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  • Evil

    Posted by Jonathan on July 9th, 2007 (All posts by )

    This is quite a good Belmont Club thread. Be sure to read the comments too.

    (One of the Belmont commenters mentions this video, which I liked, about evil and The Sopranos. I don’t think I’ve watched the show more than once, in part because I don’t watch much TV but also because I don’t find criminals appealing as subjects of drama. Or maybe I don’t want to find them appealing. Familiarity breeds contempt or at least nonchalance, and the phrases, “there but for the grace of God…” and “don’t go there” come to mind. One way to avoid heroin addiction is to avoid lesser drugs, because once you try the lesser drug and find that you are not immediately disabled by addiction it becomes easier to try heroin. Wretchard and the narrator of the YouTube video apply a variant of this theory to evil behavior. I think they have a point.)

    (Cross posted at 26th Parallel.)

    Related posts:
    Telling Stories


    16 Responses to “Evil”

    1. Robert Schwartz Says:

      I thought it was one of Wretchard’s best pieces.

    2. Chicago Boyz » Blog Archive » Telling Stories Says:

      […] Evil […]

    3. Oliver Suess-Barnkey Says:

      “Once you try the lesser drug and find that you are not immediately disabled by addiction it becomes easier to try heroin.”

      I haven’t found that to be the case, and I’ve never seen any research even pointing in that direction. A very tiny percentage of “recreational” drug users try heroin and only a small percentage become addicted to it. The drug rehab people I’ve interviewed told me addiction to hard drugs is never by happenstance and only very seldom a case of casual escalation from soft drugs. Typically, the heroin addict is also an atypically heavy user of tobacco, alcohol, caffeine–virtually whatever’s on offer to jack their brain. It seems safe to assume, then, that the typical user WAS “immediately disabled” by alcohol and other drugs before gaining the motivation and access to get started with heroin…

      Beyond that, Father Branner’s simplistic view of the Sopranos as a morality fable is jejune or even insulting to the many good people who suffer from the same kinds of anxiety attacks, marital discord and existential doubts that Tony Soprano suffers from. As fable, it is indeed comforting to many to see Tony suffer for his evil. But we do not enjoy it because it reflects reality, but precisely because it doesn’t. In real life, we know that plenty of evil men enjoy their untroubled by guilt, etc. and, more important, that by far most of the people who suffer anxiety attacks, marital problems etc. are good people, not evil ones.

    4. Jonathan Says:

      If you don’t get the point about the drug example, step back from the details and substitute in your own understanding some other temptation that, once indulged, becomes easier to indulge in a bigger and more destructive way.

      The point about The Sopranos, which you missed, is that the characters are indeed like other Americans in many ways. That’s what banality of evil means. The question for the rest of us is how to avoid becoming like that. It’s easy to be evil: the temptation is always there. One way to resist it, as Wretchard and Fr. Barron suggest, is to understand that people who do big evils often begin with small ones, and to resolve for ourselves to avoid doing even small evils and generally to avoid situations in which doing evil is comfortable or socially accepted.

      I am skeptical about the effectiveness of The Sopranos as a morality tale for most viewers, and I have more productive things to do with my own time than watch dramas about amoral losers.

    5. Ginny Says:

      Thank you Jonathan for linking. Belmont Club is consistently thoughtful and the level of comments there is heartening.

    6. John Jay Says:

      The drug example requires an application of the term “necessary but not sufficient”. Not all marijuana users go on to heroin, but very few heroin users started out with heroin as their first substance of abuse.

    7. Tatyana Says:

      Well, I have to say i see 2 problems with Jonathan’s logic.

      1* This is the reasoning of Prohibition: any alcohol consumption could (not necessarily, but in some cases) lead to bigger hard liquor consumption, and the latter- to uncontrollable alcoholism. Small vice could lead to the big one; so let’s prohibit the smaller vice. We all know the results of the policies based on that logic.
      2* You presume absence of will power in a person. If I start smoking, say, 2 cigarettes a week -you think I’m undoubtedly on my way to 2 packs a day and to the sure lung cancer. That is not true. I was an occasional smoker for years, then when my son was on his way I simply stopped so as not to harm his growing body. And it wasn’t even that difficult. I just made a decision and stuck to it.

      If you ask me, that logic looks like it’s based on fear and distrust. If you distrust yourself, how would you expect other people to trust you? It’s always advisable to avoid extremes – the guys who can’t hold their liquor as much as the guys who stay out of it completely. They both spell trouble.

    8. John Jay Says:

      Tatyana – no, it’s more of a risk / benefit calcuation. Alcohol has a much lower chance of leading to something else because of it’s long history of use in our civilization. I’m not afraid of watching The Sopranos, I just don’t see much benefit to it.

    9. Tatyana Says:

      No, JJ, that’s what Jonathan said:
      “It’s easy to be evil: the temptation is always there. One way to resist it[…] is to understand that people who do big evils often begin with small ones, and to resolve for ourselves to avoid doing even small evils.

    10. Jonathan Says:

      Tat, I wasn’t making a universal statement, merely arguing that I see merit in the Wretchard/Barron position. Other people can find their own ways to avoid bad behavior. I don’t want to impose anything on anybody.

      And yes, the drug example is imperfect. I might have used a different example, or none, if I expected people to quibble with it as much as they did. Another reason to avoid metaphors.

    11. Tatyana Says:

      Sorry, J, didn’t intend to quibble. [cute-sounding word, that]

    12. Jonathan Says:

      No worries, T.

    13. Oliver Suess-Barnkey Says:

      “Not all marijuana users go on to heroin, but very few heroin users started out with heroin as their first substance of abuse.”

      And I’m sure John Jay will agree that while not all beer drinkers go on to marijuana, very few marijuana users start with marijuana. Of course, then we get into talking about booze and cigarettes as drugs, and the “War on Drugs” cannot and will not have that…

      JJ does make an interesting and valid mathematical point, though.
      John Allen Paulos, author of “Innumeracy” and half a dozen other books just like it, published an interesting essay on what he called “statisticide” in the trial of O.J. Simpson:

      “Adding to the dissatisfaction with the Simpson saga were numerous instances of what might be termed statisticide. Let me begin with a refrain constantly repeated by attorney Alan Dershowitz during the trial. He declared that since fewer than 1 in a 1000 women who are abused by their mates go on to be killed by them, the spousal abuse in the Simpsons’ marriage was irrelevant to the case. Although the figures are correct, Mr. Dershowitz’s claim is a stunning non sequitur. There is an obvious fact that it ignores: Nicole Simpson was killed. Given certain reasonable factual assumptions, it can be easily shown using probability theory that if a man abuses his wife and she is later murdered, the batterer is the murderer more than 80% of the time. (A nice demonstration of this by Jon Merz and Jonathan Caulkins appeared in a recent issue of Chance magazine.) Thus, without any further evidence, there was mathematical warrant for immediate police suspicion of Mr. Simpson. I’m certainly not advocating the abrogation of our 4th amendment rights; I’m merely pointing out that looking toward Mr. Simpson was not unreasonable nor an instance of racism.”

      The mass media would indeed be very different if the average reader/viewer kept Paulos’ point in mind…

    14. Tatyana Says:

      Still, there is something in taking risks and exploring:

    15. Oliver Suess-Barnkey Says:

      like Bob Marley said: “No woman, no cry.”

    16. Chicago Boyz » Blog Archive » Narratives – A Rambling Response to Jay Says:

      […] Jonathan and John Jay say much that is wise about the nature of evil. However, not surprisingly, I have great affection for narratives. It isn’t just because I majored in lit; though I can be mean-spirited, anecdotal gossip helps me arrive at a greater understanding of human nature.   We see conversation as a series of formed narratives – with structure, implicit thesis, tensions & resolutions.  Unfortunately, I have an acquaintance who retells events honestly and factually; she never imposes interpretation – indeed, she has no interpretations, no ends, and no broader applicability to her life or mine. As I listen, I become frustrated, realizing how much I expect a conversation to be a series of narratives. […]