Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Three Moral Paradoxes

Three Moral Paradoxes: The Good and Evil, the Wickedly Good and the Wicked Victim

How can good people do evil and how can wicked people do good? Those of us working in the field of ethics recognize that morality, in the context of ethics, is often a deeply paradoxical realm of study. Ethical systems tend toward reason and coherence, yet human moral behavior continually deviates from the logical serenity of metaethical principles. Though paradox is likely one of the essential aspects of moral life, not all ethico-moral paradoxes are irresolvable. Ethics, like arithmetic or logic, is capable of perfect accuracy; yet if the numbers or premises are false the conclusions are patently unreliable. The problem is our moral behavior rarely fits neatly into teleological, deontological, utilitarian or any other metaethical systems. Descriptively speaking, we are moral creatures not ethical creatures. Of course we use metaethical principles like we use algebraic equations, but neither algebra nor metaethics can resolve problems outside their crystalline domains. So what then is a morality if not a recipe for ethical paradox?

Paradox One:
On Being Good and Evil

A morality, largely in agreement with Kurt Baier[1] and Lawrence Kohlberg[2], is a de facto agreed-upon system of mutual respect and loyalty shared by a group of people who rely on this system of thought, will and behavior to live as a community. By and large moralities are expedient, helpful and benign requirements for social cohesion. Within the context of a morality we make determinations of right and wrong behavior, and certainly some moralities are more ethically coherent than others. Some moralities are more logically consistent than others, and some may well be fraught with internal ethical contradictions.[3] But neither ethical coherency nor logical consistency is required for a morality to work as a viable set of dynamic conditions that allow dependable social cohesion amongst those who live within that particular morality. To embrace any morality requires openness to others within one’s moral community as well as some degree of identification with those within one’s moral community.

Though all moralities determine right and wrong behavior, moralities are certainly not all equal. Some can justify extraordinary cruelty while others cannot. And no morality is either absolute or sacrosanct outside of its own internally produced convictions, which is where I part company with Kohlberg and Baier, who argue that rationality is an extra-moral criterion for distinguishing between good and bad moralities. However, it is not merely Kantian logical coherence that distinguishes a good morality from a bad morality. Rather, there is also an aesthetic that comes into play. Hume’s insights are closer to the mark when comparing metaethical principles to living moralities, for good moralities allow us to develop a greater taste and sensitivity for moral beauty than do bad moralities.

Humans do create moralities, and we use them to fulfill very human needs, but those needs are certainly not all related to truth consistent with some particular set of absolute metaethical principles. Unlike Baier or Kohlberg, I do not believe that there is a moral “soundness” criterion by which individual moralities can be tested. “All normative moral judgments,” argues Baier, “imply that the directives embedded in them meet a criterion – and would pass a test – of soundness, and that in different moralities, the accepted criterion and test may be different.”[4] All these tests, however ultimately depend for Baier on an extra-moral logical “rational order”. Kohlberg, more nostalgically, appeals to “culturally universal stages of moral development”[5] culminating in an extra-moral, somewhat fantastic, Platonic form of justice as self-sacrifice that is the highest stage of moral development and is shared universally by all highly developed moralities and not shared by less well developed moralities. He points to Martin Luther King and Gandhi as two examples of people at the highest level of moral development.

A Marxist, on the other hand could call moralities superstructures, and certainly they seem to be. For clearly every morality is a system that resonates with the material and economic conditions of the community within which they operate. American moralities for example are not generally antagonistic to consumerism and as a consequence we genuinely presume that spending money lavishly is both a moral good and a patriotic social duty, odd though that notion may be from the perspective of other moralities. Nevertheless, the Marxist notion of culturally based moral evolution that churns out ever better historically determined moralities seems as ungrounded as the universal morality of any other fundamentalist, religious or otherwise.[6]

The only moral absolute possible is that all cohesive groups of people do indeed share their own moralities. And some of these moralities are evil and some of these moralities are benign. As a consequence of all moralities’ link to serving specific social functions, some moralities are not merely contradictory or incoherent, some moralites are actually radically exclusionary, and to the degree that they are exclusionary these are the moralities that are evil. Like benign moralities, evil moralities also entail a mutual respect for and loyalty to those within that moral group. Unlike benign moralities, evil moralities radically exclude all but those who are members of that particular moral group. Evil moralities are thus defined by their absolute and systematic exclusion of some person, some group of people or some groups of people to such a degree that the exploitation, destruction, suffering or death of those excluded is utterly irrelevant to the members of the community that embraces an evil morality.

In further terms consistent with Hume, an evil morality would utterly obliterate the possibility any sentiment of sympathy[7] or compassion for those people outside the parameters of that particular evil cohesion. Since moral approbation and disapprobation only apply to those who are members of the moral community within which these determinations occur, they do not apply to the outsiders. For all intents, those excluded from an evil morality become inanimate automata around the periphery of the moral community. The excluded people are then defined as the moral outlaws, and accordingly are perceived as uncivilized, irreligious, outlanders, aliens, hooligans, sub-humans, animals or merely just vermin. As such, the outlanders are beyond considerations of moral sentiment. Their utility is tied solely to their exclusion; they are worthy neither of praise nor blame. Their pain or joys are irrelevant; from the perspective of this morality they become merely useful, useless or dangerous.

In essence then, evil is adherence to a discourse that excludes, and its evil is only evil with regard to those excluded or with regard to those whose own benign moral discourse can recognize the radical exclusivity of an evil morality. In their own minds therefore, those who are truly evil genuinely conceive of themselves as compassionate realists and generally nice, kind and even courageous people. Their morality assures them this is so. The German Nazi SS, the Cambodian Khmer Rouge, the Roman Catholic Inquisitors, the American Jacksonian Indian Removal soldiers or any of history’s notorious and various killing squads are all evidence of cohesive moral groups with a proud honor amongst themselves who must, by dint of their chosen rigid moral duty, massacre the infidels however so defined.[8]

This also implies that there is a categorical difference between the wicked person who is a disobedient member of a moral community and whose behavior circumvents the very morality that protects him and the evil person who is a good and upstanding adherent of a radically exclusionary moral community. To behave wickedly is to choose to breach the mutual respect and loyalty of one’s community. To behave evilly is to choose to adhere to the mutual respect and loyalty of one’s radically exclusionary community. And herein lays our first paradox: one can be both good and evil simultaneously.

This paradox arises only when evil is conceived of as communal system rather than as an individual action evaluated by trans-moral metaethical principles. If one chooses to break the rules of one’s own evil system to recognize an outsider, one behaves wickedly, which is quite distinct from acting evilly. Rule-breakers are always wicked from the perspective of the moral communities of which they are de facto members and whose rules they break. For from the perspective of a communal moral system, adherence to one’s de facto moral community is the source of one’s exclusionary moral discourse. But this paradox of the good and wicked member of an evil morality disappears once we realize it is merely a consequence of a sort of category mistake, somewhat like confusing minds with brains. Good is only evil when evaluated from the perspective of a benign morality, and from the perspective of an evil morality precisely the opposite is true, evil is good. If good behavior is defined as adherence to any morality we lose the ability to determine any absolute cross-morality coherence. Of course, pristine ethical evaluations can easily be applied to all moralities just like arithmetic can add all things real and imagined, but lived good and evil are rooted in one’s moral community and not at all in some transcendent absolutistic ethical coherence. This distinction between ethics and morality then allows for the paradox that to be truly evil one must also be truly good. One must be a good member of an evil group to be evil, for evil entails obedience not metaethics.

The good Nazi would be the most evil Nazi -- the good terrorist the most brutal terrorist -- the good extremist the one most willing to kill himself for his exclusionary moral community. To be truly evil then, one must be good and evil. Whereas the merely bad Nazi would, oddly, be wickedly good.

Paradox Two:
On Being Wickedly Good, Wickedly Evil and Wickedly Bad

Those Nazis who helped Jewish families escape death behaved wickedly via their de facto Nazi morality, yet their behavior was good if judged in the context of a benign moral system. By the same logic, Catholics who handed Jewish families over to the Nazis were both wicked and evil. For their behavior was consistent with the radically exclusionary morality of Nazism and simultaneously circumvented of the benign Catholic morality, of which they were de facto members. Therefore, relative to the Catholic benign morality, the compassionate Nazi would be wickedly good, and the cruel Catholic would be wickedly bad. On the other hand, relative to the Nazi exclusionary morality, the compassionate Nazi would be wickedly bad and the cruel Catholic wickedly good. This implies that we cannot conceive of own actions as evil from the perspective of our own de facto morality.

Determinations of evil are now always extra-systemic determinations made from the context of a benign moral system. Exclusionary extremist organizations never conceive of themselves as evil, only benign moralities evaluate their exclusionary moralities as evil. So, all who are truly evil must be blind to their evil; to know yourself as evil entails evaluating your de facto moral system from a perspective outside of your radically exclusionary moral system, which entails at least momentarily stepping outside of your morality. If, therefore, I can grasp my evil, I am only wickedly evil and not truly evil at all, for to conceive of myself as evil I must, at least momentarily, have sinned, so to speak, in my mind. I must at least mentally have deviated from my de facto evil morality.

Again, the compassionate Nazi would be wicked insofar as he had deviated from his de facto membership in an evil morality. But he would be good in the context of a benign morality. Even more peculiar, the genuine member of the evil morality who deviates from that morality in order to bring about greater inner coherence or in order to make it more perfectly evil would also be wickedly evil. He is wicked insofar as he too deviated from his morality, evil insofar as his identity is genuinely tied to this exclusionary morality. The overly strident SS officer would be perhaps the finest example, insofar as his disobedience was in order to make even more severe the morality he identified with. “Despite our orders, we shall kill their pets and children as well.”
The even more paradoxical situation revolves around those members of a benign or evil morality who deviate from their morality in order to transform the morality to become more coherent, more effective, or even simply more ethically sound. These are the people who identify with a benign morality and work through disobedience --wickedness -- to improve their morality for the sake of all its members. These people from the Humean perspective would indeed be worthy of moral approbation as a consequence of the social utility their wicked behavior might achieve. These are the admirably wickedly good members of a benign morality, and the wickedly bad members of an evil morality. These are those members of a morality courageous enough to recognize that the rules of their morality are in place to serve the moral community and the moral community is not in place merely to obey the rules. Thus the wickedly good members of a benign moral group will work to transform their moral community even if this entails breaking the rules of that moral community. The wickedly evil members of an exclusionary moral community will break the rules of their exclusionary moral community in order to make it even more exclusionary. The wickedly bad members of an exclusionary moral community will break the rules of their de facto evil moral community to attempt to transform their exclusionary moral community into a benign moral community. And these wickedly bad agents are perhaps the most courageous people of all.

Paradox Three:
The Moral Narcissist as Wicked Victim

The moral narcissist creates an entirely new set of problems for a morality. The moral narcissist is capable of extraordinary cruelty and exclusion yet he is neither evil nor benign. The moral narcissist has no concern for kindness or courage. The only actions worthy of moral approbation or blame are his own actions, and the only sentiment for the moral narcissist is self sentiment. The moral narcissist does not see himself through the lens of social prestige, acceptance or love. He provides himself with these. For the moral narcissist there is no system other than self. So, all behavior is socially meaningless. Since others are fundamentally nugatory for the moral narcissist, murder, charity and cannibalism are all morally equivalent. At root, the moral narcissist is a member of no moral community whatsoever despite what pretenses he makes or dues he pays or rules he follows or orders he gives. All that is done is done entirely out of radical self-love. These are people who are generally considered morally blind, for they are indeed entirely without sentiment for others. They lack, as a consequence of their narcissism, all fellow feeling.

The moral narcissist is therefore patently amoral. For narcissism is the diametric opposite of any morality either evil or benign: the narcissist has structured the world so as to exclude all others from his personal world. Others are much like standing reserve or geological barriers: aids or impediments to the accomplishment of the narcissist’s personal goals.
The moral narcissist is a unitary creature whereas the evil person is communal. The moral narcissist thus lives in a world utterly devoid of any felt morality, for it is a world utterly devoid of any authentic community. For the moral narcissist the categorical imperative functions superbly because he has indeed universalized his maxims for behavior, after all only he truly exists as an autonomous moral agent. Others are morally excluded from his private morality, which is then no morality at all.

This creates the third paradox: The moral narcissist may be a de facto member of a moral community, benign or evil, to which he is utterly indifferent. If he is a de facto member of a benign moral community, there accrues a wicked benefit for the narcissist if he can demonstrate to that community that he has been excluded, or that he is a member of a sub-group that has been excluded. The benefit accrues because a benign moral community must always to some degree define itself as non-exclusionary, and those excluded can therefore, legitimately make a moral claim against this benign moral community using the very coherencies of that benign moral community to justify their claim. If this claim is made disingenuously, by a narcissist who cares not a jot for the moral system against which the claim is made, this is wicked behavior. And herein lays our third paradox. The excluded moral narcissist, whose exclusion is a consequence of his intentional rejection of the morality of which he is a de facto member, is self excluded and is thus not excluded at all. The narcissist who so behaves is thereby behaving wickedly, despite the fact that his de facto benign moral community defines him as a victim of their exclusion. So there are indeed blameworthy victims, whose victimization is intentionally narcissistic, and thus antagonistic to the community that deems the narcissistic victim deserving of compensation and compassion.[9]

Another aspect of the moral narcissist is also a consequence of his radically selfish goals; a moral narcissist makes an ideal leader of an evil moral community. Certainly we have seen evidence of this in extremist religious and para-religious organizations of all varieties in our very own country. Klan leaders, Islamist totalitarian autocrats and various Christian televangelists all come to mind. There is likely no community better for the moral narcissist to maximize his self-love than an evil moral community. The most recent example of such a moral narcissist is Saddam Hussein, a bona fide narcissist whose decades of brutalities have just now been given the patina of the popular media. And the reason for the success of narcissistic leaders like Hussein is that an evil moral community is unable to comprehend itself except insofar as it retains its rigid boundaries, which may include a narcissistic leader, who thereby, is shielded from outside criticisms by the exclusionary morality that surrounds him. In Hussein’s situation the evil morality that shielded him was the Baathist party; for Hitler it was the Nazi party, for Tomas de Torquemada it was a branch Catholicism. The evil morality is good by definition, and thus all who are members are good insofar as they follow the rules of that morality, and that is all.

Due to their permeable boundaries, benign moral communities, on the other hand, are prone to restructure themselves as a consequence of outside influences. Within a benign morality, a narcissistic leader will not have the luxury of using an exclusionary morality to shield him from disrupting outside influences antagonistic to his unassailable position. As an aside, this illustrates why those who deem themselves victims are extraordinarily prone to embracing evil moralities, and why leaders of evil moralities typically define themselves as victims of benign moral communities.


[1] See The Moral Point of View: A Rational Basis of Ethics New York Random House, 1965; The Rational and the Moral Order, Chicago, Open Court Publishing Company 1995, and “The Point of View of Morality” Australasian Journal of Philosophy, vol 32 no. 2 (1954), pp 104-135 (reprinted in Ethics, History, Theory and Contemporary Issues, by Steven M. Cahn and Peter Markie, New York, Oxford Press (2002), pp 514-528.)

[2] See Essays on Moral Development. Volume I: The Philosophy of Moral Development, New York Random House, 1981. Kohlberg’s debt to Kurt Baier is significant. On page 159 he quotes Baier (1965) in the context of multiple moralities: “There is no a priori reason to assume that there is only one true morality. There are many moralities, and of these a large number may happen to pass the test which moralities must pass in order to be called true. For there will be many different moralities all of which are true, although each may contain moral convictions which would be out of place in one of the others.” I do not however agree with Baier or Kohlberg in their presumption of some nebulous underlying Kantian principle that transcends all moralities other than mere internal coherence. From my perspective there is no extra moral position of goodness from which to evaluate moralities. Moral conviction is always felt within a particular morality, a particular social system.

[3] See Kurt Baer, 1954

[4] Baer, 1995 p. 225.

[5] Kohlberg, 1981, p 1.

[6] I include here those like Adorno, who argue essentially that authoritarian personalities akin to the fascists is a consequence of a psychological disorder that arises out of capitalism, and as such is a phase to be superceded, perhaps even cured, when a more Marxist world order comes to pass.

[7] “The rules of morality therefore are not conclusions of our reason…. But a sympathy with public interest is the source of the moral approbation, which attends that virtue.” Treatise Bk III. Morgan pp. 821, 829. The point being, moral approbation is a felt conviction, generally educated into the social agent, “As public praise and blame encrease our esteem for justice, so private education and instruction contribute to the same effect.” p. 844

[8] This essentially eliminates the need for the pseudo-diagnosis of an authoritarian personality. Morality can now begin to be retrieved from the domain of the psychology of personality theory and returned to the domain of philosophical choice. After all, in a world of mass communication we do have the option to choose different moralities.

[9] I recently heard a lecturer say women are incapable of being abusive since all women are victims of abuse by definition. Anyone who genuinely accepted that notion would be a blameworthy narcissistic victim, for any brutality such a person performed would be narcissistically justified despite the cruelty to others. Such a person would be intentionally circumventing her moral community solely in order to demonstrate herself as excluded for the sake of personal gain. That’s wicked.


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