This ordinary-looking man, who lived in an ordinary-looking house, on an ordinary-looking street, who was tried in this ordinary-looking courtroom - for mass murder: Could this balding, middle-aged man wearing horn-rimmed glasses and an ill-fitting suit really be responsible for the deaths of six million innocent people? Far from resembling Lucifer, Adolf Eichmann looked like a worn-out bureaucrat – which is exactly what he was. The philosopher, Hannah Arendt, referred to this profoundly demoralising discrepancy as “the banality of evil”.
THE PROBLEM OF EVIL has taxed the minds of men and women for millennia. Is evil a force, like gravity, that drags human-beings down into the depths of depravity? Does this force reside in a single conscious entity: immensely powerful and seemingly immortal? If so, is this entity motivated to pour its essence into individual human-beings: transforming them into monsters? Or is it, rather, that certain individuals open themselves voluntarily to the malignant forces of the cosmos: deliberately absorbing them in order to unleash evil upon others?
Many theologians (yes, theologians, because any discussion of evil cannot help straying into the realms of religion and metaphysics) reject the idea of evil as a universal force and dismiss entirely the idea that evil can be personified. Their definition of evil employs the concepts of absence and distance. Evil, they say, manifests itself in the behaviour of people who have become separated from God. (Or, if you prefer, from what is Good.) The more prolonged the absence; the greater the distance; the greater their capacity to behave in “un-good” ways.
Since religion and metaphysics make a great many people living in the twenty-first century uncomfortable, the Problem of Evil is often transferred into the realm of science – most particularly, the disciplines of psychiatry, psychology and neurology.
Of course, if the explanation for evil is neurological – i.e. some form of brain malfunction – then the concept is immediately stripped of its moral dimension. If someone behaves violently, inflicting pain and suffering upon the innocent because of some physical defect they cannot control, then they cannot be considered evil. Dangerous, certainly. But not evil.
The psychiatrists, by contrast, search for the causes of predatory and sadistic behaviour in the individual’s past. Traumatic events, experienced in infancy, are believed to influence the individual’s adult conduct. Violence and cruelty, especially, are thought to manifest themselves intergenerationally. Or, as the English poet, W. H. Auden, expresses the idea in his famous poem, “1 September 1939”:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.
But, even this approach to the Problem of Evil leaves many people feeling troubled. Since we cannot control the things that are done to us in our infancy then, surely, it is unfair to hold adult individuals responsible for their aberrant behaviour. If the harm they inflict on others is generated by harms inflicted on them, then how can we call them evil? Our unease becomes even more pronounced when we discover that extreme trauma can leave not only emotional, but also very real neurological scars on its victims’ minds and brains. And, if that is true, then, once again, the concept of evil dissolves before our eyes.
Psychology only compounds these concerns. If human behaviour is the result of “drives” impelled by the mitochondria in our cells, our instincts; and if religious, philosophical and ideological systems are overlaid upon these drives in order to control and channel their social effects; then, again, the scope for individual human agency is severely limited. As the American socialist writer, Upton Sinclair, shrewdly observed: “It is very difficult to make a man understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”
The other great difficulty presented by the Problem of Evil is the way in which human-beings, upon being convinced that a certain course of action is not only entirely justified but entirely right, will proceed methodically to ensure that the course of action is implemented – no matter what the cost.
Dr Stanley Milgram’s horrible experiment, in which people were instructed to inflict electric shocks on participants who failed to answer set questions correctly, offers grim confirmation of this human weakness. Responding to the instructions of the authority figure overseeing the experiment, fully two-thirds of the participants were prepared to deliver potentially lethal shocks. They could hear the person screaming (or thought they could since no one was actually being hurt) but, when ordered by the man in the white coat to “continue with the experiment”, they obeyed.
In a society divided by class, gender and ethnicity there will inevitably be people whose salaries depend upon their willingness to deliver shocks – both real and symbolic – to their fellow human-beings. It is extremely difficult to convince such people that they are doing anything wrong. While the prevailing social and economic system and its practices are believed to be both justified and right, the actions of these people, and the consequences of their actions, will be similarly regarded.
The German philosopher, Hannah Arendt, observing the trial of Adolf Eichmann (one of the leading planners and executors of the Holocaust) in a Tel Aviv courtroom was struck by how ordinary he looked. Could this balding, middle-aged man wearing horn-rimmed glasses and an ill-fitting suit really be responsible for the deaths of six million innocent people? Far from resembling Lucifer, Eichmann looked like a worn-out bureaucrat – which is exactly what he was. Arendt referred to this profoundly demoralising discrepancy as “the banality of evil”.
Because, unfortunately, evil looks nothing like the artist’s impression: there are no horns, no tail, no cloven hooves, no whiff of sulphur. Life would be so much easier if there were! No, if you really want to know what evil looks like, then examine the faces of the people who live next door; the people on the bus; the people in the lunchroom at work. But don’t stop there. If you truly want to examine the face of evil – just take a look in the mirror.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 14 August 2018.
That's an interesting subject matter Chris. I learned about the Holocaust years back and could not get my head around it. There have been opportunities to visit Auschwitz, could not go there. In recent years getting my head around what drove the Soviet gulags, the evil embedded in Marxist ideology that caused the death of countless faceless millions. In the case of Nazis and Soviets individuals pulled the trigger on individuals, en-masse. There but for the grace of God, luck of birth etc go any of us as victims or executioners. Read Solzhenitsyn, victim who sees his own responsibility for the evil committed by the system. The system is individual people.
I'm thankful for the insights on evil I have listened to on Jordan Peterson's podcasts. He made a statement that it's a miracle that a room full of humans don't revert to what apes would do in similar circumstances which is rip each other apart. I'm inclined to believe that something in our genes is strongly aware of the danger posed by others and responds with readiness for extreme aggression. Who knows what evil is but I do think we have inbuilt existential instincts that manifest as really nasty behavior.
Upton Sinclair said it all.
Interesting...Curious to know what prompted this subject...If one accepts that such a thing as good exists then it leads one to the inevitable conclusion that an "anti good" or evil must also exist. Of course the concept of both good and evil in the religious context is firmly linked to the belief of human responsiblity for these behaviours... which rather stymies any discussion of their true nature.
Milgram was Jewish and thinking of Nazis when he undertook his experiments, and of course the Eichmann trial was on at the time – being televised. But the experiments – and I say experiments because there was a mishmash of the damn things – are not as conclusive as everyone thought at the time. Firstly he cooked his data. And some people claim they saw through the hoax – candid camera was fairly big at the time. And in some of his iterations more than 60% of the people actually refused to obey orders. And those that did apparently thought they were supporting a worthy experiment which would make an important contribution to science. Because it's difficult to replicate these experiments now as most of the people experimented on in psychology departments are actually students and know about them. But similar experiments have been done in some of them have resulted in close to zero people following orders. So I don't believe for a moment that inside every one of us is a Nazi concentration camp guard. Some maybe.
It's interesting, when I studied small-group behaviour I found that as far as this sort of atrocity went – the Germans wouldn't let you into the group until you had committed an atrocity, and the Japanese wouldn't let you committed atrocity until you've been accepted as a member of the group. Mind you're not quite sure what relevance is has it's just interesting. :)
But to be honest I think you need some sort of cause. Steven Weinberg once said “With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil - that takes religion.” I don't think it necessarily has to be religion, because some of the most evil things that are done are done in the cause of politics. And minor cases of 'evil'in bureaucratic situations are done for various reasons, including personal dislike of people like the unemployed, or fear of losing your job.
Well I don't feel better after that dose of commonsense medicine. And looking at your face, the potential for evil can be masked and pretty blonde women are rarely likely to be suspected. Evil can start out as a 'mind worm' that can stay at the back as an interesting possibility. An effort must be made to dismiss it, allow something to displace it, open up and let sunlight in metaphorically.
Recently I read that some of the students involved in Milgram's experiment had been play-acting. They thought that it was all a fake and did not realise the significance of following instructions. I can't remember the source. A lot of importance has been laid on it over the years, but that appears to be unjustified.
Evil does exist. Good also exists, in its many forms such as honesty, compassion, courage and kindness and we should never forget that it is more important to do good than to denounce evil.
We only need to be able to see and explain evil in order to recognise how it differs from good, so that we can then turn our faces away from evil and turn our hearts towards doing good.
People are not evil. Doctrines and institutions may be. Israel hung Adolf Eichmann because it was unable hang the Third Reich. That was a mistake. We do not make the world a better place by killing our enemies.
Hannah Arendt, notwithstanding her ambiguous statement on the execution, took a better path. She gave us an insight into the nature of evil, brought home to us that the greatest evil is done by people like Eichmann who believe that they are "just doing a job" and being "good citizens" or "loyal state servants". Their minds have been downsized, their conscience "let go" so that they can better function as efficient and effective agents of state.
We have seen the evil that can be done even by supposedly liberal democratic states such as the Realm of New Zealand, yet the picture is never absolutely bleak. Within the New Zealand state there are still enough honest judges, compassionate prison wardens, and soldiers who refuse to remain silent about war crimes; enough, that is, to give us hope for the future and to keep alive our faith in humanity.
These days I have little to do with the state, and hence little day to day acquaintance with evil. The people I meet as I move around the countryside are invariably good-hearted, kind and honest. They welcome strangers into their homes and places of worship. Almost without exception they have no interest in chauvinist politics. So long as that continues, we will not succumb to the evil that overtook Germany.
But it is also true that our nation as a whole too often tends to remain silent in the face of evil. This post from Chris is a timely reminder that we must not cease speaking truth to power in a calm and measured yet forceful way.
"the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either -- but right through every human heart -- and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains ... an un-uprooted small corner of evil." Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
A superb clip "The Evolutionary Basis for Good vs Evil"
I already had a good go at this on the DB so maybe this is self indulgent , but it is a very fundamental issue to human existence. Are we in control of our lives or not?
So. Evil. Can animals be evil? Carnivores can't exist without doing to their prey what from the prey's perspective is as evil as you can get. So they have to do what they have to do to live. (The treachery that humans perform daily on domestic animals has always seemed much worse to me. ) But the need to eat does not cover the delight of a cat tormenting and terrifying a rat or mouse for hours before killing and not bothering to eat it, or Orca tossing a baby seal back and forth for fun. Are they evil? I'm quite sure they are responding to the same internal stimuli that individual humans do when the perform acts of wanton cruelty .
The religious folk may not agree.
To Mr Eichmann , he may have had little choice seeing that there was a monster controlling his actions that we are given to understand had complete control of his country, and who's intention for the Jews he had already laid out in "Mien Kampf". So Hitler might have been the source of the evil there. In a democracy though evil is shared, and everyone involved can pretend to absolve themselves of responsibility for actions they know are wrong by reasoning that they were only doing their job, and someone else is ultimately responsible. This may end up a worse arrangement than an autocracy as dictators are not necessarily evil , just autocratic.
Theologians might preoccupy themselves with this issue but this does not mean that knowing what is right and wrong requires reference to religion. It certainly does not. We all know. Referring to a "belief" is a cop-out, again to dodge responsibility.
The psychiatric / neurological perspective surely only suggests a degree of predisposition to the evil action , I'm sure a neurologist etc would not claim for they discipline the full explanation. The perpetrator still owns they action. And not all abused children return the abuse, many have a heightened empathy for other victims and are more caring as a response to their abuse.
The students in Milgram's experiment had a right to assume that the man (Their lecturer presumably) was a responsible authority rather than a psychopath . And that he would not be telling them to continue if the victim was really being harmed. Whether those who continued with the shocks suspected that it was not for real would be interesting to know. A worse experiment I think was the Stanford Prison Experiment 1971 because it involved the participants acting on their own initiative.
Whether we act out evil independently on our own initiative or just contribute to an evil decision hiding among a group , cult or government we all know when what we do will have an evil result , and we all have the power to decide to participate or not. Even if doing the right thing will result in a very bad outcome for ourselves. Albeit we don't always have all relevant information so mistakes will occur that have an evil outcome but not an evil intent.
D J S
Well said Chris...
If we don't know ourselves, and finally, who does, how can we know others?
What perhaps we do know is that the self preservation interest of 'fight' or 'flight' is a manifestation of a survival power-need.
Be it bestowed by birth, as with Royalty, or taken, as with Clinton or Trump via wealth, it is always used firstly in the interests of who holds it. Moral power, which once seemed to matter, no longer carries much weighting. Princess Diana died at the same time as Mother Teresa. The lop-sided tsunami of grief told its own story.
What's really changed?
Judaeo-Christian orthodoxy postulates good and evil as dialectical opposites and subjective realities with a common origin or source in the "Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil". Good and evil are objectively personified in God (Yahweh) and Satan respectively. In the space that lies between God and Satan, that is in the world, most actions are neither good nor evil, which means that we go about our normal business without troubling ourselves every waking moment over what is good or evil. But because we have eaten of the tree of knowledge, because our "eyes were opened" in that moment, we intuitively recognise good and evil when they enter our world.
As you have observed Chris, modern liberal theologians reject the dialectic. Their formulation is intended to make life easier for us, by removing the troublesome concepts of Satan and evil from consciousness.
That is welcome news for a wide range of people including sociopaths and neoliberal capitalists who in an earlier epoch would have been vilified for their behaviour. They can now comfort themselves that they are only a little more distant from God than the holy saints. Meanwhile the pious must disavow the Christ who over-turned the tables of the money lenders, and by acts of sacrifice and self-denial struggle to bring themselves a hands breadth closer to the divine.
However, regardless of modern theology, most of us still have a visceral reaction to what we perceive as evil and our innate sense of good and evil will not be denied. If not applied as it should be - as Christ Himself applied it - it will take a perverse course. Incarceration without parole. The war against terror. The Russian Federation as Satan the Great. Take your pick. If the seven deadly sins are out of contention, anything at all may do.
Nowt bureaucratic about him. Arendt got it wrong. He was a true believer, determined from personal impulsion. Witness his contributions to the South American Nazi press. Inveigled in every vein of the former insurance (?) salesman. Banality? Yes, the approach from 80 degrees social -- almost level -- appealing to banal minds by self-interest, more self-comfort. Why we all regularly encounter racism and other generalisations (at least in the provinces and suburbs). The terrifying thing is most mass evil-doers are true-believers, not paper shufflers.
@ Geoff Fisher
You make a very good point "The people I meet as I move around the countryside are invariably good-hearted, kind and honest. They welcome strangers into their homes and places of worship."
This is obviously the default setting of our attitude to life and to each other. It is such a shame that it does not seem to apply to those of us who seek and obtain power over the rest of us.
D J S
"And looking at your face, the potential for evil can be masked and pretty blonde women are rarely likely to be suspected"
The mom of such a person as you refer once said to me , in reference to some male politician, that " no man as good looking as he could ever be trusted. I had never thought of any tye-up but It made me think about that. And what I think is that a person's general disposition to the world is usually evident in how they look , and contributes greatly to whether we see them as good looking or not . Not that i disagree that it can sometimes be disguised.
D J S
Great post. Your contention reminds me of that biblical imperative: 'You hypocrite! First remove the beam out of your own eye, and then you can see clearly to remove the speck out of your brother's eye." (Matthew, 7.5)
'Fascism is capitalism plus murder.'
Does that mean that capitalism doesn't include or contain murder?
It is a very definite statement. Can his pronouncements
be trusted to have rationality behind them?
re David Stone
e all know when what we do will have an evil result , and we all have the power to decide to participate or not. Even if doing the right thing will result in a very bad outcome for ourselves.
A very evil thing is to make a captured person enter the soldier ranks by forcing him or her to kill a member of their own family. If they don't kill one, then the whole family will be killed. That strikes at the heart of a person, and there is no way of integrity at all.
Got the geometry wrong in my previous post.
The idea response to WW 2 was a determined drive to raise ourselves above Hitler's animality. We were all disgusted to our soles. We were certain we had progressed on to a new era of humanity. Now we are back to the law of the jungle of the 30s. We ruling elders don't know how to deal with it.
Anyone doubting the capacity of ordinary people to indulge in the most heinous evil should try reading (it takes some fortitude) "Ordinary Men" by C.R. Browning.
A troop of regular policemen (not fundamentalist Nazis) are sent to Poland to identify, control and persecute the Jewish population. They are given the option of a return to Germany at any time if they are not prepared to continue with the atrocities expected of them. For various reasons (loyalty to their comrades among them) only 12 out of the 500 did so. It ends with the question: "If the men of Reserve Police Battalion 101 could become killers under such circumstances, what group of men cannot?"
People like to believe they would be Oskar Schindler and risk everything, their own families included, for others, strangers. Obviously the chances of that are incredibly remote.
Jordan Peterson believes that the root of evil and the road to hell is fundamentally, individually and collectively the lie; willful blindness and the failure to speak the truth. As Solzhenitsyn famously discovered, the death camps and killing fields of the 20th century were created and enabled by individual failure of the most basic test of character; the commitment to the truth.
From 12 Rules for life, summary at the end of the most remarkable Chapter 8: "Tell the truth or at least don't lie."
"If your life is not what it could be, try telling the truth. If you cling to an ideology or wallow in nihilism, try telling the truth. If you feel weak, and rejected, and desperate, and confused, try telling the truth. In Paradise everyone speaks the truth. That is what makes it Paradise."
"Farewell, happy fields where joy forever dwells: hail horrors, hail
Infernal world, and thou profoundest hell Receive thy new possessor: one who brings
A mind not to be changed by place or time.”
John Milton, Paradise lost.
OT I know, but an interesting take on the British Labour anti-Semitism crisis.
"And what I think is that a person's general disposition to the world is usually evident in how they look "
Possibly because with most evil people we know them through their mugshots? Which are not known to be flattering.
Much though I hesitate to link to this rag.......
Sometimes it takes a while to penetrate the mask people show to the world. I worked with a guy who was jailed for 14 years essentially for raping teenage boys. We weren't exactly close mates, but I had a few drinks with him after work on occasion, and he was charming. It took a while for me to realise what he used his charm for. Guy was a complete psychopath. But extremely good-looking – deep voice the whole works. But even those who were friendly with him on a regular basis had no idea what he was capable of until it came out in the press.
I know we do judge people on their looks, and I know that our summing up of a new person is done in a very short space of time, but that simply means we are or aren't probably going to be friends. No harm no foul – but I think ascribing actual evil to people on the way they look is not only misguided, but dangerous.
You are so truly on to it. We don't know. It's a heartbreak. We thought that we were on a trend line rising from a low, but now we realise we might be on a bell curve. You may not agree with the line my mind has taken but I consider it is not a simple model to be looked at and rejected, this is our life-line that I see in the palm of my hand.
I look at the history of wars and atrocities and it seems to me that there are cycles of such, and peace is just a rest period to enable us to divide the dirty dealing into entries on a timeline.
The nobility of humans is perhaps in keeping the memory of individual heroes alive and the causes they were fighting for and how they put a lot of their lives and effort into making things good for us all in some way. We forget if we aren't reminded.
If things are circular, then it isn't past history, it's 'back to the future' deja vu time. If we get the opportunity to have a future we need to change our education, all the years we have had of universal ed. and we have just learned how to build more complex instruments for our downfall.
Stop trying to get more money, settle for happiness, sufficiency, a recognition and action for others wanting help. This should be how we are learning today but still we remain stuck in the myths we believed in pre-millenium.
Can we move on fast enough, when the climate bombs are increasing but we think it will magically go away. Plastic bags have to pile up like mini-Everests before we make small changes. Everything has to be observable, practically provable by annihilation of something before we will act: cargo cultists that we are. We laughed at the ignorant Pacific Islanders after WW2 hit them wondering what other wonders of technology would descend out of the sky - now we are truly hoist with our own petard!
"A very evil thing is to make a captured person enter the soldier ranks by forcing him or her to kill a member of their own family. If they don't kill one, then the whole family will be killed."
What would you do Grey?
There are always going to be situations where there are no good choices. In that situation though the victim is in the power of people acting without any morality, so whatever they might promise is worthless. They may not kill the rest of the family if he refuses, and they may just as likely kill them all if he complies. His only responsibility is his own action. Tuff, I hope I could do the right thing which would be nothing.
D J S
The word 'evil', liberally used, can lead to witch hunts. It's more ethically scrupulous to use words from the lexicon of personality disorders, so a full inventory of moral dubiety can be catalogued and the relativity of illness and moral culpability assessed. Are, for instance, those labelled 'evil' insane? Shakespeare introduces a new cognitive paradigm. In 'Hamlet', for instance, Claudius is morally tarnished (murderer/adulterer), but early seventeenth century audiences were treated to something more sophisticated than the simple moral framework of morality plays and mystery plays. Claudius's psyche is comprised of the deadly triad of narcissism, psychopathy and machiavellianism. Yet he is a superb king - diplomatically efficacious with Norway, perceptive about trouble at mill, strategic in his dealings with trouble-maker Hamlet, a lover of his new wife. Hamlet could never have assumed kingship after his father (too young, depressed), even though he has a moral compass far preferable to that of his dodgy uncle. Renaissance ideas become more deliberately formed in modern relativism. Pontius Pilate could never have fulfilled Jesus Christ's mission, but Christ could never have done Pilate's job in Judea. 'The Wisdom of Psychopaths' (2012) by Kevin Dutton is an enlightening read.
kiwidave -refers to the book Ordinary Men by Browning. I looked it up on google and I wondered if the answer for them going on with this dreadful task they were set was that there was a loyalty to one another. They could not leave and load the other men with their work' they owed it to their fellows to keep on.
(In the chaotic world where values were upended for these soldiers in Reserve Police Battalion 101 perhaps support for one another can be found as the reason for them to 'soldier on'.)
There are books with similar titles. No Ordinary Men is about -
the pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his close friend and brother-in-law Hans von Dohnanyi--and offer new insights into the fearsome difficulties that resistance entailed. (Not forgotten is Christine Bonhoeffer Dohnanyi, Hans's wife and Dietrich's sister, who was indispensable to them both.)
From the start Bonhoeffer opposed the Nazi efforts to bend Germany's Protestant churches to Hitler's will, while Dohnanyi, a lawyer in the Justice Ministry and then in the Wehrmacht's counterintelligence section, helped victims, kept records of Nazi crimes
Then Not Ordinary Men is about about 600 soldiers in India who held a narrow pass against about 13,000 Japanese who were planning on pushing through to India.
Perhaps we can take from this that no man or woman is ordinary.
I'm no genius, I just read 'Eichmann Before Jerusalem'. Just the skeezy photo of him in the 30s destroys that picture of him as a bureaucrat following orders. Yet we know from Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union ordinary people cooperated massively out of fear and profit. How dear is demo-cracy, fairness and the idealogy of that. It's the undermining of that for the benefit of the rich over the last 40 years that places us unprepared to deal with climate change, let alone look after our poor, weak and sick.
Hitler might have started a world war and initiated genocide, but he did have his good points.
He was a non-smoking, non-drinking, vegetarian.
He was a decent "chocolate box" painter - This being the verdict of a leading art critic who was shown Hitler art works, but not told the identity of the artist.
He was also a decorated ( two Iron Crosses )war veteran.
Oskar Schindler smoked, drank and was omnivorous. The was a gambler, a philanderer, and a lousy businessman.
Make of this information what you will.
On face book on a post about refugees someone says: "Jacinda Bring them to N.Z. Show some Christian Charity to those who need us most". Someone else points out that these refugees are Muslims. She is 90 years old and"Very involved in local Anglican church. I am a benevolent giver and certainly love helping needy people in many ways."
Christian Churches have been emptying in droves while islam expands. I read (somewhere) that the more onerous the observances a religion required the more it holds it's practitioners. But also Jonathon Haidt says that religion evolved as a way to hold groups together. However if religions purpose is to bind us together, what is the point of a religion that is just a doormat for invasion?
Grey, Upton Sinclair's statement about fascism being capitalism plus murder reveals something about the human condition. The problem as I see it is that communism and fascism are utopian theories that if implemented result in murder. Capitalism by contrast did not emerge from a utopian theory. It arises from the human natural inclination to build, create, exchange, emerging in an incremental organic way. Along the way it picked up utopian nutters like market fundamentalists. Societies set rules to regulate and control capitalism and it's associated human foibles such as greed, societies also prohibit harm and murder. To conflate capitalism with murder is wrong, but capitalist politics may do murder. For example capitalist Britain as an imperial power was responsible for famines in India. Capitalist imperial USA bombs and drone strikes constantly. Capitalism does not set out to identify and eliminate class enemies as every known communist state has. Fascist states use lethal force, it's part of the ethos, some commit genocide on racial grounds. Capitalism does not routinely do this.
I don't wish to defend capitalism and its pathologies, but I can anticipate that a capitalist state won't curtail my freedoms and take my life in a state sponsored or approved act. Sinclair's statement fails the empirical evidence test.
"Christian Churches have been emptying in droves while islam expands. "
Christian churches are emptying in the West as people become more educated. And young people are leaving the Muslim faith in the US at roughly the same rate as people are leaving Christianity. When you have a decent education and some stability in your life you need religion a lot less. The only country in the West that hasn't followed this pattern to a great extent is the US, but they are beginning to catch up. I suspect the main reason they are so slow is that they don't have much of a safety net and therefore no stability.
Most Muslim countries are poor, and obviously they're having children at a greater rate than the West. If and when they develop and become wealthier this will wind down.
Evangelical Protestant churches are growing at a faster rate than Islam. Christianity is growing by leaps and bounds in Africa – from something like 10 million in 1900 to something like 350 million or more today, and Asia. And Christianity is making more converts, and as in the long-term as birthrates inevitably fall, that's probably the best strategy. In fact there is now an all-time high in conversions from Islam to Christianity.
So there is actually no need to think that will be converted in our beds quite yet.
Thanks NickJ. The trouble with capitalism, there is no end to the capital accretion desire. I can't see a way of having society prosper without trading and that seems to lead to capitalism. Having free market beliefs and neo liberal ones at the same time seems to strike at our hearts and our pockets.
Do you remember the film The Gods Must be Crazy? Somehow one of those spiral shaped old coke bottles falls out of a plane and a member of the Bush people in Africa takes it home. No-one has had glass before, it is a very individual one-off and to them its rare and precious and it creates a lot of envy. In the end the guy takes it to a high place and throws it into a ravine. There must be a way to share effectively or else individualism rules and deep disaffection is borne. Can capitalism be tamed now?
I assume that Upton Sinclairs's "Fascism is capitalism plus murder" was a play on Lenin's aphorism that "Communism is socialism plus electricity".
So how should we regard capitalism? When we weigh it in the moral balance do the scales tilt to the side of good or evil?
The answer is over three thousand years old. "If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it". Christianity was the conscience of capitalism, and capitalism the keeper of Christianity. No longer. Capitalism now wanders in the land of Nod while the blood of Abel calls out from the ground.
"Along the way it picked up Utopian nutters like market fundamentalists". It was not quite that random. When the voice of Christianity as conscience of capitalism was stilled, market fundamentalism stepped forward to half fill the void, providing the idealization of capitalism without the countervailing system of moral constraint, and Christianity's recognition of a higher reality or transcendent purpose. Sin crouches at the door, and unrestrained "free market" capitalism has no way to master it.
There is a profound element of truth to Sinclair's formulation that "Fascism is capitalism plus murder". Fascism began with the figurative murder of the restraining force in European civilization, the ideological onslaught that began with the Act of Supremacy, progressed through Marx and Nietzsche to Hitler, Mussolini and Franco and ended with the actual murder of millions. Fascists may choose to be seen standing before the altar, but they do not listen to or heed the word of God.
While capitalism is not fascism, the capitalism of the twenty-first century is moving perilously close to fascism. You say "a capitalist state won't curtail my freedoms and take my life in a state sponsored or approved act". Perhaps not your life Nick, but the state will attempt to curtail freedom and take other lives as it deems fit and just. For what other reason does it employ Citizen Thiel's expertise?
David Stone: Your answer to the "moral dilemma" posed by greywarbler is absolutely correct, and can be applied to the full range of such conundrums.
I trust that anyone who is in thrown into doubt or confused by such questions will read your reply and find a fit resolution.
Gary O'Connell: " Pontius Pilate could never have fulfilled Jesus Christ's mission, but Christ could never have done Pilate's job in Judea." Precisely. That tells us that the moral nature of the job we are doing should be the primary consideration, and how effectively and efficiently we do it is either secondary or irrelevant.
The distinction between good and evil should not be blurred but on the other hand it does not serve us well to depict individual human beings as the incarnation of evil. Evil is in what we do, and not in what we are.
Nor should we unduly fear evil or become obsessed with the evil that exists in the world. To do so is to allow evil the victory over our spirits. The way forward is simple. Acknowledge the reality of good and evil. Do good and refrain from doing evil. Know in your heart that good is stronger than evil and that good will triumph in the end.
Grey, loved that movie, some things prove too hot to handle. I don't see that we can rid ourselves of capitalism because it reflects our true human nature. Geoff Fischer has an interesting take though.
"On the gravestone of capitalism will be written later: 'too much was not enough'."
Volker Pispers , German cabaret artist
Geoff, an interesting take, I agree that capitalism as we know it arose in a deeply religious Christian era, and I suspect that Christianity may have kept the excesses under check, for example the opprobrium of Wesley and Blake to the dark satanic mills of Industrial Revolution Britain. And maybe Calvin's idea of the elect kick started individualist efforts at self advancement expressed through business success. What I don't believe is that capitalism and Christianity are indivisible related. Medieval Europe was free of capitalism, yet staunchly Christian.
The overstated death of religion in the modern context that you allude to I agree left a spiritual vacuum into which secular theories imposed themselves. Capitalism would have, and has carried on with and without fascist and liberal regimes....the lure of wealth, self betterment through capital accumulation occurs regardless of the current political and theological regime. I think the old Catholic classification of the Cardinal virtues and Mortal sins is a better prism for observing and judging the drivers of human relations than political and economic theories. I'd contend as well that capitalism grew independent of and prior to any theoretical framework.
An interesting idea that Hitlers genocides were enabled by capitalism in the absence and replacement of Christianity, maybe as a contributing factor. AJP Taylor contended that Luther's rejection of the culture of the West, and his retreat into an irrational romantic view of the German past made Hitler inevitable, that predates capitalism.
Would a capitalist state curtail my freedoms? Maybe yes but that state would be politically motivated, the economic system would not dictate the any dogma that would result in repression. My point is that capitalism per se doesn't care for good or bad. I agree that a social and political system torn free of its culture, born in conjunction with a millennium of Christian ethos might struggle with its ethical present and future. I regard the post Modernist nonsense as an attempt to do precisely that, it fails miserably because it attempts to be God in shaping the world anew. Plus it's inherited the bastard Marxist distortions of the human condition. The Christian church wisely left the creation of heaven to God. Meanwhile capitalism doesn't go out of its way to do anything but profit, man commits good and evil along the way, sometimes in the name of a false God.
Matthew 25:14-30 The parable of the talents. I think capitalism is much older than Christianity.At least it was well established by his arrival.
D J S
Kia ora Nick and David
Capitalism has been in existence for millennia, co-existing with slave society, feudalism and so on, but only started to become the dominant mode of production in Europe some five hundred years ago, more or less contemporaneously with the Protestant reformation.
If we go right back to "the beginning", the Book of Genesis tells us that the formation of civil society preceded the foundation of religion. Karl Marx concurs with that, and common sense tells us that it must have been so.
From that time civil society and religion have related to each other in dynamic and complex fashion. Religion sanctifies and criticizes, empowers and restrains civil society.
By propounding an ideal social order it implicitly criticizes the actual conditions of life. By setting rules of conduct it helps to make life tolerable for those who Marx called "the oppressed creature" and Frantz Fanon "the wretched of the earth". Religion may even empower its adherents to overcome their oppression (examples being the role of the black churches in the American civil rights movement, non-conformist Christian engagement in the British and New Zealand Labour Parties, and the emergence of revolutionary Islam in the Muslim world).
Religion evolves and adapts to different social conditions, and in the past century the rate of evolution and adaptation has been almost unprecedented. On the other hand those denominations which have failed to adapt to changing conditions have gone into precipitous decline.
However the central themes of religion have remained pretty stable over many millennia. The ancient scriptures still serve us well and we neglect them to our cost.
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