed, these are my beliefs [to abate Nick’s allergies – opinions as they are not provable.])

    The metaphor of the Garden of Eden and the choice to taste the forbidden fruit is a mythical presentation describing when human consciousness chose to become self-aware (the birth of morality) instead of instinctive. Instinctively, a non-human entity (which to me includes everything besides humans) is intimately aware of its overall role in the gestalt and cooperates in the conscious expression.

    As I believe ALL consciousness chooses (for its own reasons) whether or not to cooperate in whatever drama is occurring (it is an individual choice, some will avoid the fire and some won’t,) those who choose (on an instinctive level) to be subsumed into the gestalt for other experience or purpose do not suffer as they recognize it is only a state change and do not identify with a pain or suffering response which while there is a corollary on a non-human level, the experience is not what we humans would recognize as pain or suffering which is a function of our nervous system and beliefs.

    I’d like to see us all shift to an embracing of a cooperative paradigm, but if we want to people to go there, we have to admit that it doesn’t feel mutually beneficial when you perish in the fire to nurture others

    Our consciousness is different from other entities, but if one chooses to perish while nurturing (saving others from the metaphorical fire) it may be perceived as mutually beneficial. The feeling part is a case of human projection, or anthropomorphization.

    And how do you prove that those plants and animals that perished in the fire do so cooperatively? Do we have some way of measuring and qualifying this consciousness? It’s a great theory and I think it would be a more beneficial model to follow

    I believe a priori in a cooperative model, and require no proof to support it. There currently is no way that I know of to measure or quantify consciousness, in science it is known as the “hard problem of consciousness” and most scientists choose to ignore it. It is as you say a great theory and the model I choose to follow. As we both have agreed, we are not out to convince anyone, and unless people realize that they are only “trapped” by their beliefs, that limitations are challenges they create for their own consciousness’s benefit, and take responsibility for their creations, the forest fire / war analogy will not make sense.

    War is a violent, acting out by those who feel powerless to achieve their goals peacefully or by diplomacy. Its merits may include population reduction, correcting societal imbalances, and thru the “horrors” demonstrate that such behavior is to be avoided but as I noted above there are better ways to settle differences. Fires and other “earthly” phenomena are not violence but natural processes that renew as well as destroy. Without these processes there would be stasis and life would be severely constrained.

    Why isn’t a human creation part of the one consciousness? Isn’t it anthropomorphic to proclaim that somehow our consciousness is outside the realm of The One?

    Yes and it isn’t outside the realm, nothing is (there is an infinite set of gestalts but they are all part of the set of all gestalts.)

    There are always holes in these theories. Which is why you have to allow all theories to be valid at the same time.

    Or invalid at the same time. We are the deciders of what is or isn’t valid.

    I’m not sure that physical existence as we know it requires cooperation. I think we are lacking imagination if we can’t picture another reason that life as we know it exists.

    Consider the biology of a complex living organism; its cells form organs, which all cooperate for the benefit of the whole organism. The cells are constantly dividing and dying, millions each day. If cells do not cooperate by dying to allow replacement by others, a cancerous condition occurs. If the organs don’t cooperate with each other the organism will not be able function.

    Consider how the motor control/muscles cooperate with the brain/autonomous control mechanisms to allow for smooth operation without the need for conscious direction. Darwin’s imagination pictured life existing by random chance and in a constant competition with itself and nature. If that is the dominant paradigm and most people (those who don’t accept the religious explanation, and accept Darwinian Evolution as the foundation of existence) believe in that model, then wars and violence are just a natural part of the tooth and claw struggle to pass on heritable traits. As along as people accept this explanation there is no moral compass save the well meaning but misguided dogma of religion, and we can see what has been and continues to be justified in the name of serving one’s idea of their supreme being’s dicta.

    Isn’t it possible that no one has ever really understood the foundations of existence and that no one ever will and that it isn’t necessary to?

    Yes it is possible but I believe their have been many who have understood its foundations and have either not been able to convey them adequately or they haven’t been accepted due to a lack of proof or many people don’t want to believe it due to the ramifications. It isn’t necessary to understand the foundations, but a moral center (Absolute Morality or equivalent) is necessary for balance and harmony.

    Will we ever change? What would it take? I think that first we have to stop talking about those egregious acts in terms of a meta-vision

    It takes a desire for change and an understanding (acceptance, if understanding is beyond our ability) that we are responsible for the experiences we create. If the egregious acts are viewed at the meta-level they are in a context that allows us to imagine/determine their root causes and therefore able to see how solutions are possible.

    I proclaim to do no harm – including enabling, ignoring or allowing harm to others

    This oath while well meaning is a catch-22 proposition because of the including clause. Enabling is a drama between the enabler and the enabled and they share equal responsibility for positive, negative, or neutral outcomes. Ignoring or disallowing harm to others is a choice that has to include the harmed’s role in the drama, allow the possibility that one’s belief in the proposition that a harmful situation exists may be incomplete or inaccurate, and how one chooses to interdict that harm. Harm arrested by violence is not ideal in my view and while I agree that many times it seems as if violence is the only means to the end, there are always other options (my preferred option is to not create a situation in which my direct experience confronts undesirable circumstances.)

    I would say all that is needed is to follow the tenets of Absolute Morality or some equivalent and let one’s life be an example that encourages others to follow suit. It has worked and continues to work for me, but that is just my opinion. You may or may not agree but I think you will until you disagree.

    Peace

  • jazzman

    Lumière says: war which is a strictly human creation: think ants or chimps

    While the actions of animals or even plants (think Kudzu or any invasive) may appear to humans as warlike it is the humans’ anthropomorphizing that gives rise to characterizations such as Army Ants or warring chimps or any of the many non-human species interactions that could be characterized as fighting and war. Social insects such as bees or ants appear to exhibit behaviors that remind humans of their own behaviors (killing, enslaving, exploiting other species etc.) so we project our beliefs (how we see ourselves) on them.

    Peace

  • http://www.circles-salon.com allison

    jazzman, it’s pretty clear when you see male chimps raping female chimps and the resulting trauma of the female that it is NOT a cooperative action. It is an aggressively destructive power play.

    And I still can’t see how you can argue that the animals that perish in a fire don’t suffer. It is all conjectuire on your part. They have nervous systems. We know that animals feel pain. We don’t know if they feel existential pain, but that is not the point. Up until the point that the nervous system is rendered ineffective they feel physical pain. And while you believe that they go through this willingly for the greater gestalt, and I would love to know that this is true, as much as I see this as a better model, I can’t proclaim it to be true. Truth is such an elusive thing.

  • Lumière

    I’m not sure why certain behaviors can’t be seen as shared. Evolution?

    ///…we are not the only animals who have close family bonds, make and use tools, or engage in warfare against one another.\\\

    http://www.janegoodall.org/chimp_central/

    Slave-raiding is a specialized type of social parasitism, and it has evolved several times in different groups of ants. These insects periodically raid other ant nests and take the pilfered brood back to their own nest.

    http://www.myrmecos.net/formicinae/slaveants.html

    Speciesism? Animals exhibit degrees of self-awareness.

    http://www.cambridge.org/us/catalogue/catalogue.asp?isbn=9780521441087

    I am not seeing morality as separating us from animals – at least I am not seeing morality as innate to humans. During the holocaust, people existed without morality.

    Much of this thread is people trying to define morality – maybe morality is difficult to define because it doesn’t exist.

  • Nick

    Jazzman, thank you for kindly heeding the sneezes of my ‘allergy’. Of course, I then had to sneeze my way through the remainder of your posts, but hey, it’s okay. ;-)

    I’m drafting a conciliatory post to you for my own blog. Here though I would like only to point out that when you write “unprovable” (8:07 PM, Feb. 28th), you’re ever-so-slightly missing my point.

    I’m not asking for “proof” when people frame their opinions as ‘beliefs’. I’m challenging us instead to offer evidence to support the ‘beliefs’ – or, failing that, to honestly frame the ‘belief’ as opinion, vague memory, conjecture, speculation, supposition, suspicion, guesswork, or any other prosaically smooth admission of uncertainty.

    If you supply evidence – be it via data or reason – we can make up our own minds on the viability of your ‘beliefs’.

    For an evidence-supported argument on why this level of skepticism concerning the word ‘belief’ might be important in these weeks while the US rattles its bloody saber toward Tehran, click here.

    Allison, fyi: elephants have just been added to the roster of non-human beings with a scientifically verifable sense of self-awareness, joining chimps and dolphins (porpoises, not fish). For the details, see page eight of the latest Scientific American Mind magazine (February/March issue).

    If creatures as diverse as chimps, dolphins, and elephants are demonstrably self-aware, how many other creatures might be, in ways our current methodologies are just plain inadequate to sense?

  • OliverCranglesParrot

    Animals exhibit degrees of self-awareness. Things like eating/not eating the self. Are there organisms which feed upon their own material being, under normal, non-duress circumstances? Just curious. This seems one, of several potential starting places, in understanding the commonality of self-awareness.

  • http://www.circles-salon.com allison

    Yes, nick, as I said before, I think it is a failure of imagination to think that anyone has really figured out the foundations of life. I also think it’s a failure of imagination to think that other beings don’t have a self-awareness or share behavior, with similar motivations, with humans. Since we can’t know, it is much better to be open to a truth unfolding – or not – when it does – or doesn’t.

    It’s a little too easy to just say that we’re anthropomorphizing if we interpret the behaviors as something similar to human. We are all from the material of the earth, so it is highly likely that we have a lot in common. After all, when my body decomposes and some earthworm has a few nibbles and creates some compost which nurtures a plant which is eaten by an animal, that animal is now composed of some of my physicality. Who knows if a piece of the consciousness that was Allison gets passed on? I think it’s flawed to claim that everything is one and interconnected and cooperative, but to then claim that certain attributes can only be human. Very human-centric perspective,

    I have a similar feeling about people who claim that since life on this planet is carbon-based, life anywhere else must be, also. Or that the elements that we have found here are the elements that compose the entire universe. Wow. This vast universe that we can’t even begin to explore more than a planet or two of and we think we know that it’s all composed of only the things we find here? Talk about ego-centric.

    if you ask me. Perhaps the ants are really laughing at us when those antennae wiggle. I’m sure the mice are having a real hoot. And as we suspect, the dolphins will someday be happily cheering, “So long, and thanks for all the fish!”

    All of this may be absurdist humor, but it opens up the mind to greater possibilities than the limited ideas we stick with when we have no hard evidence to support them. Given the self-destructivve path that the human race is trodding down, it might be wiser to be a little more open-minded. We might actually find ourselves needing a different understanding of things if our species is to survive.

    Of coures, maybe the universe is better off if we don’t…… [:-D

    I’ll close with this: One day some religious recruiters came to my door. They handed me a pamphlet and told me that if I embraced their religion I would have an eternal future that was pictured on the back of the pamphlet. It showed a family with a couple of children toiling on a farm. Happily, of course. I looked up and said, “Really? You don’t have any more imagination than to offer me an eternity of farm labor? I was hoping to move out of these limitations and experience something truly divine!” They were speechless and quietly walked away.

  • jazzman

    Allison Says: jazzman, it’s pretty clear when you see male chimps raping female chimps and the resulting trauma of the female that it is NOT a cooperative action. It is an aggressively destructive power play.

    Yes it is clear that animals behave instinctively they have no moral compass to guide them. What is also clear is that you (and everybody to one degree or another) project your/their experiences vis-à-vis human behaviors on similar ones, some of which involve violence and undesirable behavior which is highly charged in your current worldview.

    Human beings can and do behave brutally and males in general are more violently inclined than females. They are generally physically stronger and some are inclined to bully and obtain their desires by force. You probably have first hand knowledge regarding women who have been abused by men, I certainly do.

    We are barraged constantly by the media, reinforcing the idea of rampant brutality; rape & murder and other fear generating actions are portrayed to be the norm rather than the exception (entertainment especially trades on this genre – why do humans find such drama entertaining? I refuse to watch any Police, Law, Medical Dramas or the News except for weather & traffic reports.)

    Humans can reflect on their actions, their consciousness ideally manifests a “natural guilt” response to prompt them to avoid actions that cause that response. Animals act instinctively and are not hampered by guilt responses. They have no need for morality which is a human invention. The chimps are not immoral and they are following instinct, the trauma (another projection) is part of life as a chimpanzee and is a cooperative act in the larger sense even if it appears to be rape. Many animals appear unwilling in mating situations, permission is not always an option or in a species character. It may be a power play but it is natural and it is anthropomorphizing to equate their behavior with that of humans.

    The idea that animals do suffer is conjecture on my part. My opinion is that the animal/plant consciousness that identifies with stimuli such as pain is released from the neural pathways when the entity chooses to embark on another form of existence. This is a Buddhist concept.

    I would love to know that this is true, as much as I see this as a better model, I can’t proclaim it to be true. Truth is such an elusive thing.

    Truth is what you believe to be true, if you see it as a better model then what stops you from adopting it? You can proclaim it as much as I can, if you believe it, then it’s true for you. More later.

    Peace

  • http://www.circles-salon.com allison

    Well, jazzman, oboivously I can’t proclaim it as The Truth because I am open to the possibility that it is not. I dont’ exactly believe. I crave, perhaps, and try to be wha I crave, but I don’t necessarily believe. I’ve seen too many ‘truths’ later proven to be untruths to feel comfortable claiming that anything is the truth.

    I like to stay open and I’m perfectly able to hold a lot of things as truths even if they seem paradoxical. And I don’t think belief makes something true. Belief tricks you into thinking that the work is done. Once you believe, you can rest on your laurels.

    I suppose I also wonder why people who think they know The Truth don’t achieve a state of enlightenment. Some form of being that transcends what the rest of us are experiencing. Now, I’ve seen Thich Nhat Hanh (sp?) and I will say that I had trouble seeing him as I see other people. I was nearly blinded by golden light. This is not what I usually see emanating from people. It was golden, warm and very comforting. Now, perhaps, he’s onto something. I know, he’s practicing that same practice you put your belief in. But I’ve also met another person who appeared as a white light. He was Sufi. So, it’s not about the particular religion/philosophy. I’m sure that there are people from all religions that have achieved this state. It’s something else.

  • http://www.circles-salon.com allison

    ps – I don’t see how it’s anthropomorphizing to call it rape when a male chimp sexually assualts a female chimp. we can just say sexually assault – but that’s the definition of rape. The fact that I or another woman may have been raped may mean that emotions are stirred when learning about the chimps, but that doesn’t change the nature of the chimp assualt. And if I recall correctly, these acts were witnessed as a part of a larger series of acts between two groups of chimps. The rapes weren’t just random, they were part of a group effort to intimidate and destroy the other group. The motivations may not be as sophisticated as those of humans but the basic level of using the sexual assualt as a power play was pretty clear.

  • jazzman

    To all who have corrected my error: OCP, Lumière , Nick, Allison I mis-wrote when I stated that I differentiate human consciousness from animal and plant consciousness in that I believe it to be a self-aware consciousness rather than an instinctual consciousness. ALL consciousness is self-aware by its nature. What I should have said and meant to, is that human consciousness has chosen to be based on a FREE WILL model instead of operating by instinct.

    Lumière says: I’m not sure why certain behaviors can’t be seen as shared. Evolution? J. Goodall says: we are not the only animals who have close family bonds, make and use tools, or engage in warfare against one another. [People such as E.O. Wilson assert:] (brackets mine) Slave raiding is a specialized type of social parasitism, and it has evolved several times in different groups of ants. These insects periodically raid other ant nests and take the pilfered brood back to their own nest.

    If one believes in Darwinian Evolution (I do not but many do as they assume it has to be, with scant evidence other than the idea that Creationism is unpalatable) then one will fit the observations in to that model.

    Some animal species’ consciousness has a familial component but many do not. Animals engage in behavior that we believe is similar to our notion of warfare but that is anthropomorphizing. Animals may have found clever ways to obtain food using found objects as rudimentary extensions such as fishing for termites with a twig or cracking shells on a rock but calling them tools is a stretch and very few animals exhibit these behaviors and they are only used in conjunction with getting food or possibly chimps grabbing a found object to intimidate.

    Ants and social insects operate instinctively as a gestalt and exhibit behaviors which we project as similar to human actions.

    I am not seeing morality as separating us from animals – at least I am not seeing morality as innate to humans. During the holocaust, people existed without morality

    Whose morality? In the morality thread, I stated that each of us creates our own morality from our beliefs and worldviews. The participants in the Holocaust marched to their own morality. It just doesn’t comport with many other’s sense of morality. Morality is made of value judgments; if one believes that killing people for the putative greater good is acceptable, that’s not immoral that’s a duty (see Islamic martyrdom.) In my view all value judgments regarding right and wrong are neutral, which is why I subscribe to the tenets of what I call Absolute Morality as I see those as ideal and violations of those precepts are less than ideal.

    Much of this thread is people trying to define morality – maybe morality is difficult to define because it doesn’t exist.

    It exists in one’s mind by one’s definition.

  • jazzman

    Allison says: I think it is a failure of imagination to think that anyone has really figured out the foundations of life.

    I think it is the utmost triumph of imagination to think that one has figured out the foundation of life.

    It’s a little too easy to just say that we’re anthropomorphizing if we interpret the behaviors as something similar to human. We are all from the material of the earth, so it is highly likely that we have a lot in common.

    We have consciousness in common, but our interpretations are subjective and we tend to see things in terms as they relate to human behavior.

    Who knows if a piece of the consciousness that was Allison gets passed on? I think it’s flawed to claim that everything is one and interconnected and cooperative, but to then claim that certain attributes can only be human. Very human-centric perspective,

    Human attributes can only be human and each species attributes are their own as well. That is a consciousness-centric and inclusive perspective.

    Or that the elements that we have found here are the elements that compose the entire universe. Wow. This vast universe that we can’t even begin to explore more than a planet or two of and we think we know that it’s all composed of only the things we find here? Talk about ego-centric.

    The vast universe one imagines, is an idea construct and is a projection of one’s consciousness. The building blocks of physical reality are a function of physical law and elements are constructed and due to their atomic and sub-atomic nature. There may be other elements but they are subject to the same physical laws.

    Peace

  • jazzman

    Allison says: Well, jazzman, oboivously I can’t proclaim it as The Truth because I am open to the possibility that it is not. I dont’ exactly believe. I crave, perhaps, and try to be wha I crave, but I don’t necessarily believe. I’ve seen too many ‘truths’ later proven to be untruths to feel comfortable claiming that anything is the truth.

    Just because one is open to the possibility that something may not be true doesn’t mean that it’s not true, or that it cannot be asserted as truth. Absent contravening evidence which would convince one of the falsity of a belief, one still can confidently proclaim it to be true and it is for them until it isn’t (like you agree until you disagree.) It’s similar to the presumption of innocence until proven guilty beyond a shadow of a doubt. Anyway one of the problems Nick has with beliefs is the problem of operational truth. People operate under the assumption that what they believe to be true has a high probability of actually being true (whether there is evidence or not) which is why any belief is held in the first place.

    I suppose I also wonder why people who think they know The Truth don’t achieve a state of enlightenment.

    Thinking one knows The Truth (of the meaning of physical existence) is meaningless per se. Everyone to one degree or another has an idea of what they think The Truth is from religious zealots to naïve realists. Some think the truth is they don’t know the truth which is likely true.

    Those who have reached a state of enlightenment (like the Dalai Lama or Nhat Hanh – you are correct it is not about a particular religion or philosophy which is just a vehicle to focus the inner senses and is transcended by them on a personal level) on the other hand understand the nature of The Truth by definition. The light that one sees when one encounters these remarkable people, is generated by one in response to the recognition/sense of love, pure intention and transcendence that these individuals project. Even these people may not entirely grasp the meaning of existence but they all follow the tenets of Absolute Morality. (It also presupposes that there is a Truth – something that Darwinian Evolution negates.)

    ps – I don’t see how it’s anthropomorphizing to call it rape when a male chimp sexually assualts a female chimp. we can just say sexually assault – but that’s the definition of rape.

    It’s anthropomorphic because they are not human. Projecting human motivations/emotions onto animals and applying human moral standards to violence/sexual assault (it’s sexual because it involves sex organs) among animals is anthropomorphizing, it does change the nature of the assault in the minds of those with an emotional charge (one is creating the assault drama according to their own prejudices.)

    It may be a power play for territory (many species instinctively vie for territory and cooperate by ceding or sharing but this behavior is the exception rather than the rule in the animal kingdom) or whatever but it is instinctual and only clear to those that project/ascribe human motives to animal actions.

    You can call it what you like but it doesn’t mean that the animals regard it thus.

    Peace

  • Potter

    Katemcshane: Empathy is not banal. It is not common to all, pervasive, ordinary or unremarkable. If you are capable of empathy, you may assume that most people are capable of it, that what you see and feel is obvious. It’s not. Someone who is capable of empathy is at the upper end of psychological health. Empathy may even be relatively rare. Certainly, it is unusual.

    Thanks for your story which is wonderful but I disagree with your conclusion. The story proves the opposite for me. I doubt that the homeless mas was at the upper end of psychological health but perhaps in giving you the $2 he was uplifted ( as he should have been).

    This Harvard study reported on NPR in ’04 (as well as other studies I could link) find that empathy ( compassion, altruism cooperation) is hardwired, not unusual, not an evolved higher emotion: Study Probes the Roots of Human Empathy

    Apparently, I read, young soldiers were taught during the First World War a psychology that excluded empathy with the enemy. Maybe it’s standard training now for soldiers. In other words, soldiers have to be taught not to empathize.

    So empathy is normal, commonplace, ordinary (but not trite) though no doubt at the same time remarkable in that it’s effects are uplifting. By the banality of empathy I mean ordinary acts of empathy or compassion as in the ordinary heroic acts during wartime or natural disasters or in even, as in a story arising from everyday life above ( katemcshane’s story), ones you also don’t hear about on the news that occur all the time.

    Humans have a similar biological make-up and evolutionary history. Empathy is a successful adaptive quality. It dwells (comes out or can be brought out ) in each of us (unless one is psycho/sociopathic).

    The perpetrators of atrocities and heroic rescuers of Jews during the Holocaust have explained that they did only what was expected. To them, their actions were commonplace.

    It may also be true that our impulse and capacity for empathy gets exhausted by circumstance- what we are going through ourselves or the barrage of atrocities and tragedies, that we hear ( get pumped with) on the daily news. We get numb in to protect our emotions from overflowing that gives the impression that empathy is not there or normal. But given the right situation or atmosphere, it will, I believe pop right out even in the most troubled of us.

    Has the word “banal” or “banality”, because of Arendt’s use of it in the phrase “banality of evil” become an exclusively negative term? Can’t the good also be banal, ordinary, commonplace (again not trite) ? IS empathy really so radical or unusual or advanced an emotion? Or is coming to think that this is so an indication of a loss of faith in humanity?

  • Lumière

    I’m going to wade into this ever so carefully

    I think Allison is saying that rape is about dominace and power

    I think Jazzman is saying that dominance and power are the chimp’s world

    On the anthropomorphism thread Peggysue wrote I nice piece about imagining herself as a lovely salmon.

    But did she take it to its logical conclusion? Did she imagine being sun baked in a turgid pool, gasping for breath while a crow pecked at her eyes?

    If you are the lovely salmon, does that make the crow evil?

  • http://www.circles-salon.com allison

    Hey Potter, I read your post on empathy with interest. I’m wondering how those scientists define empathy. And, I don’t necessarily trust scientist, especially in the realm of things intangible. These are the folks, after all, who told us animals didn’t have emotions for the longest time.

    I’m wondering if people, even scientists, confuse empathy with sympathy.(or if I do!) In my mind empathy is a sensing of what someone else is experiencing. As my daughter might say, “I don’t feel sad about that, but you feel sad about that.” That is, without me telling her that I felt sad, she felt the sadness coming from me. That’s empathy. Sympathy is a recognition that someone is feeling something, but usually because it’s a logical conclusion based on the circumstances, a cultural norm, or the person has informed you. With sympathy you acknowledge and offer sympathy or take whatever action you deem appropriate, just as with empathy, but there is a different quality to it.

    In my experience, most people struggle with empathy but are quite capable of sympathy. Narcissists are incapable of empathy by definition, but are capable of sympathy. Empaths can’t stop empathizing by definition. Everyone is somewhere on the scale between narcissist and empath. What percentage is leaning closer to which end, I don’t know. But I’d venture, in this county at least, that more of us are over on the narcissist side of middle.

  • http://www.circles-salon.com allison

    Hey Lumiére, that works for me. Thanks.

  • Nick

    So while thinking up another leg of my discussion with Lumiere in the “Shuffle” thread, I stumbled onto an interesting idea. A moral and/or ethical conundrum, perhaps. It’s germane to this thread, and it’s more of a quandary than it might seem the first time you read it.

    And I think it might better belong here than on this thread.

  • Lumière

    Dude,

    I’d only be making one jazz stop:

    Lady Day

  • Potter

    Hi Allison: I have been using Merriam Webster online but I am often not happy with it and will change to American Heritage here b/c that is what I have used for years.

    My 2002 copy of AH leaves out “trite” in it’s definition of banal for instance. That word troubled me b/c it added something negative that I do not connect to empathy. So if the definition of banal is boring, trite I agree empathy is not banal. OTOH I do think empathy is is commonplace, ordinary in the sense that I believe Arendt used it for evil. Evil is not trite either, nor boring. This all makes me think of how revolutionary her phrase/concept ” the banality of evil” is.

    American Heritage

    empathy: 1.Identification with and understanding of another’s situation, feelings, and motives. See Synonyms at pity. 2.The attribution of one’s own feelings to an object.

    sympathy

    1. a. A relationship or an affinity between people or things in which whatever affects one correspondingly affects the other.

    b. Mutual understanding or affection arising from this relationship or affinity.

    2. a. The act or power of sharing the feelings of another.

    b. A feeling or an expression of pity or sorrow for the distress of another; compassion or commiseration. Often used in the plural. See Synonyms at pity.

    Compassion Deep awareness of the suffering of another coupled with the wish to relieve it. See Synonyms at pity.

    Pity Sympathy and sorrow aroused by the misfortune or suffering of another.

    My interpretation: Both sympathy and compassion indicate suffering along with someone or deeper feeling whereas empathy is more neutral or less deeply felt perhaps but still feeling along with someone. Pity for me has always been something to avoid- it’s feeling for someone but it distances and is therefore at least slightly negative though you can’t tell from this definition.

    If you followed the link to the audio clip of the short NPR report it would explain the research. I hesitated to list several more links to other studies that indicate that we are hardwired to feel empathy. I hope you would not connect studies to some somewhere in the past that eventually proved wrong while neglected those that were right or onto something.

    Here are links to articles to check on the hardwiring of empathy. I would be interested in your response:

    http://www.washington.edu/newsroom/news/2002archive/01-02archive/k012202.html

    http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2003/04/030408085640.htm

    Regarding Katemcshanes thesis- Perhaps sympathy or compassion ( as opposed to empathy) is a more advanced emotion or can only be felt by someone who has some life experience ( not a child). Still I do not think one has to be healthy to feel any of this and in fact quite the opposite. Katemcshanes example made me think. This beggar was probably the recipient of so many acts of kindness and he in turn perhaps acted almost out of impulse, empathically ( from a more primitive part of his brain) as well as/or sympathically or compassionately ( who can say?).

  • http://www.circles-salon.com allison

    But according to Merriam-Webster:

    empathy

    Etymology: Greek empatheia, literally, passion, from empathEs emotional, from em- + pathos feelings, emotion — more at PATHOS

    1 : the imaginative projection of a subjective state into an object so that the object appears to be infused with it

    2 : the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner; also : the capacity for this

    #2 is how I’ve understood empathy and it is this kind of empathy that I find rare.

    This is why it’s important to stop sometimes and sort out how we are all using these words that we think are so common, yet we may have very different understandings of.

  • Nick

    My understanding of empathy jibes with Allison’s. But saying that isn’t intended to argue that Potter’s or Kate’s understanding of the meanings of empathy aren’t valid.

    While conversing with jazzman recently, I was reminded of something I’d recently read in a book by brain scientist Walter Freeman, titled How Brains Make Up Their Minds. This, Allison, is a scientist with humanistic intentions. His book’s purpose, he explains, is to demonstrate that people are self-creating entities imbued always with choice. This stands in contrast to the so-called “ultra-Darwinists” (like Dawkins, Wilson, and Dennett) who seem enthralled by the fatalistic notion that we’re little more than automatons owned and operated by our genetic legacy and by the biological impulses that legacy has ‘hard-wired’ (now there’s a phrase I’m sick of reading in biology!) into us.

    Freeman’s book details what the neuron clusters of the human brain spend so much time and energy doing: creating meaning. Meaning, he indicates, is the brain’s first business, because without the ability to create meaning, communication through speech, or even body language cues that infants are first exposed to, would be – well – meaningless.

    On page 9, he writes, “Meaning is a kind of living structure that grows and changes, yet endures.” He then spends much of the book explaining how an individual’s brain’s ‘plasticity’ gives rise to the individual’s aggregations of meaning.

    (quote)

    The dynamics isolates the meaning in each brain from all others, endowing each person with ultimate privacy, and loneliness as well, which creates the challenge of creating companionship with others through communication. I call this condition ‘epistemological solipsism,’ to conform with the philosophical term for a school of thought that holds that all knowledge and experience is constructed by and within individuals. (This view differs from the extreme called ‘metaphysical solipsism,’ which holds that the whole world is a fantasy of each individual.) (unquote, Freeman, pp.9-10)

    (quote)

    Meanings have no edges or compartments. They are not solely rational or emotional, but a mixture. They are not thought or beliefs, but the fabric of both. Each meaning has a focus at some point in the dynamic structure of an entire life. Meaning is closed from the outside by virtue of its very uniqueness and complexity. In this sense, it resembles the immunological incompatibility of tissues, by which each of us differs from all others. The barrier between us is not like a moat around a castle or a fire wall protecting a computer system; the meaning in each of us is a quiet universe that can be probed but not occupied. (unquote, Freeman, p.14)

    Much of what we bloggers do on ROS is to “probe one another’s quiet meaning-universes”. In so doing, we discover that words like ‘empathy’ don’t – and can’t – mean exactly the same things to different peoples.

    This is a long way of saying thank you to both Potter and Allison for offering their understandings of the meaning of empathy. I share more perhaps with Allison’s take, but I also share much of Potter’s distinctions between empathy, sympathy, compassion, and pity.

    It’s worth reiterating (see the ‘Wisdom from the Arendt Thread’ thread) that empathy isn’t simply imaginary, since it stems from the brain region called the right insula.

    So then, what stymies empathy? Earlier to today I wrote to a friend who participates on these threads:

    I’m confused about the commonness of empathy. The ROS conversation varies between sentiments suggesting that we all feel it, while others contend – often persuasively – that it’s all too rare in real life.

    I’ve spent more than four decades regarded by my buddies and girlfriends as a ‘sensitive type’ and a ‘bleeding heart’, which I’ve interpreted to mean (in part) that my own empathy lies closer to my surface awareness than perhaps it does in many others. But not always. Not consistently. Sometimes it’s way too hard to summon any will to extend my empathy toward bullies. I prefer to resist sensing the pleasure they earn from their truculence.

    Now, from that unscientific, wholly subjective background, arise my tentative conclusions:

    1. testosterone inhibits (but does not completely block) the insula’s empathetic impulses from entering one’s conscious awareness.

    2. beliefs – particularly those that discriminate against humans beyond those in one’s ‘in-group’ – work like testosterone, or hand in hand with it.

    But I’m not at all confident about conclusion no.1 since I’ve had plenty of sex drive in my life and yet plenty of empathy alongside it.

    Which leaves me leaning much more heavily toward conclusion no.2…

    I asked it above and must ask it again: What inhibits the everyday functioning of empathy?

    Can anyone help me think this thing through?

  • Lumière

    Good stuff Nick !

  • Nick

    I’ve had time to reevaluate what I wanted to mean in this sentence:

    “I share more perhaps with Allison’s take, but I also share much of Potter’s distinctions between empathy, sympathy, compassion, and pity.”

    Allow me to rephrase:

    I share, essentially word for word, Potter’s distinctions between empathy, sympathy, compassion, and pity. Alongside that, however, my primary understanding of empathy is this from Allison: “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner; also : the capacity for this”.

    I don’t think it’s contradictory to understand both of those sets of meanings simultaneously (although I could be wrong!).

    Anyway, thanks again to everyone for making this such a stimulating thread. :-)

  • Potter

    I had a strong reaction to katemcshane’s theory, I quote it in my post above.

    I connect with Allison #2 definition of empathy. I have no problem with it. I don’t see the difference from mine at all ( Nick? Allison?). There is a difference between empathy and compassion/ sympathy that no one here is refuting either. If you accept the emerging science, empathy is now being thought of as more elemental, present from early on. Not so with the others, for which you need more life experience.

    So I don’t think empathy is rare at all. We come with it. It’s true it may be that I feel that b/c of the path my life has taken but still I think it is common. As I said in my post it’s more likely that you will get empathy from someone who is suffering- or who has suffered b/c they are in such pain and empathy gets them out of it— connecting, giving, to another. But you don’t get it if you don’t need it either. That’s what kmcs’s story was all about ( for me). The beggar knew about empathy, was the recipient of it, and passed it along to Kate in her need. Here I may be actually talking about compassion or sympathy… hard to say. Whether the action sprang from a deep part of his brain or something more related to life experience, emotionally deeper more sophisticated ( or both), in a way it does not matter.

    Allison talks about her little girl having empathy:

    I’m wondering if people, even scientists, confuse empathy with sympathy.(or if I do!) In my mind empathy is a sensing of what someone else is experiencing. As my daughter might say, “I don’t feel sad about that, but you feel sad about that.” That is, without me telling her that I felt sad, she felt the sadness coming from me. That’s empathy.

    Agreed. Even when my son was 2 years old , I remember so well, how moved he was, how he consoled me when I was upset. He could not know deeper human suffering associated with compassion or sympathy- but he did have empathy. I have it– you have it! We are not unusual!

    Regarding sympathy, Allison’s speaks of it in a formal more distant sense (as in we “offer sympathy”)…. It’s really much deeper and closer, if actually felt (my understanding).

    The links in my post to the studies that suggest that we have empathy from early on confirmed my feelings about it.

    What keeps us from feeling empathy? I agree with what Nick says about hormones and beliefs. I think I even read that recently somewhere. The natural inclination to empathize can be drummed out of us… especially with appeals to our tribal nature. Even so I gave the example of young soldiers ( who you would think have enough testosterone) having to overcome empathy in order to do their jobs, especially to kill.

    Add to the two above, I think here in the US for instance…. it’s uncomfortable to think of the poor, the sick if you are or are doing well ( though many still do). But get sick yourself, or if a loved one is suffering, or lose your job, and you start empathizing with all the others. Where people live (ie in a city, in a war zone, in a commune or tribe) may effect one’s willingness or ability to empathize. Defense mechanisms kick in.. a natural protection against emotional exhaustion.

    Arendt saw and felt the suffering of Jews and that connected her, to her tribe/religion/ethnicity (though she was more secular). She must have empathized with Eichmann to come to the conclusions that she did. I don’t think she had sympathy or compassion. (Perhaps she did- I forget whether she agreed with the sentence).

  • Potter

    PS- the reason I went to the American Heritage Dictionary was b/c with the definition of “banal” or “banaIity” I was not comfortable with “trite” or “trivial” when thinking about Arendt’s “banality of evil”. Any thoughts on that? The concept of “banality of evil” is, I find, very thought provoking.

  • Potter

    Here is an interesting entry on a blog out of UC Berkeley Greater Good Science Center. It clarifies somewhat the issue of testosterone’s relation to empathy.

    Biology, Empathy and Science Journalism

  • katemcshane

    I’m sorry to say that I don’t have time to read this thread, because I’m at work. Maybe this will sound stupid, but I didn’t intend to say that the old man had a capacity for empathy. I wrote a collection of thoughts as they came to me. Certainly I would say he sympathized with what I was going through; certainly I would say he is a warm and compassionate person. I don’t know him well enough to say that he is also empathic. I think my point was that he is poor and he understood what I felt. And when he saw me and heard I was homeless, he was shocked, because I didn’t look like most of the homeless people he’d seen. His response was to share some of his money and I was deeply moved by that. I talk to people on the street, so I’ve met a lot of homeless people. Some of my friends were very good to me during this time, but the people who went out of their way to be warm, to tell me that they had also been homeless and they understood were poor people. Other friends, when they knew I had nowhere to stay at one point, said, “Try Rosie’s Place”, or, “Gee, we just can stand to have anyone stay with us.” Those people may be empathic, according to the definitions here, but you couldn’t prove it by me. A total stranger let me stay with him for two weeks until I had enough money for a room.

    When I worked in human services of one kind or another, I heard people make what I thought were banal comments about other people’s pain, cliches they’d heard on television about child abuse or homelessness, but those same people couldn’t have a conversation with victims of abuse or street people, and when they made those same banal comments to people in those positions, they didn’t understand why their comments evoked anger. Once I explained to a young woman I supervised how to talk to people in pain, how to open herself and let what they said come into her, feel it, and say what her compassion for those feelings told her. She said, “Why would I do that for a stranger?” For the life of me, I don’t know what that says, if empathy is so common. She was not unusual, in my experience.

    What I do not understand — if empathy is so common, why do we treat people so badly?

  • OliverCranglesParrot

    While I continue to ponder upon the quantum nature of the can opener, we can watch Hitler’s Rant About a Leasing Contract a Hit on YouTube … ah, the banality of sales… Hilter Leasing! with laugh track.

  • Ben

    I am curious to know how Arendt defined, qualified, or considered Evil before she made the leap to say Evil-doers can be regular people. Did she think of Evil as natural or supernatural? What did she think Evil was? Could she have equally coined the “Banality of Slavery” or the “Banality of Corruption,” or does her pretense require Evil to remain somewhat undefined?

    There is no apparent limit to the harm or help we can do one another, yet ‘Evil’ remains more cosmically troubling (and at times interesting) than ‘Good’ – less is understood about what it is and it has few direct opposite counterparts in language ideas. Motivations or expectations are seldom questioned once something or someone is designated as ‘Evil’ or more appropriately – ‘rival’ or ‘enemy’ – rather than when designated as bad or malignant. Evil is something of a deification. Is it more than dramatization to call natural human responses or the manipulation of them Evil? Maybe. The invocation of these opposites is a highly manipulative action engaged in to provoke limited and expected responses. The very acceptance of a corporeal Evil allows awful actions to be justified in the name of the prevailing accepted good. Could it follow that application of the concept of any corporeal Evil used outside of creative or mythic conversation, evades by design any engagement or consideration of the Evil and the act of designating Evil itself leads to or is Evil (if one is inclined to believe it)?

  • GodzillaVsBambi

    Igor Says: It’s really sad to see that all you can do is to juggle words.

    Juggling words is something that the communist and atheist do not understand. That is why Putin is a scumbag murderer, and America is so rich and powerful. That is why Russians have no God – real or imagined, doesn’t matter. That is why Russians must gnaw at each others flesh to survive. That is why scumbag Putin operates underground and not in the light of day. He only knows how to kill and destroy and cause corruption. Anna Politkovskaya was born in NY my friend. Do you think her murder was free? Think again!

    What is “sad” here is that you, Igor, think that people living in a Democracy are “juggling words”; in an open forum setting no less. A kind of digital town hall thing you know nothing about. To me you seem too ready, willing and able to limit people’s free speech and feed them a certain kind of propaganda that, quite frankly, is beginning to stink!

    Daniel: BramGolah@gmail.com

  • Bill Pontius

    For Arendt, the most striking aspect of the life of many of the great evildoers of history is the normality of their lives. They leave the gas chambers of an Auschwitz after 5:00 to return home to their families with which they carry on in a most human manner. They show genuine concern for their children, wives and communities. They pursue their religious life , and are active in the community. They are good Joes.

    Last weekend on one of my favorite NPR programs, Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me, Peter Segal interviewed Tony Snow, the White House press secretary. During the interview Snow volunteered a portrait of Mr. Bush as an extraordinarily likeable guy. He said it was the best place he had ever worked and could not have been more enthusiastic with praise for his boss. He described Bush as a man who loved to lead men and one who could well bare the burdens of leadership. Mr. Bush, he said, would not be caught, as other president’s might have, walking gloomily around the oval office late at night with worry. Snow seemed to say that Bush’s ability to carry on normally when faced daily with such momentous decision was an unusually positive quality in a leader. That Mr. Bush was indeed peculiarly suited to lead our nation just because his decisions did not disrupt his composure in daily life. This account of White House life was unsettling . How could it be that the decider’s decisions rested so lightly on his brow. Unaccountably disturbed, l turned the radio off, missing a program which normally heals with humor. It was in the early morning hours, while mulling over my teenage memories of lectures given by Ms. Arendt at Colorado College in the mid 60′s that I thought maybe Arendt’s account of Eichmann had something to say about Mr. Bush . Arendt was ultimately unable to tie Eichmann, the little man before her in the witness stand, a man of modest feelings, thoughts and passions, with the great bulk of a supremely evil genius that would be necessary to bear the wait of his monstrous deeds. She was struck by the paltriness of the man in the face of his deeds and concluded that thoughtlessness was at its root. The great evil agency which would be needed to absorb his evil deeds was not commensurate with the cipher before her.. Mr. Bush’s fabled calmness and humor in the face of the horrors engendered by his policy have the same lack of symmetry as observed by Ms. Arendt at the Eichmann trial.

  • katemcshane

    I’m home now. I share Allison’s view of empathy. The definition she cited:

    “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner,”

    is the definition I use. I also agree with Allison that everyone is between narcissistic and empathic and “in this country” we, as individuals, are probably closer to the narcissistic end of things. When I was homeless, a woman from Singapore told me to ask foreigners for help, explaining that “People from other countries are BETTER.” (She was screaming.) The DSM says that “narcissistic personality disorder(s)” constitute 1% of the population. I spoke with a psychologist last year and I said that I was pretty sure that more than 1% of the population in the U.S. is narcissistic. She laughed and agreed that absolutely the percentage is much higher. When you look at the culture, it seems obvious. What I have observed, also, over the last several decades, is that there seems to be confusion, often, about what empathy is. I once listened to someone I worked with who was shouting angrily on the telephone to a client. When I asked why she was acting this way, she said, “Empathy.” I asked her to explain, and she told me that the client was angry and shouting at her, so she shouted back. She was a counselor with a Master’s degree.

    Potter, I just read what you said about the old man I wrote about — “I doubt that the homeless man was at the upper end of psychological health, but perhaps in giving you the $2, he was uplifted (as he should have been).” First of all, this man is not homeless. He lives in what is now my neighborhood. I wrote that he begs sometimes when he cannot get through the month. I have no reason to imagine that he is not at the upper end of psychological health, nor any reason to believe that he is. I have spoken with him a number of times, but I don’t know him well. He’s funny, gutsy, and extremely grateful when someone helps him out. I do not assume that he is not psychologically healthy because he begs. There are people who are not able to eat all month because Social Security payments are so low, and they would rather starve than beg. Who is to say which is healthier? You also said that perhaps he acted impulsively out of a primitive part of his brain. To be honest, that remark feels insulting. I was there and it was fairly simple: he knows what it’s like to be hungry and he wanted to help. I don’t find that to be ordinary. Anyone who has been homeless will testify to that. When it comes to homelessness, the simplest acts of kindness, such as his, are rare in this society. Rationalizations about not acting at all are common.

    I have not looked through the OED for origins of the word “banal”, but I’m willing to bet it does not describe “good” or “empathy.” Maybe a talk show about empathy or good acts would be likely to be banal, but goodness and empathy are not banal. I have to admit that I first heard that a capacity for empathy was seen in psychologically healthy people in psychological theory. In the last 30 years or so, as far as I know, it was widely accepted among psychotherapists that empathy existed in very healthy people. Since it fit with my own observations of people, I didn’t question it. I still don’t. This does not mean that I have no faith in humanity.

  • katemcshane

    In my 4 p.m. post, I meant to write, “Gee, we just CAN’T stand to have anyone stay with us.”

  • Lumière

    Potter might be saying that the base layer of human psyche, which includes empathy, is overlaid by more complex motivations.

  • Potter

    Thanks katemcshane: What I do not understand — if empathy is so common, why do we treat people so badly?

    Sometimes- we being variable creatures.

    So those who knew what you were going through were able to empathize, sympathize ( whatever) and extend themselvesand perfect strangers, those who suffered what you were suffering or who were poor were able to embrace you more easily while some friends ( friends?) told you to go to Rosie’s.

    Being a doctor, a nurse, working in human services does not make one compassionate or bring out empathy – the opposite at times depending on the person.I wonder how a doctor for instance can operate day in and day out feeling deeply- draining emotions. I wonder how they manage sometimes. I think it’s with a little numbing, shutting down.

  • Potter

    Katemcshane says to Potter: You also said that perhaps he acted impulsively out of a primitive part of his brain. To be honest, that remark feels insulting.

    I did not know the particulars of your neighbor, did not wish to belittle a good act. Please excuse/forgive but as well you are picking a phrase out of the whole of what I said. The point is ( as Lumiere points out above) that empathy is an essential part of us all- an apparently adaptive trait. It is hard to tell from a story what the nature of those feelings really were so I allowed for all possibilites. And it really does not matter that much which emotion caused the act of kindness- base empathy, sympathy, compassion ( or even pity). it was the act that was important.

    From two posts above what I said:

    This beggar was probably the recipient of so many acts of kindness and he in turn perhaps acted almost out of impulse, empathically ( from a more primitive part of his brain) as well as/or sympathically or compassionately ( who can say?).

    The beggar knew about empathy, was the recipient of it, and passed it along to Kate in her need. Here I may be actually talking about compassion or sympathy… hard to say. Whether the action sprang from a deep part of his brain or something more related to life experience, emotionally deeper more sophisticated ( or both), in a way it does not matter.

    I guess I got myself into trouble here by feeling strongly that acts of kindness are not rare or unusual. Others may experience life differently.

  • Nick

    Potter is on to it, I think:

    “I wonder how a doctor for instance can operate day in and day out feeling deeply- draining emotions… I think it’s with a little numbing, shutting down.”

    My two works of book length fiction (currently languishing) center on extraordinarily empathetic characters. After working for hundreds of hours with these characters in their narrative milieus, I have found it necessary to allow them methods for restricting the inflow of their empathetic sensitivities, because otherwise they would quickly become overwhelmed. Catatonic, even.

    On the other hand, their sensitivity—especially to suffering—provides them the motivation to work hard at combating inhumanity. It also allows them the means to do it (but that’s why it’s fantasy!).

    I expect doctors and other caregivers can easily sink into numbness, effectively making their patients into veritable ‘hurdles’ whose problems they must solve to earn their pay. I don’t envy such caregivers. They might have begun as highly sensitive people.

    If this sort of characterization is commonplace instead of rare, caregivers like that deserve our compassion too, even though it might at first blush seem counterintuitive to pity them.

  • GodzillaVsBambi

    Bill Pontius,

    Good post but – what is the alternative? Woody Allen? Would you like to see our president get on his knees during war time? I believe Bush really cares about the country. I voted for him twice. And I admit that before I cast the first vote I had to look at the bigger picture; a picture that was much bigger than me and the thoughts in my head.

    In the end one can make all kinds of analogies to wartime presidents and conquerors of the past to the madmen and murderers of the present. There is a certain denominator of coldness to it. So far man has not shed his proclivity for war. That much is certain. But when the unfortunate tides of war happen to beset an unsuspecting democracy – or for that matter any other nascent liberal state – should not the keepers of that light and the holders of that democratic torch step forth to ensure its growth and safety; a system that has been tried and tested for millennia, verses some despot or dictator or some terrorist with a bomb? You mean to tell me that you do not have this kind of faith – to see a difference between the two?

  • Potter

    Bill Pontius- I like your post and thanks for it, no “but”s

  • nother

    Your next meal – a fresh catch of fish – periodically flops in the cooler. As you nod your head to some reggae, the love of your life hands you a cold one – you stand proudly at the helm. The orange sun is setting and it warms your newly bronzed face. Your bare feet vibrate as you pull the throttle and move freely into our tiny inlet.

    “Slow down!” – a lone voice cries fruitlessly in the distance. “A manatee has been skinned by your motor!”

    Your wake of waves begin to crash ashore. The once feeding dolphins have fled and the peaceful pelicans have scattered.

    With my mask I submerge and witness the chaos that reigns in your wake.

    I look up in time to see your silhouette take a long sip.

    The cool breeze and flecks of water gush into your face. Will you fry or grill this fish – you wonder?

    In the open salty air, you exchange smiles with your love. Life is good.

  • Sir Otto

    Wasn’t it Socrates? “The only evil is ignorance, knowledge the only good”.

    Mr. Elon’s quote at the top;

    “Evil comes from a failure to think. It defies thought for as soon as thought tries to engage itself with evil and examine the premises and principles from which it originates, it is frustrated because it finds nothing there.”

    concurs

  • Nick

    Nice job, nother. Reminds me of my chagrin over the unacceptably sanitizing euphemism, ‘collateral damage’.

    The difficulty of coupling the adjective ‘banal’ with the nouns ‘evil’ & ‘empathy’.

    My ROS-participant friend has been helping me (off-site) to think through a couple of stubborn quandaries. Here’s a 2-part summary of tentative conclusions:

    1. manning120 (Feb. 19th @ 10:20PM) captures the essence of it here:

    “…evil itself is never properly described as banal. The term usually describes artistic or other communicative efforts that fail to grab or hold our attention, or that annoy us because of being repetitious or predictable. Using “banal” in relation to evil seems figurative.”

    I tend to agree. ‘Banal’, in my experience, inevitably carries a somewhat pejorative implication. For example, my aging American Heritage Dictionary says (italics mine):

    “banal : Repeating a worn-out convention or type; unaffecting and drearily predictable.” (p.103)

    &

    “Banal often adds to lack of freshness the implication of inanity or a lack of good taste.” (“synonyms at ‘trite’”, p.1374)

    So, pejorative, but fairly weakly pejorative, yes? I mean, it seems to falls short of all-out condemnation.

    Meanwhile, the ‘evil’ in this thread isn’t explicitly the supernatural ‘Evil’ anthropomorphized in the mythological figure named ‘Satan’; instead, the real ‘evil’ of this thread’s inspiration is nothing less than the Holocaust. History’s most utterly vile and monstrous pogrom.

    Knowing that (even if only semi-consciously), how can we bring ourselves to apply the weakly pejorative ‘banal’ to a noun like ‘pogrom’?

    It isn’t pejorative enough!

    It implicitly belittles the noun ‘pogrom’: “A banal pogrom”.

    An unprecedented atrocity like the Holocaust demands adjectives that imply unprecedented ‘evil’, or unprecedented inhumanity. “Banal” not only falls short, it falls exponentially short.

    2. Coupling ‘banal’ with ‘empathy’ and ‘compassion’ falls short in reverse. Because even if Potter is right (and I’m inclined to think she’s onto something there) that empathy and even compassion are much more commonplace than we seem willing to accept, we don’t want to belittle such nouns with weakly pejorative adjectives like ‘banal’. Instead, we want to recognize compassionate acts as the virtuous “extraordinary, selfless efforts” of virtuous people, in order to encourage the spread of such acts.

    Otherwise, we’re implying, in effect: “Since acts of compassion are being handled by so many others, why do I have to bother?”

    Perhaps there’s a middle solution to this troubling difference of opinion. Perhaps both positions are correct: maybe empathy and compassion are more commonplace than we train ourselves to accept – but that our real-world actions flowing from compassion are much more rare than the simple emotions called ‘empathy’ and ‘compassion’.

    Whaddya think?

  • Lumière

    Bill Pontius – a well written post making subversive linkages.

    Two things:

    1 Intent: it was not Bush’s intent to do evil but to battle evil – democracy is a good thing

    2. Would you rather he panic or do something like Carter did when he shut the Christmas lights off at the White House?

    Impeachment people here are failing to link the effect on the economy and world markets – be careful with the debt bomb folks.

  • Lumière

    Nick –

    Look at this:

    ///…falls short of all-out condemnation.\\\

    That is the mistake Bush made when he cast ‘the evil empire’.

    It was an all-out condemnation, no?

  • jazzman

    Ben asks: Could it follow that application of the concept of any corporeal Evil used outside of creative or mythic conversation, evades by design any engagement or consideration of the Evil and the act of designating Evil itself leads to or is Evil (if one is inclined to believe it)?

    That is the precise moral of OCP’s cautionary tale of her caretaker’s act, Four O’clock which was dramatized by Rod Serling.

  • jazzman

    katemcshane asks: What I do not understand — if empathy is so common, why do we treat people so badly?

    Here is my take, katemcshane, on empathy and its nature: How one treats others is not a function of empathy, it is a function of how one chooses to react to a situation or drama that one creates which is a function of one’s worldview.

    Just because one is able to empathize with another (which is a fundamental feature of humanity) in a particular situation does not mean one is predisposed to help or even be kind to that person especially if other overriding emotions such as FEAR or beliefs/prejudices come into play. It may be that people who are poor, homeless or have experienced similar situations as another are more sympathetic to a person’s plight due their own experiences or perhaps misery loves company.

    It is my contention (I’m sure some here would say ad nauseum) that FEAR is the major cause of mistreatment, misunderstanding and misguided behavior vis-à-vis others. Fear is a primal emotion and perhaps the strongest motivator except love (its opposite.)

    Empathy (see below) is the ability to “walk in another’s shoes”, and the basis of the “Golden Rule”. It can manifest depending on one’s beliefs and proficiency as Bill Clinton’s “I feel your pain” literally or as schadenfreude if you feel another’s suffering and think it serves them right as you believe they deserve to suffer.

    Peace

  • Nick

    Lumiere, please forgive my density, but I don’t quite grasp the point of your 4:03 PM. Could you please elucidate?

    Thanks.

  • jazzman

    I believe (hold your nose so you don’t sneeze Nick – read it’s my opinion – although I see you believe (albeit tentatively) that certain beliefs may be an impediment to empathy) that empathy is an innate property of human consciousness (a sense like the 5 major senses and others not officially recognized) and is the ability to project one’s consciousness onto another’s (and not just human beings) and imagine actually being the other or feeling as they do in the empathetic moment.

    It may be posited that other entities may express empathy but I suspect that it is the projection/anthropomorphizing of our own innate empathy onto them. The empathetic sense can be heightened/trained thru practice, imitation (imprinting), and focus (like other senses) to be more or less sensitive to others’ conditions or repressed altogether.

    This repression is what enables the ability to treat other entities with indifference or inhumanity (a la GWB) or in the case of caregivers who often have a highly developed empathetic sense with a plasticity that enables them to modulate it (i.e., turn it on and off by degrees.) It is also significantly easier to ignore empathetic reaction when that sense has not been well developed or is rudimentary.

    It is the parent’s responsibility to train their children to exercise empathetic projection but those with a poorly developed empathetic sense aren’t likely to recognize the need. However if Potter’s source’s and other’s findings regarding the empathetic sense become widely known (and while I agree that human consciousness comes equipped with empathy [hardwired is the fashionable term to imply Darwinian Evolutionary roots – again a theory that has been asserted for so long by so many it has assumed de facto status without supporting evidence after 150 years of searching] – it is my opinion that a reductionistic approach via observation of brain activity will reveal little other than brain activity) perhaps in future empathetic training may be added to early childhood school curricula as a sort of benign, beneficial social engineering. I think that humankind would benefit from such training especially as population increases.

    Of course over empathizing could be crippling to both the empathizer and empathizee as Nick has discovered so training would need to include rules of thumb to recognize and handle such situations but by and large I imagine one’s self preservation sense would suffice in most cases.

    Again as I stated above to katemcshane the ability to manipulate empathy effectively is no guarantee that a concomitant altruistic or desirable response would be forthcoming.

    It is well established that an imbalance of hormonal levels may affect behavior profoundly as in teenagers acting out (a time of rapid hormonal swings) or post-partum depression (Tom Cruise: Take note) (as the testosterone link may indicate [does that imply that estrogen fosters empathy? BTW that study was done with females (who usually have low levels of testosterone) and so may be more affected by the imbalance thus skewing the results])

    Peace

  • Nick

    Don’t fret, jazzman, Walter J. Freeman’s wisdom on meaning is acting like an antihistamine — well, somewhat. At least I know what YOU mean by ‘believe’. But I will always take issue with influential public figures using it to mislead or to imply, “Don’t worry! You can trust us! We believe!

    Even if everyone who reads my thoughts on ‘belief’ & ‘believe’ continue to use it indiscriminately (reducing the accuracy of their communications in so doing), I’ll be pleased if they nevertheless gain a sense of the sneaky “Trust us!” ploy ‘believe’ & ‘belief’ enable.

    Anyway, it seems to me that your observations at 4:06 PM run parallel or even convergently to the concluding paragraph of this thread’s 3:32 PM post. Your thoughts?

  • Nick

    Fer cryin’ out loud. Can anyone at ROS close my code-error?

    Thanks. You can delete this post afterwards, too.

  • Lumière

    # Nick Says:

    March 7th, 2007 at 4:08 pm

    Lumiere, please forgive my density, but I don’t quite grasp the point of your 4:03 PM. Could you please elucidate?

    Thanks.

    # jazzman Says:

    March 7th, 2007 at 4:05 pm

    Ben asks: …………..the act of designating Evil itself leads to or is Evil (if one is inclined to believe it)?

    That is the precise moral of OCP’s cautionary tale of her caretaker’s act, Four O’clock which was dramatized by Rod Serling.

  • jazzman

    Nick says: Perhaps there’s a middle solution to this troubling difference of opinion. Perhaps both positions are correct: maybe empathy and compassion are more commonplace than we train ourselves to accept – but that our real-world actions flowing from compassion are much more rare than the simple emotions called ‘empathy’ and ‘compassion’. then Asks: Anyway, it seems to me that your observations at 4:06 PM run parallel or even convergently to the concluding paragraph of this thread’s 3:32 PM post. Your thoughts?

    Yes, empathy is innate and sympathy (compassion) is learned (warning: opinion) . I read katemcshane’s plaintive question last night and got halfway thru my exposition before going home, when I saw all the replies today, I finished my thoughts at lunch and posted during a lull. That’s why it might seem convergent as I tried to converge some of the intervening comments. The parallels are prolly due to our mutual influence or synchronicity.

  • Potter

    I think I agree with Jazzman’s Mar 7th @ 4:06- answering katemcshane. I have not read the others yet.

    Re Nick’s above on Arendt:

    I disagree with Nick and Manning120. I don’t think “banal” is used by Arendt figuratively. I think she meant it literally but was using it’s literal meaning in a new context. I think this is why we have trouble with it.

    Nick: how can we bring ourselves to apply the weakly pejorative ‘banal’ to a noun like ‘pogrom’?It isn’t pejorative enough!
It implicitly belittles……, it falls exponentially short.

    I have to decouple empathy from compassion and sympathy in order to use banal with empathy, empathy being elemental. It’s getting too baroque or confusing the conversation. I don’t care so much about being stubborn about using the word “banal” so much as being stubborn about such acts ( and feelings) not being so rare or unusual and in fact ordinary and commonplace which is also the meaning of banal. When I say “commonplace” or “not unusual” there is no negative connotation so maybe that is better. It’s kind of neutral. It’s the nuance ( of triviality, “hum drum”, boring) that comes with the word “banal” that makes me want to give it up now in this conversation anyway.

    Regarding “banality and evil” I have no problem because Arendt used it and it’s a phrase that has survived over 40 years. I am trying to understand her meaning; she had a definite idea. I will try to type out what she actually says in elaboration if I cannot find it online. I am willing to go along with her about this, not fussing about words, to get her meaning. No doubt the crimes were horrendous. The use of the word “banality” works beautifully on another level as well as the apparently primary if makes us think further because of it’s seeming incongruity. It was only used in the last sentence, I understand, of her book by that title.

  • http://www.circles-salon.com allison

    Nick,

    I don’t have any trouble with the use of the word banal to describe evil (I have trouble with the word evil in general, but I’ll accept her use of it for the sake of this discussion.)

    I think I’ve written in other threads about how we get ourselves into bigger dramas because we don’t stop the smaller destructive acts. I see people ignore the suffering others daily and persistently. The commonality of that makes it banal, in my mind.

    How many people drive past the begger in the street each day? How many people laugh at humor with a victim? How many people yell at one another? Call each other horrible things? How many people push in a crowd? The list goes on, of the banal little moments that build a destructive culture. How many parents ignore the overly aggressive behaviors of their children? Each seemingly harmless moment leads to a bully.

    We are not a culture attentive to mundane courtesies. In every discourteous moment we add another brick to the castle of compassionless. We only pay attention when evil looms so large that we can’t ignore it, but the real evil is that of ignoring all the small moments that allowed evil to loom at all. That’s the banality of evil.

  • nother

    Don’t waste time looking back right? We are where we are and we have to deal with it. Gross mistakes have been made but lets move on, our very survival depends on it.

    It’s interesting that that stratagy works out so well for you.

    It is a dilemma I deal with for sure – rehash the past, confront the demons, risk ruining the present, disrupting the future.

    You trump me with you compassion.

    Do you feel my forced silence?

    As the rug bubbles up and the threads stretch thin, I ask questions quickly, quietly, not at all.

    In my hung over haze I wonder what I’m after, consequences, repercussions, accountability, guilt, apologies, self congratulations, lessons learned, redemption…

    I want you to want to tell me the answer.

    You have moved on to another question

    Don’t let me let you do this

  • Lumière

    Carpe Diem

  • katemcshane

    With regard to the description of evil as “banal”, in a conversation with the journalist, Gunther Gaus, in 1964, Gaus said, “But some of the criticisms made of you are based on the tone in which many passages are written.” Arendt said, “What can I say? Besides, I don’t want to say anything. If people think that one can only write about these things in a solemn tone of voice…Look, there are people who take it amiss — and I can understand that in a sense — that, for instance, I can still laugh. But I was really of the opinion that Eichmann was a buffoon. I’ll tell you this: I read the transcript of his police investigation, thirty-six hundred pages, read it, and read it very carefully, and I do not know how many times I laughed –laughed out loud! People took this reaction in a bad way. I cannot do anything about that. But I know one thing: Three minutes before certain death, I probably still would laugh.”

    In EICHMANN IN JERUSALEM, she writes, “The German text of the taped police examination…constitutes a veritable gold mine for a psychologist — provided he is wise enough to understand that the horrible can be not only ludicrous but outright funny….Now and then, the comedy breaks into the horror itself,…Such was the story told by Eichmann during the police examination about the unlucky Kommerzialrat Storfer of Vienna.” She goes on to explain that Eichmann visited Storfer in Auschwitz, which he described as “a normal, human encounter. He told me all his grief and sorrow: I said: ‘Well, my dear old friend,…What rotten luck!’ And I also said: ‘Look, I really cannot help you, because according to orders from the Reichsfuhrer nobody can get out….’ Later, Eichmann referred to the encounter, “It was a great inner joy to me that I could at least see the man with whom I had worked for so many long years, and that we could speak with each other.” Arendt adds, “Six weeks after that normal human encounter, Storfer was dead — not gassed, apparently, but shot.”

    A bit later in the book, “…German society of eighty million people had been shielded against reality and factuality by exactly the same means, the same self-deception, lies and stupidity that had now become ingrained in Eichmann’s mentality….the practice of self-deception had become so common, almost a moral prerequisite for survival, that even now, eighteen years after the collapse of the Nazi regime, when most of the specific content of its lies has been forgotten, it is sometimes difficult not to believe that mendacity has become an integral part of the German national character.”

    I agree with Allison’s comment about banality of evil. Jazzman, thank you for what you wrote and for the warmth in what you wrote. Nother, thank you, even though I’m not sure I understand it correctly.

  • Potter

    Below quotes from Arendt’s letter to Gershom Scholem July 1964:

    The question I raised was that of the cooperation of Jewish functionaries during the Final Solution, and this question is so very uncomfortable because one cannot claim that they were traitors. ( they were traitors too, but that is irrelevant.) In other words, until 1939 and even until 1941, whatever Jewish functionaries did or did not do is understandable and excusable. Only later does it become highly problematical……..

    ….I do believe that we shall only come to terms with this past if we begin to judge and be frank about it.

    …. there was no possibility of resistance but there existed the possibility of doing nothing. And in order to do nothing, one did not need to be a saint, one needed only to say: I am just a simple Jew, and I have no desire to play any other role.

    Whether these people or some of them, as you indicate, deserved to be hanged is an altogether different question. What needs to be discussed are not the people so much as the arguments with which they justified themselves in their own eyes and in those of others. Concerning these arguments we are entitled to pass judgment. Moreover , we should not forget that we deal here with conditions which were terrible and desperate enough, but which were not the conditions of concentration camps. These decisions were made in an atmosphere of terror but not under the immediate pressure and impact of terror. These are important differences in degree which every student of totalitarianism must know and take into account. These people had still a certain, limited freedom of decision and of action. Just as the SS murderers also possessed, as we now know, a limited choice of alternatives. They could always say: ‘I wish to be relieved of my murderous duties’, and nothing happened to them. Since we are dealing in politics with men, and not with heroes or saints, it is this possibility of “non-participation” that is decisive if we begin to judge, not the system, but the individual, his choices and his arguments…..And the Eichmann trial was concerned with an individual…….

    ***************

    …In conclusion, let me come to the only matter where you have not mis-understood me, and where indeed I am glad that you have raised the point. You are quite right, I changed my mind and no longer speak of ‘radical evil’. It is a long time since we last met. Or we would perhaps have spoken about the subject before. ( Incidentally, I don’t see why you call my term ‘banality of evil’ a catchword or slogan. As far as I know no one has used the term before me; but that is unimportant.) It is indeed my opinion now that evil is never ‘radical’ that it is only extreme, and that it possesses neither depth nor any demonic dimension. It can overgrow and lay waste the whole world precisely because it spreads like a fungus on the surface. It is “thought-defying”, as I said, because thought tries to reach some depth, to go to the roots, and the moment it concerns itself with evil, it is frustrated because there is nothing. That is it’s “banality”. Only good has depth and can be radical. But this is not the place to go into these matters seriously; I intend to elaborate them further in a different context. Eichmann may very well remain the concrete model of what I have to say.

  • Potter

    Quotes from Jerome Kohn’s excellent essay “Evil the Crime Against Humanity” published at the Library of Congress website/The Hannah Arendt Papers

    http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/arendthtml/essayc1.html

    “That there is nothing in evil for thought to latch onto is what Arendt meant by the banality of evil. Not the murderous deeds but the evildoer she faced in Jerusalem and the massiveness of the evil he inflicted on the world are banal in that sense.4 The realization that the most extreme evil has no meaning that the human mind can reveal, that it is not only senseless in its own terms but meaningless in any terms, was momentous; to say the least it afforded Arendt relief from a burden she had borne for many years.

    ….. In a later letter to [Mary] McCarthy, who had written of the moral exhilaration that reading Eichmann in Jerusalem afforded her, Arendt noted: “you were the only reader to understand what otherwise I have never admitted–namely that I wrote this book in a state of euphoria.” In a letter to a German correspondent (see letter to Meier Cronemeyer, July 18th, 1963) she said that twenty years after she had learned of the existence of Auschwitz she experienced a cura posterior, i.e., a healing of her inability to think through to its root the evil of totalitarian criminality.

    In style Eichmann in Jerusalem is unlike anything else in the corpus of Arendt’s writings. As the account of a trial of criminal action it is dramatic. In an interview Arendt said: “That the tone of voice is predominantly ironic is completely true,” adding that “the tone of voice in this case is really the person,” i.e., herself, the dramatist. She might have remained silent and not written the book at all, she said, but she could never have written it “differently.” The posterior or later cure is important in another sense, for here, in a trial whose only purpose was to mete out justice, the terrible injury inflicted on the Jewish people would, at least in her judgment, at long last be vindicated as a crime against humanity.

    ….. Having encountered such a man, Arendt saw that the banality of evil is potentially far greater in extent–indeed limitless–than the growth of evil from a “root.” A root can be uprooted, which is what she meant to do when she spoke of “destroying” totalitarianism, but the evil perpetrated by an Eichmann can spread over the face of the earth like a “fungus” precisely because it has no root. Furthermore, the case of Eichmann led Arendt to see that at least one evildoer was not “corruptible.” Having overcome or in his case forgotten any inclination he may have had to halt or hinder the organization and transportation of millions of innocent Jews to their deaths, Eichmann boasted that he had done his duty to the end! Unlike Himmler, his ultimate superior in the chain of command and a chief architect of the “final solution,” Eichmann never attempted to “negotiate” with the enemy when it became clear that the Nazi cause was lost. He declared, on the contrary, “that he had lived his whole life . . . according to a Kantian definition of duty,” (see Eichmann in Jerusalem, chapter 8) and Arendt noted that “to the surprise of everybody, Eichmann came up with an approximately correct definition of [Kant's] categorical imperative,” though he had “distorted” it in practice. She admitted, moreover, “that Eichmann’s distortion agrees with what he himself called the version of Kant ‘for the household use of the little man,’” the identification of one’s will with “the source” of law, which for Eichmann was the will of the Führer.

    ….Perhaps the most provocative aspect of Eichmann in Jerusalem is its study of human conscience. The court’s refusal to consider seriously the question of Eichmann’s conscience resulted in its failure to confront what Arendt called “the central moral, legal, and political phenomena of our century.” The Israeli judges understood conscience traditionally as the voice of God or lumen naturale, speaking or shining in every human soul, telling or illuminating the difference between right and wrong, and this simply did not apply in the case of Eichmann. Eichmann had a conscience, and it seems to have “functioned in the expected way” for a few weeks after he became engaged in the transport of Jews, and then, when he heard no voice saying Thou shalt not kill but on the contrary every voice saying Thou shalt kill, “it began to function the other way around.” (see Eichmann in Jerusalem, chapter 6) And this was by no means true only for Eichmann. Arendt was convinced by testimony presented at the trial that a general “moral collapse” had been experienced throughout Europe, from which even respected members of the Jewish leadership were not exempt.5 (see Eichmann in Jerusalem, chapter 7)….

    … many were deeply disturbed by her depiction of an Eichmann who was not an ideological anti-Semite nor even criminally motivated–he wanted to rise in rank not by murdering anyone but by “conscientiously” doing his job. “Intent to do wrong” was not, in Arendt’s opinion, proved against him. He was not “morally insane” for in his own “muddled” way he distinguished between right and wrong, and the results of psychological tests showed that he was not a “monster” but frighteningly normal,

    Eichmann was not stupid; he knew but did not think what he was doing, not in the past and not in Jerusalem. He contradicted himself constantly, but he did not lie; his conscience did not bother him; and he did not suffer from remorse: “He knew that what he had once called his duty was now called a crime, and he accepted this new code of judgment as if it were nothing but another language rule” (see “Thinking and Moral Considerations”). Therefore it was important to Arendt that the justice of the death sentence delivered by the court be seen by all, and for that reason she offered her own judgment, addressing Eichmann in the following terms:

    Just as you supported and carried out a policy of not wanting to share the earth with the Jewish people and the people of a number of other nations–as though you and your superiors had any right to determine who should and who should not inhabit the world–we find that no one, that is, no member of the human race, can be expected to share the world with you. This is the reason, and the only reason, you must hang (see Eichmann in Jerusalem, “Epilogue” — part one and part two”).

    The “Epilogue” to Eichmann in Jerusalem deals with the legality of the Jerusalem trial, which for the most part Arendt defended, but she thought it necessary to clarify what the Israeli court’s judgment left obscure. Eichmann was guilty of “an attack upon human diversity as such, that is, upon a characteristic of the ‘human status’ without which the very words ‘mankind’ or ‘humanity’ would be devoid of meaning.” Arendt recognized in Eichmann, who struck her as “not even strange” (nicht einmal unheimlich) (see letter from H.A. to Heinrich Bluecher, April 15, 1961), the exemplary criminal capable of committing “the new crime, the crime against humanity.” He “supported and carried out” the physical destruction of European Jewry and would have done the same for any group or anyone at all whom a power higher than himself had decreed unfit to live.

  • Potter

    Not my emoticon….funny though… comes from the juxtaposition of the number 8 and )

  • Lumière

    Ah….. I see:

    Arendt

    ///….it is this possibility of “non-participation” that is decisive if we begin to judge, not the system, but the individual, his choices and his arguments…\\\

    Arendt

    ///….because thought tries to reach some depth, to go to the roots, …\\\

    February 23rd, 2007 at 10:36 pm

    Nick Says:

    Empathy, in contrast, requires little if any thought.

    Arendt

    ///Only good has depth and can be radical.\\\

    hmmm……..obvious question here: is empathy good?

  • Lumière

    “number 8 and ” = sunglasses

  • enhabit

    this thread is overwhelming! wow! i hope not to be redundant…too much to read here.

    evil’s banality can be found as much in someone like Maurice Papon who recently died.

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/6356611.stm

    monsters are evil yes..but those who provide them with a fertile “eco-system” are worse…many of us everyday folk may well lack the courage to stand up and be counted in such a situation.

  • http://www.circles-salon.com allison

    I like to step in and then back away from these discussions a bit. Often I feel that I don’t have anything new to add and that I benefit from reading from others. This morning, I woke up thinking about the parsing of words. Potter’s comment that she didn’t see the difference between my definition/understanding of empathy and hers. Many of us writing here are expressing very similar perceptions with some semantic differences. The question I had is whether the semantics matter. Of course they do for the sake of communication, but in this communication are we understanding one another. Perhaps. Is there anything more to get at? I’m not sure.

    I see a difference in our use of the words, Potter. But I’m not sure it matters. I also see a lot familiarity in the sentiments/expressions. I appreciate so much of what you write, along with katemcshane, jazzman. lumiere, nick, nother, et al. I woke up this morning wishing we were sitting in a comfortable room with a fire place and a cup of tea, or wine, and having this conversation. Nitpicking semantics can be fun in a dynamic setting like that. It can seem tedious here.

    I will say that I agree that the capacity for empathy is innate. I agree that this capacity is veiled through life experiences, cultural training, etc. I think sympathy is more commonly actuated than empathy. By definition, it comes from sympatico, familiarity, so we can more easily relate to the emotions of our familiars.

    This will sound trite, but I used to watch the original Star Trek series with my father. One episode has stayed with me in the most powerful way. It was entitled “Empath”. I have seen empaths in many myths and stories. If empathy were banal we wouldn’t have archetypal figures known as Empaths. Right up there with Wise Women and Alchemists. We don’t have an archetypal Sympath. There is something more profound and healing/transcendent about empathy.

  • Lumière

    8*)
    8-)

    8-*

    8:-)

    8:]

    8^

    :%)%

    :*)

  • Potter

    Yes Allison… It seems to me that Arendt creates or adds her own meanings and concepts onto words. She is revolutionary in that sense b/c she is pushing forward. For instance she says:

    “It is indeed my opinion now that evil is never ‘radical’ that it is only extreme, and that it possesses neither depth nor any demonic dimension. It can overgrow and lay waste the whole world precisely because it spreads like a fungus on the surface.”

    Well what is the difference between radical and extreme? Look up radical and extreme in the dictionary and it gets you nowhere. We can argue our own ideas about that. But understanding the difference between Arendt’s use of ‘radical” and ‘extreme’ in that sentence is critical.

    Perhaps an Arendt scholar can elaborate?

  • enhabit

    i find “nostalgia” with its selective memory to be a kind of evil….seductive, comforting in a way, evasive, seemingly harmless. the notion that people were somehow more moral in the past is thematic of a great deal of fundementalist religious rhetoric. it is harmful to say the least. it can be used to exploit races, nations, regions, beliefs and on and on.

    i mentioned last night (other thread) that i feel that “demonizing” people is a way of letting humanity off the hook. as though the behavior in question is some kind of uncontrolable anomaly requiring exorcism. anyone compared to it in the future is offended and indignant.

    when someone compared bush to hitler, offense was the reaction and discussion was ridiculed as extremist. however, there was a legitimate comparison. the political environment after 9/11 was suppressive of debate. those not heeding the drums of war were labeled as “unpatriotic”. off we went on what GWB once called a “crusade”. that should have been a clue..the man is either ignorant in the extreme of middle eastern politics and sensebilities or he is deliberately provocative.

    what could have been the mood among the germans of the 1930′s as the nazis rose to power? were demons taking up position in the souls of the reich or were the people of germany skillfully manipulated. nostalgia was a component, “let us return to days of former glory”. this leads to scapegoating, “how have we declined so?” “these jews have corrupted us with their unchristian immoral ways”, “communists are leading us astrsay”etc..who could have prevailed against such an emotional tide as the german economy began to bounce back?

    americans want their bread and circus too, and it would seem their suv’s as well etc. the costly trappings of prosperity. “we must protect our interests” “we have lost our christian roots”, “immigrants are flooding in and costing us money..taking our jobs, changing us”. never mind the cost of the oil, never mind the cost of a massive, permanent military machine, spread afar taking on a life and will of its own…stomping on the state department…keeping a gluttenous industrial complex fat and friendly..providing jobs after all.

    history will hold us accountable for allowing this tumor from the cold war to continue its hold on us.

    by the way allison, there is nothing trite about watching “star trek” with your father. the series in most of its incarnations was a forum for airing many philosophical issues. i watch it with my kids..it is a source of wonder and hope to me that they can grasp the abstract in the storyline and begin the processing.

  • Lumière

    ….semantics and parsing are perhaps symptoms of a lack of a gestalt understanding of things.

    Arendt says:

    thought = deep

    good = deep

    That is not to say thought = good

    Nick says:

    empathy =

  • Lumière

    ….semantics and parsing are perhaps symptoms of a lack of a gestalt understanding of things.

    Arendt says:

    thought = deep

    good = deep

    This is not to say: thought = good

    Nick says:

    empathy =

  • Lumière

    Try again:

    Nick says:

    empathy =

  • Lumière

    Nick says:

    empathy =

  • Lumière

    ….semantics and parsing are perhaps symptoms of a lack of a gestalt understanding of things.

    Arendt says:

    thought equals deep

    good equals deep

    This is not to say thought equals good

    Nick says:

    empathy is less than thought

    This is not to say empathy is less than good

    The integration of thought with empathy might yield the proper gestalt awareness:

    thought plus empathy equals good

  • Lumière

    ah…system doesn’t like + =

  • hurley

    Apropos Lumière’s latest line of thought: An old inkhorn convention used to distinguish between empathy and sympathy, with empathy understood as a form of compassionate understanding based on a shared experience (“OliverCranglesParrot ate my pitch, too”), and sympathy as a sort of imaginative projection (“I’m so sorry, it must be terrible to have a parrot eat your pitch”). I wonder if Arendt’s characterization of Eichmann might be better understood in terms of an absence of sympathy — an absence of imagination — on Eichmann’s part. Eichmann might, and a big might at that, have empathised with the victims of his own actions at a distance had he suffered something similar, but he hadn’t. But if he’d had some degree of sympathetic imagination, if he had been able to transport or even will himself against his Nazi imperatives to contemplate the consequences of what he was complicit in, would he have done what he did. Probably. But never could the old nostrum of putting oneself in someone else’s shoes, in all their millions, have been better put. He was banal because he had no imagination, perhaps evil because he couldn’t imagine Evil.

  • Nick

    Thank you Potter, Allison, Kate, for your thoughts and Arendt-excerpts. This is one of ROS’s best threads ever, I think.

    I can agree (with only minimal discomfort) that many millions of ‘banal’ factors contribute daily to the stubborn persistence of inhumanity. Arendt might well be both correct and revolutionary for applying the adjective ‘banal’ to Eichmann, who was but a cog in the Nazi genocide industry. (See my thoughts below.) I can agree (with somewhat greater discomfort) that Hitler himself was, underneath his madman’s charisma, a ‘banal little bigot’.

    But I simply can’t agree that the Holocaust, or Rwanda, or the frustrated genocides of post-Yugoslavia merit the adjective ‘banal’. It’s much too puny a modifier for those atrocities. It’s too puny an adjective for the murders exemplified in the NPR, ATC report from Lourdes Garcia-Navarro I linked to in this thread’s Feb. 14th, 2007, 11: 26 PM post. ( http://www.radioopensource.org/hannah-arendt-and-the-banality-of-evil/#comment-43201 )

    I don’t want to imply that the men doing the raping and butchery aren’t ‘banal’ – perhaps they are. But their actions – no matter how ‘commonplace’ – are too horrific to warrant a paltry critique from the world of art: “lacking freshness, inane, and/or lacking good taste.” Can we reflexively, without really having to contort our intellects to do it, use a phrase like this – “A banal little gang rape, mutilation, and killing” – and then afterwards honestly consider ourselves fully feeling humans?

    Massive acts of genocide might be perpetrated by ‘banal’ people – bigots, rapists, ‘believers’ (be it in an ideology or faith) – but their aggregate actions aren’t simply ‘banal’. The scale of the inhumanity makes the difference.

    Perhaps a pimp beating one of ‘his’ prostitutes might be classed as ‘banal’ – but first ask the victim if she thinks such faint approbation appropriately describes the assault.

    Perhaps the human suffering and poverty caused by capitalism’s inequity-by-design is ‘banal’. But first ask a person (Kate?) turned out of her home because of an “economic dislocation” (another disingenuous euphemism).

    Using a synonym of ‘trite’ for human suffering implicitly belittles it.

    Perhaps the machinery of capitalism, or the humdrum lives of its structural operators is/are ‘banal’. But is the inhumanity caused by those we diminish as ‘banal’ ALSO ‘banal’?

    If we use a characterization like ‘banal’ to belittle a perpetrator, to strip him of his ‘power’ as a ‘monster’, does that same characterization bleed over onto his crimes? Is it fair to belittle the sufferings of the victims too?

    Is it decent? Or indecent?

    To conclude, let me offer a reaction to this Arendt quote from Potter’s 11:39 AM, March 8th:

    (quote)

    (… I don’t see why you call my term ‘banality of evil’ a catchword or slogan… ) It is indeed my opinion now that evil is never ‘radical’ that it is only extreme, and that it possesses neither depth nor any demonic dimension. It can overgrow and lay waste the whole world precisely because it spreads like a fungus on the surface. It is “thought-defying”, as I said, because thought tries to reach some depth, to go to the roots, and the moment it concerns itself with evil, it is frustrated because there is nothing. That is it’s “banality”.

    (unquote, italics mine)

    Arendt herself put ‘banality’ in quotes. After reflecting for weeks on this thread’s topic and contributions, allow me a conjecture:

    This segment of the conversation is more than mere semantics. ‘Evil’, in the time of Arendt’s youth, was widely believed to have a supernatural origin. Yet her analysis of Eichmann suggested that the man was too ‘banal’ to be ‘demonic’. So isn’t it possible she (idiosyncratically) selected ‘banal’ specifically to counter the longstanding assumption that the supernatural empowers ‘evil’? She needed a word dramatically punier that ‘demonic’. It allowed her to see how venal and small the Nazi genocide-machine’s human cogs really were.

    I don’t think (could be wrong) that she classed the Holocaust itself as ‘banal’.

    Again, mass inhumanity might well be perpetrated by small, venal, banal humans. But if we conflate that belittling characterization of the perpetrators with their atrocities, we implicitly belittle the mass inhumanity and suffering they cause.

    Doncha think?

  • enhabit

    Lumière,

    these kinds of constructions can logically prove the absurd, as you point out. construction w/o foundation = disaster

    one can become entangled

    if

    empathy is “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another” (oad)

    and

    sympathy is “feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune” (oad)

    then

    empathy is deeper than sympathy

    therefore possesing the possibility of entanglement in another’s dillusion

    then (c’mon nick)

    empathy =

  • http://www.rockisland.com/~pmcrae/index.html peggysue

    I guess having a show inspired by Hannah Arendt is as good a way as any for ROS to observe NATIONAL WOMENS DAY. The banality of patriarchy does seem to cover the planet like a fungus.

    But anyway, yes, in the end it won’t be evil freedom hating terrorists who destroy the planet. It will be those of us who are just driving around in our carbon producing cars taking the long way so we can keep listening to the radio.

  • mynocturama

    I’ve wanted to respond to Nick and his passionate taking to task of the term “belief” ever since the “This I believe” thread, so I’ll apologize in advance for being a bit off topic (though, of course, these questions inevitably link together, and, if you look hard enough, you can find “evil” in “believe” – but you can find “live” as well, so there you go…).

    More than a few times in the past people have asked me, “Do you believe in God, or do you believe in evolution?” Pretty much verbatim, with maybe “creationism” replacing “God” now and then. Nick, I wish I had read your posts then, and so prepped to answer critically and energetically. But, more often than not, I lazily answered “evolution,” along with some cursory justification, not wanting to bother with or be bothered by any lengthy conversation. Yet I knew, or rather felt, tacitly, that the answer wasn’t right, that I was either being setup somehow, or not as clear as I could be concerning my own thoughts. Your suggestion of “plause” or some other alternative to “belief”, in this instance, would have come as a relief, and would have readied me to respond more rigorously, vigorously, precisely.

    Similarly, say, with the phrase, “I believe that the earth is round.” This fact doesn’t require any extra mental exertion on my part. It is, simply, the case. It may be better to say, “I receive the fact that the earth is round,” or something along those lines. (Incidentally, to relate at least tangentially to Arendt, there are some kooky new-agey Heideggerians – the self-help group/cult The Forum was largely inspired by Heidegger apparently – that encourage people to say, instead of “He believes that the earth is round,” something like, “He – is – that the earth is round,” to convey a sense of “belief” or what have you running very deep, down to one’s very being in the world. Personally I’d be irritated by a person who actually spoke this way – the novelty would wear out very fast – but I can see where they’re coming from.)

    But finally Nick I don’t think it’s a simple matter of pinning down and prescribing a particular meaning for a word. We (or at least the vast majority of us – see the flat earth society…) simply accept the fact that the earth is round. But there was a point in human history where the proposition of the roundness of the earth, or of the earth going round the sun, would have been a leap of sorts, in opposition to what is immediately received by the senses. You might prefer to call this initial proposition a hypothesis, empirically verifiable, rather than a “belief.” Yet there’s a sense in which “belief,” with its leap of faith thrust, could well describe those first people who first entertained the conception, in contradiction to the prevailing view. They – believed – in their view of things, and sought out and fought to prove it. I’d imagine, for those first few, some fervent feeling or drive animated them, a quality aptly captured, perhaps, by the word “belief,” or even “faith.”

    My point, I guess, is that there are certain words whose meanings are especially context-dependent. They’re kind of like tofu – their flavor depends on the sauce they soak up, on all the ingredients they’re prepared with in each particular recipe. So go ahead and call this the tofu theory of meaning.

    “Belief,” I think, is one of those words.

    Take the people who’ve asked me (seriously, take them, please – ha ha): “Do you believe in God or do you believe in evolution?” The reason why belief, in relation to evolution, is, feels, wrong in this case, is that a parallelism/equivalency is established between “belief in God” and “belief in evolution,” as though we take the same attitude or stance towards these two very different objects/concepts, and it’s simply a matter of choosing one or the other. The parallel sentence structure, the way the words are used in relation to each other, sets this up. So “belief” here assumes its flavor accordingly. The context determines its meaning, and, in this case, its wrongness in relation to evolution.

    Now imagine someone comes up to you on the street corner and asks for directions to the closest convenience store. You bring your fingers pensively to your lips, and say, “I believe it’s three blocks down, and two blocks to the right.” In this case, “believe” (same word, same spelling, same sounding) actually expresses a sense of uncertainty, along the lines of, “I’m pretty sure, but not exactly certain.” In stark contrast, I think, to the use/meaning of “belief” you so fervently decry, the foisting of what is in fact speculation or opinion as – fact –, certain, absolute, unassailable, onto others.

    Many words – “self” is another good one – work this way. Their meanings are generated, explicitly or implicitly, by the context they’re in, whether in writing or in actual conversation. Their meanings simply can’t be pinned down and prescribed. We even use words sometimes, like “universe” for example, without really knowing what the hell we’re talking about, what we’re specifically referring to. And yet our use still makes sense. We understand, even if we can’t map out exactly what we mean.

    And so the same goes, I’d say, for “evil.” I totally agree that petrified-minded moralists put it to their own obnoxious use. But it’s not the word itself, on its own. It’s how it’s used, how its’ wielded as an instrument, or weapon for that matter. Earlier in this thread I said that the word “evil” functions more often than not as a conversation stopper. But I’d have to say, Arendt’s use of the word, as evidenced by this thread, has served exactly the opposite purpose.

  • enhabit

    isn’t the point that once evil becomes accepted as commonplace it is free to live in the ‘burbs put out the trash and show up at the soccer game? off to work goes herr eichmann. ever see goebells family photo? our modern lifestyle obscures more than it reveals. the public shame based ethics of the tribe have evolved into an internalized judeo-christian ethic only to be occasionally publically humiliated by the tabloids…but then one must be either famous or more outrageous than the last guy.

  • enhabit

    we want our devils to be fire breathing foul smelling in your face monsters and yet we find them to be subtle and soft spoken stealthy.

  • enhabit

    occasionally these demons shout and strut, but these are exceptions. they live quietly among us but then so do angels.

    the Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis

  • enhabit

    not a quote from the book, but it does discuss this.

    sorry hit submit too soon.

  • Nick

    AHA!

    Quick postscript to my 2:24 PM:

    Perhaps the real problem isn’t the word ‘banal’. Perhaps it’s the concept of ‘evil’ itself, which specifically conflates perpetrators with their actions.

    We can very comfortably call both Hitler and his actions ‘evil’. If we perceive that Hitler was nothing more than a ‘banal little bigot’ who bullied his way into a position of nearly unparalleled power, it isn’t inappropriate to say so – but it IS inappropriate to conflate the quality and scale of his inhumane ACTIONS with his personal ‘banality’.

    Is this the solution to our stubborn problem with ‘banal’?

  • mynocturama

    BTW, on testosterone and empathy – check out Simon Baron Cohen’s (cousin of Sacha Baron Cohen, aka Ali G and Borat) “The Essential Difference.” It’s a bit bold and broad, but convincing. His hypothesis essentially is that autism is an extreme manifestation of “the male brain,” which tends towards an understanding of systems, inputs and outputs, that sort of thing, vs. “the female brain,” which leans more towards empathy and social relations. You can see how this might be controversial (I think Larry Summers may have had Baron Cohen’s work specifically in mind), and obviously he’s not saying that every individual male and every individual female falls clearly into line. But in terms of overall statistics (a view which I tend to be suspicious of, yet nevertheless see its use), and the fact that the ratio of males to females with autism is roughly 10:1 (last I read), his argument has its force.

    He also wrote “Mindblindness,” one of the earlier books on autism and theory of mind. FYI, as they say…

  • enhabit

    evil’s roots in this case are what is banal. it can be rooted in our own everyday needs. who takes the time to determine where the gasoline came from while we pump it into our cars? how does the everyday camaroon citizen benefit from the sale of oil? or nigerian? or sudanese?

    we rationalize this choice because we feel as though we have none. one must make a living after all. one must coexist here in this..gilded trap?

  • Nick

    mynocturama, thank you for your thoughts. I’ll respond in full off-site and let you know via a link. Suffice it to say for now that your thoughts reflect exactly why I wish we could begin to re-conceptualize the woolly issue of ‘mental acceptances.’ I agree that ‘belief’ operates ‘like tofu’! (Loved that metaphor, btw.) ‘Belief’ is ambiguous, but so are many other words. I’m agitating for a re-conceptualization precisely because the ambiguity of ‘belief’ holds the door wide open for deceit from manipulative speakers, and for even the much more common miasma of simple misunderstanding. I suggest we’re guilty of unimaginativeness if we continue to think that the only possible way of understanding our mental acceptances is the via the ambiguities of ‘belief’. Hence my offering of ‘plause’ (and thank you for remembering it).

    In response to your example (a usage we are surely all familiar with):

    “I believe it’s three blocks down, and two blocks to the right…” I’d like to suggest that this reformulation is less ambiguous because it makes one’s uncertainty plain to the recipient: “If memory serves, it’s three blocks down, and two blocks to the right.”

    This sort of accuracy might not be vital in ordinary moments like your example. But it matters much more when influential public figures manipulate public moods, fears, and policies while using ‘believe’ and ‘belief’ to imply the trustworthiness of their conclusions.

    If “I believe” can convey either uncertainty or certainty, I suggest it’s concept in need of a diet — like, perhaps, ‘evil’.

    Anyway, I’ll write more and link to it.

    But thank you very much!

  • OliverCranglesParrot

    OliverCranglesParrot ate my pitch, too Mmmmm…pitches. Explains my weight gain. Aside: I’ve enjoyed what I’ve been able to glean from this thread, but I reached Miller’s number of seven plus or minus two a while back, but I’m glad to see so many folks care enough to exchange communication. One possible (short term?) conclusion I’m considering: evil, or its banality form of expression (e.g. fascism, fanaticism, et al), are superstar concepts in the laypersons world view. Sort of like an overdeveloped verbal muscle, sufficiently implying atrophy of other verbal muscles, not implying a vast orphaned, graveyard of other human generated concepts applied to behaviors. Of course, this would explain quite a bit of the sales & marketing and other messaging laced with anxiety (fears handmaiden) that I’ve been exposed to/manifested internally thus far on the coil. Closing thought from the peanut gallery: “He who fights too long against dragons becomes a dragon himself; and if you gaze too long into the abyss, the abyss will gaze into you” — Nietzsche. Oliver always liked that one… –Pete

  • Lumière

    …indeed.

    Ps. Peggysue re: banality of patriarchy

    You’ll be happy to know an upcoming show is titled “bushes in space”

    enjoy!

  • Ben

    Thanks Jazzman, I had no idea the Rod Serling piece was in play on the table. This is a great long conversation to follow, looking fwd to the show. ROS: when is Meaning and Morality at the mic?!

  • mynocturama

    Well I’m not sure a prescriptive approach would work. The most you can do, I think, is to look at how the words are used, in each particular case, in each particular context, and deal with it accordingly. I just don’t think meaning, especially when it comes to certain words, can be pinned down and precisely prescribed. It’s not simply the word itself, but how and who and when and where and why it’s being used.

    Also wanted to say, Nick, that a lot of writing in cognitive science and scientifically minded analytic philosophy uses “belief” as a general term for mental acceptance or assent, for whatever items are held in mind as “true.” So you’d be agitating against its use in empiricist and rationalist communities, communities which I gather you’d be in sympathy with.

    Regardless, as always, I dig your passion and style.

  • OliverCranglesParrot

    Thanks Jazzman, I had no idea the Rod Serling piece was in play on the table. Do we dare ponder the implications…that at 16:00 GMT this blog will become two feet tall? Nut…

  • Nick

    I agree with all of your 4:35, mynocturama (well, except for blushing at the compliment).

    I can’t “prescribe away” the ‘opinion’ usages of belief. Nor can Webster.

    All I or others can do is to introduce new alternatives (like plause) to bettwe serve the subsidiary meanings of ambiguous concepts, and hope (forlornly, perhaps) that the alternatives slowly gain currency. That’s the only way I can honestly imagine putting ‘belief’ onto the diet it so desperately deserves.

    It’s also why I tried to introduce ‘humaneness’ in place of ‘good’ and ‘inhumanity’ in place of ‘evil’. Perhaps that worked a smidgeon better, since those alternatives exist already and have at least some fluent currency.

    I don’t know. I know only that this thread has been a mind-opening boon, and as it passes overnight into post-airing ROS-obsolesence, I want to THANK ALL OF YOU AGAIN!

  • enhabit

    i have managed to read most of this. you all astonish me. this mega thread is a show of its own, worthy of publication.

    will have to download tonight’s show. i’ll listen to it while reading on after this marker.

    thank you everyone, enlightening stuff..wish that time wasn’t pressing so.

    two thoughts

    hitler certainly thought that what he was doing was courageous and righteous. perhaps “evil” and “misguided” are co-joined

    alison: having suffered from a degree of corporal punishnent as a child i have since held that in such cases, the punishment is usually more memorable than the “reason” for it. i don’t remember a single reason for getting smacked, but i do remember the hitting. therefore..this form of punishment may be a deterent but it is not a teacher in th positive sense and is therefore counter productive in the long-term. it is a line that i feel shouldn’t be crossed, some people find its application easier each time. no one would sincerely question your actions, even if it was presented in such a philosophical context.

    well be at peace about it anyway, no child deserves to be hit repeatedly

  • Nick

    mynocturama’s ‘tofu’ metaphor jogged me onto another, unexpected metaphor.

    ‘Toxins’ aren’t poisons, but naturally occurring ‘toxic’ substances. Poisons, otoh, are substances concocted from toxins. They are artificial, and designed to harm or to kill.

    Genocides then equal ‘poisons’ concocted from the commonplace ingredients of ordinary ‘toxins’ – i.e., ‘banal’, venal, bigoted humans.

    Rephrased: vile, monstrous outbreaks of inhumanity can spread across the face of the world simply from the deliberate or accidental combination of “banal ingredients” — ordinary people enacting toxic beliefs. The beliefs might be merely venal, the people merely banal (or vice versa). But the aggregate totality of their actions surpasses the appropriate realm of such mild adjectives.

    (Can anyone help to improve this? Thanks…)

  • mynocturama

    Just wanted to add a little more to the possible testosterone-empathy connection.

    Autism is conceived in terms of a deficit in empathy, an inability to sense or imagine other people’s mental states.

    Couple this with Simon Baron Cohen’s theory, which describes autism as an extreme manifestation of “the male brain,” and Malcolm Gladwell’s account of the shooting of Amadou Diallo in “Blink.” Gladwell says that the police, under conditions of heightened stress and fear, became, in effect, “mindblind.” Their capacity to interpret the behavior and intentions of others, in this case Diallo, was blunted, blocked. Other factors were at play too, but I think the idea of an induced “mindblindness” is a powerful one.

    Testosterone has been linked with fear and aggression responses. It’s causal role isn’t exactly certain or definite, but there seems to be a correlation. So the idea that testosterone, during states of perceived threat or aggression, could suppress empathy in favor of aggression, starts to sound convincing.

    And as empathy, in this thread, is at the core of our considerations of morality, compassion, its absence perhaps the cause of what we call “evil,” then the testosterone factor is certainly worth thinking about, I think.

  • icantgoon

    Yeah, banality of evil… “failure of empathy”. How many of you had meat (raped, mutilated, abused, tortured animal remains) for dinner so you could enjoy a few minutes of mouth pleasure before turning the corpse into a piece of shit? Can we get more banal than that?

  • OliverCranglesParrot

    So five years of bombing, a diet of bark, bugs, lizards and leaves up in the Cambodian jungles, an education in Paris environs in a strict Maoist doctrine with a touch of Rousseau, and other things that we will probably never know about in our lifetime. Including perhaps an invisible cloud of evil that circles the Earth and lands at random in places like Iran, Beirut, Germany, Cambodia, America, set the Khmer Rouge out to commit the worst auto-homeo genocide in modern history Spalding Gray Swimming to Cambodia

  • Nick

    Thanks John. Great stuff. Again. As usual!

  • marsh

    I was surprised at the obtuseness of your guest in her efforts to describe Hannah. But I wonder what Hannah might have to say about the Israel as a Jewish state in 2006.

    And one of the points puzzled me and that was the notion that Nazism was the greatest evil perpetrated on/by the human race. Was it?

  • Nick

    Good show. Very good show.

    Both guests had plenty of wisdom to offer. A couple of momentary stumbles maybe, but solid overall…

    …except regarding empathy.

    Perhaps, like these two guests, many people do not experience empathy. Those of us who have, however, tangibly know it to be possible, and, in youth more than possible but common. My sister and I can attest to it.

    From my own experiences rise these observations:

    1. Though she and I experienced empathy daily – sensing one another’s feelings directly and communicating it within the limits of our children’s vocabularies, our empathetic link didn’t endure undiminished into adulthood. Yet now, after three decades living hundreds of miles apart, we see each other again daily. Our empathetic link persists, but is dulled – in my case, not hers – by my own fully adult complex (morass, more probably) of current emotions and thoughts seething atop the embers of all my previous decades’ worth of emotions.

    My brain – where all this feeling actually takes place – is finite. That finite space must by necessity host an awful lot of emotional action and reaction, both current and from memory. This finitude and self-absorption compromises my empathetic sensitivity to my sister.

    2. Children, in my experience, are more immediately empathetic than adults – for the reasons alluded to above. Hormones and history work to dull empathetic sensitivity. Beliefs too (see below).

    3. Empathy isn’t a figment of science fiction or fantasy. We are mammals – we share a lineage with creatures whose senses of smell are so acute – and whose brains are vastly more preoccupied with olfactory analyses – that they can smell the glandular emissions of emotions released by other animals. Wolves (and dogs) can ‘sense fear’ tangibly. They are empaths in to a degree humans can only fantasize about – but they are NOT compassionate.

    4. In humans, moments of mutual seduction are – or at least can be – moments of empathetic linkage.

    I’m sorry that neither guest seemed capable of recalling a personal experience of empathy. And yes, compassion is more important to humaneness than mere empathy (think about those hungry, all-scenting wolves). But compassion can spring directly from empathetic sensitivity – IF the person is sensitive to it.

    Which leads me to this: Elisabeth Young-Bruehl strongly stated that the idea that we can empathize with another person is a narcissistic delusion. I argue the opposite. Self-absorption – narcissism – is perhaps the primary source of empathy-occlusion. Moreover, if narcissism is tied to belief – in, say, one’s “racial mastery” – then the narcissism is exponentially strengthened (socially and ideologically), further occluding one’s latent empathetic sensitivity. Add to that the further occlusions from testosterone detailed by mynocturama and in the links provided by Potter…and then, well, I suppose it shouldn’t surprise you or me that many people seem to think that no one can experience empathy. What a shame.

    My heart goes out to them.

  • darwhin

    the commentator quoted saying war cannot cure war? no i don’t agree at all, war can cure war. history simply proves this. the author is trying to make everything fit her current political ideology. the fact is if the allies had smashed hitler at the first instance of his aggression when he was clearly not ready for war the holocaust would not have happened. world war 2 as it was wouldn’t have happened. its kind of sad the two commentators are using the quote to protect iran in this context.

    sure you can play games of absurdity and stretch to the long term to say that wars do not end all wars, but so what, thats like saying fighting and curing one desease is pointless because others will come and continue to kill. that fighting crime is absurdity because fighting crime doesn’t end all crime. thats all playing silly games.

    as for the supposed ideology of pushing democracy. well fine, the same people complaining about pushing democracy now were complaining before when we were just supporting convenient dictators. the politics of reality werent good enough for them either, apparently some on the left either have the politics of fantasy or simply the politics of opposition.

  • darwhin

    ” Lumière Says: Gill Scott Heron has a line in one of his songs: Peace is not the preparation for war, Peace is the absence of the preparation for war ”

    nice thought without meaning i guess. its like saying that land free of crime is land without need for police. a blatant statement of obvious truth. and frankly a fantasy. the lack of preparation comes after conditions reach perfection, not before or it invites disaster. there was the absence of a true preparation for war with hitlers rise and there was appeasement and denial much as there is now, and the price for such attitudes was truely enormous.

    “And one of the points puzzled me and that was the notion that Nazism was the greatest evil perpetrated on/by the human race. Was it? ”

    for a large part islamism is getting a pass and it shares a large component of the antisemitism that made up nazism.

  • Potter

    Post-game from a listener: At the end of the hour, I felt that we had hardly begun. I don’t think this was an easy hour for Chris to do either. This made me long for the old days when Chris has two back-to-back hours. ROS may have done a part one and two just on last night’s track. Still the audio clips and the quotes and the scholars’ musings were spellbinding as I tried to channel Arendt. Sold on Arendt’s relevance today and into the future, I ordered two more books – the Jewish writings and “Responsibility and Judgment” (the short review says this elaborates further on “banality of evil” and reactions to it).

    What was also excellent is all this time we had for discussion on a topic that clearly has a lot of interest. What we suffered was this single thread as many conversations were going on at once and interwoven plus singular comments in between. I have sympathy and compassion on top of my normal empathy for those who have to load the page just to get to the latest.( I think the RSS feed would be easier for that purpose.) But the whole thread is worth going through even again.

    Nother’s “one minute-play” on GWB is my background music as I continue to think and read on this and it’s applicability to today. http://www.radioopensource.org/hannah-arendt-and-the-banality-of-evil/#comment-46365

    I hope Katemcshane will forgive any strong opposition to any of her ideas. For me her posts are very thoughtful and appreciated.

    Regarding what Nick said just above, the last two paragraphs especially, I agree. What the guests knew about Hannah Arendt’s idea of empathy was not really clarified and we had no time left ( I will listen again to that end part). I thought I heard Chris ask what the guests themselves thought about empathy and here again- I come away with nothing. I think Arent avoided the word- I don’t know if she used it. Did she? I know she used “thoughtlessness”.

  • Lumière

    Nick/Potter:

    Thanks for the recap – I missed the show due to the monthly artist cohort meeting – the homeowner wasn’t home so we could not get any of the electronics to work –can’t wait for convergence: one device that everyone knows how to use !

    ////….many people do not experience empathy…\\\

    That could be true b/c human consciousness is meant to be diverse. Nonetheless, she oddly equated it with narcissism – many brainiacs think feelings are dumb – I think it is a force of will that puts them in denial of their feelings:

    ///Self-absorption – narcissism – is perhaps the primary source of empathy-occlusion.\\\

    .

    Darwhin

    There is a military doctrine – the name of which escapes me – that is similar to “use it or lose it” – that backs up Gill Scott Heron’s sentiment: militarization leads to war.

    ///greatest evil perpetrated on/by the human race. Was it? ”\\\

    Stalin’s pogroms may have killed more people – Mao by negligence

    Leopold II of Belgium may have killed 15 million to 20 million in the Congo

    As a % of the population, Pol Pot may have been the worst

  • Lumière

    Oh, I almost forgot the biggest genocide in history perp’d by the Europeans:

    New world Indians…

  • nother

    Thank you for that Potter! And thankyou for all of your writing on this thread. You helped make it a very special conversation. What other blog on the web could have a thread like ours?

    This was one of those few times that the thread stood above the hour program – and I think that is a good thing. The bloggers are starting to carry some of the load around here.

    Listening to the guest, Jerome Kohn, I had the image of my Aunt Helen’s prized chair in her living room. This great chair was always covered in plastic so she could protect it. I could never understand why if she liked the chair so much she was not inviting her family and friends to sit on it and enjoy it for themselves.

    Mr. Kohn is so wrapped up in Hannah Arendt’s legacy that he feels he needs to protect her and that’s why he was so defensive – at least it seemed to me. He should be excited to stretch her ideas, make them malleable and new.

    Mr. Kohn reminded me of the guest from the I.F. Stone program, I believe it was his biographer. If they would only take themselves a little less serious, the conversation could blossom.

    I also think having two scholars who know each other so well held things back somewhat. They seemed so wary of contradicting each other that they stayed evasive and aloof.

    Other than that, I enjoyed the questions and the audio clips and the thread. Looking forward to part 2.

  • Lumière

    Thanks for the recap nother – I wont waste time listening to brainiacs on the podcast

  • hurley

    Chapeau to Chris for gracefully negotiating a difficult hour. I can’t say as much for his guests. EYB, who obviously ignored the thread — her prerogative, though there’s something to be said for joining in the spirit of a friendly conversation — blindsided Chris when he asked if she might analyze Eichmann in retrospect with a self-serving sermon on the occult nature of the relationship between analyst and analysand. Minutes later she was characterizing various Nazis as “obsessives.” Soon after the other guest responded to a good-natured question with dumbfounded silence, only to chime in minutes later, “That’s what I was murmuring about.” They occasionaly reminded me of the sneering, smirking, spidery art-world characters in The Big Lebowski, giggling between themselves at Chris’ attempt to broaden the conversation beyond the haughty conversation they were intent on having between themselves. And then EYB’s response to katemcshane’s message — “slurpy, touchy-feely.” As Jimmy Durante said, more or less, you have to have a hole in your heart to feel another’s pain…I’ve had at least one episode in my life similar to the one katemcshane describes, and there was nothing “slurpy” about it; rather, a precise mental and practical calculus at work: I know what it’s like, what can I afford to give, etc. Take heart, Kate, you came out of the hour a lot better than EYB.

  • nother

    Lumiere, please don’t say that. It was still worth listening to – as any ROS produced program is. It’s just that it was 65 degress and sunny when it could have been 75 degrees and sunny, if that gentleman had loosened up a little. I’ll still take 65 degrees any day.

    btw, lumiere, thanks for the engaging posts, I’ve been reading along and enjoying.

  • Lumière

    nother,

    Jobim’s Girl From Ipanema was playing at a show reception when I met Ursula – an alluring dark-haired Brazilian. She told me the song story. It was written by Jobim and others over drinks and it was never copyrighted – it became a gift to the world.

    A gift is a beautiful thing, be it a story, an idea, or an insight.

    No, I won’t listen to those who have nothing to give.

    Ciao

  • enhabit

    guess the revolution will not be televised after all

  • enhabit

    it’s not as obtuse as one might think. a little empathic serendipity from whoever brought up Gil the poet turning banality’s indifference on its ear.

    The Revolution Will Not Be Televised

    You will not be able to stay home, brother.

    You will not be able to plug in, turn on and cop out.

    You will not be able to lose yourself on skag and skip,

    Skip out for beer during commercials,

    Because the revolution will not be televised.

    The revolution will not be televised.

    The revolution will not be brought to you by Xerox

    In 4 parts without commercial interruptions.

    The revolution will not show you pictures of Nixon

    blowing a bugle and leading a charge by John

    Mitchell, General Abrams and Spiro Agnew to eat

    hog maws confiscated from a Harlem sanctuary.

    The revolution will not be televised.

    The revolution will not be brought to you by the

    Schaefer Award Theatre and will not star Natalie

    Wood and Steve McQueen or Bullwinkle and Julia.

    The revolution will not give your mouth sex appeal.

    The revolution will not get rid of the nubs.

    The revolution will not make you look five pounds

    thinner, because the revolution will not be televised, Brother.

    There will be no pictures of you and Willie May

    pushing that shopping cart down the block on the dead run,

    or trying to slide that color television into a stolen ambulance.

    NBC will not be able predict the winner at 8:32

    or report from 29 districts.

    The revolution will not be televised.

    There will be no pictures of pigs shooting down

    brothers in the instant replay.

    There will be no pictures of pigs shooting down

    brothers in the instant replay.

    There will be no pictures of Whitney Young being

    run out of Harlem on a rail with a brand new process.

    There will be no slow motion or still life of Roy

    Wilkens strolling through Watts in a Red, Black and

    Green liberation jumpsuit that he had been saving

    For just the proper occasion.

    Green Acres, The Beverly Hillbillies, and Hooterville

    Junction will no longer be so damned relevant, and

    women will not care if Dick finally gets down with

    Jane on Search for Tomorrow because Black people

    will be in the street looking for a brighter day.

    The revolution will not be televised.

    There will be no highlights on the eleven o’clock

    news and no pictures of hairy armed women

    liberationists and Jackie Onassis blowing her nose.

    The theme song will not be written by Jim Webb,

    Francis Scott Key, nor sung by Glen Campbell, Tom

    Jones, Johnny Cash, Englebert Humperdink, or the Rare Earth.

    The revolution will not be televised.

    The revolution will not be right back after a message

    about a white tornado, white lightning, or white people.

    You will not have to worry about a dove in your

    bedroom, a tiger in your tank, or the giant in your toilet bowl.

    The revolution will not go better with Coke.

    The revolution will not fight the germs that may cause bad breath.

    The revolution will put you in the driver’s seat.

    The revolution will not be televised, will not be televised,

    will not be televised, will not be televised.

    The revolution will be no re-run brothers;

    The revolution will be live.

    Gil Scott Heron

    as someone here once said it’s all a question of point of view.

  • enhabit

    this is supurb sidewalker, even if you have moved on i’m saying it anyway. some of us are still working through all this.

    “Italo Calvino in his novelInvisible Cities put it in a brilliant way that I cannot and so I quote from page 126:

    ‘The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.’

    When we recognize this who can be the better part of ourselves we can start to help put out reduce the flame. “

  • http://www.circles-salon.com allison

    I laugh when reading this because when I lived in Brasil in the ’80s there was unimaginable inflation. Over 1,000 percent. Yes, thousand. I installed customized publishing systems for major newspapers and was working in Sao Paolo when it was announced that a revolution was going to happen on August 17th. I can vividly recall standing there feeling the absurdity of it. Who sends out PR notices of a revolution? There was serious discussion about whether or not this was going to happen and what life would be like, etc.

    I wonder if Gil’s poem stems from that kind of Brasiliero behavior?

  • enhabit

    still picking through, i’ll just speak into the void.

    lumiere

    i’ve lost where you were talking about certain, was it fractal? mathematical systems repeating themselves upon magnification. you may find some of the biologist steven j gould’s work of relevance. he, as you may already know studied a certain carribean snail…a lot. i once heard him talk about how systems move toward an average over time, and he used baseball batting averages as an example. only when certain variables are altered, ball or bat construction for example, steroids etc. do anomalies begin to reappear in significant numbers. but still, the astronomical batting averages that once were in the old days are gone for now. the extremes tend to migrate towards a center long term given a stable system.

    do ethical standards follow a similar path?

    fear of the new system/technology/variable of the mounted and armoured knight, once extraordinary, soon common, made chivalric code necessary to prevent chaos and so it spread throughout europe until the crossbow changed everything.

    fear of the new technology of N-U-C-L-E-A-R (george!) weapons, once extraordinary, soon common made Mutually Assured Destruction, which one could argue is a perverse kind of ethic…necessary..still going i suppose.

    are these things evil? likely w/o the ethical control, but are they anyway? depends on your point of view. ie whether or not you have one. some have argued that europe (most of it anyway) has enjoyed less military conflict then any time in its history…because of M.A.D..

    is that where this goes..evil is the absence of ethical self-control? we admire the uncorruptable, they seem to come around so infrequently, they seem mythical. but we are trying to let ourselves of the hook by making them mythical..unobtainable. by marginalizing them to the extraordinary..to the edge..we feel safe on the crest of the bell..the homeland of banality…do we excuse ourselves on this summit.

    taoism tells us that without good we can not know bad and visa versa

    sidewalker

    i hope that you can see that while calvino’s cities could be seen as descriptions of women and relationships, from your quote, he shares a..dare i say empathises? unknowingly with Gil Scott Heron’s rage against the system.

    thank you ROS this has been quite cathartic. good therapy session…even if i am just talking into the void.

  • enhabit

    nice to know that you’re out there allison. REALLY interested in Sao Paolo by the way. my area of study is settlement upgrading. some extraordinary people working on it in that city….better be with that kind of urban growth, excessive poverty and challenging topography.

  • enhabit

    footnote…more about Stephen Jay Gould off the net, written by John Allen Paulos of ABC news:

    “One aspect of his work that particularly appealed to me was his use of simple mathematical observations and analogies to help clarify his multifarious arguments.

    Baseball, Bacteria, and the Complexity of Life

    Gould was, for example, famously interested in baseball, bacteria, and the complexity of life and characteristically managed to connect them in an enlightening and non-trivial way. Consider his explanation for the disappearance of the .400 hitter in baseball in his book, Full House, The Spread of Excellence.

    He argued that the absence of such hitters in recent decades was not due to any decline in baseball ability but rather to a gradual decrease in the disparity between the worst and best players, both pitchers and hitters. When almost all players are as athletically gifted as they are now, the distribution of batting averages shows less variability. The result is that .400 averages are now very scarce. Players’ athletic prowess is close to the “right wall” of ultimate human excellence in baseball.”

    off to bed and an episode of star trek (seriously). thanx again ROS

  • Potter

    Enhabit-from out here in the void, thank you for that poem.

  • manning120

    Like others, I admire Bill Pontius’s post of March 6. In the perspective of the subsequent radio show itself, he seems to have captured the essence of Arendt’s thinking and topical message. I share his alarm at the way our president appears not as thoughtful as the immense weight of events suggest he should be. Of course, I wouldn’t put Mr. Bush in the same category as Adolph Eichmann. I feel more comfortable comparing myself to Eichmann and telling people to please let me know if they think the “banality of evil” is overtaking me.

    I was especially impressed at Bill Pontius mulling over the content of Arendt’s lectures that he heard in the 1960′s.

    After some mulling of my own, here are a few conclusions, based on common language analysis:

    1. Evil (noun) is a shockingly bad event or connected series of events caused by one or more beings capable of mentation (human or otherwise).

    2. Evil (adjective) describes a) the shockingly bad event or series of events, b) one or more beings who/that knowingly cause or promote, or approve, the occurrence of evil; c) a thought, desire, plan, or other mental disposition favoring or enjoying the occurrence of evil; d) acts arising from c) that cause or promote evil, or attempt to cause or promote it. (I had previously narrowed c) to intention, but clearly one might have evil thoughts or wishes falling short of intention.)

    3. “The banality of evil” is a figurative phrase, somewhat like “the face of evil” or an “evil cloud,” referring to the phenomenon exhibited by Eichmann of a person who has a normal social life among his/her family and peers, and who wouldn’t of his/her own initiative favor or promote evil, but who contributes to the occurrence of evil by the thoughtless performance of mundane activities in the employ or at the suggestion of an evil person or group.

    By these criteria, the “banal” bureaucratic work of Eichmann, and Eichmann himself, were evil because he knew what resulted from his acts, even though by dint of thoughtlessness, he didn’t find it shocking.

  • enhabit

    just to split hairs manning120

    i think 2a) should read:

    “describes a shockingly bad event or connected series of events caused by one or more beings capable of mentation (human or otherwise)”

    i suggest this edti to avoid bringing random events into the picture which are less likely to be evil if at all.

    btw i think that we have left ourselves out of the eichmann description a little too much. i suspect that Ms. Arendt was shocked to find someone who could be a neigbor or an uncle where she expected to find a fire breathing monster. it must have been a shock. here she discovers the pitfalls of demonization…looking for the enemy she found us.

  • enhabit

    i also suggest THIS edit

  • Potter

    I agree with Manning120′s above—a needed clarification. As well, I agree w enhabit’s “btw addendum” last para above. Bravo… for nailing it imo.

  • Lumière

    Define thought or thoughtlessness.

    ///…by one or more beings capable of mentation.\\\

    I take Arendt’s ‘thoughtlessness’ to be figurative phrase – confused and inadequate thinking is a better phrase, imo.

    Impeachment folk: Chaney would be the next president. Again, by a casting Bush as evil, as he has done to others, you put yourself in a box you can’t get out of – just as he has done to our foreign policy.

    This is where Pontius‘ analysis is flawed. Bush was elected twice – if he is evil, the evil is in the vox populi – just as it was in the German people.

    Banality….obvious, or predictable; a commonplace.

    If you think Bush is evil, then by manning’s definition, the election was a shocking event.

    We seem to be going full circle, still attempting to place evil outside of the individual …… ultimately expressed in a collective consciousness.

  • enhabit

    when one reacts to a situation..which implies that a more complete thought process is set aside in the interest of a perceived urgency..one may be subject to actions that fall into a more primal mode….such as fear….self preservation..defense of the tribe…all mental frequencies well exploited by nazis and neo-cons alike. here we find common ground.

    when a collective consciousness is so manipulated rashness prevails. whopping rationalizations inevitably follow rashness.

    btw i still do not think that old king george deserves such credit..he is far too banal a creature to be in full control..and far too busy with “figure head duties…cheyney is already running the show, imo.

  • enhabit

    is it that banality tends to cause the intellect to become a “spectator” or “voyeur” of certain collective experiences? desireous of participation, but lacking the security to fully do so..it busies itself with working on its piece of the machine..eager to be accepted into a collective with higher purpose..defering judgement to that of the movement….thought fragments are resurected..they seem to fit the cause..”yes..YES..i’ve always felt this way!” the individual is drawn into participation.

  • enhabit

    “babbit”

    “the screwtape letters”

    “in cold blood” (unexpected empathy before…)

  • enhabit

    i site “in cold blood” not as an example of this discussed collective experience as much as for the shock that capote ultimately experiences from his…is it empathy? with the “nicer” of the two condemned men.

  • enhabit

    capote was never the same..he had looked into nietzsche’s abyss and it looked back.

  • Lumière

    capote was never the same..he had looked into ….. abyss and it looked back.

    the tax code will do that to you….

  • jamesdylangoldstein

    I thought the podcast was fantastic, but I don’t think it delved into an area that needs to be delved into: our mercenary Army and how we inculcate obedience above all else into our soldiers. We pay them to obey; we ask them not to think, to be moral. I would love to hear more from the Arendt experts, the people who’ve read a lot of her, about what she has to say about this. I’m unsure if I believe there is a great distinction in the amoral obedience of Nazi soldiers and our soldiers. I’ve got some more thoughts on my blog; and hopefully the Zimbardo segment delves into this further.

    jdgoldstein.blogspot.com

  • Lumière

    ….how we inculcate obedience above all else….

    ‘Insubordination’ is codified i.e. there are times and procedures for disagreeing with an order

  • jamesdylangoldstein

    Technically the UCMJ does outlined reasons for one to be insubordinate. But that’s not reality. Bush has and continues to argue that he can violate the UCMJ. He has also violated the War Crimes Act, a US statute. And he continues, as Sy Hersh reports, to order black operations outside of congressional oversight. Such operations have, and probably, continue to involve techniques that violate military and US statutes. Bush insists that he is the top chain of command, that he can violate US law and have soldiers due so also, to “protect our nation.” The soldiers have, and will most likely continue, to obey Bush’s immoral and unlawful orders. Occasionally when the media cries out, some grunts are fired. And then there is the issue of violating the law, getting called on it — and told you are a War Criminal by the Supreme Court in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld — and responding by changing the law. When torture occurs, Dear Leader Bush can deem you an unlawful enemy combatant, and then you are outside of the law.

    And, forgetting Bush, what about all of the instances when the U.S. has ordered soldiers to commit immoral actions — toppling democratic governments, executing leaders, taking the side of one fascist against another fascist, etc. Such actions are lawful according to the UCMJ, and immoral. The President often goes behind the back of congress to order such actions and yet the soldiers never seem to desert (UCMJ: desertion in a time of war is punishable by death).

  • jamesdylangoldstein

    I’ve got more on my blog, jdgoldstein.blogspot.com. But probably the best legal and philosophical commentary on these issues can be found at Balkin.blogspot.com.

  • enhabit

    Lumière:

    that’s funny..did capote have a tax event with our uncle?

    jamesdylangoldstein:

    there’s a reason why our gov’t has never been very supportive of the world court… sins of the cold war….viet nam….kissinger…..chile….etc…

  • Lumière

    Sorry – my eyes are bad – i read Capone: Al Capone

    But what I said is still true

  • enhabit

    and so it is! this “alternative tax” yikes! the devil’s own!

  • Potter

    I take Arendt’s use of “banality” not figuratively, but literally ( Manning120′s #3 above. She was using banality in a new context.

    As well (Lumiere) “thoughtlessness” for me is literal, not figurative and different in meaning from the words you would replace it with: thoughtless is not confused though maybe there was confusion and maybe the thinking was inadequate as well who knows but that is not what Arendt was saying. I think Arendt was saying there was NO thinking at all where there should have been.

  • enhabit

    thought-less as in automaton? action without consideration at all? or action without FULL consideration?

    in reality it seems that it was probably more like incomplete thought. skips a few steps to acquire a desired result..a rationalized outcome.

    this might include a long view of an outcome without a realistic calculation of what must happen along the way (right mr. wolfowitz?)…

    or the more immediate desire for inclusiveness..a bond with a movement..success through productivity within this structure..less about the result in terms of affecting humanity..more about the result in terms of personal accomplishment, perverse as that may be.

  • enhabit

    When a hundred men stand together, each of them loses his mind and gets another one.

    Friedrich Nietzsche

  • Potter

    Wonderful!

  • Lumière

    Friedrich Nietzsche: amazing !

    Neurobiologists have noticed that when people group up the brain produces chemicals that reduce the thought patterns to a more primitive state.

    Fred knew this by observation !

  • GodzillaVsBambi

    I would like to know why Allison’s (March 11th, 2007 at 1:31 am) post http://www.radioopensource.org/coming-home-iraq-veterans/ was not pulled for supporting the anti-Semitism of CookiesAndCream? Other than the attempted trap set for me on the Israel Vs Iran board, Jew bashing is permitted elsewhere on the site. How come CookiesAndCreams’ Jew-baiting and Jew hatred is tolerated? And why is Allison’s support of it tolerated? You guys are really sad and un-American. “Freedom of speech”, LOL. If anyone needs to be watched by FBI & NSA it is you people!

  • GodzillaVsBambi

    Way too high strung for your own good.

  • enhabit

    was she being supportive or just diplomatic? c.a.c. seems to either relish provocation or be extremely sarcastic..in either case israel is a sensitive issue. there are many devout jews who question israel’s very existence..one can question israeli intentions and methods without being anti-semitic…this kind of linkage is unfortunate and if it is promoted by israel is demonstrative of fear.

    and as for being high strung..read your last two entries..everbody loses it from time to time…

    your handle is based on a classic rogue cartoon..you have a sense of humor…ever see the one about the baby dragon and the baby bird? saw both sketches in the same animation festival.

    why lash out here anyway..this one has been winding down

  • Robin

    Hi guys -

    we’re going to shut off commenting on this thread and ask that everyone migrate over to the comment thread for the second banality of evil show. We will go back and look at these comments for inclusion in the second show as well. Thanks so much!

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