I’ve recently had a number of conversations about evil men and their evil deeds. As I’ve listened to the judgments cast on these men, I found myself silently disagreeing. Not with the badness of the men, but on the judgment of them. So I’ve had to reflect on why I disagreed.
Firstly, I think I disagree because of my view on what evil is. Evil committed by men is a mis-ordering of goods. Success in business is a very good thing; but you are greedy when you overemphasis on this success. You do indeed have great value as a human being; but you are guilty of being prideful when you value yourself more highly than you should. I believe every sin or evil deed is like that.
Men do what is right in their own eyes. Nobody does evil simply for the sake of doing evil. We can pick out unrealistic bad guys easily by their pure desire to do evil. Even sadists don’t do harm for the sake of harm; they do harm for the sake of pleasure, which, by itself, is a good thing. A person may do wrong knowing it is wrong, but it is because of some other good thing that is overvalued. An adulterer knows that adultery is wrong, but counts the pleasure greater (or gratified desires, or rebellion, or relieved boredom) than the value of lost faithfulness.
When considering bad people, I realized that the greatest evils don’t come from selfishness, but from foolishness. It comes from men who do not well think and pray through their motivations and actions. It came from bad philosophy (“love of wisdom”; philosophy in the Platonic sense). Nazis wanted a good thing: a strong Germany. Some of it was misplaced priorities (a strong Germany was more important than a strong France). But the most vile part of it was strong and good ambitions mixed with very bad philosophy. In this case, Social Darwinism and Anti-Semitism inspired the Holocaust and good German ambitions were driven to very evil ends.
Similarly with Colonialism, it was originally motivated by a desire for richness for friends, family members and countrymen. Later, it morphed into badly-executed altruism. Kipling’s infamous poem, “White Man’s Burden,” relates this altruistic desire: “Take up the White Man’s Burden/ Send forth the best ye breed--/Go bind your sons to exile/To serve your captives' need.” But in the case of the Colonialists, even those with the good ambition “To serve [their] captives’ need,” were thwarted by racism (i.e. viewing the colonized as “captives”), and the result has been the Pandoric post-colonial world. It is their fault that I get asked a hundred thousand times by children in Kenya, using the only English phrase they know, “Give me money.”
As a result, I think it’s possible that men who have good hearts do harmful things. I think there were many benevolent men who were also colonizers. Some good men who destroyed continents may only be guilty of foolishness, if indeed they acted by benevolence. In fact, I myself may be one of them; men may look back in a century on development workers and show the terrors that were made possibly by our work. But I believe I will be judged good; my motivations are benevolent, though it may turn out that I am guilty of some foolishness.
So what does that mean for “evil men”? I face “evil men” on a daily basis. But how different are these men from me? How often do I mis-prioritize Goods? And how much of my goodness was just a historical and social accident? I was raised in a good time and by a good family. Would these men have been the way they are if they had my advantages? Moreover, is what I’m doing even Good in the long run? These questions cannot be answered by mortal minds. And I suppose this is why we are told “Judge not, lest ye be judged.”
An old Christian-ism is when watching and evil person to say, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” No person is special. No one is immune from the risks of sin and evil. And we cannot judge one another because we are all guilty of sin. Though sins do have different gravities, we as sinners do not have different categories. I am in exactly the same moral situation as the “worst of sinners;” even the best of sinners is still a sinner. All of us mis-prioritize.
I can (and should) look at actions and call them evil or good. But I cannot be certain, so I should not judge another; the proclamation of damnation and salvation is not my domain. We certainly need to make judgments on actions; we need to aspire to the good and fight the bad as best we are able. But for the purposes of ranking humans above or below myself, I can see neither the heart which produces an action nor the action’s ultimate outcome. I cannot look into the future to show what will come of his action. I cannot look at a man and presume to know his heart. Even if I could, I think I would be horrified by the lack of diversity in shades of black.
Note: I think I am totally ripping off C.S. Lewis with this essay. His ideas have so inspired my own I cannot identify which were originally planted by him.