When We Do Wrong, We Excuse It by the Good

500px-Villainc.svgIt is a common trope in film and literature: a villain is shown in some scene or another reveling in evil, laughing in joy as they ponder the execution of their evil plans. Often, they are joined in with many others, their evil underlings, who also seek after and want to do great evil in the world. While this can work in stories, it is not true to how things work in reality. No one does evil for the sake of being evil; they might do what they know many consider to be evil, but the reason and purpose behind their action is not evil but some good which they see lying behind it. Everyone seeks after what they think will be good for themselves; true, they might realize it will harm others and some evil will result, but it is not the evil per se, but the good which they seek which directs and motivate them. Their goal is some private, individual good cut off from the greater good; their perception and awareness is focused on that good, however distorted, that they ignore the evil which happens as a result of what they do. And, while it would not be surprising nor unusual for someone whose plans are, on the whole, evil, will rejoice as they see their plan comes to fruition, what they rejoice in is the good they see they gain for themselves, which certainly can include harming others and the pain and suffering they feel, but only because such harm itself is seen fulfilling a distorted form of justice with its own imperfect and inordinate understanding of the good.

Stories, myths, legends, plays, movies, cartoons, and the like can characterize villains as rejoicing in evil itself because they simplify the moral issues, and such simplification has its place in storytelling. For the narrator goes beyond the questions, the subjective issues involved, and goes to the objective core of the events being portrayed. Objectively we can observe what is done and declare something to be evil, not because evil is a substance, but because good is substantial and we can note deviations from the good.  Objectively, we can understand that whatever good the villains seek for themselves, they are still acting with malice; for the sake of simplification, we can then show them rejoicing in the evil itself. This can work for stories as long as we do not over think it and compare it to our experience with evil and those who do great evil.

When we, nonetheless, look to the world around us, we note the greatest evil is done because others let it be done, that there is a banality behind evil itself. Evil corrupts the good, creating on top of the good systematic structures which veil the true good from the public and instead let them see the evil itself as good which must be reinforced and accepted for the good to remain. Those who benefit from the evil, moreover, find it difficult to fight against the evil itself because they know in doing so, they are likely to lose that which they enjoy from the evil and so evil, once again, finds the way to keep itself going in the world is by making sure the public remains complacent and feeds off the small benefits the evil allows them to have to keep them satisfied and in its clutches.

Realizing evil is not what is subjectively sought by those who do it makes our discussion of evil, and the will to do evil, very difficult. We must counter the way many people think of evil as if it is some perfectly conscious and knowledgeable action which is carefully thought out and acted upon with the full realization of the consequences of the actions. No evil is done in this fashion. Sin, evil, is willed, not for the sake of sin per se, but some aspect of the good which is cut off from the greater, universal good. The good which is willed remains good, however little it is; is truly a good, but it is not the fullness of the good. For those who sin, therefore, it is not sin as sin which they aim for, but the good, the imperfect good, which they seek; thus, it could be said, no one is ever malicious for everyone intends good. Yet, clearly the objective evil is desired, even if it is not desired as an evil, and objectively the intention is for that evil, so it can be said to be malicious, for an objective evil is intended, even if it is not intended for the sake of evil but for some good. This is why it is easy for anyone who does evil to say they did not do it out of malice; subjectively and so consciously, they sought what they thought was good, even if it were a limited good for themselves; objectively and unconsciously, they still intend evil, and the seeds of evil, the passions and thought patterns which make for the evil to be willed, means there is malice involved. All sin is malicious because all sin intends evil, though all sin is intended not as evil but as some good and so it is easy for some to cover up the malice and hide it and act like it is not there for any particular evil under discussion. Malice, and sin, must be understood only in relation to objectivity if they are to be understood at all.

Much of this analysis on evil and how we will some good and not evil itself emerges from St. Augustine’s monumental dialogue, On Free Choice of the Will. Early within the dialogue, Augustine explained how people use things different, some badly and others well; things which are good can be used poorly and put to poor use, but that does not make them any less good.[1]  The fault is not in the good, but its abuse; the good remains good despite the evil found in its application. This allowed Augustine to set up the notion that evil seeks after some good, but in the wrong way; the good is what is intended, but the understanding of what is good and what is proper good is what is lacking. Thus, Augustine explained to his interlocutor: “All the different groups you mentioned seek good and shun evil; what divides them is that each has a different opinion about what is good. So whoever seeks what ought not to be sought is in error, even though he would not seek it unless he thought it was good.”[2] As error, straying from the proper good, is what sin is about, Augustine has established that it is some sort of ignorance combined with some passion which establishes the desire for an inordinate good; sin is the result of ignorance and desire, though the desire is not for evil or sin per se, as much as it is for some good, even if the good is short lived and ends up unsatisfactory. Or, as Augustine would later explain:

Therefore, when the will cleaves to the common and unchangeable good, it attains the great and foremost goods for human beings, even though the will itself is only an intermediate good. But when the will turns away from the unchangeable and common good toward its own private good, or toward external or inferior things, it sins. [3]

Key to Augustine’s argument is that when someone sins, their will is for some good: “Hence, the goods that are pursued by sinners are in no way evil things, and neither is free will itself, which we found is to be counted among the intermediate goods. What is evil is the turning of the will away from the unchangeable good and toward changeable goods.”[4]

The ramification of this is tremendous, for the way sin is understood in popular theory counters the whole point of Augustine. Many, if not most, Christians are led to think that there is no sense of sin if we do not know if we are sinning, if we do not know and acknowledge the evil involved.  However, since there is always some ignorance involved in the initial formation of the will to sin, as the person seeks after some good and not evil as evil, then if sin has to be done with full knowledge for it to be sin, there would be no such thing as sin. The whole point is that objectively some inordinate good is desired and intended, and that desire, though not known to be evil, is evil and is to be seen as evil and sin and malicious insofar as it is objectively misses the mark of the good.

[IMG= A stereotypical caricature of a villain by J.J. at the English language Wikipedia [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons]


[1] See St. Augustine, On Free Choice of the Will. trans. Thomas Williams (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1993), 26 [I.15]. Free will is one such good, and indeed, Augustine Is setting up the explanation for how free will is a good gift from God abused and used poorly by humanity.

[2] Ibid., 47 [II.9].

[3] Ibid., 69 [II.19].

[4] Ibid., 60 [II.19].


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