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the words of dan sumners

There is no such thing as evil – but it’s important to behave badly

26 February 2014

Yesterday I watched ‘A touch of evil – is it good to be bad?’, a debate published by the Institute of Art & Ideas (iai). I won’t go into the details, but, like many iai debates, it is somewhat impoverished.

It did, however, remind me to read Joel Marks’ ‘Amoral Manifesto’ in Philosophy Now. It marks the point at which Marks stopped being a Kantian ethicist and became an amoralist or moral nihilist. Whilst I’d read many of the columns recounting his ethical adventure that followed the announcement, I had neglected the declaration itself.

It was one of Ziauddin Sardar’s responses to Samantha Roddick that reminded me I’d been meaning to read it, when he challenged her not to define the killer of April Jones (Mark Bridger) as ‘evil’. Sardar’s argument was that Bridger had the choice whether or not to kill Jones, that nobody had a gun to his head.

Roddick had been attempting to make the case that “evil doesn’t exist, [rather] that we’re all colluding in negative beahviour”. She feels Bridger is the “culmination of the experiences he has had” and that “there is a greater sense of collusion and we all have to take responsibility to shift and to change”.

On the one hand we have someone arguing that someone who murders a child is ‘evil’, and on the other someone urging a more nuanced understanding of the situation. Whilst their actions may be “abhorrent”, society is itself also culpable to some degree for the fact they exist.

These are standard modern positions in the debate over how to respond to crime, although Sardar’s was of course prevalent in the Middle Ages. They were not, however, to the point, as the question for debate was whether or not it might sometimes be appropriate to pursue ‘badness’.

But this is what often happens in ethical debates; someone falls over themselves to make it clear they think people who kill children are ‘evil’, whilst someone else blames society in response. And on it goes.

I turned to Marks because I wanted to remind myself of his position and determine to what extent it accords with my own, as these debates simply frustrate me. They never progress and add little to our collective understanding of how we might act so as to improve the world for human beings.

The reason for this is the use of the words ‘good’ and ‘evil’, but in particular the latter. Because to describe something or someone as ‘evil’ is not to enter into debate, but to seek to end it. And when someone does use the term in debate, further contributions are usually in reaction to it, one way or the other.

It seems to me that when someone describes someone else as ‘evil’, they mean there is something fundamentally ‘bad’ about that person that cannot be changed. This accords with the religious connotations of the term; ‘good’ and ‘evil’ are things in the world in the same way that tables and hyenas are, and if someone ‘is evil’ they simply are. Hence calls  for ‘evil’ people to be locked up for ever or executed.

But as a rationalist, I do not believe ‘good’ or ‘evil’ exist in this way, just as  god, ghosts and fairies do not. There is no such thing as morality in the absence of human (or other) beings that create it; in a universe devoid of life there will be no ‘good’ or ‘bad’, ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, just as there will be no ‘up’ or ‘down’.

So when people argue this or that should be done because this or that is evil, it is as if they have put forward no reason to support their claim. Or, if I’m honest, it’s worse than that; trying to use ‘evil’ as a reason is a good way to ensure I actively disagree with you.

Because rationalism is about using reason as a source of knowledge – and reason requires reasons. If you want me to agree we should do this or that, my first question will be, ‘why?’. ‘Evil’, in the way it is usually meant, is not a good reason because there is no such thing.

It was this realisation that led Marks to describe himself as an amoralist:

“a ‘soft atheist’ would hold that one could be an atheist and still believe in morality. And indeed, the whole crop of ‘New Atheists’ (see Issue 78) are softies of this kind. So was I, until I experienced my shocking epiphany that the religious fundamentalists are correct: without God, there is no morality. But they are incorrect, I still believe, about there being a God. Hence, I believe, there is no morality.”

Marks thinks – as do I – there are only the desires of human beings. When someone says ‘it is wrong to murder’, what they mean is, ‘I desire that there is no murder’. There is no objective morality, no list of rights and wrongs, to which we can appeal. There is only what we want for the world as an individual, as a group, as a nation, as the human race. As I say, when the last human (or other) being goes, rights and wrongs go along with it.

Returning to the iai debate then, for an amoralist, is it ever good to be bad? Well, if what is ‘good’ and ‘bad’ is decided by the desires of individuals and groups, then of course it is good to be bad sometimes.

Do I think the world is a better place with less slavery in it? Do I think the world is better now fewer countries prosecute people for being homosexual? Do I think the world is a better place now fewer countries execute their citizens?

If I do – and I do – then I cannot but say that it is sometimes good to be bad, because slavery, the criminalisation of homosexuality and capital punishment were previously considered moral in many more countries than they are now, and hence made law. And that change was brought about by individuals and groups deciding those laws were distinctly immoral and acting against the law.

Marks’ project now is to convince people that we should drop moral language. We should stop saying it is ‘wrong’ or ‘right’ to do this or that, stop describing people as ‘good’ or ‘evil’. He’s under no illusion that the change will come quickly or easily, but, as he says in this interview with Equal Time for Freethought, only a short time ago many would have laughed at the idea of a US president supporting gay marriage.

I agree the language we use is very important: it creates our world. If we talk of evil, we will act as if evil exists. If, however, we remove these terms from our vocabulary we will be forced to offer more and better reasons for what we want to do in order to convince others.

And that means becoming better critical thinkers, only believing things on the basis of evidence. Imagine, a world in which government policy is decided on the basis of what has been proven to be the most effective course of action; crazy.

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