Recentish Reading: Evil’s Causes?


Of men and monsters by Terry Eagleton (New Statesman, April 2010), is a very thoughtful and complex article on the way humans both worship and demonize ‘the other’ – in his primary example, ‘the other’ is children:

“We are ready to believe all kinds of sinister things about children, since they seem like a half-alien race in our midst. Since they do not work, it is not clear what they are for [love that!]. … They have the uncanniness of things which resemble us in some ways but not in others. … Because children are not fully part of the social game, they can be seen as innocent; but for just the same reason, they can be regarded as the spawn of Satan. The Victorians swung constantly between angelic and demonic views of their offspring.”

His musings on the intersection of evil, innocence, responsibility,  and causation are fascinating and illuminating to me:

“Evil is unintelligible. It is just a thing in itself, like boarding a crowded commuter train wearing only a giant boa constrictor. There is no context which would make it explicable.” …

“In fact, the word [evil] has come to mean, among other things, ‘without a cause’. If the child killers did what they did because of boredom or bad housing or parental neglect, then … what they did was forced upon them by their circumstances; and it followed that they could not be punished for it … severely. This mistakenly implies that an action that has a cause cannot be freely undertaken. Causes in this view are forms of coercion. If our actions have causes, we are not responsible for them. Evil, on the other hand, is thought to be uncaused, or to be its own cause. This is one of its several points of resemblance with good. Apart from evil, only God is said to be the cause of himself.” …

If the young killers of the toddler could not help being evil, however, then the fact is that they were innocent. Most of us, to be sure, recognise that small children can no more be evil than get divorced or enter into purchase agreements. Yet there are always those who believe in bad blood or malevolent genes. If some people really are born evil, however, they are no more responsible for this condition than being born with cystic fibrosis. The condition which is supposed to damn them succeeds only in redeeming them.” …


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