Of Men and Monsters: Terry Eagleton on Evil

20100331_2010+14child_wIn the New Statesman:

A police officer involved in the case of the murdered toddler declared that the moment he clapped eyes on one of the [teenage] culprits, he knew that he was evil. This is the kind of thing that gives evil a bad name. The point of demonising the boy in this way was to wrong-foot the soft-hearted liberals. It was a pre-emptive strike against those who might appeal to social conditions in seeking to understand why they did what they did. And such under standing can always bring forgiveness in its wake. Calling the action evil meant that it was beyond comprehension. 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.

Evil is often supposed to be without rhyme or reason. An English Evangelical bishop wrote in 1991 that clear signs of Satanic possession included inappropriate laughter, inexplicable knowledge, a false smile, Scottish ancestry, relatives who have been coal miners, and the habitual choice of black for dress or car colour. None of this makes sense, but then that is how it is with evil. The less sense it makes, the more evil it is. Evil has no relations to anything beyond itself, such as a cause.

In fact, the word 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 – so the police officer may have feared – what they did was forced upon them by their circumstances; and it followed that they could not be punished for it as severely as he might have wished. 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.

There is a kind of tautology or circular argument implicit in the policeman's view. People do evil things because they are evil. Some people are evil in the way that some things are coloured indigo. They commit their evil deeds not to achieve some goal, but just because of the sort of people they are. But might this not mean that they can't help doing what they do? For the policeman, the idea of evil is an alternative to such determinism. But it seems that we have thrown out a determinism of environment only to replace it with one of character. It is now your character, not your social conditions, which drives you to unspeakable deeds.