Mental Illness or Evil?


(Photo credit: Robbie Wroblewski)

When a person does terrible things that seem utterly senseless, like murder children, there is sometimes a division in the assessment of the person. Some people will take the view that the person is mentally ill on the grounds that a normal, sane person would not do something so terrible and senseless. Others take the view that the person is evil on the grounds that a normal, non-evil person would not do something so terrible and senseless. Both of these views express an attempt to explain and understand what occurred. As might be imagined, the distinction between being evil and being mentally ill is a matter of significant concern.

One key point of concern is the matter of responsibility and the correct way to respond to a person who has done something terrible. If a person acts from mental illness rather than evil, then it seems somewhat reasonable to regard them as not being accountable for the action (at least to the degree the person is ill). After all, if something terrible occurs because a person suffers from a physical illness, the person is generally not held accountable (there are, obviously, exceptions). For example, my running friend Jay told me about a situation in which a person driving on his street had an unexpected seizure. Oddly, the person’s foot stomped down on the gas pedal and the car rocketed down the street, smashing into another car and coming to a stop in someone’s back yard. The car could have easily plowed over my friend, injuring or killing him. However, since the person was not physically in control of his actions (and he had no reason to think he would have a seizure) he was not held morally accountable. That is, he did nothing wrong. If a person had intentionally tried to murder my friend with his car, then that would be seen as an evil action. Unless, perhaps, the driver was mentally ill in a way that disabled him in a way comparable to a stroke. In that case, the driver might be as “innocent” as the stroke victim.

There seem to be at least two ways that a mentally ill person might be absolved of moral responsibility (at least to the degree she is mentally ill).

First, the person might be suffering from what could be classified as perceptual and interpretative disorders. That is, they have mental defects that cause them to perceive and interpret reality incorrectly.  For example, a person suffering from extreme paranoia might think that my friend Jay intends to steal his brain, even Jay has no such intention. In such a case, it seems reasonable to not regard the person as evil if he tries to harm Jay—after all, he is acting in what he thinks is legitimate self-defense rather than from a wicked motivation. In contrast, someone who wanted to kill Jay to rob his house or just for fun would be acting in an evil way. Put in general terms, mental conditions that distort a person’s perception and interpretation of reality might lead him to engage in acts of wrongful violence even though his moral reasoning might remain normal.  Following Thomas Aquinas, it seems sensible to consider that such people might be following their conscience as best they can, only they have distorted information to work with in their decision making process and this distortion results from mental illness.

Second, the person might be suffering from what could be regarded as a disorder of judgment. That is, the person’s ability to engage in reasoning is damaged or defective due to a mental illness. The person might (or might not) have correct information to work with, but the processing is defective in a way that causes a person to make judgments that would be regarded as evil if made by a “normal” person. For example, a person might infer from the fact that someone is wearing a blue hat that the person should be killed.

One obvious point of concern is that “normal” people are generally bad at reasoning and commit fallacies with alarming regularity. As such, there would be a need to sort out the sort of reasoning that is merely bad reasoning from reasoning that would count as being mentally ill. One point worth considering is that bad reasoning could be fixed by education whereas a mental illness would not be fixed by learning, for example, logic.

A second obvious point of concern is discerning between mental illness as a cause of such judgments and evil as a cause of such judgments. After all, evil people can be seen as having a distorted sense of judgment in regards to value. In fact, some philosophers (such as Kant and Socrates) regard evil as a mental defect or a form of irrationality. This has some intuitive appeal—after all, people who do terrible and senseless things would certainly seem to have something wrong with them. Whether this is a moral wrongness or health wrongness is, of course, the big question here.

One of the main reasons to try to sort out the difference is figuring out whether a person should be treated (cured) or punished (which might also cure the person). As noted above, a person who did something terrible because of mental illness would (to a degree) not be accountable for the act and hence should not be punished (or the punishment should be duly tempered). For some it is tempting to claim that the choice of evil is an illusion because there is no actual free choice (that is, we do what we do because of the biochemical and electrical workings of the bodies that are us). As such, people should not be punished, rather they should be repaired. Of course, there is a certain irony in such advice: if we do not have choice, then advising us to not punish makes no sense since we will just do what we do. Of course, the person advising against punishment would presumably have no choice but to give such advice.

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  1. So are you saying that there is no evil? An evil act should be considered symptom of a mental illness?

  2. Joseph,

    I can’t see how anything the author wrote could give the impression that that’s what he’s saying.

  3. Maybe if we see it as a continuum from conscious
    premeditated evil, say, Himmler organizing the Holocaust or Stalin accusing Trotsky of imaginary crimes, to delusionary behavior, for example, the guy who kills his neighbor imagining that he is saving the planet from an attack from Mars rather than as an either-or question, evil or mental illness, we can deal with the situation more realistically.

    A whole lot of criminals fall in the space between Stalin and the patriot who defends his nation against the UFO’s.

  4. Evil or mentally Ill? Why are these the options? What about human variation? A lesion, a tumor, and many other conditions may be classed as mental illness because they are not mere deviations from the ‘normal’ range of human variation. But how wide is the ‘normal’ range? Could much of what is considered evil or mental illness be simply natural variation? In the short few millennia humans have been thinking about this stuff where are we in terms our evolutionary variation? Which behavioural traits are in fact within the bounds of being human, if not within the social humanist bounds we have set for ourselves? To what extent are ‘evil’ people merely doing what comes naturally to them? This need not be an all or nothing variation. Our personalities are complex, to the extent we can display ‘good’ and ‘bad’ at different times and in different settings. Are sociopathic tendencies binary – something we have fully or don’t have at all? Or is there a set of characteristics, each variable in detail, that go to make one person more empathetic than another? How does the pleasure of playing practical jokes vary into the pleasure of watching someone in pain?   I can see how we can identify specific brain damage and call the consequential behaviour mental illness. But if there are frequent genetically caused variations, then don’t these need to be treated with greater objective consideration? Some may be so extreme a variation from ‘normal’ that we choose to attempt to fix them – e.g. Downs Syndrome. But recent studies tell us that many of our great leaders my carry sociopathic possibilities. Perhaps we need to consider how we label each other and how we respond to our behaviours more considerately.

    What seems completely inappropriate for any modern scientist or philosopher is to be seriously contemplating medieval labels like ‘evil’.

    So, there is no ‘evil’ that there is any evidence for other than the medieval label we apply to some acts and the people who perform them.

  5. Ron Murphy:

    Can you honestly consider the life of Josef Stalin without seeing him as “evil”?

    Doesn’t the word “evil” have a role in describing someone like Stalin?

    I use Stalin as an example, because he seems more evil than Hitler to me, without Hitler’s “idealism”.

    By the way, I’m not especially anti-communist on a theoretical level.

  6. Evil the metaphysical meaning of it is much deeper.
    It has something to do with essence and existence.
    Is illness evil?
    Is evil ill?


  7. Following Aquinas’ argument. If Hitler acted in good conscience, if he believed the Jews posed a real existential threat, that they were in fact evil, then his actions were neither evil nor insane. He just had his facts wrong. I think Aquinas did not think it the whole way through.

    Evil in itself is very common. Lying is form of evil. When the NRA lie, it is an act of pure conscious evil. They lie that if there are gun controls the criminals will have guns, while the good people will be held hostage. England has tight gun laws, there are about 35 fatalities a year, America has over 12,000. The NRA know with tighter gun laws thousands of lives could be saved – but they are prepared to lie and needlessly have thousands die. That is evil.

  8. swallerstein,

    Of course I consider Stalin evil, in the sense that I’m a human animal that has inherited a biological response to dislike certain people because of their behaviour, and have been programmed to have a social response that persuades me to ‘feel’ that Stalin is ‘evil’. But intellectually I find no evidence or good reason to think there is any objective ‘evil’, or that labelling someone as ‘evil’ is anything other than this sort of response on my part.

    Like beauty, evil is in the eye of the beholder. It may be tempting to say, “Look! Stalin is obviously evil. Just look at the atrocities.” Well yes, by the standard of people that find such acts objectionable by their own definition of what is objectionable, then such people will say Stalin is evil. My own instinct is to apply those standards and be persuaded to call Stalin evil. But I thought the point of philosophy was to challenge such instincts.

    Historically, guided to a great extent by our overtly religious past (and continued into the present by many) we have developed the notion of evil into some imagined objective reality, as if it has some ontological existence as a God given or cosmological rule book that applies to the universe whether humans are present or not. But the very idea lacks any argument at all.

  9. Ron Murphy:

    I agree with much of what you say.

    One of the purposes of philosophy is to analyze our intuitions or to challenge them, as you say.

    In the case of the word “evil”, I still find the term to be eloquent, even though, as you point out, there is no “objective” evil.

    I don’t think that “evil” can be replaced by “sociopath” or “psychopath”. Not every evil person is a sociopath and not every sociopath is evil.

    Stalin probably was a sociopath or a psychopath, but for example, Eichmann was examined by numerous Israeli psychiatrists and psychologists and they all found him to be normal.

    That is why Hannah Arendt coined her famous phrase, “the banality of evil”.

    What’s more, all I have to do is walk to the corner and there’s a gang of petty thugs drinking beer and drugging themselves; most of them are probably sociopaths, according to the diagnostic criteria which appear in Wikipedia (antisocial personality disorder), yet none of them are evil. The more that I get to know them (not an experience I’ve sought out), the more I find them to be pathetic rather than evil.

    So while I recognize that “evil” is not inscribed in any “universal rule book”, I’m going to keep using the word to refer to persons who at times fit the criteria of sociopaths, but not always.

    I believe that most of us who have received similar “programming” (to use your term), otherwise called “moral education”, will understand my use of the word “evil” or at least
    find it profitable to debate that use, while continuing to use the word.


    Regarding Mental Illness or Evil for motivation for outrageous acts of killing. Take the case of the holocaust and associated horific torture. Some perpertrators were psychotic so evil and mental, some were evil or mental and others at the camps and elsewhere led virtually normal homelives whilst they killed as a job. This skitzophrenic activity would surely have or did eventually lead to a form of psychosis and others like Albert Speer and pioneers of the US space programme where considerred normal but new of the death of the Jews and others and used in Slave labour in their various projects. So there is no simple concise answer to the motivation behind human behavior.

    Simon John Payne

  11. This looks a good spot to introduce another new radical theory of mine. While much time is spent identifying specific fallacies and rationality errors, perhaps a different classification of the rationality system might reveal something new. Computers and artificial thinking are telling us things about rationality.

    There are two types of artificial knowledge:
    (1) Perceptive
    (2) Empirical

    Computers operate as follows:

    (1) Perceptive: Keyboard, mouse, modem

    …..(3) Memory drives (RAM is short term memory)

    (2) Empirical: Logic chips

    The logic chips will spin in a loop until acted on by a call from (1). How do we trust the perceptive data? The memory would have to store pattern matching of perceptive source as well as the data itself for reliability. All data is not stored, but all reliability is stored. Mathematical statistics do not come to a true or false conclusion, only a percentage reliability.

    The brain may act in the same way. Both perceptive and empirical knowledge are stored in the brain:

    (1) Perceptive: Eyes, ears, nose

    …..(3) Cognitive knowledge

    (2) Rationality

    where rationality creates empirical and predictive knowledge by altering perceptive data and storing in the same box — the brain. The brain does not tell us where perceptive data and altered data are stored. Past work in neurology has indicated both are stored together for stimulated retrieval. Cognition experts have also identified a short term and long term memory storage (possibly the brain decides on retention of long term data during sleep).

    Very interesting, but what has this to do with ethics? Ethics is simply altered perceptive data, and it does help us through one quagmire — no ought without is! Otherwise, we end in the circular self-reference argument of rationalizing rationality.

    For an applied example, when identifying a possible rationality error or fallacy such as judgement against people who wear blue hats, the error appears to be not in the perceptive data, or the memory, but in the empirical logic.

  12. JMRC,

    Well, suppose that Hitler did meet the conditions set by Aquinas. That is, he acted in accord with his informed conscience to the best of his ability. This would require Hitler to carefully investigate the matter and still truly believe that he had the facts right. He would also, of course, have to act in a way that would have been appropriate to the situation.

    Now, if it is assumed that Hitler carefully researched the matter and found what he sincerely regarded as conclusive evidence warranting his actions, then it would seem that he would have acted in good conscience. However, he might be regarded as mentally ill-paranoid, perhaps.

    I would, however, think that the actual Hitler would violate Aquinas’ conditions in numerous ways.

  13. swallerstein,

    But our normal language use of the term hardly comports with any scientific meaning and is imbued with much emotive meaning, so again my point is that while a very useful colloquial term it is hardly one that warrants serious contemplation in modern philosophy. More theology than philosophy.

    My problem isn’t common use, but the use in this post as a serious alternative to ‘mental illness’. And ‘mental illness’ itself doesn’t do justice to the complexity of the human brain and its natural if sometimes extreme variation.

    Perhaps I’m expecting too much of philosophy, or philosophers. Futile debates about what it is to live a good life continue, for example. Why don’t philosophers debate whether phlogiston is a viable alternative theory of burning? Because science has a better explanation and no evidence for anything like phlogiston. There are no serious philosophical debates about the value of astrology. Why? Science has still much work to do to understand the human brain, but it seems that this type of philosophical musing about simplistic labels is outdated. Is this an ‘evil’ of the gaps, that persists because science can’t yet describe all the varieties of brain conditions that result in someone or their actions being labelled as ‘evil’?

    “Not every evil person is a sociopath and not every sociopath is evil.”

    How do you know that? By some sort of observation? What are you observing in people you label as non-sociopath but evil? Are you seeing some behaviour you are prepared to label as evil, but not seeing other indicators of a sociopath? What is causing such behaviour? There is clearly some distinction, but all we have is the label ‘evil’. Without a modern diagnosis much of our ideas about Hitler’s mental state are speculative. Philosophy can raise questions like “What is the nature of human evil?”, but in order to dig deeper we require more empirical investigation. Otherwise we are in no better position than Descartes, who lacking empirical data imagined the pineal gland as the point of interaction of his assumed mind and the physical body.

    The shock of the banality of evil is a specific indicator that we don’t understand what we have been labelling as ‘evil’. It’s not a simplistic demonic persona infecting an otherwise normal person; it must be based on real physiological conditions. The problem is that like much black box psychology there may be many internal conditions that lead to similar behaviour, and many similar internal conditions that lead to quite different behaviour.

    So I still feel ‘evil’ an inadequate label in what I take to be a serious philosophy post. Is it time for philosophers to drop or adapt their interests in good and evil?

  14. Ron Murphy,

    While the term “evil” is not well defined, it certainly seems to be a useful term, even now. There does seem to be a meaningful distinction between a person who does awful things because of mental illness and someone who actually elects to do wicked things knowing them to be such.

    In the case of mental illness, science can (presumably) eventually sort out the defects and imbalances in the nervous system. So, for example, a person might hear voices because of a chemical imbalance that can be fixed by medication. So fixed, they would be “normal.”

    In the case of what would be actual evil, there would presumably not be a biological defect in the person’s nervous system-that is, their chemicals and neurons are okay and hence their is no physical problem that can be sorted out with the right pill or electrode.

    I do, of course, consider the possibility that what we call “evil” is simply a matter of defects in the nervous system. Perhaps they are subtle and leave the person otherwise normal (aside from the “evil”) and are thus hard to detect using our current methods (much as scientists could not observe bacteria and viruses before the development of the technology). That is, perhaps all our old terms can be eliminated and replaced with proper scientific terminology. But what would this brave new world be like? Suppose that we dispense with talk of good and evil and instead speak in neurological terms? When someone slaughters children do we say something like”ah, that fellow has a neurological system defect of alpha-765432415-nabu-quadlu and engaged in an act of 56789-pardu-allupa-8765413″?

  15. Ron Murphy:

    The Milgram experiments, the Zimbardo Stanford Prison experiments, Viet Nam and Abu Ghraib also seem to show that normal people, placed in certain exceptional circumstances, do horrid things that most of us, although not you apparently, would call evil.

    I already referred to Adolf Eichmann, who examined by Israeli psychiatrists and psychologists, was found to be normal. Neither before nor after the Holocaust did Eichmann show signs of sociopathy.

    There is an interesting study by Christopher Browning, Ordinary Men, which shows how a group of German reserve police officiers, none of them Nazi fanatics nor with known sociopathic tendencies, carried out horrible atrocities.

    So it does seem that non-sociopaths commit what most people refer to as evil actions. Perhaps all of us, placed in the wrong circumstances, would do so too.

    Now, my daily experience with a street gang, all of who have criminal records, live off of petty crime, mostly drug dealing, all of who will use violence to “defend their territory”, none of who are trustworthy, none of who pay child support or assume normal families responsibilities, that is, with sociopathic tendencies (according to the diagnostic criteria in the Wikipedia article on Antisocial personality disorder), do not reveal horrible actions which I would call “evil”.

    Possibly, the street gang members, if given the chance in an Abu Ghraib situation, would commit acts which most of us call “evil”, but given their criminal background, they are not even accepted for military service here (Chile).

    So I repeat what I said above that not all evil people are sociopaths and not all sociopaths are evil.

    Since you reject the use of the word “evil”, it is difficult to go forward with this conversation.

    I fail to see why philosophy cannot reflect on what is evil, as it as done since Plato.

    I do understand that “evil” is not a scientific word, but as long as it does not contradict scientific findings, I don’t see why philosophy cannot speculate on questions outside of the realm of science.

  16. Evil was often associated in the dark ages with witchcraft. Witches were burned at the stake for being in league with the devil. Today, the popular consensus is that accusations of evil witchcraft are false accusations. A popular method of avoiding accusation of evilness was to confess that someone else had cast a spell. Thus, persons could absolve themselves of responsibility. This may sound strange, but read the Salem witch trials:

    Mental illness threatens to become the new word for witch-hunt. In modern terms, it may not make any difference whether someone is falsely accused of evilness or mental illness. The false accusation could come about through the accusers own evilness or mental instability. A common reason for false accusation is power control.

    The various article and comments since the discussion stemming from Sandy Hook show a definition of evilness across a full spectrum, from ban all guns – to arm the teachers (NRA). Not much is known about psychopathology in spite of all the big words. Trying to create further classifications for evilness or mental illness may only make matters worse.

  17. Mike LaBossiere, I think Aquinas’ argument looks sound on the surface, then rapidly disintegrates on deeper examination.

    I believe Hitler fills all the conditions set by Aquinas. And I believe Aquinas’ argument is the basis for great evil. It’s something that can lead even ostensibly good people to commit evil.

    Hitler was not insane, and his hatred for the Jews was not borne out of some paranoid delusion. Virulent anti-semitism was common in Germany of the time. I’ve also heard it said of Hitler that he never had an original idea of his own, and all the ideas attributed to him were gleaned from other sources. He was credulous – believing rubbish like The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, something long known to be a fake. The Aryan race theory was hilariously bad history – the Aryans exist, they live in Iran, which you can also spell as Aryan, not Germany. But he believed this stuff. And further, Hitler’s rabidly insane looking speeches was an act. Though there is only one recording of his real speaking voice, when he was not performing for the public he spoke completely differently and sounded completely rational – none of the crazy rhetoric.

    And this is where Aquinas comes back in – though I think he has more to say on this, it’s so long since I’ve read him, I’m not sure. Hitler knew the individual acts he committed were evil. He used, abused, and betrayed people – even before his greater schemes. But Hitler had a justification – he believed in a higher power. It’s the same justification Lenin and Stalin had. I believe Aquinas had something to say on this moral logic too. If you have ever wondered how some people sleep at night, this is how they sleep.

    People who commit acts of evil are most often doing so in an effort to serve a higher power, or to correct some perceived injustice. There is no need for insanity, simply a belief that the lesser evil is justified by a greater good. There is even a deeper perversion – people who consistently commit petty acts of evil, in the service of a higher purpose, can see others who do not as evil.

    Vaclav Havel offers God as a means of dealing with this evil. In certain respects it possibly could but there are still problems. “To the pure, all things are pure”. The Catholic Church shielded child abusers in an effort to protect the Church. They were serving a higher purpose.

    So. Evil is perversely a product of “good” – Nietzsche has a take on this too in his Slave/Master Morality. The Othering of evil as the product of mental illness really only serves to avoid any attempts to deal with evil in a way to make life more humane and livable. Adolf Eichmann was evil – but it was the petty bureaucratic evil very common to many organisations. There’s some kind of social conditioning involved. Milgram did another set of experiments getting humans to give shocks to dogs. The result was the complete opposite of the experiment with an actor. People wouldn’t shock the dogs – somewhere in their social conditioning cruelty to people was acceptable where cruelty to animals was not.

  18. JMRC,

    I’d say that Hitler did not act on an informed conscience, so he would fail to meet the conditions of Aquinas’ theory.

    If he did meet the conditions, then this would mean that he acted on properly considered information and acted in accord with a proper conscience. In such a case (which does not seem to be the case) he would be judged to have acted in good conscience.

    However, I’d say that the important point is that Hitler does not seem, as a matter of fact, to have met Aquinas’ conditions.

    But, I could be wrong.

  19. Mike LaBossiere,

    Then you have the problem of what informs the conscience.

    Now I will make an argument that may seem to equivocate on behalf of Hitler – but I am just challenging the immediate assumption or more natural reaction that he was either insane, or possessed of a supernatural evil. When we hear of something like a school shooting our automatic reaction is the person who committed the act was either insane or extraordinarily evil – evil as a pantomime devil. When Anders Breivik was initially arrested it was assumed he was insane. Psychologists and psychiatrists took to the papers and the rest of the media to define his insanity. The psychiatric evaluation for the purpose of his trial came to the conclusion he was neither insane, or had any clinical psychological abnormalities. He was adamant he was sane, and had requested to be examined by Japanese psychiatrists – specifically because they understood a culture of honor. In his testimony he declared that he was actually a really nice guy, and “normal”, and had friends, it was terrible thing he had done but it was necessary to save Norway and Europe. And that he had not acted out of evil, but was sacrificing himself as an act of brotherly love. The only reason, he claimed, he did not turn the gun on himself was because the importance of promoting his book of political philosophy – this was more important than sparing himself the public opprobrium and a life in prison.

    Had Hitler been captured, there would have been a similar defense. None of the high ranking NAZIS who were capture were determined to be clinically insane – only extraordinary by their actions.

    In the time of Aquinas, life was simpler in that we had yet to walk into the bear trap of the Cogito.

    What informs the conscience? Could it be a Cartesian demon. And it is a demon. The external world is not experienced by the subject in an absolute universality of all information. Instead their is a nebulous demon who mediates the information the subject’s conscience receives. History, culture, the family, education, pure random chance. The conscience deals with this information as best as it can, but there is no absolute universality in this apparatus either.

    Hitler is often just too an extreme an example. So, instead what if we take young people who grew up under his reign. They may have come from extreme nationalist families – they were indoctrinated in the Hitler Youth. The regime was totalitarian. There were no voices critical of state propaganda – people were even too terrified to speak in private lest someone reported them to the Gestapo – and they would be transported to a camp too. A simple note to the Gestapo that you felt your neighbour was “ungerman” could be a death sentence.

    These young people might only be in their late teens by the time they were committing atrocities in Poland or the Ukraine, as someone had made them believe absurdities. They believed they were protecting the folks back home from an existential threat. They believed they were fighting a just war.

    Did these young people act with an informed conscience? Did they meet Aquinas’ conditions.

    Is Aquinas hopelessly insufficient to deal with the reality. `

  20. JMRC,

    Hitler did seem to have various issues and much has been written trying to sort out what mental illnesses he might (or might not) have suffered from. While it is tempting to regard him as a madman, I would tend to agree that he was evil rather than just insane. However, I still stick to the view that his conscience was not properly informed.

  21. Mike LaBossiere,

    Thank you for posting such a great topic. It was because of this question I decided to go back to school and study psychology.

    I was having a similar debate (similar to the Hitler argument posed above) with my partner a few months ago regarding the ultra-conservative people who demonstrated at the funerals of gay men and women after either having died in battle, or died from HIV/AIDS. He called these people “hateful” I think that it is easy for all of us to assign labels such as “evil”, or “hateful” in a situation we do not agree with or do not understand. Are we ever justified to really label anyone, or anything as evil?

    Of course we can make reasonable assumptions that one is evil simply based on their actions or speech, however this begs other questions.

    1) Is there objective “evil”? If so how do we know?

    2) What is the intent? In psychology there is something called psychic determinism which is essentially a series of underlying processes of which we are unaware that guide and influence our behavior. These processes are thought to have been set in motion by a series of factors such as social, environmental, emotional health. A good example of determinism would be with drug addicts. Many addicts and alcoholics will tell you that they came from good homes, and for the most part had a happy childhood, yet at some point, they begin to act out in destructive ways against their own will without really ever understanding why. The behavior is not limited to the consumption of chemicals however. Most drug addicts and alcoholics offer suffer from strained relationships, and an inability to cope with the “agreed upon” reality most of us experience. So in the case of the addict / alcoholic acting out in ways that are destructive to themselves and others, is it fair to say that they are evil? Of course addiction has been deemed a mental illness. I have heard many stories of people doing really terrible things under the influence of this chronic, and debilitating disease.

    3) What about the language being used? Actions and words differ due to the impact they have on the world, but where they are the same is in communication. The purpose of actions and words is to convey a message. However, could we confidently say that we understand the message based on the words, or actions themselves? The individual attempting to convey the message may be the only one privy to his/her own intent. For instance the words I type here are instances, they are representatives of my intent to get a message through. They are not THE message itself, instead they are, because I am bound by language, illustrations for my message.

    4) Can we measure, or study intent? It was brought up in one of the arguments the evil can be defined by intent. Although words and actions might elude to an intent, we cannot be certain of them. This is a primary reason that polygraph’s are inconclusive – there are other factors that can sway a polygraph one way or another, and processes often overlap. I tend to agree with Kant, and Hume’s take on reality as far as only being certain of our own ideas and perceptions, and nothing else.

    So in the case of the ultra-conservatives demonstrating at the funerals of gay soldiers, are we justified in calling them hateful or evil? Certainly (for most of us) our experience tells us that what they are doing is wrong, or mean. But what about their experience? The experience they may have had growing up being taught that being gay is wrong, and that homosexuals must burn in hell for all eternity because it is an abomination. Can we justifiably label someone who has been fed such a message for virtually their entire lives as evil?

  22. Michael Coen,

    Determining intent is important in law. It’s the mens rea (the guilty mind). And it’s an awful reason I would never like to be in a court accused of anything. In most of Europe you are not allowed beat a burglar who enters your home to death – or even seriously harm them. You are meant to use “reasonable” force. Who determines what is reasonable force? And who decides your state of mind – do you intentionally use excessive force – were you being a little evil.

    The court decides. And if you are very unlucky, you could have a jury of idiots – who are making their judgment based on the wonderfully fallacious magic of asymmetric insight. It’s Hunter S Thompson’s nightmare that he would be tried before a jury of people from rural Nevada. And the prosecutor would sum up by saying that normal people could only see him with “fear and loathing in their hearts”.

    The idea of agreed upon reality, in psychology is a very loaded term. It can mean something very loose – something that is functional, but where there is a tolerance for a very wide degree of difference. Homosexuality, different political perspectives etc, are accepted as not being violations of agreed reality. Then there is the rigid conformist interpretation. Where only the majority perspective is tolerated – or the perspective of power is tolerated. Even the slightest deviation is considered a gross violation. That is actually closer to insanity than the individual social deviant. The group goes insane all at once, and their reality is only glued together by cognitive dissonance. And that is what happened in Germany in the 1930s.

    Cognitive dissonance is powerful reason why a rational person will believe something irrational to be true – that may be glaringly absurd to someone not experiencing the same dissonance (and even to that person before they came under the influence of the dissonance). In societies like 1930s Germany (or really any society given the right conditions – propaganda), a folie a deux can happen on grand scale. Your friendly next door neighbour can suddenly become the devil. It happened in Yugoslavia, and in Rwanda. The placard waving Tea Partier may have at some point been complete aware that medicare was a government program – yet they are now caring a placard that says “get your guberment hands of my medicare”.

    Cultural norms do not in themselves determine either rationality or sanity. In a folie a deux, a psychotic convinces a non-pyschotic that their delusion is reality. If you want to think of it in terms of a meme – the devilish plot of the Jews ,and or, the Freemasons to dominate the world is the classic product of the mind of a paranoid psychotic – once the meme is in the wild it can really grow legs. Other psychotics can add colour to it – they can make absurd links. Sometimes the Catholics are in league with the Freemasons – other times it’s the Jews. Hitler is thought of as the origin of these ideas, when he was not. Maybe it took the Holocaust to stamp on these ideas in Europe – but they still surface. Before the Holocaust, anti-semitism was so embedded in European culture, it was the reality.

    An interesting thing can happen in families, a powerful psychotic may determine the reality, and then drive the rest of the family crazy. A child may be placed in therapy, the child may be convinced they are psychologically disturbed, the therapist may determine they are disturbed, but it’s an act. The true psychotic is a parent. Treatment can go for years with no progress, then the parent is identified and treated, and the child’s madness vanishes.

    So as to informed conscience, the waters get muddier and muddier and muddier. Which is not a comfortable place to be – but that is the world. Somewhere in the gloamin’.

  23. JMRC:

    What you say about a powerful psychotic determining reality and driving the rest of the family crazy is very interesting.

    Could you explain that a bit more?

    Thank you very much.

  24. swallerstein,

    It’s a common theory (it’s a bit more than a theory – but everything in psychology is just a theory). It’s the theory RD Laing is famous for. But at the same time it’s very controversial – not because it’s wrong but it treats mental illness not purely as the subjective experience of the being-in-itself, but the being-in-the-world. And that world is the family. You can see the crisis – parents being blamed for say a daughter developing schizophrenia. It’s not true in every instance but it happens. Mental illness can also just be purely spontaneous.

    In families the controlling “hidden” psychotic is usually a parent – but it could be a sibling. The psychotic may not want to be captured (there all kinds of reason for this – the prospect of a padded cell being one, or even jail). It may be too traumatic for the family to confront the psychotic (it may be too traumatic for the psychotic to confront their own issues) – so another family member is designated as the crazy person, as a distraction. The family may all work together as a team – even the designated person.

    The controlling psychotic can then orchestrate the designation. And if the designated person does not want to go along with the plan – can they be driven crazy? This again is Laing’s controversial theory. Of course they can be driven crazy. Tormenting little double bind games, gas-lighting, distorted indirect communication, creating constant stress and drama with no possibility of resolution.

    A teenage girl may develop anorexia to gain attention – this is not narcissistic. Attention on one person can mean distraction from paying attention to another.

    There are so many variations of this horror it’s wonderful. The psychotic mother may persistently torment her “troubled” teenage son – driving him to crazed tantrums. The psychotic gets sympathetic attention “oh poor you – you’re like a martyr with that terrible son of yours”. The boy is taken to psychiatrists – they may even tell the truth – but the mother says “he’s always lying, and he’s been smoking marijuana and destroying our family – he flies into rages for no reason”. And it can be extremely difficult for the psychiatrist to tell what is happening – because troubled teenagers who throw tantrums are a reality. The psychotic mother may be devious enough to fight family counseling. Even in family counseling the family may close ranks – and maintain the psychotics version of reality. Then a member may break ranks – and the flood gates open. All fingers point to the true psychotic – the person could be an alcoholic – or worse; someone sexually abusing their children.

  25. JMRC:


    I read RD Laing many years ago and I thought that his theories had been largely discredited, but it may be that Laing being discredited is more a change of fashions in psychotherapy than a definitive scientific advance.

    I can also see why Laing’s theories might be “discredited” for political reasons, since they question business as usual.

    Doesn’t Laing say that society is crazy or sick (I forget his exact claim) and that madness is a response to a crazy (or sick) society?

    It’s not hard to see why someone who claims that madness is a response to a crazy (or sick) society would be rapidly “discredited” by those who benefit from said society.

    So let’s assume for the moment that Laing is on to something.

    Is the idea that the controlling psychotic is consciously determining reality and driving a weaker family member mad or that it is an unconscious process?

    The latter option seems more plausible to me, since the controlling psychotic probably considers him/herself to be sane or especially insightful into reality.

  26. Michael Coen,

    All excellent questions-I need to write a post on evil.

    You raise a good point with the “God Hates Fags” folks and their ilk. As you note, if they truly believe what they profess, then they would seem to be acting “correctly” in terms of these beliefs about morality. They might thus be victims of a bad morality and their behavior could be excused to the degree that they were corrupted. Then again, they are not kept locked up between protests, so they have access to other information. But, I have never spoken to anyone in this group, so I cannot really say much about them and why they do what they do.

  27. swallerstein,

    Laing is discredited but not completely discredited – Laing the person definitely is. Family counseling is really on the basis of his earlier work. I’m sure others would come to it eventually – but that’s where he made his name. And later he became a little too “far out”, had drink and drug problems, in the end he was barred from practicing.

    Ideas that society itself has psychiatric issues is politically traumatic. But it is self-evident. In psychotherapy itself there is conflict. There are different technique and views, in use that do not always agree. Therapists often have issues themselves. (like Laing did).

    Whether the controlling psychotic acts consciously or unconsciously is far more complicated. Any complex action requires conscious thought – their absolute motivation may be hidden from them – they may use helpful cognitive dissonance to obscure the traumatic reality from themselves and invert the situations. The wife beater who says “look what you made me do!”, in a way believes his wife did make him do it. Although he initiated the row, where he lost his temper, and beat his wife. In fact, he always wanted to beat his wife, he just needed to engineer a situation where he could rationalise and redeem himself in his own eyes – where his wife made him do it – she is devious and evil and he is the tortured saint.

    Committing an evil act is traumatic for the perpetrator – if they can rationalise it, even if at a deeper level they do not believe their rationalisation, they can still blunt the trauma. “She was asking for it” – the person who at work, engineers the destruction of a threatening rival’s career “He wasn’t really happy here. I think he’d be happier doing something else. He really didn’t fit it”. The school bully “I was trying to teach him not to be such a douche bag” – see, he was helping his victim develop social skills. The conman is helping his victims learn there are conmen in the world. The charity never stops.

  28. Mike LaBossiere,

    As for Westboro Baptist Church “God Hates Fags!”. For an interesting insight, you could watch Louis Theroux’s documentaries on them. They are kept locked up between protests. But the later documentaries do show people who have left – and once well outside the cult, their opinions change.

    You could also look up Lynx and Lamb, a far right girl group also covered by Theroux. They have now grown up and renounced their far right days – their excuse, they were children and did not know any better.

    But back to the Cartesian demon. Even if someone is exposed to other information – what if the controlling demon is telling them the television is run by satanic homosexual liars.

  29. JMRC:

    Thank you.

    I’ll have to reflect on the examples you give.

    I’m thinking of a family group revolving around a strong woman figure, probably psychotic and an absent and cold father-figure.

    The mother is highly intelligent and absolutely convinced that she knows what is best for her children and for the family in general, even when things as trivial as their wishes, tastes, intuitions and experiences say otherwise.

    Somehow she manages to convince all that she knows better than they do who they are and what they should want.

    Then one of the children, who has been the most faithful in following the party line (as set down by the woman), breaks down completely (in psychiatric terms) and is labeled “crazy”.

    In that child’s attempt to deal with their craziness and to make sense of their life in general they venture into heresy and are now labeled “bad”, “hostile”, “ungrateful”,
    “unloyal”, etc.

    I’ll have to look into Laing again.

  30. swallerstein,

    Yes, that sounds like a Laingian family. (Though you should read my speculation as fiction).

    The mother is playing maddening games – and they are double binds – there is no way out either end. They are subtle and over the trivial – this is crucial too. The mother is surreptitiously signaling power and control – she engineers the situations so she can not lose. She takes a child to the shoe shop – and lets the child try different pairs. The mother does not really have a preference for any shoe – they are just shoes. The child has a moment of freedom and pleasure – they choose their favourite shoe – they are satisfied with their choice. It’s at this moment the mother makes her move. She tells the child they cannot have the shoe they have chosen, and arbitrarily selects another pair. The child at once feels they have been cheated (they have), their autonomy was a tease, and the object of their desire has been taken from them, and they have been presented with another object they do not desire – but they are obliged to be grateful for.

    The child has two options – both are no win. They can throw a tantrum – which will give the mother the opportunity to lay on the guilt trip “You’re so ungrateful. I’ve sacrificed my entire life for you.” The child is traumatised and the mother revels in her martyrdom. The second option – the child smiles and feigns enthusiasm and accepts her mothers choice. Feigning is important – the mother is looking for a signal that her child is upset but is still yielding to her control.

    It is not a family. It is a concentration camp. The father has long since been defeated – his distance is absolute surrender – he is just waiting for death. He is the living dead.

    The daughter who subjected herself to her mother’s wishes with chirpy enthusiasm was a survivalist. She believed if she kept satisfying her mother, her mother would relent. Now she realises that this will not happen – and there is no end to the torture – just endless no win games. She falls to her knees and rocks like a musselmann.

    There’s something interesting that can happen here. The daughter can realise that her psychiatric issues can give her power over her mother – she stops eating, and becomes a controlling anorexic. The tables are completely turned – where the mother regulated her daughter through playing with her desires, the daughter now renounces desire. She is playing a no win game with her mother. It’s the hidden third option in the shoe game – refuse the shoes and go barefoot.

    There are major problems in Laing (mostly to do with him). He was arrogant (very typical for a doctor) and absolutist. Human relations are not a constant struggle for power and control – and that is a very poisonous and paranoid view of the world. And once people internalise that view, they bring the traumas on themselves and others they aimed to avoid through their games. Laing was a terrible parent – he played the same awful destructive games with his own families (he had several) – his own children had problems, which proved his thesis. In the end, he had no way out of the trap.

  31. JMRC:

    This is very interesting for me.

    Could you expand a bit about the role of anorexia?

    Please don’t feel pressured to answer. Answer at your leisure. Thank you.

  32. Dennis Sceviour

    Thank you the information on RD Laing. It describes the misanthropic problems that are carried from generation to generation. Early childhood power control struggles can influence a person motivations and intents unless they are aware of the works of writers like RD Laing. Keep up the descriptions.

    One thing that needs clarifying is the difference between learned behaviour and a true mental disease. Laing’s work is about normal people in abnormal circumstances. I think Mike LaBossiere was focusing on abnormal mental disorders where perception, cognition, or rationality are malfunctioning.

  33. It is interesting that, as you note, people who get exposed to other ideas often change their views. Of ourselves, many also just stick with their hate groups-never forgiving those who they think trespass against them nor turning the other cheek.

  34. swallerstein,

    Every instance of anorexia is not the same. It could have different root causes – and sometimes, as far as anyone can see, it’s spontaneous. It is dangerous, and it does kill people. The person can begin by avoiding food deliberately, and then it spirals out of control and becomes a compulsion the person has no control over.

    There is a danger in taking Laing, or any other theory in psychotherapy to extremes – that a single model is true in all cases. At some point in time, every single approach in psychotherapy has been misapplied with scandalous results. French Lacanian psychoanalysts attempting to treat autistic children (disaster). Behaviourists torturing patients with electric shocks to “cure” homosexuality (doesn’t work). Lobotomies. They’ve all done something to be deeply ashamed of.

    But…Let’s just say for the sake of it, what a teenage girl with an overbearing (to the point of psychotic) parent, might do. She might deliberately become anorexic – this wouldn’t be a devious decision, more out of absolute despair. But once she is anorexic she has power – an anorexic can keep an entire family pinned down (they can keep an entire medical team pinned down). Though it’s not something the anorexic can just snap out of, it’s not an act, it’s not a bluff – through family counseling and therapy, they may reach some catharsis and recover. But they may not, it can be beyond anyone’s control and they will die.

    But…That would not be the only instance. It could be a case of Münchhausens by proxy. The psychotic mother forces her daughter into anorexia, so the mother can have all the attention from medical professionals, etc. Münchhausens by proxy is very ugly. A mother may injure her children to get attention. Drive her teenage son crazy, so she can have all those wonderful meetings with psychiatrists, etc, receive sympathy and feel important.

    But…A teenage girl may develop anorexia in an attempt to gain control of the boundaries of her world, in the aftermath of a traumatic event – a rape, or sexual assault, even sexual abuse by a non-family member that occurred in early childhood ,and the damage is only manifesting itself in her teens. It could be the trauma of the death of a close relative – or simply the trauma of puberty. In none of these instances is the cause Laing’s Family.

    A very crucial and important point, is it can be an absolute mystery. When anorexia becomes serious, lots of health professionals of a variety of backgrounds can get involved, and they can go for years without a clue as to what is really happening. And they may never know – the root cause may have been a complete insignificance – and it’s the anorexia itself that has taken on an unstoppable destructive life of its’ own.

  35. JMRC:

    You’re talking about what the “objective” role of anorexia might be in the family political conflict.

    However, what is the subjective narrative that guides the anorexic person?

    That is, the mother, as she sees the world, knows better than anyone else in the family what they should want, what they should feel, what they should think and she is only motivated by the best intentions in the world, guiding her family, a role which is merited given her superior intelligence, shown by the excellent grades she received in school and the university, etc. and by her success in everything she has undertaken during her life.

    Of course, as things turn out, her family is less than a success, but, as she sees things, that’s due to ingratitude and irrational hostility on the part of her children.

    So, anyway, how does the anorexic child see their anorexia? I imagine that they also have “good intentions”, that they are not consciously hostile or consciously trying to manipulate the family balance of power to their advantage. That would be out of character in the family in question.

    The only person in the family in question who secretly (or subjectively) has “bad intentions” at times is the distant and cold father, who has “Machiavellian” thoughts (the mother only has lofty thoughts, I think) and is the family “political realist”.

    Perhaps a partial first step towards liberation for the anorexic teenager is to open their mind to Machiavellian thoughts, to stop repressing that facet of their mind, to begin to look at the family as a political realist would.

    I agree with what you said above: that human relations are not only about power and control, but in some families that’s all they are about, although they call it “love”.

  36. swallerstein,

    “You’re talking about what the “objective” role of anorexia might be in the family political conflict.

    However, what is the subjective narrative that guides the anorexic person?”

    The subjective narrative of the anorexic is completely unimportant. Anorexia is a form of self-mutilation, it’s extreme. The original objective reason for the anorexia will more often than not completely be obscured from the anorexic – the event or reason is too traumatic for the anorexic to acknowledge. Any narrative is a red herring. Narratives may be created as justificationary myths for any ultimately psychotic behaviour or beliefs. This is common, listen to ordinary people and you will hear these myths all the time.

    The initial trauma could be trivial. But still too traumatic to acknowledge. No one fully understands Hitler’s excessive hatred for the Jews. But in Mein Kampf one peculiar rant (one of many) Hitler attacks young Jewish dandies who despoil foolish young German/Austrian women. This could be a clue. Hitler in his youth; an unpleasant unattractive fellow – sees a beautiful young German girl, with whom he presumes to be a Jewish young dandy. This deeply traumatises Hitler – why is she with him. This Jew is the obstacle to his pleasure. As well as being painful, the truth is absurd and humiliating. He wants to remove this Jew – he needs a coherent narrative to detraumatise himself that doesn’t sound absurdly ridiculous and petty. Years later the original objective is long lost and immaterial.

    But Hitler was not alone in this psychosis. Albert Speer was in charge of designing the spectacles of the NAZI rallies – he chose to host them at night, not just to give him an opportunity for light spectacles like the klieg light pillars – he was trying to hide the fact that the party faithful were not in fact blonde beautiful specimens of Aryan manhood – they were in fact, short, fat, and in a word;ugly. They were all out to kill that dandy young Jew, recreate themselves as something beautiful, and get that girl.

    The anorexic does not know why they are anorexic – if they did, anorexia could be cured with the click of a finger. Even if you presented the initial traumas clearly to the anorexic, or Hitler, it may do no good. Like Macbeth, they may have waded so deep in gore that turning back now be mere folly.

    Back to the family. It’s a family where direct communication is impossible (even where direct acknowledgment of reality is impossibly traumatic). The mother has a justification for everything (her education is really just a fallacious appeal to some authority – you’ve got a degree in something, so what). But her coherent verbal arguments are fallacious too – her real form of communication is through inflicting trauma not reasoned argument – she shames them “you’re so ungrateful”, she torments. Since she uses “reasoned” argument there is no way of winning with her – it’s either a tantrum or silent acquiescence – but she is just communicating through pain, so she wins either way (though there is no glittering prize).

    The father is not being uniquely Machiavellian. Every family member has been backed into a corner where they are all being Machiavellian – modes of communication are so distorted, there is no room for direct communication – it’s too traumatic. Being a “political realist” in this family just means navigating psychotic behaviour with more psychotic behaviour. In fact the term “political realist” is just another narrative to avoid trauma – “this is reality, this is the only possible reality, so to be pragmatic and realistic we must resign ourselves to the impossibility of change”. Is this really true. Soyez realiste, demandez l’impossible.

    “I agree with what you said above: that human relations are not only about power and control, but in some families that’s all they are about, although they call it “love”.”

    This is the most brutal and awful narrative. This is the story the beaten wife tells herself – the violence is some kind of mystified love; “he hit me, and it felt like a kiss”. The reality of that family is it is a concentration camp. They’re all behaving like survivalists. There is no love, they have all lost their humanity – even acts of love aren’t trusted, they’re just seen as further Machiavellian manipulations. They tell themselves their maddening behaviour and signaling through pain, is love, because it would be too traumatic to admit that it is not.

    What is worse. Is these people, these children, will go out into the world. They will be incapable of direct communication, or communication that does not involve suffering. They will see all human relations as a Machiavellian game. They will turn their workplaces into concentration camps populated by survivalists – they will create trauma as it’s the only reality they feel they have control in. They will convince themselves (and they will preach this too) that their psychotic behaviour is “normal” – they will even assuage their guilt by telling themselves they’re helping to teach their victims how the world really works. If they have children, they will start the same cycle all over again.

    An interesting thing about the “survivalist” psychosis, is it only works within the confines of some kind of camp. The Sobibor concentration camp where there was a mass breakout. The actual breakout survivors had something very interesting to say, they said only those with love survived. The “survivalists” perished. Their selfishness and Machiavellian tactics worked in the camp. In the camp there was always someone weaker to prey on. But in the forest, they were expelled from groups for this behaviour – and when they were alone, had no food, and got sick, there was no one to help them and they died.

    The family will not be made less traumatic by its members becoming better survivalists – better politicians – more psychotic. I think this is worse in families where there is wealth. Just enough money is drip fed to keep the members dependent but not enough to allow independence. And I have seen it “Marry who we want you to, and we will buy you a house, and set you up in life. Marry against our wishes, and we will cut you off and throw you into poverty – drop your boyfriend”.

    Wealth can hide the psychosis “look they are materially successful, so they can’t be insane”. The beast of Sandy Hook was born in wealthy suburbia.

  37. JMRC:

    Very enlightening what you say. Thank you.

    What you say about family wealth is true.

    However, there are so many power or money crazed people in the world that the person who successfully learns “politically realistic” survival skills within the family probably has an advantage in business or at work.

    They will undoubtedly do badly at forming decent human relations, be they love or friendship, but there are so many psychic cripples around that they’ll always find a new victim or they’ll be someone’s victim.

    The best is to seek some way out, which is what Laing tried with mysticism and Eastern religions.

    That Laing never found the way out does not discredit him so much as having never sought it would, in my opinion.

  38. “mental conditions that distort a person’s perception and interpretation of reality might lead him to engage in acts of wrongful violence even though his moral reasoning might remain normal.”

    WRONG. If the person is of good moral character would they not question the “demon” or “angel” that is “leading” them to engage in wrongful acts? Even in an irrational state a person with strong moral character can compel themselves to take right action or no action rather than to take the bad action even if that means taking their own life. I do not believe in the plea of insanity unless the person is under the influence of drugs and then they are guilty still for taking the drugs in the first place. By taking drugs one accepts the consequences that can come from using drugs.

    “If a voice addresses me, it is always for me to decide that this is the angel’s voice; if I consider that such an act is a good one, it is I who will choose to say that is good rather than bad.” Jean-Paul Sarte

  39. In mental illnes it is precisely the rationality of the ego which breaks down.

    Sartre assumes, falsely, that when voices speak to someone who is mentally ill, that person still has the same rational ego as a sane person does.

  40. Not all mental ‘illnesses’ are the same, and not all are anything to do with the capacity to reason and rational. There are many ‘mental illness’ experiences that are real physical experiences that amount to ‘errors’, or perhaps more realistically as ‘unusual’: not the norm but still within the bounds of human variability.

    The auditory system in the brain can generate its own internal stimulus, independently of the usual hearing mechanism, the ears, that the rest of the brain ‘understands’ to be real voices. There is no reason why in all other respects the brain should not be considered to be acting ‘normally’, ‘rationally’. If anything, given that such experiences are not normal, and that normally when we ‘hear’ voices in our heads they are voices from other intelligent entities, it seems quit rational to suppose that they must be coming to us from some other intelligent source; and if the subject believes in religious stuff why not suppose they are voices from God, or Jesus, or demons? Seems pretty rational to me, in the context of our vast cultural, philosophical, theological speculations about the mind and other-worldly stuff; but all that becomes less mystical, less relevant, in the 21sth century as the brain sciences uncover more evidence of the physical sources of ‘voices’.

    Seems Sartre was right. Though not knowing his reasoning or evidence I suppose he could be right for the wrong reasons.

  41. Ron Murphy:

    Sartre says that we can choose whether we consider a voice to be that of an angel or not.

    That implies free will.

    Do you now consider that we have free will?

    Or do you mean that in phenomenological terms, we believe that we can rationally choose?

  42. Let me first say thank you to the host/author of this website for allowing us this forum to debate this topic. Secondly, let me apologize for entering into this forum with abrasiveness and lack of full reverence to the prior debates.

    “Sartre assumes, falsely, that when voices speak to someone who is mentally ill, that person still has the same rational ego as a sane person does.”

    I stand by my original statement and believe that you (swallerstein) are actually making the majority of assumptions here. Perhaps you are merely playing the devil’s advocate however, it is perceived that you are assuming that people with mental illnesses are not capable of any rational thoughts whatsoever at any point and that they are under no obligations at any point to seek help. Furthermore it is perceived that you contend that the mentally ill are condemned and helpless to the onslaught of their illness as if a great tide of insanity has suddenly washed over them and carried them flailing away with nothing to grasp or cling to. This is a grand assumption indeed. I believe the burden of proof is on you, as you will not find any licensed psychologist who will report that violence is an absolute symptom of mental illness. Nor will you find within any psychological athenaeum such an absolute symptom being listed for any mental illness.

    “As a group, people with mental health issues are not more violent than any other group in our society. The majority of crimes are not committed by people with psychiatric illness, and multiple studies have proven that there is very little relationship between most of these diseases and violence. The real issue is the fact that people with mental illness are two and a half to four times more likely to be the victims of violence than any other group in our society.”

    “A small group of people with mental illness (those with severe and untreated symptoms of schizophrenia with psychosis, major depression or bi-polar mood disorder) may have an increased rate of violence. In this group, individuals who are suffering from psychotic symptoms that cause them to feel threatened or manipulated by outside forces have a greater tendency towards violent behavior. In spite of this, with early assessment and appropriate treatment, individuals with severe illness are no more dangerous than the general population. Community treatment programs have also been found to be helpful in the management of behaviors that lead to crime”

    “Aside from the group of severely ill individuals, multiple studies have shown that mental illness alone does not incline a person to violence. Instead, it is the influence of “co-variants” (factors that are present in addition to mental illness) which increase the risk of violent behavior. In fact, the presence of co-variant factors is a strong indicator for violence in any individual, regardless of whether or not they have a mental illness. Remember – a person with co-variant factors but no mental illness is far more likely to commit acts of violence than someone with mental health issues and none of the co-variants.”

    Therefore, I believe we are responsible for ourselves and at first sign of mental breakdown or deterioration whereby evil thoughts begin mingling with our rational thoughts or we begin to meditate on violent action we are obligated to seek help. If one chooses not to seek help then they have made a choice to embrace the influence or acceptance of the influence and all of the consequences that come with that acceptance. As it is stated, “with early assessment and appropriate treatment, individuals with severe illness are no more dangerous than the general population.”

    Evildoers such as Adam Lanza and the “Joker” were an exception not an expectation of mental illness.

  43. swallerstein

    “Sartre says that we can choose whether we consider a voice to be that of an angel or not. That implies free will.”

    Most Christians believe there is a God. Doesn’t imply there is one. Does your point imply free will, or only that Sartre thinks we have free will, or that he is merely using a free will model of consciousness?

    What I think regarding free will is that if the term is to be meaningful it must be made clear what the will is supposed to be free of or free in regard to – and that is usually the feeling that we all have that our will is free of physical phenomena, dualism. I think we all suffer from that illusion, even if arguing intellectually that we do not have it. I don’t find this any more incoherent or irrational than having and living by the illusion that I am solid when intellectually I think I am mostly empty space; or the illusion that I am one continuous identity when I know most of my atoms are replaced over time by different ones.

    What we call free will I see as the working of an automaton, albeit one far more complex than what we usually think of as automata, and one with a conscious element that produces self-awareness and feelings of identity. Do we make decisions? Do we choose? Using the model of an automaton in a temporally causal universe (which perhaps is another illusion) physical activity causes my brain to perform decision making actions, so I do choose immediate action now, or make long term plans, or predict my future decisions; but those decisions, that wilful action, is not free. We don’t have a problem attributing decision making to computers; we just don’t attribute to them… well what is it we are reluctant to attribute to them? Free will? I feel sure current man-made automata don’t have free will either.

    When I look at other humans, and at many other animals, they too give the appearance of making decisions that are not just an unfolding of internal physical activity in their brains. Their internal operation is so complex, and can depend on so many temporally distant causal influences, that to me the immediate cause of some decision (e.g. my cat gets up apparently purposefully and ‘asks’ to be let out) is totally baffling – I simply can’t analyse its biological processes in order to give a precise causal explanation as to why a particular brain made some decision at some point.

    Sometimes it seems easy – I know my friend dislikes chocolate and loves vanilla, so if I offer the choice I expect him to choose vanilla. But we are complex and sometimes contrary biological systems. I buy one chocolate and one vanilla ice cream, and let my friend choose, and to my surprise he chooses chocolate – what happened? So I ask, and he replies, “I thought I’d give it a try, just to make sure I don’t like it”, or, “I seemed to be missing out, so I recently learned to like it by persisting with it”, or, “I had a bet with a friend, and I lost so if given a choice I have to choose chocolate for a week”, or, “I’m choosing the one you want just to mess with you.” The complexity behind our decision making is so great that even in situations we think we know the outcome for sure we can still surprise each other. This example was a simple four state binary choice: vanilla, chocolate, both, none; or maybe more states: “Let’s each have half of each ice cream.”

    Given that I feel as though I have free will, as if my decisions are free of the physical neuronal activity that implements my decisions, it is not surprising that through our theory of mind we attribute free will so easily and naturally to each other.

    In addition to this incomprehensible complexity that makes it look as though we pluck decisions out of the air, free of physical causes, I think there is an emotive problem for accepting we are automata. It doesn’t feel like we are, and this makes us very resistant to the notion – a biological history, that has been persuading us since the dawn of consciousness that our will is free of physical causes. With a cultural history, from philosophy and religion, that has been persuading us we have free will.

    On the matter of emotive feelings, our emotions seem necessary for making decisions. True free rationality seems to be problematic, in that logically there would always be the requirement to check every possibility before making a decision – itself a logically impossible task. So our emotions act as triggers that make us make decisions. They don’t have to be heart tearing emotions; I mean pretty much any internal ‘feeling’ that makes us choose one path over another. We might rationalise our decisions down to some finite level of logical complexity, and often we might feel that we have reached a decision by entirely logical means. But I doubt this is ever the case when pushed to serious analysis. Try living a fully rational existence and see how long that lasts. Every instant you make a decision analyse in detail when and where the decision point was. What did I write those specific worlds in that last sentence; or these words in this? Fully rational logical decision making is incapacitating. Most of what we do is automatic, emerging from a massively complex background of prior physical behaviour and learning; so the words in these sentences just seem to come pouring from my brain.

    But what would it feel like to be an automaton that couldn’t sense its own decision making processes, that couldn’t feel its own ‘neuronal correlates’ working, but was still self-aware to the extent it would decide it had its own identity? Would it feel like this? As we develop AI systems that mimic the operation of the human brain, will there come a point when one will insist it has free will?

    So, pulling this back on topic, we don’t have free will, and the extent to which any brain ‘decides’ to do ‘evil’ is determined for it by so many factors that the term ‘evil’ is nothing more than another model of human behaviour – a rather overly simplistic one that has connotations relating to an unevidenced God’s view of how humans should behave; a prescriptive and proscriptive convenience for those that want to impose on others their moral perspectives without having to justify that imposition through argument, but instead take the short cut of insisting some deity has already decided what is ‘good’ and ‘evil’.
    So, swallerstein, picking up some of your earlier points, which I seem not to have responded to…

    “So I repeat what I said above that not all evil people are sociopaths and not all sociopaths are evil.”

    I don’t think any of the examples you gave threw any light on this. You still need a clearer definition of what ‘evil’ is. You still seem to be using it as an evil of the gaps, to fill in on what science has not yet provided a good explanation for, in complex human behaviour.

    “Since you reject the use of the word “evil”, it is difficult to go forward with this conversation.”

    It is difficult for me to go forward with it in an entirely philosophical context, because I think philosophy isn’t adding any more than what has been added by Plato. It is all Trekkie debate stuff, musing on philosophical explanations that are disconnected from better scientific explanations, even if some of those scientific explanations are incomplete.

    “I do understand that “evil” is not a scientific word, but as long as it does not contradict scientific findings, I don’t see why philosophy cannot speculate on questions outside of the realm of science.”

    Feel free to. But, again, that makes philosophy nothing more than a Star Trek Convention debating lounge. And it makes for what I see as bad philosophy that hides unsupportable presuppositions. For example, take Mike’s comments (which I also failed to respond to) … see next comment.

  44. Mike,

    Sorry I didn’t come back to you on your comment when I meant to.

    “In the case of what would be actual evil, there would presumably not be a biological defect…”

    Why presume there is any ‘evil’ that is ‘actual’, that would not be explained by biological details?

    Consider the term ‘neural correlates of consciousness’. This term seems to have come about in the context where we want to insist there is this thing ‘consciousness’ that is independent of neurons in some respect, but in which there is a correlation between neuronal activity and conscious behaviour. It presumes that there is this distinction. And that presumption seems to be driven by our history of biological persuaded and culturally developed notions of a free floating mind that just happens to live somewhere near our heads. We are forcing ourselves to use the term ‘correlates’ here, not because we have identified a separate but correlated pair of phenomena, but because on seeing the correlation we are reluctant to attribute a direct causal link; where with the same evidence in none human phenomena we would have no qualms about saying the correlation is strong enough to consider it causal.

    We seem very reluctant to accept that there is no evidence for a free consciousness, other than the personal feeling that this is how it is, and the failure of introspection to examine any physical instantiation in the brain. We have no science that leads us to think that there is a free floating mind; and all the science we have about all aspects of the universe provides us with only things of a physical nature. So we have no good rational reason for thinking that our consciousness is only ‘correlated’ with neuronal activity; but instead we have every reason to think our neuronal activity is exactly what our consciousness is – even if we don’t yet fully understand how that works. The ‘correlate’ notion is an emotional response that we have because we can’t quite ring ourselves to think of ourselves as physical automata, just more physical stuff in the universe. We desperately want to cling on to our human spiritually distinct specialness.

    In a similar way I feel you are clinging on to this old philosophical perspective of a free floating mind that can decide to do ‘evil’, as if this decision making is also only correlated with some aspects of the physical brain but not explained fully by it, and as if this ‘evil’ is either something that humans do or something that exists out there that humans ‘catch’, like a virus. You seem to be presuming there is some ‘actual’ thing, ‘evil’, that exists independent of the physical nature of the brain, but is correlated with it.

    “I do, of course, consider the possibility that what we call “evil” is simply a matter of defects in the nervous system.”

    OK, but why ‘defects’? Where do you get the idea that the acts that we label as evil must be defects and not mere extremes of normal variation? All normal distributions have less frequent outliers. That is the whole point of terms like ‘normal’ and ‘unusual’ and ‘rare’ and ‘strange’ in the context of human activity. And the human brain is so complex, with so many ‘degrees of freedom’, that we have to consider a human brain as having some uncountable number of ‘normal distributions’, each applying to one of an untold number of human traits, and most of those normal distributions being interdependent in complex ways. So we could count an individual as being ‘normal’, within some socially determined but otherwise arbitrary range, and yet may still have some aspects of their personality and behaviour that lie outside the bounds of socially acceptable normal.

    Consider this: “Down syndrome (DS) or Down’s syndrome, also known as trisomy 21, is a genetic disorder caused by the presence of all or part of a third copy of chromosome 21. Trisomy 21 is the most common chromosome abnormality in humans.”

    See how the terms ‘most common’ and ‘abnormality’ occur in the same sentence. The overall presence of this ‘abnormality’ in the human population is rare enough to be given the label ‘abnormality’; and yet it occurs frequently enough, naturally enough, to have its own label of being ‘most common’ in some respect.

    Biologically, in evolutionary terms, the rare is also naturally occurring. We have a common ancestor with chimps, with many common genes. If we spotted in some rare cases that a normally ‘chimp’ gene variant occurred in some humans (which need not lead to so obvious a morphological change as that human swinging through trees, or preferring bananas), we would class that as an abnormality, or unusual, or rare. But trace back our lineages and every human mother is the same species as her daughter; and every chimp mother is the same species as her daughter; and yet at some point that ‘chimp’ gene was present in our common ancestor. When did it become ‘normal’ for chimps and ‘abnormal’ for humans?

    In the context of evolution we have to rethink what we mean by ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’ when applying it to human biology, and to human behaviour which is heavily influenced by biology. We are so used to thinking in a human context that we tend not to want to attribute behaviour to biology, but instead to the more mystical and spiritual subtleties of human mind, soul, personhood, identity. But if you doubt the influence of biology ask yourself when you last wanted to swing around in trees eating a mostly fruit diet; or when you last wanted to run around on all fours greeting others by sniffing butts . Human behaviour is extremely biologically constrained, and all the subtleties we observe are relatively minor variations within those gross constraints; but we have no evidence that our many subtlety different behaviours are not also so constrained by our biology. We’re just not used to looking at ourselves in this wider context; and we have become accustomed to thinking of ourselves in the context of free floating minds and souls that are freely willed and that choose to do good and evil – thanks to religion and philosophy. Time to move on. Let’s look for a better explanation, understand ‘evil’ through the science of human biological behaviour and how that makes humans interact. Continuing to presuppose that there is some ‘actual’ evil isn’t helping – though it may be amusing for what amounts to philosophical ‘Trekkie’ debates.

    “But what would this brave new world be like?”

    See how you’re sneaking in the presuppositions again by appealing to the emotive Orwellian notion.

    “Suppose that we dispense with talk of good and evil and instead speak in neurological terms? When someone slaughters children do we say something like”ah, that fellow has a neurological system defect of alpha-765432415-nabu-quadlu and engaged in an act of 56789-pardu-allupa-8765413??”

    We already do! Not all our current labels are that precise, in that the same label can easily hide many subtle differences in biological conditions. But there are many psychological conditions that are well understood in terms of the neuro-chemical processes that are out of the ‘normal’ range.

    As for your alpha-765432415-nabu-quadlu, then try this: This need to classify comes out of the problem of dealing with scientific complexity. We classify in order to identify similarities and differences and to organise these into manageable groups because it is difficult for (human limited brained) scientists to hold massive numbers of variables in the head at one time. Just look at any taxonomy, from evolutionary to library books. You are coming up with your particularly complex labels here in order to emphasise your Orwellian nightmarish interpretation of how science has to deal with human behavioural biological complexity, and it seems to me (and I may read you wrong here) that you are framing this debate like this because you are really attached to the traditional notion of ‘evil’ an ‘evil’ people.

    The problem at the moment is that we tend to identify after the fact, and then not always reliably because what science we do have isn’t implemented well. How often does a criminal sociopath go undiagnosed and merely incarcerated, after the fact of a criminal act? Aren’t many sociopaths the very epitome of rationality, yet lacking in empathy? Why choose the simplistic label ‘evil’ to describe what has become a clearly identifiable biological condition? There are still aspects of ‘evil’ behaviour we haven’t identified a biological cause for? OK, but simply admit that and don’t persist with this old philosophical and theological notion as if it still is anything other than a lazy convenience. I really don’t get what is left in this regard for philosophy to do.

    For now, until both the science improves and there’s a political will to use it to screen for sociopathic tendencies, we remain in a state of frustration, and so are tempted to label people as evil, when really, if we are going to use the term ‘evil’ at all it is only a convenient one for summarising actions not people. People perform ‘evil’ acts: acts that we don’t like, that disturb us emotionally. But they perform them for countless complex reasons that leave no room for the overly simplistic application of ‘evil’ to them.

    It isn’t only a problem for the criminally inconvenient. We know that our mental health programmes are grossly inadequate for treating people with socially relevant problems (and that’s often the deciding factor; not whether someone has a problem, but how it becomes socially intrusive). Ask any parent struggling to get insurance cover to help with a difficult child – they might get the drugs to subdue the kid quite easily, but the longer term more expensive more beneficial solutions aren’t so easy to come by.

  45. Arrin:

    You attribute many affirmations to me that I never made or make, for example, that the mentally ill are helpless and condemned and that violence is an absolute symptom (whatever “absolute symptom” means) of mental illness, etc.

    I don’t know who you are arguing with, but it’s not me.

  46. Ron Murphy:

    I’ve never been to a star trek convention, so I have no idea what their debates are like, but
    deciding, insofar as we can decide, what is good and what is evil seems to me like one of the things which science cannot do and about which philosophy can illuminate our debates, since philosophy requires that we give reasons for our arguments.

    For example, some say that abortion is evil and others that it is a woman’s reproductive right (rights are good). Others say that free market capitalism is evil and others say that it is good.

    Can science settle such questions?

    I think not.

    Perhaps no one can settle them, but at least philosophy asks us to give good reasons for our arguments on one side or the other instead of screaming at one another.

    I agree that generally, people start from unreasoned positions in such debates and use philosophy to rationalize those unreasoned positions, but in the course of the debate (at times) a bit is learned from the other party and we can reach agreements that suit both parties.

    Now insofar as free will is questionable, I’m not sure how far reasoned debate is not the conscious manifestation of unconscious factors, but that’s another issue.

  47. Non biological evil seems at least possible-that is, evil machines.

  48. Mike,

    What? You are still presupposing ‘evil’ has some meaning in that context. What is an ‘evil’ machine? What is ‘evil’ in this context? Do you machines that do stuff you don’t like, or that you think we humans generally don’t like?

    Well, OK, I have an evil computer that requires me to type carefully instead of reading my thoughts; I have an evil washing machine that doesn’t realise that when I mix colours and whites it shouldn’t let me set a high temperature.

    But hold on, from my understanding of what you’ve written so far I wonder if you mean only ‘intelligent’ machines. No, that can’t be it, because intelligence is considered to be distinct from consciousness, which seems to be required in order to be an ‘evil’ entity.

    No, that can’t be it because we know from the brain sciences that some brains can be conscious and intelligent, and even rational, and yet may not have the more usual human capacity for empathy, so are your ‘evil’ machines like this? In which case are they ‘evil’?

    In the end your ‘evil machines’ notion seems to start to need lots of presuppositions about consciousness and empathy in order to consider them, which brings us right back to the problem of explaining what evil is in the human case. I can’t see how simply declaring you can imagine ‘evil machines’ tells us anything more. I can imagine evil fairies, but does that really help.

  49. swallerstein ,

    “Can science settle such questions. I think not. …”

    Do you notice the switch you are playing here?

    “Can science settle such questions? I think not.” – You are questioning whether science can answer questions that are never posed. Your examples aren’t framed in any way that science OR philosophy could answer, but you only want to point out that science can’t answer them. You are illustrating ‘problems’ in very general terms, and not asking ‘questions’. So it seems obvious when you state it like that: well no, science can’t answer ‘such questions’ because you didn’t ask any.

    “Perhaps no one can settle them,” – This is a transitory concession that, being only the lead-in to the rest of the sentence, subdues the reader into thinking a fair point is being made. Well, framed like that then I agree. But, and what you neglect to say explicitly, philosophy is in no position to provide any answer.

    “… but at least philosophy asks us to give good reasons for our arguments on one side or the other instead of screaming at one another.”

    The ‘but at least’ here is suggesting that science can’t give good reasons for our arguments on one side or the other, while philosophy can. And then you end with ‘instead of screaming at one another’, which in the context of what preceeds it is an implicit suggestion that science, being in opposition to philosophy, does lead to ‘screaming at one another’.

    So, don’t you think it unreasonable to make compare these unequal requirements: science can’t answer non-questions, while philosophy can ask great questions. Well, science can ask better more pertinent questions, by exposing data that makes us think deeper about the detail, or even if we’re on the right track, while philosophy can ask any number of questions but can tell us if they are meaningful or useful ones because it is not relying on exposed data. Science actually answer questions, when they are asked in a way that answers can be provided; and if science can’t answer specific questions, they philosophy certainly can’t.

    So, you would need to ask specific questions that you want science or philosophy to answer. As it happens philosophy has been addressing these problems for centuries and never provided ‘answers’ or ‘solutions’.

    Both philosophy and science can ‘ask us to give good reasons for our arguments’, but science does it better.

    Take abortion for example. First, what are the actual arguments? Well, that in itself is problematic, because in the abortion debate there are several arguments and each ‘side’ wants to present their own argument, but each argument may be addressing different questions that might be asked. Nevertheless, let’s continue as if we have some implicit questions that are being addressed, and look at the arguments and how philosophy or science might address them.

    On one side there are the theistic arguments. Well clearly there is a complete failure to provide any scientific evidence to support those, so in that sense science is providing an answer to the question “Is there any evidence to support theistic arguments regarding the existence of entities like souls that we might want to care about with regard to their suffering?” No. Science has given an answer here. What does philosophy say? Nothing.

    Though theists continue to assert there are souls or that there is suffering in some respect, but that their arguments don’t hold water, they reluctantly come over to the science side and try to use science to make a case that will have the same outcome that they want from their theistic arguments – no abortion. In that regard the question switches to the practical matter of defining a boundary as to what constitutes a feeling ‘person’ capable of suffering.

    What does philosophy offer in the way of answering questions about at what stage suffering enters human life? Nothing. Science? Though there’s a long way to go, science already tells us a heck of a lot about central nervous systems and how they develop and to what extent there is a capacity to suffer. One of the difficulties surrounds our as yet limited understanding of how consciousness is related to suffering, and in this regard science is asking far more questions than philosophy possibly could, by examining not only human nervous systems but those of animals. We feel that cats and dogs can suffer pain, but it seems to be a different kind than that of humans – we’re not sure about the conscious psychological component. It’s not clear that insects suffer anything like the pain that humans or cats and dogs feel. But it is science that will home in on answers to the questions we pose around suffering, not philosophy.

    Some arguments from the pro-life side have been content to push back the time within which an abortion can be performed so as to make it useless. The earlier the the time they can get away with the more cases will lie outside that range and so abortion will not be allowed. In trying to understand this ‘suffering’ barrier, and without clear answers yet as to the point at which suffering is possible the scientific response is essentially, we don’t know. We don’t know if suffering is a sudden binary off-then-on experience, or if it’s a gradual oncoming over a period of development. But like all science, ‘We do not know’ a good honest answer, because like all scientific answers it will contain degrees of uncertainty, error bounds. It gives some indication of what other questions we need to ask next, because when examined through hypothesis and experiment it suddenly makes us ask more questions, sometimes simply more detailed questions where our original ones where vague, or different questions when surprising results make us realise our original questions were not as meaningful as we first thought.

    Philosophy can’t even start to answer these questions about the barrier where non-suffering becomes suffering, doesn’t have the concept of error bounds, doesn’t give you any idea as to the extent to which a question has an answer. Philosophy doesn’t expose any data, doesn’t investigate, cannot raise new questions – unless of course the philosopher is actually engaging with and using the science and framing new questions; but then scientists are just as well equipped to ask more appropriate questions. Where philosophers can engage with science is pulling all science into a broader perspective; but the philosopher needs to know his science, needs to be a good science generalist. Many philosophers are very critical of science when they are even more ignorant of it than the general population.

    On abortion, the debate has shifted thanks to science. We no longer have to put up with the theological assertions about the conscious state of the fetus because we have a much better idea, though not perfect, about the capacity to feel pain and the ability to suffer. Can we really attribute psychological suffering to a bunch of cells? Left to philosophy we wouldn’t even know about cells, let alone the nature in which a few cells become multiple organs and a developing nervous system.

    Without the science accumulated over the last couple of centuries the dualism that asserts there is a conscious soul would still hold as much weight as the assertion that there is no such soul. Currently, because we have come to see that evidence counts for a lot, the total lack of evidence for a soul has shifted the debate to where the religious are making up every more incredible claims – such as that personhood should be considered to begin at conception, which consists of fewer living cells than I dispose of when I sneeze. A brain surgeon can prod around in your head and he can do this without you actually feeling any pain while he prods around, and yet we are supposed to think a zygote suffers? A brain surgeon can slice your brain in two in a very crude fashion, and actually relieve symptoms of suffering like epilepsy, and yet a few cells are supposed to suffer when aborted?

    The science blows away the religious nonsense, so that the ethical issue of abortion stands entirely on theological claims about souls. Philosophy without the science can offer nothing to counter the religious arguments, and often the philosophical arguments are no better than theistic ones.

    It is in this context that I think the OP is hopelessly bad philosophy in not first addressing what ‘evil’ is supposed to be, not taking into account the masses of scientific information that inform us about the human brain and the way humans behave and the extent to which we have far less control of our willed actions than we feel we have. The whole notion of ‘evil’ is so last millennium.

  50. Ron Murphy:

    I did not imply that science leads to screaming at one another.

    I thought that it was clear that “screaming at one another” refers to unreasoned debates, such as often are found in the public sphere, where two opposing groups, instead of searching for reasons to justify their arguments, scream slogans or clichés at one another, such as the current debate in Chile (where I reside) about whether for-profit education is justified or not.

    Science, since it is based on reason, is always a contribution to public debates.

    However, while science contributes to public debate, it many times cannot resolve them.

    Yes, there are questions which have no definitive answers, but through debate and dialogue we can understand one another and perhaps, hopefully, reach some kind of reasoned agreement or consensus.

    Let’s go back to abortion.

    First of all, I am pro-choice to the point where I once risked and lost a teaching job by insisting in an argument with pro-life students on a woman’s right to choose.

    Pro-life people not only base their argument on the suffering of the fetus (which, as you point out, can be disproved by science), but also on the affirmation that human life begins at conception and that thus, abortion is murder.

    I do not agree with that, but it is necessary to formulate arguments about what murder is, when human life begins, etc., to counter that position and I don’t see how science can provide all of those arguments.

    In his posts Mike presents arguments for and against about many issues that are present in public debate in life in the U.S., such as gay marriage. I sometimes wish that he would do the same for issues which are debated here in Chile, but in any case, his posts show that one can consider public issues without or with less heat of passion (that is, with less screaming), with the hope that reasonable men and women can reach some sort of consensus about these public issues and that unreasoned arguments will play less of a role in public life.

    That’s only a hope, of course, but it’s a hope worth betting on.

    By the way, debating in a reasoned form about public issues is not only useful for reaching a consensus, but also it is entertaining.

    I imagine that if you did not enjoy debating, you would not post so frequently in this blog.

    Maybe you are motivated only by a noble and lofty desire for public service. But many of us enjoy discussing public issues with reasoned arguments.

  51. “This month the American Psychiatric Association (APA) will publish the fifth edition of its guidebook for clinicians, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM-5. Researchers around the world have eagerly anticipated the new manual, which, in typical fashion, took around 14 years to revise. The DSM describes the symptoms of more than 300 officially recognized mental illnesses—depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and others—helping counselors, psychiatrists and general care practitioners diagnose their patients. Yet it has a fundamental flaw: it says nothing about the biological underpinnings of mental disorders. In the past, that shortcoming reflected the science. For most of the DSM’s history, investigators have not had a detailed understanding of what causes mental illness.

    That excuse is no longer valid. Neuroscientists now understand some of the ways that brain circuits for memory, emotion and attention malfunction in various mental disorders. …”

    Scientific American, May 2013.

    Another article here:

    That’s the nature of the problem for psychology. Philosophers talking about ‘evil’ are hopelessly out of their depth.

  52. At some point or other, I think we’re going to get around to dropping the language of what “science can” or “can’t” do, and what philosophy “can” or “can’t” do, and talk instead about what philosophers and scientists actually do.

    Scientists don’t investigate evil. They could, but (usually) don’t. In contrast, philosophers could, and do, but probably shouldn’t.

  53. BLS Nelson,

    I agree, but I need to get more off my chest in this regard.

    Humans have pretty good senses, though the senses are fallible. Humans have brains that can reason, but evolutionarily it’s a fairly recent addition and is also fallible; and what’s more, it is a process of the brain, which we don’t fully understand yet. The understanding of the process of reason and how it works with the emotions is also in its infancy, and yet we know enough such that many of the certainties we thought we had we clearly don’t have. Reasoning and sensing, which have traditionally been thought of as quite distinct, we are now pretty sure are both physical processes of the brain – one mostly internal and the other being the interface to the outer world – but they are so interconnected it is wrong to think of them as distinct, except in a very simplistic sense when that dualist model is convenient. There is no evidence to the contrary that refutes the physical nature of the brain and its processes, and plenty of inferential evidence that this is so.

    That’s humans. That’s all we can do, as far as we can tell. Claims about any other special powers (e.g. Plantinga’s sensus divinitatis, or paranormal stuff) or claims about consciousness specifically as some ‘thing’ that exists outside complex organs like brains (e.g. panpsychism or gods) have no evidence to support them, and what evidence we have from science points to these being delusions, or at best errors of ignorance.

    In this context ‘science’ is no more than the application of more rigorous methods to the application of our senses and reasoning, in an effort to compensate for our personal fallibilities when it comes to finding stuff out, and to a great extent is aimed at being more sure about what we think we know. It’s an ontological goal with the best epistemological safety net we can string together.

    The term ‘science’, then, is a label for the collection of processes, and the methodologies of those processes, as performed by fallible humans (scientists) trying their best to apply science. So, in all conversations where we say ‘science can do this’, what we really mean is ‘scientists can do this, for better or worse according to the extent to which they can come up with good scientific methods and tools, and the extent to which they apply them’.

    So, we are already saying ‘what scientists do’, and also, in not at all the same context of applied rigor, ‘what philosophers do’. The ‘science’ and ‘philosophy’ terms are just short cut labels for all the above.

    The problem for philosophy, for millennia, has been that too much focus has been laid on just the ‘reason’, pure reason, as if it is the supremely critical tool we hoped it would be. Some philosophers got this, and many still do. If we allow the term ’empiricism’, as used in phrases like ’empirical science’, to mean the combined use of the senses and reason, then empiricist philosophers have mostly got this. It is now even more striking that ’empiricism’ means the combined senses and reason, because they are part of the same physical system, and we can’t do or know anything without both – they come as a set. Without senses a brain would not have evolved – you’d essentially be a big plant. And without a brain we’d be no more than a collection of cells – you’d be acting like a slime mould. The way in which brains need senses and senses need brains is obvious when you realise that they are implemented using the same hardware: neurons. Ever cut a nerve in a finger and lost all feeling?

    The stricter use of ’empiricism’, as applying to only the senses, was never really a starter – though we only realise that in the light of understanding neurons. So, now, the best philosophy comes from the modern empiricists who can see that this combined use of the senses and reason is all that humans have; and these empiricist philosophers tend to both embrace science, and yet manage to uphold the best traditions of philosophy and continue with their critical analysis of our thought processes, as we apply them.

    But sadly there are many philosophers still stuck in pre-evolutionary theory, pre-biology times. They don’t get that humans, coming from non-brained, non-nervous-systemed precursors, are first and foremost sensory creatures. Our ancestry includes the crudest form of physical-chemical interaction of isolated cells – and that is an ancestry that’s still with us. Our very neurons interact through chemical signals; and all chemical interaction is based predominantly on the electromagnetic interaction of atoms, typically in molecules, and lone ions. We are electro-chemical-physical systems all the way.

    So why do so many philosophers still put together arguments that contain ancient notions, such as evil, from a time that predated evolutionary theory and neuroscience, and completely ignore the very sciences that are screaming at them “Wake up! Pay attention!”? Is it ignorance? I don’t mean that in a pejorative sense – well sort of not. We are all ignorant of the fine details of most disciplines. There’s just too much stuff to know. And I suppose we can sort of forgive the older philosophers who grew up in a time when modern science was only just getting on its feet and the humanities dominated whole swathes of our societies – they lived in a different world that has only really become one through the internet, though there are still pockets of isolated intelligentsia who see themselves above material reality.

    But since the 50’s and 60’s science has been on tap on TV. Anyone born later than the 60’s maybe can be excused for building a negative view of science, because science, as done by some scientists, particularly those selling their souls to corporations, has displayed some pretty destructive tendencies. And science did go through a phase of over optimism and ridiculous predictions (though to be fair it wasn’t always the scientists doing this but journalists, stoked by ignorant politics). But this isn’t the fault of ‘science’, but of those scientists that didn’t live by the principles of science that we have collectively constructed. And of course much good science still gets a bad press. Try following the podcast series from the BBC, Jim al-Khalili’s The Life Scientific. Seriously, if you want to get a picture of what real scientists do and think and how the science they do is so misrepresented, you should listen to everyone in that series.

    Total ignorance of science is now verging on the criminally negligent when it comes to educationists. While philosophers are not expected to actually teach science they should at least be better aware of how it totally blows away a lot of ancient and traditional bull shit from philosophy. Maybe the problem is the overlap between philosophy and religion. There are so many ‘religious philosophers’, an oxymoron, muddying the waters of philosophy. You can’t do serious philosophy if you think faith is a good route to knowledge, you just can’t.

    Where does that leave solipsism, idealism, rationalism, and all the other philosophical notions? Alive and well. But what all this really does is put them in their proper place. Is solipsism a logical possibility? Hell yes. What would it feel like for my lone solipsist mind to be a true state of affairs, so that my body and you the reader are just figments of my imagination? Well it would feel just like this, apparently; because if it is really true, then this is really how it feels. How would we break the matrix? By looking for the cracks in the material world. How do we do that? Get a job at the LHC – do physics, not philosophy.

    No amount of pissing your life away doing armchair philosophical ontology is going to tell you anything about the world. Of course any true believer in solipsism surely must realise that when he reads some old philosophy book describing solipsism, or debates it in the classroom, he is doing no more than having a constructed conversation with his own solipsist mind. Mustn’t he? And any decent philosopher that is not an actual solipsist must realise that all philosophy that has ever been done presupposes there are physical philosophers there to do the philosophising, mustn’t he? Unfortunately after doing the great work of getting down to “I think therefore I am”, Descartes sort of screwed it up on his way back out from those depths, mainly because he couldn’t shake of religion. That left us with dualism, such a pain in the rear of an illusion. In other words, unless you go balls out into solipsism, a destination to which idealism and rationalist lead, then you have to buy into materialism to some extent; and once you do, materialism’s science should be dragging you screaming and shouting into the empiricist point of view.

    Oh, and I was never one for giving much weight to ‘all possible worlds’. A cute notion, but there comes a point when you have to get real (as real as science, sorry, scientists, can currently tell us). While I get the idea that no door should be closed, there are topics in even philosophy where you have to say, hold on, while this or that idea is a logical possibility, let’s get real, do I really think that is how it is? So often solipsism or some other guff is offered up as if it’s a deal breaker for science. OK, try breaking the matrix yourself, stop eating and see if you can get your solipsist mind to survive. I treat solipsism like a treat life after death: I’ll take on any bet for it; I’ll put my life, my soul on a bet against it, in return for a mere £100 pound stake on your part, and the condition that I can hold the bank.

    Getting back to ‘evil’ and the OP. It seems to want to give some due respect to science, in that it was going to talk about ‘mental illness’, a real physical problem of the brain that science (sorry, scientists) are really getting a handle on. But then right next to that sits ‘evil’? WTF? Has nothing been learned in philosophy? It is not the truth revealing discipline it was once thought to be. Where is the critical thinking on this concept?

    If philosophy has any purpose it is to help us understand our world and ourselves. A lot of the gritty work along those lines is now very clearly the business of science (sorry, scientists). Philosophy’s (sorry, philosophers’) most important role is in helping us do a good job of understanding the world and ourselves by helping to build up our methodologies, by being critical of scientists when they claim too much, or when they miss out on a philosophical trick or so, by helping us think, while understanding how limited and flawed our thinking is. Philosophy is about the process of thought, but always within the context of what science reveals about our thinking tool, our brain. It’s no good carrying on as if old notions of reason’s wonderful powers still apply. Those notions have been shown to be wrong.

    And while we’re at it can we get away from this proof/evidence disparity. They apply each in equal measure to all methods humans apply, both in science and philosophy. Logical proofs are only good as intermediate steps; they are methods of checking our working. What they cannot do is prove the premises of any logical argument; or, if one argument’s premises are proved that merely pushes back the burden of proof further onto the next argument. In the end we always come down to weighing evidence. Often the only evidence we have is, “well, it sort of works, so far”; and this is the case with axioms. We don’t really know why they work, but they produce pretty good results. It’s no good some philosopher coming alone with a philosophical logic book stuck his ass and telling us we can’t ‘prove’ what science tells us. Well of course not. That’s the core of the point of science. Scientists are doing their best with the crappy tools we have, senses and reason, to figure out how much we can be sure of what we cannot prove. Philosophy, alone and without science, is nothing more than a speculative guessing game, even if it does have intermediate ‘proofs’ of something or other. Philosophy does not get to play its proofs against science’s evidence – that’s a dishonest game.

    Philosophers that are steeped in science are great critics of science. They are great critics of bad philosophy too. Philosophers who don’t get science and the extent to which much philosophy has been handed over to science end up doing some pretty atrocious philosophy. Using the notion of ‘evil’ in its traditional sense is an example of that.

  54. normal sane people are good. ppl who are mentally ill do bad things or strange or abnormal things that normal ppl don’t do bc their judgement is impaired and unsound. if you are seeing a doctor or psychiatrist or under the care of a medical professional for this illness and need to take medication to function on a level that is considered ‘normal’ or ‘reasonabally ok’ then you should not be held accountable for bad or abnormal actions. IF A PERSON HEARS VOICES IN THEIR HEAD taunting them and insulting them, it is usually classifed as schizophrenia. DO THESE PPL NEED TO BE HELD ACCOUNTABLE FOR bad actions or anything bad. SCHIZOPHRNEIA is a horrible horrible inhumane disease that attacks ppl and can be very very harmful if untreated. DO THESE PPL NEED TO SUFFER LIKE THIS? DO THEY NEED TO USE RELIGION TO FIND HELP AND HAVE THEIR MIND WARPED OFTEN FEELING HELPLESS AND VICTIMIZED BY THE VOICES AND HORRIBLE THINGS THEIR MINDS put them through. THIS GROUP OF PPL OFTEN are victims and might even be a group of ppl(in my case)who could lose their ‘life’ to this horrible cruel illness that targets them and comes out of nowhere. well i hope they find a cure soon. have a good day.

  55. i will just say now i am really sorry for bluntness and somewhat offensive manor in which i may or may not speak but since i was old enough to remember i have been mentally and physically abused
    i have been through so much mental and physical and emotional pain that i am finding it hard to live (in general)
    in my life i have witnessed and been delivered such a deep evil load of events that in any ones point of view would be a life of torture !!! im not saying im an angel because technically no one is perfect . i do not feel at all at ease with decussing the events of my life online but i believe that this whole world is ! big evil hell-hole of a test to prove our worth if anyone has a consience …. i do believe in evil and i dont except this to be of everyones point of view but for the ones who dont believe my point stop making corrupt excuses for evil end of !!!

  56. Well i can tell you this, the people on the road that speed and tailgate are very mentally ill.

  57. Am I Evil? | kiasherosjourney - pingback on February 6, 2016 at 9:25 pm
  58. What if it turns out that the world is so evil, that what is good and evil has become so confused. That mental illness is actually some kind of new evolutionary brain mechanism for actually coping with the fact that we are basically trapped in hell and ruled by evil.

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