Prompt: Write a reflection on the nature of Evil in our times and in The Hunger Games.
To be honest, I am surprised that there has been as much objective study as there is on the nature of evil, considering the subjective nature on the topic. I suppose the fact that it’s a very emotional subject might make it even more important to discuss the issue dispassionately. For me, as a psychology major, the nature of evil always boils down to the Milgram experiment, which Dr. Baron discussed in some detail. Conducted by Stanley Milgram, this iconic experiment essentially disproved the idea that evil acts were only committed by a tiny proportion of the population–veritably evil people. The horrifying truth, as Milgram illustrated, is that most people are willing do something of questionable morality if someone in a lab coat and clipboard is telling them to do it. This invokes the words of Hannah Arendt, who said that evil is banal–ordinary and universal and frighteningly common.
Dr. Baron’s theories of ethics were of considerable interest. There’s Utilitarianism, in which the right action in a conflicted situation is one that maximizes utility. There’s the deontology of Emmanuel Kant, which states that the right action is independent of consequences and based solely on duty and obligation. There’s Aristotle’s virtue ethics, in which everyone seeks the Golden Mean of behavior, the moderate course of action that avoids tempting and corrupting extremes. All of these theories have their merits, and I cannot fault their creators or followers for their beliefs, but my own beliefs are that they are all essentially pointless.
Not to get too philosophical, but I’m of the opinion that the nature of evil itself does not exist apart from human perception. I don’t see the universe as inherently moral, nor do I see mankind or people or even actions as inherently moral or immoral. By this logic, none of the above theories can be any more correct than the other two, except of course in the mind of the person who believes it. The end of Dr. Baron’s lecture delineated an evil act as on from which the doer derives pleasure from causing harm and defined an evil person as one who commits evil acts due to apathy toward others’ humanity. This encompasses many, many people throughout history; by this definition, every dictatorship regime is filled to the brim with evil people. Nazi Germany seemed a breeding ground for evil people. What are the odds? Was it bad genes? At least they didn’t seem to think so.
Let’s consider this example further. Thousands of SS officers would qualify, according to the above definition, as evil people. Yet when they went home to their wives and children, their family certainly wouldn’t call them evil. And what about the SS officer’s wife? If she hates the Jews and supports their imprisonment, is she an evil person, even if she has taken no action against them? By the strict definition, no, she isn’t, but it becomes clear that intention is important.
Let’s examine a hypothetical individual (with no personal opinions being implied) who is a vegan and an animal rights activist. In the eyes of this person, an animal has the same right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness as a human being. They see the needless torture and slaughter of animals for the sake of human consumption to be immoral and evil. A different person, say a worker in a slaughterhouse, has no qualms with eating meat, sees animals as less than human, and even derives some pleasure from kicking around the pigs on their way to slaughter. Is this person evil? In the eyes of the vegan, yes. By the qualifiers of the given theory, maybe not, but the area is becoming more and more gray.
One more example: let’s consider abortion. To a huge section of the population, abortion is evil. It is the taking of a human life. Some even derive pleasure from it (apparently there is a good deal of gallows humor at abortion clinics from doctors and patients alike), and this means they are committing evil acts. Yet there is another percentage of the public of approximately equal size that believes abortion is acceptable: it is a choice made by women concerning their own bodies and the embryo that is killed in the process is not human life. So who is right and who is wrong? The answer hinges on whether an embryo is a human life, and on this society has reached no consensus. My point is that evil is in the eye of the beholder. One man’s evil is another man’s deer hunting trip. In times of genocide, one man’s evil is another’s betterment of society. We know very well that growing up in an environment that allows a certain act instills a permissiveness toward that act. The Holocaust, American slavery, and a hundred other tragedies would have been impossible if this weren’t true. If every one of us is vulnerable to committing evil acts, as Milgram’s study suggests, it’s not so far-fetched to imagine that evil is not hard-wired into an individual, or even that no immutable definition of evil exists, and therein lies my point.
This all being said, we can recognize that the Holocaust and other acts like it are wrong. I know that what was done to Rubin Sztajer during World War II was immoral to a horrendous extent, but I think it’s fair to say that this judgement is valid in my eyes only. Many others believe the same thing, and this is evidence for the fact that there exists a moral majority built out of a worldwide society that values certain principles, among them human life and dignity. I cannot speak for anyone else’s judgement of evil, but I can and will speak for my own. To me, the definition of evil acts and evil people given by Dr. Baron is a fair one, but I believe it’s important to keep in mind that these definitions, especially of evil people, cannot be considered static. If we begin to think that people are evil from birth, rather than made evil as a result of their environments and experiences, we come dangerously close to grouping entire sects of people together on arbitrary principles and demonizing them. Needless to say, especially considering Mr. Sztajer’s lecture this week, this is something to avoid at all costs. Essentially, I believe that evil exists as an arbitrary construct, but that does not imply that it does not exist. To me, you, and everyone on this planet, evil is a very real thing. It just may not mean the same thing to all of us, and that is worth remembering.