Evil and the Spectrum of Morality

I believe in evil.

It’s easy to assume there isn’t such a thing as we turn our literary attentions towards varying greys, some lighter and some darker. In doing so, I think the eye tires and assumes that the least bright shade of grey must be the pinnacle of bad, and that which is closest to white must be good. And we go about our lives with a pragmatic sense of moral relativity, accepting that circumstances will drive and push us directions we wouldn’t go if a better choice was available.

But true black isn’t a colour. It’s the absence of light.

It envelops entirely. In pitch dark, you cannot see what grey a person is. Whether or not you want to, it cloaks you. It brings you down to its level. It takes away the luxury of choice.

And it defies everything. Humans constantly seek a rational explanation for it, or try to make sense of it in someway between the fact finding of science or faith in a higher power. If you were to crack open and examine the centre of evil, you’d find nothing rational. Nothing logical. It is the total accumulation of all that is irrational. We can’t even stand to look at it for long. For if the mind were a woven tapestry, it tugs at the weakened strings, trying to undermine our mental architecture.

You cannot barter with it. Even if it entertains the thought of trade, it does so with an unequal and changing set of values that shift and twist. You cannot appease it, its hungry nature will never settle for less than everything. At best, you buy yourself time. You can fight it, but its victory isn’t tallied by death or destruction. Rather it hunts the glory of scars unseen upon mind and soul, sowing the seeds of its continued existence. And when you pretend it’s not there, it’s at its strongest.

So when you catalog and compare the traits of your characters and set up their spectrum… remember that you can only view them in the context of light.

And dark is the natural state of the universe.

Morally Nihilist (part I)

An agent of chaos.

Yesterday, I was having a debate with a few people about the concept of morality. It’s amazing how a debate about politics can quickly descend into ad hominem attacks and sny, subtle insults, but philosophy and moralty can be discussed with a rational calmness that I find enlightening.

During the conversation, I clarified my morally absolutist position against a more relative position. But the intrigue came from user ‘Mossy Toes’ whose claimed to support relativism but whose arguments sounded more in line to nihilism. I ended my point teasing, “Easy there, Joker.”
 
“Why so serious?” Mossy replied back. I turned down his offer to discuss it on the debate lounge for the time being. But I gave the manner some thought throughout the night and in the morning. Moral nihilism is difficult to discern. A kind of catch-22 of reason that is tricky to define or at least prove.
 
Why is nihilism so tricky? When you deny the concept of morality in general, there is still a cold assertion of logic that can serve as a basis of morality. Mossy Toe’s view was built around the biological juxtaposition of humans as animals, which is true. He cited a few examples of moral absolutism being undone by circumstances which challenge such values and find its believers wanting, such as a starving civilization finding the sacrifice of its children as noble, or even a moral duty.
 
You may live in the jungle and adhere to no “delusions of morality” as Ian Holm‘s character put it in the movie Alien. But that still creates a fundamental paradox, an acceptance of the survival of the fittest. Hence you have that ah ha moment, where in denying morality, you inherently accept a much simpler code of it instead.
 
As I considered that, I found myself thinking about the man who has been on everyone’s mind since 2008. Heath Ledger‘s version of the Joker was a triumph of moral nihilistic thinking, at least in his ability to challenge everyone else’s moral standings.
 
That was his raison d’être.
 
For anyone who has seen the film, which drew inspiration from Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke, the Joker’s real goal was to render away everyone’s morality. His approach was simply to create the extreme circumstances of which test our sense of what is right or wrong. Kill this man or he’ll blow up a hospital. Blow up the other boat and he’ll let you live. Take off your mask or he’ll kill someone.
 
Perhaps the Joker did bow to the “survival of the fittest” concept, but his application of nihilism was to scrub away the veneer of morality that people apply to maintain some order in their lives.
 
Moral relativists can be harder to break for that reason: They would often have an easier time accepting that the circumstances were dire and justify normally abhorrent actions. What works, works, as pragmatists would say. But sooner or later, they will get backed into a corner where they find, at the base of the flexible set of acceptable standards, a morally absolute bedrock that they will not cross. The line in the sand.
 
I would imagine that most, though not all, moral absolutists are like eggs. They might have some loftier views of ethics, but in the face of a moral test, they crack quickly. And are left with a hypocrite’s shame of being unable to live up to their own expectations.
 
But then there are those moral absolutists who hold on. Batman, with the exception of when he almost turned himself in, could be described as morally absolute. The kind of grounds we usually think of when we devise heroes and protagonists. We often mock people who publically declare their values, because we’re so used to being let down. It takes action, not words, to define one’s position. Conviction must be proven.
 
I’ve often found that people tend to have the highest respect for moral absolutism whenever we can legitimately hold onto it. When we don’t bow to the pressure compromise with our integrity.
 
And that, of course, is the hard part. 

Nietzsche’s Abyss

A saying I have heard a few times in my life goes, “All it takes for evil to win is for good men to do nothing.”

But do we take for granted that there will always be good men? Morally, we’re often at a loss about how to define things as good and evil. Nor does the absence of evil necessarily mean good, for there are often large swathes of moral gray from within which we ponder our existence.

Very often, we tend to lighten evil by reason and justification. The phrase, “Greed/Money is the root of all evil” is one such example of this. In my life, I’ve read stories of men and women who have engaged in acts that, by our current definitions of rational or moral, are anything but. Criminal psychologists have invested hours, years and lifetimes trying to answer why.

The more you stare into this abyss of the irrational, the more tiring it becomes. I’ve looked down there many times in my life, and I’d imagine everyone has once or twice, if only to have a comparible standard that clarifies the difference of sanity to its opposite.

Only a mind can hold the untruth. A symbol in the equation whose values shift and alter without logic or reason. The chaotic black box against which even the same formula results in different values. In reality, there is an equal or opposite reaction for every action. But this symbol stands in defiance against such natural truths.

Regardless of the existence of this chaos in every mind, we build a structure of rules and thinking within the framework of our minds, a framework of which is our accepted school of morality. They may differ, but we all have a set of morals, defined by both their existence or lack there of.

With regard to evil,  four major schools are moral thought exist: absolutism, nihilism, relativism, and universalism.

Absolutism is the belief that certain things are absolutely always wrong, such as murder or stealing. Relativism is the the comparison and tolerance of differing sets of behavior. Universalism is embracing a set of standards for all people. Nihilism is the inherent disbelief in any sense of right or wrong.

These four schools do not always compete or disagree. Absolutism can be compatible with universalism, but that is not always true. And furthermore, some may apply varying schools to varying actions. For example, a person who believes that killing is wrong at all times may apply absolutism to situations that could be self defense or the death penalty. But then the same person may feel relativism when answering questions about two men stealing bread, one because he can and the other to feed his family.

When it comes to villains, we often apply a rationality for their actions which smacks of relativism from a lower set of moral standards. That for some reason, they have compared their situation to others and feel in someways justified in their actions. The world has done them wrong, so they feel justified in stealing to survive, at least from a particular group or people.

Absolutism and universalism can also turn dark. Absolutism can be raised to arrogance, justifying the righteousness of one on the belief that their decisions are good. Univeralism too in the application of “moral truths” against everyone, whether they wish it or not.  

Nihilism is particularly unique in that denying the existence of morals, it can become the very evil that all other schools of thought fear. A person with absolutely no morals may choose not to kill or steal out of logical consideration of the legal consequences. But in a state of weakened administration of the law or straight anarchy, such individuals can easily be quite dangerous.

Morals are the basis of both good and evil.

Technically, the temple of morality every person builds for themselves becomes suspect the moment that any untruth is laid upon it. Especially when a truth dispels an falsehood that is the basis of that very foundation. But anyone who has ever had an argument before knows that a person’s moral standing does not collapse when confronted with evidence of it’s incorrectness.

The psychological term we apply for this phenomenon is cognitive dissonance, the attempt to justify and “correct” the original assumptions of our thinking, rather than to accept and rebuild our understanding of morality and truth.

But the abyss I mentioned before is always there. Like a black, light absorbing sun, its illogical is the bane of all reason and all knowledge. It does not inverse truth; it makes truth meaningless. There are many terms for it. The schism of interloping consciences. Biological psychobabble. Madness. The chaos from which the universe sprung.

Who knows.

There is another psychological term for what this abyss can create. It is called metanoia, the breaking down and restructuring of one’s mindframe. A kind of reconciliation of the mind to the facts. Perhaps this abyss is the pit where we toss the truths we dismiss until it gross and consumes the temple of morality and leave the ground afresh to begin again.

I suspect there will always be those however, that are absorbed by the abyss and never reemerge. Maybe they go catatonic or insane. Maybe what comes out of it is worse than before. Some reach down into the abyss and pull back a hand of water from which they clean themselves of the impurities they have wrought upon themselves.

Most I suspect, fall and never come out.

“When you stare into the abyss the abyss stares back at you.”
-Friedrich Nietzsche