Benny on Hitler and the question of evil

Nathan often uses Hitler in religious discussions.

From what I know Europe at the time was a generally disjointed, unhappy place, and everyone knew that war would eventually outbreak, it was just a matter of when. So I wasn’t exactly sure what he was getting at between Hitler’s religion and religion’s involvement in war.

So I got Nathan to explain his point:

“It’s not that wars are based on atheism – it’s that atheism doesn’t rule out wars.
Atheism is not a cause of war any more than Christianity is.
The fact that people are sinful – greedy, power hungry, angry, evil – is what causes wars.”

I would like to make some points:
1. I don’t think evil exists as a being, thing or intangible presence. Evil is a description of behaviour.
2. Hitler didn’t do the things he did because he was evil. Some of the things he did were abhorrent, terrible, disgusting and/or evil.
3. When people do bad things, its not because they are inherrently evil, or were overtaken by momentary evilness. They did it because they were human, and humans make bad decisions for whatever reasons, are prone to being inconsiderate, to certain extent, and have different utility functions, such that some believe risking other people being injured is outweighed by the benefit of robbing the bank.
4. Morals don’t need to come from an external source. People are perfectly good at developing them themselves.

From my understanding, the French/English civil revolutions weren’t uprisings against God, they were class wars, where the poor and oppressed wanted better. I think this could be said to an extent about communism and the disputes in the first half of the 20th century.

Most recently, the war on terrorism has been labeled as a war against evil. I don’t like terrorism, but I also don’t like the way it has been discussed at times. I have always wondered, without being particularly knowledgeable of the situation overseas, if by labeling terrorism as acts of pure evil results in more harm than good, as it fails to address the root causes of offshore grievances.

Further military action in the region is not going to help in the healing of decades-old wounds, which stem from military action of the West into these regions for the past century plus. Dare I say, I think many people within these regions would hold grievances against the West. Further, relying on non-western media, these nations would also have different perceptions of why the West was involved in these regions (I am not necessarily talking about purposeful distortions of history here either, historical accounts and perceptions would likely be different between those who lived through it and those who lived back in the invading country). We can’t expect to be able to interfere with any of these regions, and not step on a few toes.

The remnants of America’s war techniques in Korea and Vietnam still remain to impact the general populace. Many of these people no doubt hold some anger towards the techniques that were used during these disputes that have a continuing legacy.

So, in summary, it may not be best labelling terrorism as acts of evil, which seems a simplistic excuse. It may be that more effort should be made to recognise that the seeds for these peoples anger were sown a long time ago, and that the West played a larger role in creating this anger than we are willing to acknowledge. What we perceive as terrorism could be the remnants of a group of people fighting a decade-old war the only way they have available. They may be cowardly tactics, attacking easy targets of civilians. But they didn’t agree to any war conventions, nor have any large military budgets or technology.

Going forward, hopefully leaders will acknowledge these lessons, and realise that you can’t interfere with a country and expect it not to have repercussions in the future. The conflict doesn’t end with the end of the fighting. More needs to be done to rebuild international relations.


Stephen says:

Wow, well, I don't quite know where to begin.

I guess I'll take it in the order its written. Okay, well, while evil can be applied to acts, the standard way it's applied is to intention (namely the reasons behind an action). This is why in western legal systems a "guilty act" (actus reus) must be met with a guilty mind (mens rea) in order to engage full criminal culpability. The act itself isn't evil unless there is malicious intent, which contrary to popular opinion really does exist.

The French and English revolutions as class warfare… well, in some sense yes, but to claim that they are only important facet of those historical events is to perform the standard marxist fallacy: determinism. The English revolution ended in the attempt at democratic reform in the foundation of a puritan republic that in turn collapsed into despotism because of the lack of a democratic groundwork. With the reinstatement of the monarchy, and the fleeing of England by many puritans to the American colonies is perhaps one of the major contributors to a later revolution towards democracy that led to the first stable republic of the modern era.

The French revolution was a different situation. The class warfare held a major anti-christian animus (which is why the goddess "reason" was enthroned in Notre Dame) and was perhaps also why those who were the reasoned intelligentsia of that revolution seemed to come to the conclusion that power and the greater good as they defined it was to be used to institute a more enlightened society by eliminating those who held opinions dangerous to the state. The result is known as the "reign of terror". It would be repeated in any "class structure" struggle that placed a humanists in control for the next 2 and a bit centuries (and continues today).

ie, as Nathan pointed out, atheism does not cause people to do evil things, but it is unable to restrain their evil intent, which they will validate to themselves and others as "for the greater good". Anybody with some training in standard rhetoric can validate almost anything, if not bound to tradition or authority of some form.

I've never been to vietnam, but since I'm working in an office of all Koreans in Korea, I figured I should ask them about their hatred of Americans. It seems to be fairly similar to Canadian hatred of Americans, which amounts to complaints about foreign policy… I imagine it's the same in Australia. They have no intention of strapping on bombs to destroy the U.S. Neither do some other countries where the United States has openly intervened, like Japan, Germany, or Taiwan. Countries that do seem to want to do that are countries that like to blame their problems on others so as to avoid a "class struggle" (or another one, as is the case 200 KM north of where I now sit, where for the sake of "freedom" people are starved to death and thrown in political concentration camps with their entire families).

The problem in many of these places isn't western intervention, it's unwelcome western intervention that did not hold to its stated goals (like in Iran, Vietnam, Korea, Afghanistan, Iraq, etc.). I have little doubt that had MacArthur been able to push the Chinese and North Koreans into China, that a unified Korea would be selling the rest of us even more Samsung cell-phones and TVs, Kia and Hyundai cars, and still copying the worst of western music in their K-Pop.

Terrorism is evil, and while some may choose to put it down to class struggle (which is no doubt a factor). The impetus to perform the acts is evil, and is not adequately accounted for by claims of class struggle. It is an evil that is not restrained (and is sometimes encouraged) by certain religious structures (Wahabbi Islam, Sikhism) or by certain political systems (communism). Or in some cases, where there is some restraint offered by ideology or religion, it is overcome using the class struggle meme.

I guess the conclusion is that I think your understanding of evil fails because it assumes that everybody is a european-style intellectual secularist, when it is in fact a vast minority position globally (and especially in the areas we're looking at).

Andrew says:

I agree that evil isn't a thing. It has no ontological being, in the same way 'cold' or 'dark' have none. They are the absence of heat and light. Likewise, evil is the absence of good.

I don't see how your #4 flows logically from your #3? Or how you can say the latter part of #2 if #4 is true?

Leah says:

Evil isn't a thing. But a person can be evil.

And terrorism has nothing to do with "offshore grievances". The Koran instructs Muslims to kill infidels, end of story. That's not a "grievance". It mostly isn't an issue they have with "the west" (or "the west's" involvement in conflicts in their areas). If that were true, then we wouldn't see British Muslims blowing up British trains in London, or Muslim Arabs killing Jewish Israelis.

Andrew says:

"Those numbered points weren't meant to follow on from each other as such. Thus 4 doesn't necessarily build on 3. And 2 can occur if 4 exists, as they are mutually exclusive. Just because some people did things that they obviously thought were "acceptable" given the circumstances but we think were atrocious does not mean they didn't have the capability of forming morals, just that they arrived at different conclusions of how they should act. Further, I don't understand how the correctness of 3 impacts 4."

In other words, in your argument, morals are subjective, which means that we in fact have no grounds for making the statements in #2. According to your argument, it is not that the things Hitler et al. did were evil, it's just we think they are, but who's to say that our thoughts on the matter trump his thoughts (presumably that he was doing something great).
The conflict between 3 & 4 which I attempted to point out is that you say on the one hand, we are flawed and make bad deicisions, yet on the other hand say we are perfectly capable of coming up with morals ourselves. I see a conflict there. Human positivism is a delusion, IMO.

Benny says:

Those numbered points weren’t meant to follow on from each other as such. Thus 4 doesn’t necessarily build on 3. And 2 can occur if 4 exists, as they are mutually exclusive. Just because some people did things that they obviously thought were “acceptable” given the circumstances but we think were atrocious does not mean they didn’t have the capability of forming morals, just that they arrived at different conclusions of how they should act. Further, I don’t understand how the correctness of 3 impacts 4.

Concerning vietnam, the impacts of war techniques have continuing impacts on the civilian populace’s health (eg. Agent Orange).

For Korea, it was the usual suspects of the time and their bickering that seemed to escalate that conflict. Prior to the start of the war, they were heavily involved in the direction of Korea. I think their involvement in trying to divy the country up amongst themselves as part of the Cold War greatly impacted the stability of Korea and fueled divisions. As you mentioned, the discontent that remains in North Korea is no doubt a legacy, or at the least substantially the result of, other countries involvement in the region throughout most of the 20th century. South Korea seems to have recovered better economically. But still, the instability of the region remains hanging over their heads.

My point wasn’t so much that those other factors don’t play a role, but more that these incidents shouldn’t be reasoned purely by the existence of evil. Similarly, the overthrow of religious-tied monarchies was not due to the existence of evil groups who wanted to rid the landscape of religion. Evil isn’t a thing, although it is a term that can be used to desribe certain acts. Similarly for other terms, such as goodness.

I am not sure what the British point is. Britain has long histories of involvement in those regions. Involvement in these regions and impacts on religions and cultures can’t be seperated. You invade someones holy land, it will likely impact the way that religions people view the invaders. To seperate the effects of regional intervention and religions ideologies would be difficult in these circumstances. And fighting surrounding Muslims and Jewish groups is long dated, and more complex I think than can be reasoned by what is included in written religion at face value.

Andrew says:

Sure – but then they are, like us, flawed.

benny says:

#2 is saying evil is a term that people use to describe behaviour.

and yes, while i don't know if flawed is the corrent word, I would say people are variable, but come up with their own morals. there is no conflict there. they may not arrive at the morals that are outlined by an external authority, but morals nonetheless.

Andrew says:

Sure – but then they are, like us, flawed.