Conscience and Evil

This is the third installment in my on-going musings on absolute evil.

To define evil as that which has no regard for good makes sense, and it is compelling in many ways. Even if we cannot clearly define what is good, humans have this intuitive sense of what is good and what is bad. Our intuitions can fail us at times, but conscience, as in the little voice in our head that asks if we have considered the consequences, is something that holds us to our own definitions of what is good. Actively dismissing the voice of conscience, then, could be considered something akin to absolute evil.

This does get a little tricky with people who do not have a conscience. “Psychopaths,” as they are often called, often come up as examples of people who are evil. However, if they do not have a conscience, can they really be blamed for not using it? Sharks don’t have a conscience as we understand it; the only thing that comes close to good or evil in a shark’s life is whether something is worth eating or not. Are sharks therefore evil? Some people believe so, or react to them as if they are, but it is clear that they are not. They do occasionally do a lot of damage to us, but they are not evil in the absolute sense. Ergo, neither are psychopaths; they are merely people who are missing the ability to intuitively make decisions that others would find ethical.

It’s even more tricky when it comes to human atrocities. Genocides, in particular, tend to be committed by people who are doing what they believe are the right things to do, for the right reasons, and sometimes for the benefit of humanity. Child abusers often mistakenly believe that they are doing something loving, special, and giving for their victims. It does not seem right to let these acts off the hook, but could it be that these actions, as harmful as they are, are far from “absolute evil”?

Terrorism is a particularly tricky one. Many national-liberation movements start out as or evolve into terrorist organizations. It seems that the ultimate judgment falls on them according to what happens to them when they actually succeed in obtaining liberation for their people. Do they then evolve into a benevolent power that opens the way for a prosperous future? Or do they become just as exploitative as the powers they expelled? Some terrorist organizations are so harmful to their own people from their inception that judgment falls on them sooner. How can a liberation movement in good conscience hurt the very people they hope to free? Well, it seems, they do so when they believe their atrocities are in fact for the good of their people, by for instance rooting out the evil among them. Does this let them off the hook?

Anger introduces another complication. Anger, whether in response to a legitimate grief or out of misunderstanding, leads people do some serious damage, often horrendous ones. Mass shootings often seem to arise from anger. Are mass shootings absolute evil, or understandable and natural, if unfortunate and ill-considered, human behavior? The urge to lash out in anger seems to be as ubiquitous as conscience; it’s just that it is usually controlled by conscience. If conscience loses control, does that make the action absolutely evil? Addiction, mania, trauma, brain injury, and grief are some of the other conditions that can take us away from our conscience.  Do they make us evil?

So, delusion is a huge problem for a definition of evil that depends on conscience, and so is anger and other overriding emotions. Very rarely do people say in a clear, non-delusional mind, “You know what? Forget what my conscience says. I’m just gonna go do something evil.” The greatest evil committed by humans tend to be done in the name of good, in good conscience, at least in the moment.