The Structures of Evil – Evil is not a Thing nor Nothing

The Structures of Evil

Evil is not a Thing nor Nothing

The word ‘Evil’ is not a substantive but is a predicate. People might say witches are evil and burn them, or that the world itself is evil and destroy it. They have identified the adjective with the noun and throw out the baby with the bath water. Equally absurd would be to separate a quality from a thing and to search for the quality alone as if it were a thing itself. Communist devils may exist and they may be perceived as red-colored, but only a fool would go about searching for Red as if Red were a thing. Of course, it may be convenient and even necessary to discuss evil as if it existed, but while doing so we should keep in mind that evil is nothing in itself. Otherwise we shall lapse into gross superstition regarding our abstractions, allowing our subjective prejudices to rule our behavior in disregard to the objective aspect of reality without which we have no life as we know it.

Those of us who believe that life is a great good may think of death as a great evil, an event at the end of life that may be fictitiously personified as the Grim Reaper although there is no such thing. Ernest Becker, a proponent of the interdisciplinary or unified approach to the human sciences, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in the year of his death for his elaboration, in The Denial Death (1974), of the theme that the human personality is a defensive mask or armor fashioned by the fear of death. That structure or coping mechanism may be neurotic or pathological to the extent that the recognition of reality is avoided.

Personality is not formed in a vacuum. Social influences are essential to its development. Societies may also be sick or mentally ill defensive organizations that tend to the very ruin defended against. For example, armies are organized and wars slavishly waged to bring freedom to the world so that a final peace may be realized. The warrior wages wars to end all wars, and may wind up prematurely resting in peace if killed in action.

In the Structure of Evil (1968), Professor Becker proposed that the structure of evil is behind the alienation of the individual from his full power as a social being. He opined that modern alienation arose with the decline of medieval cosmology.

Medieval man felt he really knew the difference between right and wrong, but by the time of the vengeful atom-bombing of civilians in Hiroshima, man had lost his sense of good and evil and was nauseated by the meaninglessness of the world and of scientific facts without value. At lease the medieval world had a moral value; it was a hellish place because there was always a heaven above to ascend to, but today, with the secularization of religion, there is no heaven awaiting us: the world is absurd as we go through the fragmented motions waiting for Godot.

Modern man is subjected to impersonal forces and becomes a mere unconscious automaton of the corporate machine. The individual has not achieved an ethically unified perspective, which would presumably allow him to place the social influences, especially liberal capitalism, under rational control. He identified the impersonal forces as demonic:

“…the demonic comes into being for man whenever he is manipulated by large impersonal forces beyond his control; forces that he is actively and uncritically contributing to…. Responsibility is nowhere; grinding power is everywhere…. This is the demonic nature of social evil of our time…. We must take critical control over the automatic function of our economic institutions…. Once again the specter of War Capitalism is descending on the world… For the acting human organism, the Good and the Beautiful must always be a function of the exercise of his distinctive self-powers, name, responsible choice based on the fullest exercise of critical powers.”

So “evil” is a sociopathological phenomenon. And what is the purpose of sociology as a true science of man for if not the progress of mankind on the whole? If it is simply a science for the benefit of a few, that they might manipulate and exploit the masses, would not that be a great evil? Professor Becker was only one of many sociologists who believed capitalism as it is practiced is the structure or form of evil. The evil structure of capitalism is War Capitalism ensuing from unrestrained economic and social institutions condoned by the pernicious mythology of laissez-faire economists who perverted the work of Adam Smith, eliminating his moral philosophy from his economic theories. The laissez-faire philosophy justified the spoils system, asserting a “natural right” to previous accumulation as a political law enforced by a police state controlled by the exploiters. This modern structure of domination is the structure of evil alienating dispossessed man from his natural ability to function morally; that is to say, to act responsibly as independent, critical thinking individuals. The alienated individual does not have a “unitary perspective” or a “commanding view” under the modern capitalist state, hence is thwarted from achieving maximum individuality within maximum community.

Man is in part a rational being or thinking animal, one that knows his body will die, which is an evil inasmuch as it is contrary to his natural will to live. He is a moral being with ideas of good and evil no matter how rational or secular his thinks he is.

If we trace back the etymology of “man” to Sanskrit variants, we encounter the definition, “he who thinks.” Man is a moral creature because he may think or imagine what he is going to do before he acts. In fact, moral” was a term once used by philosophers to indicate the thinking process; it was taken for granted that man thinks in order to act, hence thinking, a symbolic action, is a moral process. Thinking is our best defense against the “evils” that would destroy us if we remain passive – God does not HAVE to think, but as human beings we must think. Thus all thinking, even scientific thinking, is a moral process. And thinking, no matter how abstract, is motivated by feelings of pleasure and pain which we equate, rightly or wrongly, with good and evil.

Good and evil. An Islamic fundamentalist might call Becker’s “demonic” force “satanic” and its leader, our beloved United States, “Satan.” Therefore should not godly people embark on a war against the anti-capitalist devils now that the red devils have been capitalized?

“Successful” political leaders may reflect the prejudices irrational mass and direct its momentum to orgies of murderous devastation. Man is obviously not in control of his actions as he wages war against an evil he cannot isolate and destroy as a thing. The evil is within; that is not say that man should equate the concrete man with evil and destroy mankind as a devil unto itself, but to say that evil is subjectively determined, that men and women can and should stop treating their prejudices and self-hate as outside of themselves, as something to search out and destroy as if it were a thing. We may refer to evil conditions generated by that hate and make the needed reforms, but the first reform must go to the source of evil: it is “radical” reform, or self-reform. Evil is not something running around in or under the world or flitting about on a metaphysical plane: evil is man-made, a definition, a quality that man endows on objects and abstractions.

So evil is a social concept, a social quality for Professor Becker and like-minded thinkers. If the reader wants to quickly put his thumb on evil itself in The Structure of Evil, he will be disappointed. The structure of evil is the formal quality of society; the evil itself is unconscious, it is unknown. Wherefore reason is good because it raises the unconscious to consciousness and empowers us to control passions and to progress from evil to good. That is, the reason elevated by the Enlightenment, not the Reason deified during the Revolution, the unreason that reigned over the Terror. Of course mundane reason went out of vogue when it fell from the altar during the world wars. Still, our ability to reason and to use reason as a tool is our best chance for progress.

To speak of evil as a substantive rather than a predicate might be convenient. Since all of our moral thoughts are human thoughts and are thus a bit anthropomorphic, sometimes it is more honest and practical to personalize evil as a devil. In doing so we must be careful lest we lapse into the superstitious behavior at the root of great evils.

And it may also be convenient to suppose there is such a thing as impersonal, absolute evil, but the metaphysical question of evil is historical; that is, evil itself has no being: one can only examine what various people thought about it over time according to the conditions they then lived in, then arrive at one’s own presupposition which can be proven neither true nor false. To say there is an absolute evil in itself is an absolute presupposition incapable of proof since there is nothing to relate it to.

Absent an ethically unified mankind, ethical relativity may result in evil social formations. Each of us “knows” what evil is, what is not good, but that too is socially determined. For example, the ancient Jews were considered by civilized Romans to be uncivilized barbarians because they did not practice infanticide. Despite the relativity of ethical considerations, societies have in the course of history arrived at certain universal maxims: we may all agree some day on a universal code of ethics, perhaps based on the simple imperative to love one another.

Finally, there is no evil per se. There is no Devil. I mean no personal offense to those who love devils or need them in order to have their gods.

# #

Honolulu 2001

Becker, Ernest,The Structure of Evil, New York: The Free Press, 1968


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