Aug 12, 2011

Is evil 'destruction for the hell of it'?

Norm Geras takes on Terry Eagleton's definition of evil as "destruction for the hell of it:"

It follows from this that, for example, someone's torturing an animal to death merely for pleasure might count as evil whereas their torturing hundreds of people to death in order to intimidate a population threatening the oppressive regime they work for wouldn't. And a short and obvious answer to this proposed definitional restriction is: pull the other one. To be persuasive a definition needs to capture the core of our intuitions on how the relevant concept functions, and the suggestion that torturing large numbers of people to death isn't evil provided only there's some end in view would be widely rejected, since extreme cruelty to sentient beings is one of the paradigm meanings of the word 'evil'.
Ah but someone "torturing hundreds of people to death in order to intimidate a population threatening the oppressive regime they work for" may be only kidding themselves that that is the reason they are doing it. In just the same way that Bush's torturer's kidded themselves that there was a 'purpose' to their torture, whereas in fact it answered to more basic psychological needs — for the pleasure of inflicting pain on an enemy. It's still "destruction for the hell of it". They just don't see it that way. Eagleton's definition stands.


  1. Isn't your response a classic case of begging the question? You assume the correctness of the definition in making your defense of it.

    Evil has surely been done by those who hold sincere cultural or intellectual beliefs; and you can take your pick from an endless list: jews are sub-human. These boys could grow up to be Muslim fighters. The teachings of Marx compel me to expunge society of teachers, artists, writers, etc.

    That there is an overlap with "the pleasure of inflicting pain on an enemy" and "destruction for the hell of it" is not in question. It just means that Eagleton's definition is perforce incomplete.

  2. I'm saying that mass murderers are not generally the most self-aware people. Their idea of their motives and their actual motives are frequently at variance, and that includes the examples you give: "jews are sub-human", "these boys could grow up to be muslim fighters" etc. Those are rationalisations designed to facilitate the infliction of violence - pleasurable in and of itself, as per Eagleton - not sincere beliefs. Therefore, Norm's threshold quibbles are neither here nor there. Eagleton's definition is roomy enough to work because there can always be found, nestled amidst the rationalisations, a delight in violence for its own sake.