Friday 16 November 2018

Don't try to explain evil by self-interest - evil is malice (William Blake)

Those who say that men are led by interest are knaves. 

A knavish character will often say - 'Of what interest is it to me to do so-and-so?'

I answer - 'Of none at all, but on the contrary, as you well know. It is of malice and envy that you have done this: hence I am aware of you, because I know that you act, not from interest, but from malice - even to your destruction'.  

William Blake - from Descriptive Catalogue (re-punctuated and emphasis added)

So many people, so often, regard self-interest as the prime evil, and try to explain the evil in this world as due to persons and institutions motivated by self-interest...  

Everything gets explained that way; so people will seek-out why such and such an action benefits the person that did it. And when this isn't obvious, then remote and indirect self-interest will be wheeled-out.

Contrariwise; if self-interest is not obvious - or if the chain of explanation is disbelieved - then it is assumed that there was no evil but merely some inexplicable coincidence, or incompetence - bad things are confidently ascribed to the sheer 'randomness' and uncontrollability of things.

Those who do this are what Blake termed knaves - cunning, dishonest, deceitful, cowardly, traitorous. In other words knaves are themselves those who are motivated by malice, by spite, by their taking of pleasure in the misery of others.

Northrop Frye (in Fearful Symmetry p56-7) amplifies Blake's passage thus:

By turning away from the world to be perceived we develop an imaginative idleness which spreads a sickness and lassitude over the whole soul, and all vices spring from this... Murder is obviously an expression of the same death-impulse that suicide is, and all evil acts are more or less murderous...

This death-impulse, this perverted wish to cut down and restrict the scope of life, is the touchstone not only of all the obvious vices, but of many acts often not classified as such; like teasing, instilling fear or discouragement, or exacting unthinking obedience.

It is quite inadequate to call self-interest a motive of evil conduct, though the death-impulse may be disguised in that form. Self-interest implies a good deal of control: in all extreme vices there is a mania in which one is hagridden by a 'ruling passion'.

As so often, children understand perfectly that evil is spite and malice; it is only in a culture so sophomoric, so adolescent, so knavish as ours - that we claim to see-through the 'obvious (and true) explanation such as to regard evil as an expression of mere self-interest (most often specifically economic self-interest).

Yet self-interest is universal - and so is no explanation at all; especially in a world where 'goodness' is defined in 'utilitarian' terms of publicly-observable and quantifiable 'altruism' (e.g. raising money for 'charity') - such that altruism is itself the grossest form of self-interest. 

Furthermore, the focus on self-interest serves to disguise real evil; because the 'mania' that drives a 'hagridden' doer of malicious evil will often bring about his downfall - and in modern culture that makes him a 'victim', worthy of sympathy. Instead of seeing self-destruction as a hallmark of the murderous nature of true evil, it engages our sympathy - and thus we are corrupted.

This is vital to bear in mind when so much of modern evil is bureaucratic, such that responsibility for evil is eluded, and we seldom know even the identities of those whose malice drives the evil. But, whether we know them or not, we can be sure that they are there.


Jonathan said...

"Those who do this are what Blake termed knaves - cunning, dishonest, deceitful, cowardly, traitorous. In other words knaves are themselves those who are motivated by malice"

I really, really don't buy this. I think most of the people who explain away malice are those who rarely feel malice themselves, and don't have the imagination to suppose that anybody else does either. Even I still have a hard time believing it, though I know it to be true.

(Moreover, I would say that this is the greatest vulnerability of the Western European peoples, and the biggest reason they are putting up so little resistance to the mass importation of malicious foreigners who will ruthlessly compete with, and perhaps wholesale slaughter, their posterity.)

Chiu ChunLing said...

The notion of "interest" always denoting a benefit is incorrect. That is only one kind of interest, and it is not one that is particularly easily defined either.

There are people who are interested in and enjoy causing harm to others as an end in itself. Because this is a thing that they essentially desire, it is not even readily possible to define it as not of benefit to them. Even if we try and define "self-interest" as being concerned about things only insofar as they affect oneself, for people who derive pleasure from causing injury and distress to others, that pleasurable effect can be as (or more) important to their felt experience and self esteem as the felt effect of good food, good health, or good sex is to other people (and in the last case, what is even the point of sexuality other than the eventual good of others?).

De gustibus non est disputandum, nobody else is qualified to say what really gives you pleasure and satisfaction of your desires. Of course I count on wicked people lying about what they really want, but only when their actions prove that they forfeit obvious chances to obtain it (the standard of "obvious" being established by their ability in other cases to notice chances of a desired outcome).

While only a small percentage of the population is clinically psychopathic, non-clinical psychopathy is probably more common than not and is in some degree an adaptive response to the necessity of competition for limited resources in nature. Everyone needs to have the desire "To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentations of their women!" The problem is, who do you consider an enemy?

To regard everyone else as your enemy is clearly pathological (except when they really are all out to get you, and you have a reasonable chance of seeing them crushed, driven, and lamented). But to refuse to acknowledge that you do have some enemies is even more pathological (because it is in reality impossible, even for God, rather than merely unlikely). Humans tend to err on the side of thinking they have more enemies than is really the case, so general injunctions to not too easily assume people to be your enemies make a good deal of sense, but erring on the other side is also possible.

Of course, a desire that ends up undermining, not only the satisfaction of all other desires, but even of itself, is a bad thing. People who needlessly set themselves at odds with all or even most other people are only ensuring that they will be the ones crushed, driven, and lamented only if they are particularly lucky.

The question remains...when is it needful rather than needless?

Bruce Charlton said...

@Jonathan - " I think most of the people who explain away malice are those who rarely feel malice themselves"

There are *extremely* few such people. This is mostly fear speaking.

Unknown said...

I am not sure that motivated action that is not self interested is possible. Such an action would be motiveless action, and thus would be a kind of spontaneous impulse.

The malicious man seems to derive great relief from the suffering of others. It seems that he himself suffers tremendously and cannot find relief - therefore he can only seek relief by making others join him in suffering.

The primary affliction of the malicious man seems to be delusion - a false understanding of his own relationship to other people and the world in general.

He sees himself as utterly cut off from others and from life - an isolated individual fragment with absolutely no connection to anything else - and this is both the source of his great suffering and his belief that causing pain to others will bring him relief.

If he understood that he was connected to others through invisible bonds, he would know that causing them pain is causing himself pain.

TonguelessYoungMan said...


I think that people who explain away explaining malice are those who rarely feel malice themselves.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Jonathan - On further reflection, I wonder if you are talking about women in the public realm; who are unable to recognise specifcially male forms of malice?

For example the feminists who explain rape as being about power, when - for men, as a generalisation - sex is a far more powerful motivator than power (men seek power to get sex, rather than the other way around as feminists assert). On the other side, men cannot recognise the malicious extremes to which 'a woman scorned' may go to harm the man who did it.

So, people tend to be blind to motivations - including forms of malice - that they themselves do not experience. But they are typically just as malicious but about different things.

Chiu ChunLing said...

Talking about "malice" or "benevolence" obscures the fact that we don't have any general way of distinguishing one from the other.

People have different desires and motivations, even if the difference is only one of perspective, being applied to the conscious experience of one self as opposed to another. If I want to eat chocolate, I want to be the one that eats the chocolate, I don't just have a general desire that chocolate should be eaten. I'm actively appalled if the chocolate is eaten by, for instance, larval bugs. I'm not horrified if it is eaten by other people, but still not satiated in my desire to eat chocolate myself. My dislike of allowing bugs to eat chocolate doesn't need to be characterized as "malice" (though I have no problem calling it that), nor "benevolence" necessary to describe my relative tolerance of other people eating chocolate if that leads to chocolate also being available for me to eat.

It's true that women, on the whole, simply do not understand male sexuality, and men do not fully understand female sexuality (though trying to understand female sexuality is part of male sexuality, but trying to understand male sexuality is not part of female sexuality). It's even more true that people don't fully understand motives they don't feel themselves (whereas most men and women have many aspects of sexuality in common with the opposite sex).

There are motivations that are "reasonable" in that they can be explained in terms of how the consequences of actions will probably affect a given person. Men who bother to think about what it is like to be a woman (the one who gets pregnant and must then spend years caring for a child in order for sex to have any point at all) rather than a man (who can have kids without having to spend more than a few hours generating gametes and a few minutes transferring them to a female) can probably understand most of a woman's sexuality (assuming no major gaps in ordinary biological motivation, like being incapable of understanding why life is preferable to death). Women can do the reverse, but generally have no motive to do so.

There are motives that are unreasonable in that they ultimately cannot be explained except in terms of themselves, and sometimes not even then. Why does God love us? Because He loves us. That's not a reasonable explanation, it results in an appeal to the question no matter how many steps you introduce before reaching that final answer.

Motives may also be irrational, in that they drive behavior that results in predictably undesirable results. Why do men hate God? Because God is better than them. What is the result of their hatred? Only that they are even worse themselves.

Unreasonable motives are hard to understand if you do not share them. Irrational motives are impossible to understand. But consider this, God's love is only rational insofar as it is requited, and yet God loves us whether or not we love God. When God loves someone who only ever responds with hatred, nobody benefits (not even nobody, as it turns out).

Does that mean that God's love for such is malice? Those who hate God may say so. Some do, at least. But what does that even mean?

The Social Pathologist said...

I think that the Western intellectual tradition clouds the analysis of evil.

I think the strong rationalistic bent in the Western tradition seeks a rational mechanistic explanation for the fact of evil and therefore people are wont to explain evil away by way of appeals to other factors. Evil being a secondary by-product.

People really have a hard time coping with the notion of a malicious will, i.e. someone who chooses evil deliberately, even to their detriment. People have a hard time recognising that there are persons who obtain pleasure from the fact of destruction regardless of what other benefit the person may accrue. The existence of such people negate the notion of the perfectability of man and it's far easier to seek rational explanations which explain away the fact than accept the reality of it, and thereby challenge their whole conception of man.

Bruce Charlton said...

@SP - That people "have a hard time coping with the notion of a malicious will" is a measure of the perversion of our understanding; because malice is (surely?) a simple, obvious and (all-but) universal phenomenon.

For example, the 'spiteful girl' was a stereotype of the childrens fiction I read age 6-9-ish, e.g. by Enid Blyton - albeit the SG wasn't usually hagridden to the point of self-destruction.

But Hitler's reported behaviour in the bunker was an example (wishing destruction on the entire German nation, because they had failed-him) - other examples are probably numerous.

As you say, one reason is the philosophical framework that many theologians have used to frame the debate. Mainstream Christian theology with an omnipotent wholly-Good God creating ex nihilo does make it hard to explain where evil came-from - because the philosophical explanations are all unsatisfactory in their complexity and abstraction.

When one has reached high-level abstraction, evil becomes all-but invisible - yet it is a matter of daily observation among most human groups.

But a more modern problem is that self-interest has become the only publicly acceptable default explanation, with 'randomness' the back-stop - and this has happened (I believe) by our chosen acceptance of strategically evil philosophies (such as Marxism - but also many other materialisms).

Jared said...

When Northrop Frye says: "By turning away from the world to be perceived we develop an imaginative idleness which spreads a sickness and lassitude over the whole soul, and all vices spring from this..." that rings so true. I think that dropping one's duty brings such play to temptation and evil.
That is why I can understand why 'thou shalt not covet' is actually fundamental to guarding against transgression of lots of the other ten commandments, because there is such a sickness to not completing what is right, and wanting what is not ours means we are not paying attention to what really matters and we are imagining evil.