PhilosophyCenter PhilosophyCenter | Musings

Ignorance and Evil

If you try to cure evil with evil, you will add more pain to your fate.
| Sophocles

Ignorance and Evil

Socrates states in the Protagoras that no one knowingly does the wrong thing, that all evil is the result of ignorance. It is a generous view to say the least. In the Gorgias, however, Socrates argues that ignorance does not absolve the wrongdoer of responsibility for his actions nor mitigate the need for appropriate punishment. In fact, he goes on to say, it is imperative that the perpetrator be punished for to commit evil and get away with it is a harm in itself of the most grievous sort, since until the debt is paid, the wrongdoer carries a spiritual burden. Doing wrong thus harms the one who so acts, and as no one knowingly acts against his own interests, all wrongdoing, all evil, must be the result of ignorance. Socrates maintains, therefore, that we always act in the service of what we believe in the moment to be our greater good. One example of this might be a man who steals bread to feed his family. He knows that stealing is wrong, but under the circumstances, believes that he is acting in the interest of a good cause.

The argument has merit and more than a little appeal in cases where those who commit evil have a conscience. Dismissing their better knowing, they act out of ignorance due to blind reaction, shortsightedness, or what Socrates called “false opinion,” and by so doing, set up interference patterns in their psyche that they may experience as guilt, shame, remorse, the fear of reprisal, and so on. But what about the many cases where conscience seems to be absent, and we see something more like a fully formed evil intent operating? The sociopathic personality, for example, may derive pleasure from deliberately and knowingly inflicting pain. Depravity along these lines seems to know no limits, as anyone can attest who has perused the voluminous records of the Nuremberg trials or read with horror how the stormtroopers of repressive regimes have tortured and murdered children in the enforcement of a heartless ideology. In Socratic terms, the Nazis could be viewed as seeking what they regarded as the “greater good” of Aryan hegemony and the extermination of “inferior” ethnic groups. Like the thief, they are seeking “the good,” but taking Socrates’s claim this far seems to reduce it to absurdity, since good and evil become indistinguishable.

It is not a trivial question whether we are to regard a certain act as proceeding from ignorance or from a deliberately evil intent. If we side with Socrates, our response would be to educate, to enlighten, to rehabilitate. If, on the other hand, we conclude that the act is born of evil intent, then the appropriate response would seem to be some form of punishment commensurate with the seriousness of the wrong done. The entire criminal legal system tries every day to sort out just such matters. We do not want to execute someone who acted in ignorance, but neither would we want to attempt to rehabilitate someone whose character may be so deformed by the will to do harm to others that he or she is beyond rehabilitation. In such cases, Socrates’s argument in the Gorgias that punishment, though painful, is good for the soul of the wrongdoer, seems naive.

In a famous series of articles written for The New Yorker in 1963, entitled Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, Hannah Arendt describes how surprised she was at the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem to see that this architect of the Third Reich with its deportation programs and death camps and mass executions was not a sociopathic fiend or monster but a most unexceptional sort of man, one motivated not by ideology or malevolence but by careerism and obedience, a stupid man with no thinking life who had accepted the clichés of the Nazi regime and was simply “following orders,” who murdered innocent people by the thousands, stacking their bodies as routinely as any office worker might stack documents, then went home at the end of the day and kissed his wife and children, sat down for the evening meal, listened to music—all without a thought about the enormity of his actions. According to Arendt’s account, it was this banality, this complete lack of moral thought and reflection, that enabled Eichmann to carry out the innumerable crimes against humanity for which he eventually was hanged.

Arendt’s depiction of Eichmann as banal rather than monstrous has been contested, in part because she attended only four days of the trial, relying largely on the transcript to write her report for The New Yorker. Her critics claim that during the parts of the trial that she missed, Eichmann was exposed as someone far more driven by anti-Semitism and ideology, and that as the testimony showed, he had been well aware of the immorality of his actions. There also were allegations that Arendt was laboring under prejudices of her own that may have slanted her journalism. These controversies aside, the point here is that Arendt’s conclusion—that evil can result not from the intent to do evil but from the failure to think and consider and hold one’s choices and actions up to a moral standard—seems consistent with Socrates’s claim. If genocide does not count as evil, it is hard to imagine what would, and it does seem that Eichmann’s banality and moral vacuousness, as reported by Arendt, constitute an extreme example of what Socrates calls “ignorance.” But where does this leave us? Was Eichmann ignorant or evil? More generally, what is the proper response? To educate or to punish?

One could make the argument that the ability to “look the other way” while committing atrocities, to suppress every native impulse of empathy and compassion and fellow feeling, is precisely where ignorance becomes evil. Aristotle, disputing the Socratic ethic, holds that it is possible to knowingly do wrong, a state the Greeks called akrasia, translated as “weakness of will.” In such cases, evil would not be the result of ignorance but of a failing of character. Socrates might reply that akrasia follows from not understanding that the good and right and virtuous course of action is always the only workable and sustainable one, not to mention the only one consistent with longterm self-interest, in which case akrasia would amount to another form of ignorance.

To muddy the waters a bit more, there is the relative nature of good and evil. One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. Whether an act constitutes evil or serves some greater good depends largely on whom one asks. It is possible to adjudge a suicide bomber in an open-air café to be the very embodiment of evil while justifying the dropping of a nuclear bomb on a city in the name of saving lives. We can avoid moral relativism to some extent here by considering the question in the context of excesses. Even in those cases where someone commits a wrong in the belief that some greater good is thus served, there would be moral limits to how far the wrongdoer could go without committing what we might think of as an unjustifiable act. To kill the enemy in war might be defended as a “necessary evil.” It would be much harder if not impossible, however, to justify the use of torture. Even allowing that people see things differently, evil remains evil, and the question of its nature remains.

To be thorough in our considerations of these things, we have to allow not only that there may be a point past which ignorance becomes evil, but also that evil acts, even those committed with the full intent to do wrong, the awareness that such acts are evil, and with no weakness of the will involved may yet presuppose a type of ignorance. In such cases, the ignorance lies not in banality or a failure to recognize the nature of the act, but in the assumption that through doing wrong, one can bring about some desired end. In other words, the evildoer may be ignorant of a profound truth that history has demonstrated time and time again, i.e., that evil as a method is doomed to fail, since it relies on force and on imposing one’s will upon others, strategies that invariably backfire. Beyond this, there may be yet a deeper current of ignorance at work in the assumption that one can achieve any good end by manipulating worldly conditions. Tyrants do seem to be ignorant that happiness and “human flourishing,” as Socrates tells us, are states of the soul, not the world. Using force to drive the world to its knees, in the end, leaves one far worse off in every way that matters. The mentality that tries to use force to exploit the world and others is rooted in ignorance, viz., the failure to understand that happiness is an inside job. It cannot be wrought through conquest and domination. In light of this broader perspective, Socrates may have been right, after all.

Whether we side with Socrates and his idea that “no man knowingly does evil” or subscribe to the view that there are those who, whether through thoughtlessness or cruel intent or weakness of will, commit acts of evil with full knowledge of the nature of their actions may matter little in the end. How we respond to such acts, however, matters greatly. It is crucial that we understand that in reacting to evil, we run the risk of committing evil ourselves, and it is not overstating the matter to say that the future of humanity may well depend on our steering clear of this danger. Evil, however it originates in the human psyche, begets evil. Especially in what many moderns now think of as the “age of terrorism,” with acts of evil erupting in the headlines regularly, we may feel so outraged and threatened that we deny the humanity of the evildoer and unwittingly become the thing we hate. Some exploit this dark potential. They stoke the fires of fear and in the name of law and order and security, make a bad situation worse while wiser courses of action are swept aside. To deal with inhumanity humanely; to meet evil with clarity and measured determination; to hold to a higher ethical standard than the worst among us; to respond to those who do monstrous things without becoming monsters ourselves—these are the virtues of what Socrates calls the “well-ordered soul,” the only real remedy to ignorance and evil, in others and in ourselves.