The Luxury of Evil: Morality and False Absolutes

I am not a philosophy student.

There are a lot of other things that I am not, but “philosophy student” is the most important one right now. I have to mention this fact because the premise of this post could be derailed pretty quickly by the simple mention of moral relativism.

I am not interested in that conversation right now. It’s a fine enough conversation, but it’s not the one that I want to have here. For my purposes, I will be working with terms like “good” and “evil” as typically outlined or implied by our sociocultural norms, rules, and laws. If you don’t personally subscribe to these viewpoints, that’s alright (well, maybe not, depending on how it influences your actions), but recognize that I’m choosing to play by society’s rules for this post.

Not that it really matters all that much anyway. While setting moral relativism aside means labels like “good” and “evil” aren’t entirely meaningless, both of them (the latter in particular) are typically used as absolutes that fundamentally misrepresent the real world. We don’t get the luxury of absolute evil, but life would be so much easier if we did.

I should open by saying that this post will be discussing people who have done some very bad things, including domestic assault and murder. No graphic details will be given herein, though relevant links may not be as careful. These sorts of references are included because it would be foolish to attempt a discussion of evil without acknowledging the individuals commonly referred to as such.

With that in mind, I have a simple question for you: when you think about the concept of “evil,” what comes to mind? Perhaps an eccentric supervillain menacingly petting a cat, a conniving character twiddling his mustache, or even a manipulative psychologist with some interesting dietary preferences.

We view characters like the examples above in terms of absolutes because they’re a lot easier to process. Our minds don’t have to think through any grey areas or parse any complicated ideas of our own moral systems. It’s a lot easier to establish a character as a villain or antagonist by having them do something unquestionably villainous, like burning down a puppy orphanage.

This black-and-white mentality, of course, isn’t a very accurate representation of the real world, and we all realize that on some level. Still, our cultural content sometimes take the overly simplistic route, particularly in comparatively “young” media. While literary works like Crime and Punishment have been have been exploring moral ambiguity for decades or centuries, television has only recently entered into the conversation in earnest with shows like Breaking Bad and Orange is the New Black. Video games are starting to make steps in this direction too, but it’s slow progress at times.

Let’s revisit Orange is the New Black for a second. It’s important to note that (if I recall correctly) the show doesn’t feature any characters who were wrongfully convicted and imprisoned. Everyone in Litchfield is there for a reason: they committed a crime and were punished for it within the bounds of the criminal justice system. Crucially, this doesn’t make them bad people. The series goes to great pains to show the circumstances surrounding each character’s incarceration, and only one character is ever really portrayed as a villain. It is never claimed that these circumstances excuse them from any blame, condemnation, or punishment for their actions — viewers are simply left to draw their own conclusions.

This, to me, is one of the more accurate portrayals of human morality in television. OITNB gives a sense not only of moral grey areas, but of a sort of “moral cowhide,” in which people are not absolutely good or evil but a patchwork of both in different situations. However, we seldom acknowledge this in our assessment of real-world individuals and actions, largely because it’s easier for us to assume that someone who does a bad thing is absolutely, irredeemably bad.

Consider the case of current Dallas Cowboys defensive end Greg Hardy, who was accused and convicted of domestic abuse in the summer of 2014 when he still played for the Carolina Panthers. He appealed the charges and the case was dismissed in February when his accuser did not show up in court to testify. Still, Hardy was rightly suspended for almost the entirety of the 2014 NFL season and part of the 2015 season to boot. The Cowboys signed him to the team during the offseason and he returned to the field a week ago.

Since his return, he has shown no remorse for his actions and has even made some incredibly troubling comments to the press. His actions and demeanour have deservedly earned widespread condemnation. Diana Moskovitz, a columnist over at Deadspin, recently published a very insightful analysis of the situation, its ramifications, and why Hardy is still playing in the NFL at all, and it’s definitely worth a read.

One thing that really stuck out to me in Moskovitz’s article is the note of an interaction between Hardy and then-teammate DeAngelo Williams. When the latter lost his mother to cancer in May 2014, many players and coaches from the Panthers offered their condolences through texts or calls, but only one teammate attended her funeral: Greg Hardy.

This is precisely what I’m talking about. Hardy’s treatment of his girlfriend was deplorable and I in no way intend to defend him on that front or, really, any other one. You can call him a monster or an evil human being if you genuinely believe him to be one, but you’ll have to reconcile that with the literally peerless level of camaraderie and support he offered to Williams in a difficult time.

It would be a lot easier to write Hardy off if he had never shown up to that funeral, if nobody could think of a single incident where he had ever done anything nice for anybody. We could drum him out of the NFL and never mention his name without immediately saying, “What an asshole.”

The real world doesn’t make it that easy for us. It’s incredibly easy to condemn a person’s actions, but if we’re going to be assessing human beings, we have to assess them entirely.

For another example, let’s talk about Charles Whitman. On August 1st, 1966, Whitman murdered his wife and mother before proceeding to the University of Texas campus, where he barricaded himself on the observation deck of the tower of the Main Building and started shooting at the people below. He had killed 16 people and injured 32 more before police shot and killed him. At the time, this was an absolutely unprecedented tragedy.

The twist came when police searched his home and found a suicide note in which Whitman expressed concern that something was wrong with him, as he had begun to experience headaches and “unusual and irrational thoughts.” In the note, he requested that an autopsy be conducted on his body to determine if these thoughts and the murders he would later commit had some sort of biological cause. When this autopsy was conducted, a sizable tumour and widespread areas of necrosis were found in Whitman’s brain.

It’s impossible to definitively claim that these neurological problems were the cause of Whitman’s emotional and behavioural volatility, but they certainly bear consideration. Whitman’s actions were undeniably horrible, but could we really go so far as to call him an evil person in light of his possible mental state?

There’s a distinction to be made in both of the above cases between assessing the person’s actions and assessing the person as a whole. Both Greg Hardy and Charles Whitman did terrible things, but any true evaluation of their character cannot rely solely on a single incident.

Hardy has shown a pattern of callous aggression and offered no remorse for his actions. His support for Williams is a positive, but I would not call him a good person. However, I would also not call him a monster.

Whitman was reportedly a functional and pleasant member of society for most of his life and his actions on August 1st, 1966 could possibly be a result of neurological damage. I would certainly not call him evil.

These, of course, are only two examples from among the countless people who have done things that are morally and/or legally wrong, but I think they serve well to illustrate the idea that we often jump to immediate conclusions about a person’s nature based on a very small sampling of their behaviour.

Part of this is due to effects like the fundamental attribution error, but it’s also genuinely a lot easier to make blanket judgments about people. As mentioned, it saves us a lot of critical thinking; furthermore, assuming that only bad people do bad things helps us avoid the fear that we might do bad things ourselves. Still, this is not an altogether accurate perspective on the world.

There’s even some contention as to whether or not individuals with antisocial personality disorder (colloquially known as psychopathy) can truly be labelled as the evil monsters that many people deem them to be (at least in high profile cases like Ted Bundy and Paul Bernardo). Indeed, the debate extends even to the fundamental level of whether or not psychopathy can be viewed as a mental illness. While I’m obviously far from the reigning authority on the matter, I’m inclined to say that it is. In this case, as in other cases of people with mental illness committing crimes, I don’t think we can establish a judgment of the person’s character quite as tidily as we would prefer.

Again, none of this is meant in any way to defend the actions of the perpetrators in the examples I’ve given. My entire goal with this post was just to be thought-provoking, because I’m honestly not 100% sure how I feel about this issue myself. It’s both easy and tempting to fall into the rhythm of assuming that everyone who does a bad thing is inherently a bad person, but I’m increasingly realizing that this isn’t necessarily the case.

I don’t think we get to have the luxury of declaiming people as absolutely, irredeemably evil, because people can’t be slotted into such one-dimensional categories. Our pop culture is slowly coming to recognize and even embrace this idea, but it’s still something we have trouble with in real life.

People do bad things and people do good things, but maybe we can’t neatly divide the population into “good people” and “bad people.” Maybe we’re all just “people.” And maybe that’s a little terrifying, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it isn’t true.

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