Academic Experts on Evil: Essays on the Merits of the Emperor’s New Clothes

In an article entitled “Are Modern Professors Experts on Good and Evil” on the website of the National Association of Scholars, author Bruce Davison writes,

Nowadays the professoriate in many parts of the world is very free with its moral judgments, condemning or applauding various nations, groups, and individuals.  This phenomenon prompts a query about whether academics really have any special insight into the nature of good and evil.

One can formulate an answer to this query in one word:  No!  It is impossible to have any special insight regarding objects that don’t exist.  Davison’s query was prompted by what he heard and saw at the most recent of a series of global conferences on “Perpectives on Evil and Human Wickedness” that have been held annually since 2000.  In glancing through the titles of the papers presented at these conferences, one finds the usual fare; one on the evil of “rogue capitalism,” one on the evil of land mines, several on the evil of Nazism, a smattering of others on the evil of ethnic cleansing, a great many on the various evils perpetrated by Republican administrations in the United States, and so on.  In other words, there’s a lot of stuff on things that “modern professors” generally agree are evil, but, predictably, almost nothing on why they are evil.  The implicit assumptions at such soirees are always that there is such a thing as objective evil, and that the attendees know what it is.  These things must be assumed, because, lacking any basis in reality, they cannot be demonstrated.  Evil is perceived as an object because of subjective processes that take place in the brains of individual human beings.  However, it does not actually exist as an object.  Discussions of the various categories of evil are no more rational than discussions of the various categories of unicorns.

Mr. Davidson takes issue, not with the “modern professors'” assertion that evil exists as a thing in itself, but with their assertions regarding the nature of the thing.  For example, he notes,.

To begin with, I was struck by the conference call for papers on the Internet. It listed people commonly regarded as evil, including Torquemada, Hitler, Ivan the Terrible, Genghis Khan, and…Ronald Reagan. Of course, who can forget Ronald Reagan and his Republican hordes sweeping down from the steppes, leaving nothing but devastation in their wake? Few figures from recent history evoke such terror and loathing—at least, among leftist academics.

In other words, he does not dispute the existence of evil as an object.  Rather he disputes the degree to which Ronald Reagan is associated with that object in comparison with such distinguished historical figures as Hitler and Genghis Khan.  In his opinion, the academics are merely looking in the wrong place for the evil object:

In short, faddish ideological conformity blinds many modern scholars to the obvious and trivializes their treatment of weighty moral issues. Though few at the conference dealt with them, traditional religious teachings often have had more insight into the incorrigible, profound depths of human evil. In contrast, most of the modern professoriate has little other than the feeble tools of psychotherapy and politically correct moralism to work with. As a result, the current academic world has in many ways become an enabler of human evil.

I must admit that I do find the rationale of religious teachings for believing in evil as a thing in itself (do it, or you’ll fry in hell for quintillions of years just for starters), rather more coherent than that of the academics (eat shit; 50 billion flies can’t be wrong).  However, that is merely to compare failures.  Neither argument establishes a basis for the existence of evil as a thing independent of the subjective judgments of individuals, and neither establishes a basis for the legitimacy of applying those judgments to others.

As a consequence, I find the ravings of the pathologically pious from either camp about the evil of this, that, and the other thing, very tiresome.  There is, after all, no rational basis for declamations on the merits of the different breeds of unicorns.  I freely admit that, as Jonathan Haidt points out, self-righteousness is as natural to human beings as spots to a leopard.  I even admit that I occasionally have a marked tendency to be just as self-righteous as all the rest.  That doesn’t mean I have to like it.

Author: Helian

I am Doug Drake, and I live in Maryland, not far from Washington, DC. I am a graduate of West Point, and I hold a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from the University of Wisconsin. My blog reflects my enduring fascination with human nature and human morality.

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