Wednesday, April 13, 2005

The Slow Pull of Evil

Belmont Club has posted an excellent essay on the kind of everyday evil we all experience regularly, and how some of us court it willingly. Read:

Human beings experience it in many forms; the shameful and surreptitious attraction to pornography, drink, cruelty or plain laziness: the subconscious knowledge that you are going to do something bad; and though you try to deceive yourself into imagining you will not succumb just yet, you let yourself approach the edge just near enough so that in a moment of weakness you will fall over as planned. Except, as Dalrymple argues in the City Journal, the human recognition of evil normally allows us to resist so it never has us wholly in its grasp. Looking back on 14 years of service in hospitals and prisons, Dalrymple realized he was witnessing the inexorable incapacitation of human discernment; the deadening of the ability to distinguish between good and evil which is so essential to survival.

Wretchard references a fascinating piece by Theodore Dalrymple:

In nearly every case the one thing the perpetrators and victims of evil were never allowed to do was to judge their own acts. That was absolutely forbidden. The universal course of treatment prescribed by all the organs of the Welfare State was to find ways to make them 'feel better about it'.

I never bought the idea that shame is a universally harmful thing, that feeling bad about one's behavior was an impediment to healthy change. Many people recognize in their own lives that an excess of negativity can be a problem, and they believe that if everyone were freed from those thoughts we'd all be happier and more functional. But in the same way that a searing pain in your hand will tell you to take your hand off a stove burner, and remind you to avoid hot burners in the future, the shame of doing wrong will tell you to stop and avoid doing so in the future. And reacting to that shame is more than just morally right:

Dalrymple makes a strong case for the utility of morality as a survival skill. It is a craft, which like hunting and gathering, was once passed on to keep people from perishing in the wilderness. Now it is disparaged; the modern welfare state has no need of it.

And that welfare state is doing more harm than good by ignoring the moral instincts that have been passed down through generations:

By a strange process of summation the politicians of the welfare state become afflicted with the same blindness they wrongly believed confined to low-income housing estates. Suicidal public policies are pursued -- even when everyone knows they are suicidal -- because no one can remember how to behave differently.

Both links are definitely worth your time, check them out.

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