A Few Too Many Words About Evil

I had broad ambitions to post last week, which were broadly defeated by a demanding and deeply unpleasant travel and presentation schedule that left little time for anything but itself. I’m trying to catch up today, but I’m hobbled by my new computer. They’ve made me switch to a mac, you see, and it’s awful. I’ve used windows PCs for twenty five years, and I know them intimately. Everything on this sleek and hideous little beast is foreign and counterintuitive.

No honestly, I really hate it. Furthermore I’m surrounded by Apple acolytes who continually pop their heads into my office throughout the day, hoping against hope to find that I’ve finally come to love it. I have not. One earnest young man said, “you’ll just have to learn to think more simply. That’s its beauty.” Nonsense. There’s nothing simple about it. I know what he means: there is one, obscure way to do everything, rather than the flexible selection of ways that I’m used to choosing from. But there’s rarely anything in the interface design to tell you what that way is. You simply have to know. Somebody has to tell you. In other words, you have to be initiated into the cult by an existing member, and then, gradually, the machine becomes useful. It is, in other words, a perfect design implementation of the insular, exclusive and cult-like culture of silicon valley itself. I am not learning to love it. I’m learning to hate it in ever more nuanced and textured ways. But it’s my destiny, apparently, and I endure.

There’s been a lot of endurance the last few days, if I’m honest. My trip involved a journey to a certain midwestern city which I’ll keep anonymous for now, as I may have a thing or two to say about the trip itself later. It also involved a connecting flight through Chicago. All this against the backdrop of a calamitous cold spell which actually managed to kill quite a few people. It’s not that the trip was bad, at all. It was remarkably successful, much more so than I’d anticipated. It was just miserable. Grueling flights, shit weather, poor food, hours spent on final meeting prep in a dismal hotel lobby, a stressful pitch, then all the same again to get home. I didn’t think it was going to be any fun, and it wasn’t any fun. But it was necessary, and it’s what I do. So I did it.

By Friday afternoon, back in the office and rounding out a very busy day in the office, I was actually managing to feel okay about things. After the stress and strain of the preceding week I had achieved an almost post-coital state of faintly giddy exhaustion. Having nothing planned for the rest of the evening, blessedly, I hung about the office a bit, making my way to the small, ersatz bar that hides in an easily concealable cabinet in the sales area. I got a drink, which went right to my head as it does when you’re feeling like that, and fell into discussion with the team. I found myself explaining that, consistent with my general view of things, the success of our week had owed much to the fact that none of us on the travel team had really believed we were going to succeed. Because of that, we had prepared in greater depth than usual, working out plans B and C against the various possible failures of our A plan. I found myself paraphrasing Seneca, mangling the quote but getting the idea across. The actual quotation, from his Letters, is the following:

If an evil has been pondered beforehand, the blow is gentle when it comes. To the fool, however, and to him who trusts in fortune, each event as it arrives “comes in a new and sudden form,” and a large part of evil, to the inexperienced, consists in its novelty.

In other words, the bad outcomes that we consider and take seriously don’t hit as as hard as the ones we refuse to think about. To me this seems intuitive, even obvious. But I found myself drawn into an odd argument. I have a good friend who qualifies as a proper philosopher. He’s a talented salesman, but he also has a genuine PhD in philosophy, and is something of a theologian. He’s also an evangelical Christian and a Pentecostal minister, so while I like and admire this man very much, the field of our disagreements is wide, rich and varied. He had seized on Seneca’s use (at least as it comes to us through this translation – I have no knowledge of the original latin) of the term “evil.” Now it’s never been my understanding that Seneca’s ideas here rest on a moral evil, per se. I’ve always taken his use of the term simply to refer to suffering and misfortune. But my friend laid out a view that suffering is evil, in the moral sense. Has to be, in fact, because otherwise there’s no basis for imagining that the infliction of suffering on another to be an evil act.

I’d love to tell you about how I at once issued a crisply argued takedown of this idea, and bested the professor at his own game. This did not happen. I was tired, faintly tipsy, and while I knew this wasn’t right my brain, asked to summon up a counterargument, simply gave me finger, rolled over and went back to sleep. I grumbled something about picking this all up another time and changed the subject, which my friend, with customary grace, managed to be only very slightly smug about. We chatted a bit more about topics I now can’t recall, and in time I went home, watched something or other on Netflix and went to sleep. Only to wake up yesterday morning unable to think of anything else.

So in the spirit of all the great comebacks that we fail to think of in the moment, let me sketch the argument I would have liked to have made. First off, I can’t buy into the idea that suffering is in any a form of evil. This just doesn’t work for several reasons, but the simplest of these is the fact that so much of the suffering that we experience is necessary and good. In the 55th minute of an hour long conditioning workout, the eighth hour of a marathon study session, or in the three a.m. comforting of a sick child, we are absolutely suffering. But we’re suffering the betterment of ourselves and the care of others. Nothing would be easier than to sit here and toss of a dozen examples of noble and beneficent suffering, freely chosen and joyfully, if uncomfortably, received.

But, you may argue, this is to miss the point. My friend’s argument was focused on the suffering one inflicts on another. Surely this is evil, and surely the suffering involved is what makes it so, isn’t it?

Not at all. This might seem an odd argument, but stay with me for a minute. The infliction of suffering, in itself, is not the evil thing. When a violent criminal hurts another, the locus of the evil isn’t in the violent act itself. The evil lies in the fact that the crime is being done to people who do not want it done to them. In other words, in inflicting suffering, an evil man commits his evil through depriving his victims of their freedom not to choose suffering.

You’d be perfectly reasonable to find this a little radical. Surely violence is evil? Are we going to start splitting hairs about weird people in BDSM dungeons here? I’d say no, actually, let’s steer clear of the dungeon. I’ll give you something a little easier to work with, and it starts with a couple of my own, poorly healed broken ribs.

See, for many years I was very involved in boxing, jiu jitsu and other violent, combat sports. I trained very hard in these, and have done a fair amount of coaching in traditional boxing as well. In learning these arts, I’ve been punched, very hard, by people who know how. I’ve been kicked, kneed, choked unconscious, had my joints hyperextended. I’ve been choked with parts of people’s anatomy that we normally don’t associate with that kind of thing at all. I’ve been made to bleed in various ways, from various parts of myself, some of which have genuinely surprised me. And all of this, all of it, has hurt. Most of it has hurt badly. This is suffering, no doubt about it, violently and deliberately inflicted. But here’s the catch: I wanted all of this. In fact, I worked very hard to get to it. None of those sessions were things you could walk in off the street and participate in. I had to suffer just to earn the right to suffer at the next level, and I did. This was my choice.

Moreover, the men and women who made me suffer weren’t acting with any kind of malice. They were my friends, people I came to appreciate and even love, and none of that suffering was done with any intention of long-term harm. It was done to teach, or it was done in a spirit of mutually respectful competition. Evil was nowhere present.  

Now don’t get me wrong. The potential for evil was always there. The things I willingly endured in the name of learning and challenging myself were things which, done to another person under different circumstances, had a tremendous capacity to cause harm. But the evil was never embedded in the acts. The acts were acts of people, to be enacted upon other people, in ways that would be chosen freely or not chosen freely.

This notion of freedom is something I’ll probably be talking about a lot here. The importance of human freedom, and its role in an ethical structure, is one of the bits in existentialism that I find most compelling. My friend, of course, will be unimpressed. I know where he’ll go, which is to the horror inherent in a world of free beings. He’ll go to the dystopian view of a world ungoverned by God, full of nasty, brutish people doing nasty, brutish things to one another, because why not? But on this point I’m a little more prepared, because this line of thinking is the line that first engaged me in all of this stuff, many years ago.

My undergraduate degree is in Political science, and the first proper piece of philosophy I read was Hobbes’ Leviathan (at least the bits we were assigned). Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau – all of these guys helped construct the general notion of the Social Contract, and it was the first philosophical/political idea that really grabbed me. The idea in its simplest form is straightforward: humankind, ungoverned in any way, does indeed tend to make an ugly mess of things. This is fairly well documented through time. Humanity on its own exists in what Thomas Hobbes described as a “State of nature,” in which existence is, in his memorable phrase, is “nasty, brutish and short.” To solve this problem, humans band together in social groups, and negotiate essentially a contractual agreement with one another. The details may vary, but the outlines of the deal are always the same: we give up a few, specifically delineated freedoms, in return for which we receive a greater degree of security. Eventually, you wind up with a state apparatus, but if everything goes well this isn’t a bad thing. This notion of a contract, freely entered into, allows the idea of government by consent of the governed to come into being. The idea of a Liberal democracy, in this sense (and for God’s sake, that’s capital-L Liberal; if you don’t know the difference between that and liberal progressivism please leave my blog right now) is far more than a set of procedures. It’s a framework in which free beings can choose, deliberately, to become a little less free in exchange for things that they value highly enough for that sacrifice to be worthwhile.

I still get excited about this, after all these years, because I find a remarkable elegance in the way this all hangs together, including as a way to think about ethical action. It connects right back to the concept of suffering, and of evil. Here’s the sketch: to suffer, in itself, is not evil. Even the infliction of suffering on another isn’t necessarily evil (though of course it very often is). The evil act is one which deprives another of their freedom, and this matters deeply. Not simply because freedom is something that we’d all like to have (dourly mechanistic worldviews like mine don’t work well if the whole argument has to hang on compassion, after all), but because in a delightful little paradox, you can’t have order among humans if the humans involved don’t have the freedom to negotiate its structure.

There are other arguments for the importance of freedom within the existential canon, and this post has already gone on far too long, but the idea I still like is this much older one. Freedom and social order have a powerful, symbiotic relationship, anchored in a difficult irony. You can try having freedom without the order component, but you wind up driving around the Australian outback with a sawed-off shotgun, worried about angry leather fetishists trying to steal your gasoline. You gain the freedom to whack people with bolt cutters, but at the expense of your freedom to not eat dog food out of a can. And you can try having order without freedom, but that’s yet to have been done in any way more elegant than a state monopoly on repressive violence. You wind up in a set of far uglier paradoxes, trying to teach Christ’s gentleness at the stake. The most durable system of governance that we’ve yet cobbled together (unsurprisingly) is the one most comfortable with paradox, negotiation, and perpetual, managed crisis.

So no, I endured no evil as I froze my ass off outside a midwestern airport. I endured no evil as I wrestled with some unfamiliar technology and ducked and dodged through a marathon sales presentation. I endured no evil because I didn’t have to be there. I chose to, and it sucked, but some things need to suck. Lots of things do, if we’re honest, and the list changes all the time. But I’m fond of this. I’ve gained a lot from it. I always will.

It also occurs to me, speaking of suffering, that I’ve now made myself sound like another tedious Enlightenment fanboy. I feel Steven Pinker’s hot breath on my neck. More on this soon.  


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