Philosophical Ethics: Does Calling Someone Evil Explain Anything About Them?

In a series of posts this semester, I am going to blog all (or almost all) the lecture topics for the two Philosophical Ethics classes I am teaching this semester. Each of these posts will primarily explicate the reading or a theme that dominated class discussion in a way that should be accessible to novices (such as my students are). I will also offer some degree of analysis of the ideas considered and then pose suggested discussion questions. These posts will usually feature more speculation than argumentation from me as I try to stimulate your thinking rather than stake out my own positions. Some of my students will be responding to these short discussion primers in a private forum through the university. I’ve told the students they are free to discuss the blog post versions of these discussion primers as well, so they might show up here.  The text we are using and from which all citations will be taken is Ethical Theory: classical and contemporary readings, edited by Louis Pojman. Wadsworth: California, 2007). This post explores Gilbert Harman’s argument against moral facts on the grounds that supposed moral facts, even if they did exist would not be necessary to explain any part of phenomena.  Then I deal with Nicholas Sturgeon’s reply to this assertion.

Gilbert Harman in his article “Moral Nihilism” makes several arguments against the idea that there are any such things as moral facts.  The first and (to my mind) the most challenging argument he makes is that moral facts are not explanatory of phenomena the way that physical facts are.  If scientists were to see a vapor trail during an experiment and infer the presence of a proton that they have good independent reason to believe causes such vapor trails, their belief in a proton’s presence is a belief in something factual and potentially explanatory.  This is because the existence of a proton explains why they would see a vapor trail.  Without protons in those circumstances they would be far less likely to see any vapor trails.

Harman thinks that the situation is different for moral facts.  If we were to see a group of kids cruelly lighting a cat on fire and say that it was a fact that what they did was evil, this alleged fact of evil would do nothing to explain what we saw.  It would not tell us why we saw this happening and nor would the existence of an actual property of evilness play any necessary role in explaining why we make the judgment we do.  Unlike the vapor trail which in this case would not be observed without the existence of a proton in the world, our judgment of something’s being evil might simply express our feeling without needing any cause from actual “evil” within the world.  The psychological explanation of our aversion to what we are seeing is sufficient to explain why we recoil in horror.  Our psychological feelings are certainly not enough to explain why we see a vapor trail.  So we do not need to posit the existence of moral facts to explain our decision to call something evil the way we need a proton to explain our experience of a vapor trail under particular experimental conditions.

Harman’s argument is that even were such moral facts to exist, they would have no way of explaining our observations.  The facts that would explain the situation would be all descriptive features like the smell and look of the gasoline that would indicate to us the fact of the presence of gasoline and the presence of the gasoline would explain our observations of gasoline smell and the look of gasoline.  The smell, sight, and sound of the fire would make us judge fire is present and the fact of fire would explain why we smelled, saw, and heard burning, red and orange, and crackling.  These are all objective, indisputable sense perceptions that any normal observer would be able to pick up from the situation and which would all be explained by references to factual circumstances.  The “evil” of what the kids are doing, even were it a fact, would not explain any of our observations such that things smelled or looked or sounded a certain way.

Sturgeon challenges Harman on this point by arguing that if there are moral facts then they indeed explain our observations.  If it is a fact that Hitler is evil then the fact of his evil helps explain his heinous acts.  Were he not evil he would not commit genocide or perpetuate so much destructive conflict for his own self-aggrandizement.  The wickedness of his character plays a major role in helping us to understand the observable actions he undertakes.

I have problems with Sturgeon’s notion of someone’s evil character explaining theiractions.   While I do think that there are characters we should call bad or even, in rarer cases, outright “evil,” I do not think that the designation explains behavior very specifically except in a limited set of cases.  I think other, more descriptive features of Hitler explain his actions.  He was cruel, hateful, anti-Semitic, resentful, deceptive, narcissistic, aggressive, power-lusting, militant, murderous, tyrannous, fascist, controlling, vindictive, vengeful, proud, nationalistic, racist, angry, self-pitying, megalomaniacal, and malignant.  He was Hitler—we can just spend all day listing wicked character traits that will fit him.

Each of the descriptors I just used for describing Hitler is psychologically descriptive.  We do not need to make any particular value judgments to call someone cruel (even though we judge most cases of cruelty to be bad).  We do not need to be judging harshly when we describe someone as deceptive or power-lusting or aggressive or proud or racist. They each refer to objective facts about his character, mindset, and behavior that other Nazis might have agreed he possessed and even praised him for with no compunction.  In other words, a term like “anti-Semitic”, for example, means something so descriptive that both the Nazi and the anti-Nazi need have no dispute over whether it applies to Hitler.  It contains neither moral prejudice nor moral inference.  It is just a fact.  And it i’s a fact which, when taken in conjunction with most of his other traits I just listed, explains why he attempted to exterminate the Jews.

These traits, which were objectively determinable features of his psychology, explain why he did what he did.  The value judgment that what he did was evil is certainly a correct one.  There are few clearer cases of profound evil than Hitler.  But the evil is the result, not the explanation of his actions.  We judge the way he expressed all his traits as evil.  This does not mean that saying that “evil” itself somehow was one a distinguishable trait he had adds anything to our comprehension of his actions.  When I describe him as having motives which were cruel, murderous, tyrannical, vengeful, scapegoating, nationalistic, and anti-semitic, are you really still at a loss for explanation for how he could commit acts of genocide?  Do I have to add that he also had “evil?”  What extra bit of information does that give to explain why we saw what we saw?  “Evil” is the word for the evaluative conclusion we draw about these sets of properties and their role in bringing about heinous deeds. But it is itself too vague a word to function as a factual descriptor itself.

What I mean by saying that it is too vague a word to function as a factual descriptor itself is that if all I told you about someone is that she was evil, you would be at a loss to precisely infer what kinds of bad actions she committed or to what bad mindsets she was susceptible or what kinds of bad behavior she characteristically engaged in.  You might guess that she’s cruel whereas she might turn out to have a banal, indifferent sort of evil that’s not even cruel (and precisely monstrous for its inhuman lack of cruelty where at least cruelty would seem more human and understandable as a motivation).  Maybe you reason that since she’s evil she must be a liar, but as it turns out her wickedness is of a self-righteous sort which is actually blameless when it comes to lying but which expresses itself entirely through her vicious, pharisaical destruction of all those less scrupulously pious in religious matters than she is.  Because evil can be filled out in such widely varying ways it is what ethicists refer to as a “thin” moral concept—one that can take a range of varying meanings and be just as easily used to refer to opposite phenomenon when coming from two different people.

In one culture, for example, the uncovered public faces of women might be called evil, whereas in another the veiling of women’s faces might be called evil.  The word evil itself does not have any a priori connotations that make it clear automatically that the one culture is wrong and the other is right.  In this way it is a “thin” word expressing more our judgment (which may nonetheless be more or less correct) than an explanatory fact about the world.

It is different with other moral terms like courage and cowardice.  Two cultures which disagree about what is good and what is evil nonetheless must both call the people who face danger willingly, dutifully, and ably “courageous” and those who shirk from their frightening duties “cowardly”.  These are relatively “thick” concepts which would make no sense if used to describe the opposite kinds of actions.

“Evil” is a thin concept also because it applies to a wide range of bad actions alike.  Evil could refer to cruelty or indifference in a circumstance which calls for concern.  Evil could be dishonesty or cowardice or any of a number of things.  Yet the word “cowardice” itself cannot be used to mean cruelty, indifference, dishonesty, etc.  It can only be used to refer to fear that prevents someone from doing the right thing when the right thing is dangerous or some other species of excessive fear.  Particular acts of dishonesty, cruelty or inappropriate indifference could also involve cowardice, of course.   I may tell a lie because I am a coward or be cruel out of cowardice or indifferent because I am a coward and caring might cause me danger, etc.  But the element of cowardice itself is distinct from these other components of the actions it contributes to.

There is only one sense of evil that we might take to be explanatory and which might overturn my most of my analysis thus far.  We might restrict the word evil to be a synonym for malignant or ill-willed and take it to mean very specifically the desire to violate one’s moral duties knowingly, deliberately, and out of explicit preference for what is bad over what is good.  In other words for people to be evil, they must knowingly choose to do the actions we evaluate as evil while themselves thinking explicitly that what they are doing is evil and doing so out of an outright preference for evil acts for their own sake.  If someone desires to contradict her duties in this manner and delights in the violation of moral obligations itself, then we might say that this is a distinguishable kind of badness of character, motive, and resultant behavior.  This intention to do what one judges to be evil and to do it because it is evil might make that person distinctly evil.  This would be a specific species of malignancy—the specific desire to see someone harmed (and sometimes even to harm them oneself).  In that case, Hitler’s actions would be explained by his evil if we could somehow learn that he took a particularly perverse delight in violating what he perceived to be true moral obligations and that he recognized explicitly that what he was doing violated true moral obligations, and that this combination of desire to break moral obligations and belief that that was what he was doing served as his motive.

Curiously, on this account, not only can evil be explanatory if there really are moral truths, but it is even explanatory if there are not actual moral truths.  The reason is that it only depends on the perception of the agent.  This means that describing someone as evil would be comparable to describing them as cowardly.   Whereas one could call someone who fearfully shirks what they perceive as their duty a coward regardless of whether such duties are objectively binding, someone could call another evil if they defy what they perceive as their duties out of a simple desire to flout duties.  Independent of judging the validity of particular perceptions of value, we could call those two responses to the mere perception of value cowardly or evil by themselves.

And even if it were to turn out that there were no such things as objective values and we were all in error to perceive them as existing, nonetheless the coward and the evil person would remain cowardly and evil for simply having psychologies that lead them both to feel as though they had obligations that gave them imperatives they should follow and also to feel and be moved by an overriding desire to shirk those imperatives.

If we use the term “evil” in this way, we have the most interesting independence of evil as a psychological reality from any dependence on either correct moral perception or even the possibility of correct moral perception.  People could be descriptively evil in a world in which there was no actual wrongness or rightness to actions, as long as they simply were psychologically inclined to believe there were such things as wrongness and rightness but opted to choose wrongness.  Of course, in this situation, while these people would be objectively still “evil” in their motives, without any truth about wrongness and rightness, we would not be in a position to truthfully call their evil “wrong”.  In a curious conundrum, we would have enough objective justification to call them evil but not enough to call them “wrong” and “objectively blameworthy”. (And conversely, we’d have objective justification to say that those who did what they perceived to be good out of a love of doing what they perceived to be good, were actually objectively expressive of a “good will,” while nonetheless being unable to call what they did “right” or “praiseworthy”.)

In these cases, maybe using the words good and evil in describing wills would be just misleading since it would imply the existence of a further level of objective valuation that wasn’t there—a level that said their actions themselves were right or wrong.  Typically, we currently take the words good and bad to imply right and wrong automatically.  Using good and evil as psychological descriptors about the ways people incline their wills to perceived good and perceived evil without also thinking we can judge whether it is right and good or whether it is wrong and bad to incline towards perceived good or perceived evil would mean using the language of good and evil will in a misleading way.

My last remarks are not meant to imply that I do not believe values are objectively determinable in anyway that would confirm that an evil will is also the wrong or bad thing for us but just to tease out the extent to which we have really gained anything and not simply cheated if we are able to locate evil as a specifiable objective fact that is independent of specific value judgments and capable of explaining phenomena.

Finally a couple more implications and puzzles for this proposed idea of restricting the word “evil” to cover only intentions to do perceived wrongs for their the sake of their perceived wrongness:  1.  If this it is true that evil requires doing evil for evil’s sake then either Augustine is right in the Confessions when he argues that our wills are capable of delighting in evil for evil’s sake and Socrates is wrong in the Meno when he argues that we can never knowingly do evil but must always be mistaken at the moment of decision into thinking that what is in fact evil is actually good (or be overly drawn to what is actually good in a thing and not sufficiently repelled by what is evil and which should therefore make us decisively reject it).

2.  If evil is narrowly defined as the will to do evil for evil’s sake then Hitler may or may not have been evil.  It conceivably may be possible to be cruel, hateful, anti-Semitic, resentful, deceptive, narcissistic, aggressive, power-lusting, militant, murderous, tyrannous, fascist, controlling, vindictive, vengeful, proud, nationalistic, racist, angry, self-pitying, and malignant, and yet be utterly self-deceived (or otherwise deceived) into believing that what you do is right.  In fact, if Socrates is correct in the Meno, this is necessarily the case in all evil actions.  They are all mistaken but not deliberately evil and so there are no evil actions in the sense I am hypothesizing.

But even if Socrates is wrong, as it seems to me he likely is, and people can deliberately desire to be evil for the rush of transgressing that which they genuinely perceive to be good, then there are at least some cases where people do actions which are manifestly bad (in the sense of worthy of estimation as evil for their harmfulness) and yet they themselves nonetheless do not have the character trait of “evil” or the property of will called “evil,” which does evil for evil’s sake.  And so for any given bad person who perpetuates evil consequences, it may be an open question whether in their hearts and their motivations lies an actual evil desire to contravene what they perceive as good or simple weakness of will, piss poor judgment, addiction, overpowering habit, neurosis, or any of a number of other mitigating factors that lead people who mean well into doing, despite their ultimately benign intentions.

This psychological/ethical picture would be extremely complicated.  It would really require us to think very hard about how we assessed actions.  If we have two people with the same long list of vices and yet they have completely opposite charactered wills, should we judge them differently?  Is a cruel, selfish, vengeful, overly aggressive person who does not mean to be evil but has a faulty intellect and/or psychologically rooted impulse control problems, etc. really not so blameworthy as another person who is equally cruel, selfish, revengeful, and overly aggressive but who also sees these things as evil and is motivated by the love of doing what he sees as evil itself?  My first inclination is to say that while we should still call the unintentionally bad person objectively “bad” in his effects, I would think we should call him less specifically morally blameworthy for his weakness and stupidity.  Whereas the deliberately evil person would be worse overall for being both a cause of bad effects and wicked in will.

But then the question of course is whether the love of transgression of percieved good rules is itself not merely a psychological quirk and not blamable as such (even if its consequences can be objectively determined to be bad).  In that case the evil will itself would not be blameworthy, but just undesirable and something worth preventing wherever possible.

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • sendaianonymous

    Wow, that was immensely interesting!

    What’s bugging me, though, is WHY stuff needs to always explain something? Sometimes just labeling seems to be sufficient, at least from the pragmatical point of view. This would be the reason why when two people talk in French, and one of them is not French, the French person will be dying to know where the other person comes from, although it’d be completely irrelevant to the topic at hand.
    Also, I like your definition of “evil” a lot :)

  • Daniel Fincke

    Hey, thanks so much for reading through this, Sara, and I’m glad you like what I came up with. It’s rare these Philosophical Ethics posts get much love yet.

    As to the point about explanation, the reason explanation is theoretically important is in establishing objectivity. The real concern in the background of this debate is whether there is any objective basis for morality at all. Attempts to say that moral statements are factual are attempts to explain how they are capable of being true and not just human constructs.

    So, in this debate, Harman was trying to show ways that alleged moral facts are not like empirical facts since they yield no explanatory power. The idea is that just like the way “experiences of God” require no God to happen but can be explained simply as neurological events, so too can morality be traced back to features of our subjectivity and be descriptive of nothing about the world—as indifferent as it is to our moral concerns.

    In that context Sturgeon tried to show the various ways that moral facts do explain phenomena related to our actions, similarly to how scientific facts explain how natural phenomena works.

    So, in this post I explored ways that we could find moral terms within perfectly agreed upon features of the natural world. We all know courage means facing danger dutifully and without fear. Courage IS something whether we like it or not. And, maybe, if we define evil as a will motivated by love of evil itself, we can say it exists wherever such a psychology is operative.

    The only problem then remains how are we justified in valuing these various features as good or bad. Even if we can say that “evil” is anywhere that an agent desires what he perceives to be evil and that everyone should use the word that way and escape ambiguity, the challenge would remain—why not value evil in that case? See, once we naturalize evil to be just part of the natural world, we still have this open question: how should we value it? Is it good or bad? And in a way we’re back where we started. We’re trying to find out if there is a fact about these questions of value, of good and bad.

  • sendaianonymous

    Thank you for the explanation! (I now feel like I have to educate myself some more YAY ;))

  • Daniel Fincke

    No problem! I recommend you keep abreast with my entire series of posts labeled with “Philosophical Ethics” in the title as they are each introductory examinations of issues in metaethics and then in ethics more broadly. We’re over a month behind in updating the “Recommended Posts” list but they’ll be there soon. In the meantime you can search them out more quickly by clicking on the “Ethics” category atop the page.

  • Victoria

    Very interesting post!!! When I get into a good conversation about good and evil, my usual path goes to relativism, and how the collective moral (or ethical) consciousness changes with time. This implies there aren’t any set in stone moral facts, perhaps other than do no harm unless in personal protection, though I don’t argue it from that angle. I do enjoy the arguments of others, seeing the argument unfold from a different angle is quite interesting to me.