The Facts About Social Evils In Society Essay
While most theorists writing about evil focus on evil action andevil character, there has also been some discussion of evilinstitutions. When we speak of ‘evil institutions’ wemight mean one of two things: (1) organizations that are evil or thatperform evil actions, or (2) social practices that are evil, such asslavery and genocide. Since an organization can only be evil, orperform evil actions, if it is morally responsible for what it does,the debate concerning the concept of evil institutions in sense (1) isdiscussed under the heading of ‘collectiveresponsibility.’ Evil institutions in this sense will not bediscussed in this entry.
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Many theorists writing about evil believe that evil actions must beharmful (see, e.g., Card 2002; Kekes 2005). However, there arereasons to think otherwise. For instance, someone who has a narrow conception of harm, might believe that evil actions neednot be harmful. For example, she might believe that only painfulexperiences are harmful, but that it would be evil to sadisticallydestroy someone's reputation, even if doing so did not cause anypain. If it is evil to sadistically, yet painlessly, destroysomeone's reputation, and only painful experiences are harmful,then some evil actions are not harmful (for more about differentconceptions of harm see Nagel 1970; Kagan 1998, 29–41).
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Some theorists believe that to do evil we must feel a certain way orhave certain emotions at the time of acting. For example, LaurenceThomas believes that evildoers take delight in causing harm or feelhatred toward their victims (Thomas 1993, 76–77). Hillel Steiner goeseven further by contending that there are just two components of evil:pleasure and wrongdoing. According to Steiner “[e]vil acts arewrong acts that are pleasurable for their doer” (Steiner 2002,189).
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Assuming that harm is an essential component of evil, the questionthen becomes how much harm is required for evil? In the Roots ofEvil John Kekes argues that the harm of evil must be serious andexcessive (Kekes 2005, 1–3). In an earlier work, Kekes specifies that aserious harm is one that “interferes with the functioning of aperson as a full-fledged agent.” (Kekes 1998, 217). Claudia Carddescribes the harm of evil as an intolerable harm. By an intolerableharm, Card means a harm that makes life not worth living from the pointof view of the person whose life it is. Examples of intolerable harmsinclude severe physical or mental suffering as well as the deprivationof basics such as food, clean drinking water, and social contact (Card2002, 16).
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One particularly controversial class of actions which some theoristsbelieve are evil and yet not harmful are cases of sadistic voyeurism(Calder 2002, 56; Garrard 2002, 327). For instance, imagine that Alextakes pleasure in witnessing Carol's extreme suffering, but thatAlex does not cause Carol's suffering. Some people would callthis act of sadistic voyeurism evil even though it causes no additionalharm to the victim (we can imagine that Carol is not aware that Alextakes pleasure in her suffering so that the witnessing of her sufferingdoes not aggravate the harm). Paul Formosa suggests that sadisticvoyeurism is only evil because the voyeur allows the harm to occur andthus is partly responsible for the suffering (Formosa 2008, 227). Theproblem with Formosa's analysis of sadistic voyeurism is that itcannot make sense of cases where the voyeur is unable to prevent theharm from occurring. Consider, for example, Daniel Haybron's caseof a sadistic quadriplegic who has no ability to communicate. Such aperson may “wish nothing more than the greatest suffering for herfellow creatures” and yet be helpless to cause, or prevent, hervictim's suffering (Haybron 2002a, 264). One might argue that ifthis person took pleasure in witnessing someone else'ssignificant harm she would thereby do evil even though there is nosense in which she allows the harm to occur? If so, evil actions neednot be harmful.
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Arendt's reflections on Eichmann and her concept of the banality ofevil have been both influential and controversial (For a discussion ofthe controversy see Young-Bruehl 1982). Some theorists take Arendt'sthesis of the banality of evil as a datum to be explained. Forinstance, social psychologists Stanley Milgram (1969) and PhilipZimbardo (2007) have attempted to explain how social conditions canlead ordinary people to perform evil actions. Others have contestedArendt's suggestion that ordinary people can be regular sources ofevil (see Card 2010; Calder 2003 and 2009).