Are People Aware of Doing Evil Things?

Francois Tremblay says:

People don’t do things they consider evil.

I find this a fascinating topic for discussion, which is why I’m glad to have an opportunity to blog about it.

A great Russian writer Vladimir Dudintsev discusses this issue in his novel White Garments (it hasn’t been translated into English, unfortunately). According to Dudintsev, people are always aware when they are doing something evil.

Let’s imagine, Dudintsev’s character says to explain this idea, that scientists have discovered that cancer is caused by evil actions we commit or contemplate committing. (Nobody is saying that this, indeed, causes cancer. We all know it doesn’t. This is just a hypothetical.) If we have reliable scientific evidence that every evil act and intention makes us likely to get cancer, don’t you think people will start catching every instance they even begin to contemplate doing something bad? If our lives were at stake, would we not immediately start gauging not only the things we do but even the things we think for their degree of evilness?

Thus, Dudintsev says, any suggestion that people are unaware of the evil nature of their actions is simply not true. Just ask yourself: when you are feeling envious of your friend, when you are planning to undermine a colleague, when you are plotting to do something you know will hurt another human being, do you really and honestly not realize, at least at some level, that your actions are not right?

Of course, we build complex defense systems to rationalize our wrongdoings. However, we always know. I know I do.

53 thoughts on “Are People Aware of Doing Evil Things?

  1. Oh, I do. Just today, I took the last cup from the office coffee maker without brewing new coffee. That was certainly evil. Why did I do it? Because the chance of me getting away with it was as close as humanly possible to 100% 🙂

    What I want to point out is that nobody is stopped by the mere thought of something being evil. It depends on how evil it is and the likelihood of you being caught redhanded.

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    1. “What I want to point out is that nobody is stopped by the mere thought of something being evil. It depends on how evil it is and the likelihood of you being caught redhanded.”

      Speak for yourself. You’re conflating guilt with shame. Narcissists, who want the world to look at them a certain way, experience only shame (when they’re caught redhanded, thus shattering their carefully managed image). They are incapable of feeling any guilt, only shame. ‘Normal’ people with a steady moral compass experience guilt, which exists even when nobody finds out about it.

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      1. Yes. A lot of people (I’d guess most people, but I don’t know for sure) feel guilty and/or remorseful about the bad things they do whether or not anyone knows about it, and whether or not any punishment will result.

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  2. Although there may be circumstances where what is evil is open for debate, Clarissa focuses on circumstances where there is no ambiguity. Rape, murder, body mutilation, enslavement, are good examples of unambiguously evil acts.

    In my judgment, rational individuals always know when they commit such evil actions. They may not care – that is a definition of amorality – but they always know. Of course, individuals who are irrational, as a consequence of mental disease or misuse of drugs, may not be aware. They are the rare exceptions. Whether irrationality is an excuse for committing evil acts is a philosophic question that Clarissa is not addressing in this blog. In my judgment, it is no excuse at all, under any circumstances. .

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    1. “In my judgment, rational individuals always know when they commit such evil actions. They may not care – that is a definition of amorality – but they always know. ”

      – That’s my point exactly.

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  3. So Charles, if someone rapes and kills my daughter and I hunt them down and shoot them dead(which is murder of course) then I just committed an evil act? I would say more like Karmic debt.

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  4. Titfortat:

    You might well feel justified in pursuing a philosophy of ‘an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth’ but your own act would be evil, in taking a life, while living in civil society, outside the law. You would know that when you did so, but you would consider the benefit to outweigh the cost. (And in my judgment, you would be correct!)

    Revenge, so taken is sweet. But it remains evil. Society cannot survive such actions without discipline. That is why individuals enter into civil society out of anarchy. In so doing, they hand over natural rights in a limited way to the state in return for protection by the state. If the state lets them down then the state puts itself in a state of war with the people (John Locke 1690).

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    1. @Charles

      Well I think you might want to use a better word for my action. Unjust, illegal, etc…. Evil does not make even remote sense in the context I explained.

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  5. In many cases, you’re right. But not always. Some terrorists in US and Israel definitely think / thought they’re going to heaven and I can’t call them ” irrational, as a consequence of mental disease or misuse of drugs”.

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    1. Titfortat mentioned that above–ala the freedom fighter vs terrorist question. I think that depends on one’s perspective–which side of the conflict you’re on, as well as your own ethics. You may be a member of the group the terrorist/freedom fighter is on, but believe that the tactics being used are wrong, as well as harmful to your collective cause.

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    1. Look no further. I’ve done really bad things in my life. And I was fully aware of their nature while I was doing them.

      I really wonder where you meet all those folks who claim never to have done anything bad / mean / horrible / evil.

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    2. Well people have a tendency to rationalize evil acts as good for some reason or another while planning and executing them. There’d be no such thing as remorse if people who’ve done evil things didn’t recognize their wrong [barring sociopaths and the otherwise criminally insane].

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  6. Well I think a lot of people don’t have the intellectual apparatus to know how reality works. They have a basic idea that they’d like more from life, but they don’t have the maturity to get it under their own steam. More basically, they can’t seem to differentiate between “under my steam” and “under the steam of another”. This is where the backstabbing begins.

    I’m convinced that one cannot be happy if one obtains some sense of power by backstabbing another. There must be a certain feeling, in the back of one’s mind, that this achievement is inauthentic.

    At the same time, meaning and experience is so muddy for some people, that they have no idea there is an alternative way.

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  7. “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”

    In the U.S., they found that judges were giving longer sentences to people of color and so some politicians started looking at policies to address that. They came up with mandatory minimums and other sentencing guidelines. The result being that people of color are still disproportionately incarcerated, but now for even longer periods of time. Even though I believe that at least some of the people who wrote the law thought they were trying to do something good, the result was horrible (I would say evil). I think most really awful things happen that way.

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  8. I can’t officially speak for anyone else, but…

    I’ve done things that I knew were evil at the time, and I did them anyway.

    I’ve done things that I didn’t know were evil at the time, and I probably wouldn’t have done them if I’d known.

    I’ve done things that I sort of knew were evil, but I rationalized and denied it.

    Most of the time, if I know something is evil, I won’t do it. My motivation is almost always intrinsic–I don’t want to do bad things because I don’t want to hurt people. Fear of punishment rarely enters my mind, because I’ve only rarely had the urge to do something bad enough that it could result in punishment. (I suppose the exception would be drunk driving. I’ve been tempted to drive drunk before, and if I got caught doing that there’d be punishment.)

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  9. I think it is very easy to do evil, just by going along with the crowd. For instance, look at the Spanish inquisition, which the entire Christian population of Spain went along with, Germany and Japan in the 1930s and 1940s, and the history of slavery. It was easy to go along with the general population and the ruling powers, even if it meant being okay with unspeakable evil.
    By contrast, doing good in those situations demanded tremendous acts of willpower.

    Rapists and murderers are evil, but the people who commit those crimes aren’t aware that they’ve crossed a line. To a rapist, their victims aren’t even human. A murderer always has a reason for murdering, even if some of those reasons are irrational. They will never come to believe that they are evil.

    By contrast, someone who sets out to be ‘good’ has an uphill battle. They must be concious of doing good each and every day and never act in a way that benefits them. If someone does something good for an ulterior reason like say, indulging their inner child by buying a toy to donate to charity, that ‘good’ act is immediately canceled out and is value neutral. If I, for instance, volunteer at a library to gain work experience, that doesn’t count as a good act, nor does it count if I get paid to help out a neighbor.

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  10. Politicalguineapig :

    By contrast, doing good in those situations demanded tremendous acts of willpower.
    Rapists and murderers are evil, but the people who commit those crimes aren’t aware that they’ve crossed a line. To a rapist, their victims aren’t even human. A murderer always has a reason for murdering, even if some of those reasons are irrational. They will never come to believe that they are evil.
    By contrast, someone who sets out to be ‘good’ has an uphill battle. They must be concious of doing good each and every day and never act in a way that benefits them. If someone does something good for an ulterior reason like say, indulging their inner child by buying a toy to donate to charity, that ‘good’ act is immediately canceled out and is value neutral. If I, for instance, volunteer at a library to gain work experience, that doesn’t count as a good act, nor does it count if I get paid to help out a neighbor.

    I couldn’t disagree more. It is the easiest thing in the world to do good. One simply has to treat others as one would treat oneself. What could be more normal or reflexive?

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  11. JFA: No, ‘treating others as one would treat oneself’ is value neutral, because the person is not doing anything actively.

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  12. The same writer Dudintsev said, “Kindness always entails suffering. Often, this suffering is quite unbearable.”

    I think he was right. The true kindness comes out of suffering experienced by the person extending it. And then it causes more suffering to them.

    Dudintsev says that this is how you know whether your kindness is genuine. Does it pain you to have it mentioned, to be thanked for it? Did you suffer in the process, before and after?

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  13. Clarissa :
    The same writer Dudintsev said, “Kindness always entails suffering. Often, this suffering is quite unbearable.”
    I think he was right. The true kindness comes out of suffering experienced by the person extending it. And then it causes more suffering to them.
    Dudintsev says that this is how you know whether your kindness is genuine. Does it pain you to have it mentioned, to be thanked for it? Did you suffer in the process, before and after?

    This is very Jewish.

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  14. Melissa: Because the person is then clearly acting against their own self-interest. If they are getting something out of an act, it becomes an exchange, benefiting two (or more) people, not just a one-sided act where only one party benefits.

    JFA: They just think I’m polite. Which again, is totally value neutral, as politeness is the grease in all social interactions. It’s like verbal deodorant; something that doesn’t take any thought and makes everyone’s day a little easier to get on with.

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  15. When I received a top-up for my PhD scholarship, I gave 1000 dollars to somebody who was working in Zimbabwe academia, just because I could. It wasn’t related to suffering, or to the idea that I should efface myself. It was very much related to how I understood the subject of my thesis, and his noble indifference to popular opinion. In honor of this, I gave away this — and much more — money. I could afford to go to restaurants and buy designer clothing for myself for the first time in my life, so I felt it was right to give something back to my spiritual roots.

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  16. Politicalguineapig :

    JFA: They just think I’m polite. Which again, is totally value neutral, as politeness is the grease in all social interactions. It’s like verbal deodorant; something that doesn’t take any thought and makes everyone’s day a little easier to get on with.

    Yeah, people can be asses, especially if infected by guilt-ridden Christianity. Self-effacing Christianity is not the answer. I’m trying to find a quote Mike posted yesterday about potlatch…

    This should do:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/La_Part_maudite

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  17. JFA: It’s late here and I had a long day. Could you please explain that in smaller words?

    I don’t think Christianity has anything to do with it. I wasn’t raised Christian, I was just raised to be polite. Politeness has nothing to do with religion.

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  18. Politicalguineapig :
    JFA: It’s late here and I had a long day. Could you please explain that in smaller words?
    I don’t think Christianity has anything to do with it. I wasn’t raised Christian, I was just raised to be polite. Politeness has nothing to do with religion.

    Anyway, the view that one has to deny oneself in order to be capable of goodness is infernally messed up, to understate the matter.

    You should look for a different ideology.

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  19. JFA: Once again, politeness does not equal goodness. I am actively striving to not be a good person, but that doesn’t mean I have to be rude. The polite, charming villian or villainess is a common theme in most mediums of entertainment. For example, see just about every English mystery.
    And what part of “I’m not a Christian” is not getting through here? Christianity has no place in my life.

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  20. Politicalguineapig :
    JFA: Once again, politeness does not equal goodness. I am actively striving to not be a good person, but that doesn’t mean I have to be rude. The polite, charming villian or villainess is a common theme in most mediums of entertainment. For example, see just about every English mystery.
    And what part of “I’m not a Christian” is not getting through here? Christianity has no place in my life.

    Ok, so you don’t believe in denying yourself in order to express goodness. This isn’t what you said. Somebody else said it: “By contrast, someone who sets out to be ‘good’ has an uphill battle. They must be concious of doing good each and every day and never act in a way that benefits them. “

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  21. Yeesh, willful misreading is an epidemic around here. Yes, being ‘good’ is a willful act, and it does involve some sacrifice. However, Christians aren’t the only ones capable of doing good (actually, they do a shitload of harm), and one can be a ‘good’ person without being affiliated with any religion whatsoever.

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    1. This is an important point you are making. Some people think that their religiousness somehow makes them good people with no additional effort. They equate preachiness and self-righteousness with goodness. In my opinion, though, this very belief that being religious makes you better than anybody is a sign that one is a pretty shitty human being.

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    1. Haven’t you ever met those holier-than-thou religious folks who think that their endless Bible-thumping somehow gives them permission to be nasty and obnoxious to everybody they meet?

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  22. Well, self-denial does play a huge part in keeping someone from being a rapist, but there are ‘active’ evil acts, and ‘passive’ evil acts. An ‘active’ evil act would be raping or murdering someone, a ‘passive’ evil act would be ostracizing the victim, or going along with the crowd when the community decides to do some absolutely horrendous thing, like killing all the people in a minority group in the community. Not being actively evil isn’t enough to be ‘good.’

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    1. So what would you say is enough to be good? To your mind, what is “good” as a concept and/or a goal? Is it really sacrifice or denial to place a mutual good above one’s private interests. What if one feels one’s private interests served in doing good for others? And is evil a positive thing or merely the absence of good?

      I will send you an e-valentine if you address Aristotelian ethics in any cogent fashion.

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  23. A real-life example in support of what Politicalguineapig is saying. Let’s say you are an administrative assistant at a university’s department. The beginning if the semester is always very busy and people at the department need your help all the time. You have some free days accrued, however, and you can take them any time you like. So why not take them at the beginning of the semester, which allows you to avoid more work than if you took them during the middle of the semester? Of course, this will leave a large group of people stranded and flailing, but that’s their problem, isn’t it?

    Of course, taking the free days does not make you a bad person. But it doesn’t make you a good one, either.

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  24. P. Rhoas: Good, to me comes in a variety of forms, all involving at least a bit of sacrifice. One of the commonest forms is putting one’s own body at risk to save another person or a group of people- intervening in a physical confrontation, helping in a search effort..etc. There’s also trying to minimize the inconvience one causes to other people: showing up for work even if you have something else planned, because you’ve made every effort to get a substitute but people just aren’t responding, or shifting one’s vacation days because everyone else will have to pick up your slack.
    And finally, there’s inconviencing oneself to help alleviate suffering: working long hours to develop vaccines or hieing off to the furthest regions of the globe or the darkest corners of the city to teach people to read.

    One of the manifestations of being good is not taking the easy road. I should add that, obviously, taking unilateral actions (like deciding someone belongs dead) isn’t good. Though in some cases, I could argue that the evil of murdering someone is canceled out by the evil the victim did in life. Still evil, but in some cases, leaving them alive would be the greater evil.

    I should warn you that I don’t do philosophy. I refuse to have anything to do with fuzzy thinking, which is all philosophy and psychology are.

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  25. That’s ethics, not philosophy. Developing an ethical system is a way to formulate theories about getting along in the world, and philosophy is simply sitting around and thinking in circles. If we were talking about art, ethics is sculptors working away with chisels, and philosophy is a Jackson Pollock painting. And morals are seperate from ethics: that’s doing things according to what your chosen god or holy book says. One can be a moral person without being ethical.

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