Philosophy Weekend: Ethics and the Concept of Evil

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It's popular among some of our current philosophers to make a big thing of disbelieving in God. For Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett and the late Christopher Hitchens, atheism is an urgent social cause. A widespread naive belief in religion, these philosophers argue, has been a source of great hatred and suffering. And yet they fail to challenge another widespread naive belief that is actually much more malignant than the belief in God. Even some atheists cling to this other naive belief.

I'm talking about the belief that Evil is real. Not evil but Evil -- a mysterious sinister agency that infects certain leaders or populations with the drive to cause great harm. The Evil is a force of almost magical, eternal power, and it operates beyond the reach of trustful negotiation or rational compromise.

We have seen that artistic symbols of absolute Evil fill our shared imagination (with fictional representations like Voldemort and Palpatine) and we have seen that the historic lessons of the wars of the 20th century are often boiled down to a single principle, a vast meme that has dominated global foreign policy since the end of World War II: appeasement of Evil enemies is always a bad idea, and pacifism is a gateway to appeasement.

The image at the top of the page is the skeleton of England's King Richard III, recently found near the site of the King's final battle. We know from Shakespeare that Richard III was utterly Evil -- and since Richard's line of claimants to the English throne has been completely extinguished, we'll never know Richard's side of the story. Instead, we recognize King Richard III's cunning deceit and lustful jealousy as primal characteristics of Evil leaders, and we note the parallels with more recent murderous tyrants -- Adolph Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong, Osama bin Laden.

Closer to home, we often sight the same ultimate Evil in domestic settings. Our recent exploration of the Watergate scandal in 1970s America pointed out this country's curious tendency to blame the Watergate scandal on President Richard Nixon's innate personal character flaws -- as if the larger national character flaw represented by the horrifying fiasco of the Vietnam War had nothing to do with the fall of the Nixon administration. It's easier, apparently, for us to believe that a single Evil politician named Nixon had managed to sneak into the White House despite the hidden mark of the beast that must have been hidden under the dark hair of his scalp than it is to accept that our entire nation had enthusiastically supported and repeatedly voted for a war that was effectively evil. To avoid admitting that our nation had become evil, we pretend instead that our president was Evil. Here, the popular notion of Evil provides us a simplistic way to conveniently excuse our wider national guilt during the Watergate era.

Or course evil exists -- people and entire societies are often vile, ignorant, envious, sadistic and brutal. But if we intend to take ethical philosophy seriously (and ethical philosophy is, of course, the whole point of the Philosophy Weekend series), we must firmly reject the simplistic notions of absolute Evil that prevail in the popular imagination, and instead reach for the wisdom of thoughtful and inquisitive ethical philosophy.

It doesn't seem to be generally understood how much the notion of absolute Evil pollutes the process of ethical philosophy, and also renders meaningless the practical task of real-world politics that is always influenced by our philosophical principles. It's not generally understood that the naive belief in absolute Evil makes ethical philosophy itself impossible.

What can the word "ethics" possibly mean in a world torn between forces of Good and Evil? In this context, the word loses its meaning completely. The primary characteristic of absolute Evil is that it cannot be reasoned with or negotiated with; it must simply be killed. (The fact that nobody has ever managed to kill Evil, except in Harry Potter or Star Wars franchises, doesn't seem to bother the fervent believers in the endless war against Evil, who dominate our political dialogues to this day.)

It's because the belief in absolute Evil renders ethical philosophy impossible that this abstract topic may be more important in the real world than it seems. Every political thinker must choose: you can either subscribe to the belief that absolute Evil exists in the world, or you can engage in rational philosophy about the problems of ethical co-existence in the world. You cannot do both.

The fact that the belief in absolute Evil is childish and naive is especially ironic in light of the popularity of today's atheist philosophers, who say that the popular belief in God is childish and naive. Well, for all we know, they may be right. But its inexplicable that some of these very same philosophers hold tightly to the childish and naive belief in absolute Evil.

I'm thinking particularly of an article written by Christopher Hitchens shortly before he died, titled Simply Evil. In this widely praised piece, Hitchens slammed moral relativists who see two sides to every issue:

"... many of the attempts to introduce "complexity" into the picture strike me as half-baked obfuscations or distractions ... against the tendencies of euphemism and evasion, some stout simplicities deservedly remain ... The regimes of Saddam Hussein and Kim Jong Il and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad fully deserve to be called 'evil.'"

Hitchens's words were evidently considered powerful by many, even though his argument for a belief in a supernatural force strangely contradicts his own fervent atheism. If Hitchens were alive today, I'd love to challenge him in these terms: if you don't believe in the real existence of God, why do you still cling to a belief in the real existence of Satan?

I'm sure Hitchens would come up with a clever answer to this question, but for the life of me I can't figure out what a rational answer might be.

This article is part of the series Philosophy Weekend. The next post in the series is Philosophy Weekend: If You Care About Privacy, Be A Pacifist. The previous post in the series is Philosophy Weekend: Medea Benjamin Debates The President.
43 Responses to "Philosophy Weekend: Ethics and the Concept of Evil"

...the existence of pure evil, sometimes called sin, is embedded and undetachable from our hearts and minds. only the soul can be protected. think of decisions made. motivations always gets back to the self. even our benevolence is a selfish act. clearing of the burden. guiltless. for a while anyway. we are chasing rightousness and we are losing. familiar, i am, with this paradox. the battle can be fought in the heart, and is. the mind, however, is a goner. photographic grudges. discussion of ethics can only be credible in the context of this truth. in matters of actions and decisions made in the civil arena, the consequences are up to fate and actions and decisions of others. your pre death life of your eternal existence only an opportunity...

by John Woods on


People who hold to irrational extremes do exist. If the irrational extreme they hold is based in religious faith based doctrines which cannot be validated then they can persist in their beliefs. If that belief is nihilism then there is a chance that they can destroy you before you could reason with them to change positions. Which may not even be possible. The inability to identify this as evil would be a terrible mistake. To evade that this these extremes a reality renders ethics totally unintelligible. I am not taking Christopher Hitchens side here but I'm not sure that his acknowledgement of evil would be a good reason.

by Levi Asher on

John, I see your point that an evil person or political leader who wishes to be truly nihilistic could use the peacemaking process to destroy his opponent.

But, if we look at actual incidents in history, we see that this is never what actually happens. Virtually all the major historical incidents of mass murder or inhumanity were not caused by nihilists acting out of motivations that were openly malicious and knowingly deceptive, but rather by political leaders who believed their causes to be just, and convinced the populations that supported them that they were acting on behalf of these good causes.

This includes all the examples Hitchens blithely mentions in his article. We recognize today that Hitler was evil, but neither Hitler nor his millions of supporters believed they were evil. They believed that their country had been unjustly destroyed in the First World War, and that they had a right to regain what they lost in that war. Similarly, Osama bin Laden had no problem finding supporters in his part of the world who believed the fight against Western imperialism to be a good and just cause. These are the kinds of leaders who actually cause war and suffering -- not in the name of evil but in the name of self-righteousness. And they don't commit these crimes privately and secretly (like Shakespeare's Richard III, delivering smirking soliloquies to the audience about his hidden intentions) but rather openly and publicly, usually gaining large-scale popular support for their questionable activities before they begin.

The nihilistic pure-evil leaders that you are describing only exist in propaganda and imagination. Actual leaders who cause evil invariably believe they are trying to do good, and are invariably able to gain support from large populations who also believe they are trying to do good. This is why ethical philosophy is so important -- it gives us a chance to appeal to the societies that support these leaders on the basis of good faith and mutual respect, not domination and suppression. I'm sure that this approach will lead to a much more peaceful world than the approach based on the suspicion of pure nihilistic evil.

by Kevin on

"his argument for a belief in a supernatural force"

Hitchens NEVER made an argument for a belief in any supernatural force. Good article, though.

by Levi Asher on

Hi Kevin -- well, I know that Hitchens made a point of rejecting supernatural explanations -- and that's exactly why I'm trying to make a strong point by referring to his implicit belief in evil as a belief in the supernatural. I guess I'm trying to reframe the familiar points in a new way -- and, yes, I'm trying to hit the Hitchens persona where it hurts.

So, perhaps my use of the term "supernatural" to describe his concept of evil is a stretch -- but this stretch is the whole point of my article. If you reread his "Simply Evil" piece (linked above) with my points in mind, maybe you'll agree that calling his concept of evil supernatural is not too much a stretch. His concept of evil is certainly not based in an unbiased understanding of historical facts, anyway, that's for sure.

by John Woods on

I'm sorry I cannot agree that Hitler did not know he was being nihilistic when he opened his death camps. Or when he intentionally used Neville Chamberlain's passivity against the British people. I think we was being nihilistic and he knew it.

by Levi Asher on

John, by the time the death camps opened in 1942, World War II had turned the entire continent of Europe into an inferno. Yes, by 1942, there was nothing left of the Nazi ideology but nihilism. That's the effect that total war tends to have on the human soul.

As I've written here before, World War II happened because of World War I. World War I built upon the lingering resentments left from the Franco-Prussian War and the Russo-Japanese War. The Franco-Prussian War was a rematch of the Napoleonic Wars. What's been the constant, through these two centuries of hellfire? The constant is this: the nations on both sides that allowed these wars to begin were absolutely sure that they were on the side of good and their enemies were on the side of evil. If we can start questioning this bigoted belief, instead of always repeating the mistakes of the generations before us, maybe we can finally break the pattern that's had the planet in a death grip since the age of Napoleon. That's what I'm suggesting here.

by Wojciech on

Great article, Levi!

A couple questions. in your response to John, did you purposely leave out America's own self-righteousness? I mean, how would families of the dead think of our drone attacks? Or the parents in Iraq whose children are born with birth defects because of our chemical waste?

Another one. It is my understanding that Jewish folk don't believe the devil exists. Is this true? If it is, it really intrigues me. I don't know that I believe he exists either.

My problem with Hitchens ascribing somebody as evil is that what is good? If you're labeling a person or a country as evil, are you saying that you, or your country is good? Seems a little biased if you ask me. What is the measurement for declaring something evil?

by John Woods on


These concepts can be reduced to a schoolyard bully at recess. Some people work hard to get what they need while they are alive on this planet, those people who have earned their keep deserve it. Then there are those who for whatever reason cannot earn what they get in life and they suffer or must rely on charity. Then there are those who don't want to work but just to steal it because they envisage that they deserve to have their living provided for them, no matter what it costs others. Those people are evil and deserve to be stopped. Those people do exist. I know several.

You are correct that war on the Nazi's tore open their pretensions and laid bare their motivations or the world to see. But it was their fundamentals from the beginning, and you are incorrect in implying that they had noble intentions from the outset. Pretending it doesn't exist through passive evasion does nothing but embolden the nihilists. Typically people like this are banking on the ignorance of others for their survival. When you willfully evade, you embolden them.

We all need material resources to survive as did the people who remained in Germany after WWI. That is not the issue. The issue is how you go about getting those needs met.


by John Woods on


The problem with modern philosophy is that it is bankrupt morally and leaves people in a position where they cannot tell good from evil. Just as your response shows.

The good for you is to achieve long range values which you need for your life, and for you to achieve those ends honestly by voluntary exchange with others to mutual benefit (capitalism).

The evil is that which destroys the good in your life.

Philosophies contrary to this are morally bankrupt.

I don't agree that Hitchens' characterization of Hussein or other leaders as evil implies any supernatural belief in Satan or anything like it. There can be a secular definition of evil. Ayn Rand defined evil as purposeless destruction.

Also, I don't agree that the Nazi's were nihilists. A nihilist believes that nothing matters. Hitler and the Nazi's believed that the destruction of to Communism and Jewry mattered so much they comitted the resources of Germany to total war in Europe to attain those goals and never wavered even after millions of German soldiers died in battle and the allies were raining destruction from the skies onto the German homeland.

by hypcollector on

...evil is not a is a state of being.all the evil leaders of the past were never held to account.their desires run amuck.never humbled during their reign.most met a bitter end.all eventually.of course they thought the were rightous.they thought they were gods.and they were.for awhile.the mind is not a reliable judge.the connections directly to survival.then you're in too deep.your decision making distracted by ghost rides.plummet back down to a sack of cornmeal.and maybe its not only humans capable of evil.if its not a concious act.plants.and birds.and trees too.most people would like that.

by Levi Asher on

To John Woods: thanks for your comments. I always appreciate your feedback, even when it comes delivered in an Objectivist package.

Just to clarify what I'm saying: I do *not* think the Nazi movement had noble intentions. Far, far from it. The Nazi movement was entirely a product of militarism -- in fact, militarism is what underlay every fascist movement from Mussolini to Franco to Hitler to Petain to Oswald. It would be far beyond me to ever think that a political movement based on militarism has noble intentions.

But here's the key point, the key to the whole thing: the Nazis believed they had noble intentions. In a militarist universe, your own ethnic nationalist party is typically considered "the good guys". The Nazis were considered to be standing up for the rights of a defeated people, and in this way they considered that anything they did was good. We see this again and again, from Rwanda to Croatia to Guatemala to Iran to Chechnya. This is the pattern we've been stuck in for two centuries -- this is the great recurring moral tragedy (and comedy) of our political age.

by Levi Asher on

To Peter Winkler: well, again, I am speaking metaphorically when I compare Hitchens's evident conception of evil to a belief in the supernatural. I am using artistic license, because I think there are strong and significant correspondences between Hitch's concept of evil and the famous mythical/religious concept of Satan. The idea that any large political movement, even one as horrible as Nazism or Maoism or Al Qaeda, can be dismissed as "simply evil" is as offensive to the intelligence as is the idea of a flying spaghetti monster in the sky.

by Levi Asher on

Wojo, you ask: "in your response to John, did you purposely leave out America's own self-righteousness?"

Good question, and the answer is, yes, I purposely left it out! I have to choose my battles, or choose which things to write about. But yes, absolutely, I hope it's understood that I'm concerned with my own country's moral self-righteousness when I discuss these topics. Let's see, the toll of our Iraq War was more than 600,000 dead. Plenty of Evil to find here at home, if anybody wants to point fingers ...

I have heard that the concept of Satan was not part of the original Jewish religion but developed later, if that's what you're referring to. I'm actually not sure about this (I should know, but I don't). I'd be curious to know more about the origin and development of the Satan figure in the Judeo/Christian/Muslim traditions.

by John Woods on


The point I'm making is that in this world there will always be people who work hard to earn what they have in life. Then there will also be people who want to steal to avoid productive activity. It's a fact of life.

And the proper state of the world is that the people who have earned what they have should stand up against people who are trying to loot. Until they give up. If that means we have to have a war every 30-40 years. Then that's what it means.

But I am definitely of the opinion that wars should be in self defense not pre-emptive.

by Wojciech on

Levi, I didn't mean to be brash, so sorry if I came off that way about the America comment.

I am also interested in the development of the Satan character. Years ago, I read about a priest who got kicked out of the catholic church because he announced that he no longer believed that Satan exists.

To John Woods: I find it ironic and extremely humorous that you say I cannot tell between good and evil. And then you say capitalism is good. Miss me with that.

by John Woods on


You asked what is the measurement of good. I defined it for you. Capitalism defined as totally free people who get to exchange their values with others free of coercion and government interference so that they are both mutually benefited and no one is sacrificed and the government (who has the monopoly on the use of force) sanctions their right to keep the fruits of the labors and reinvest the excess (their savings) into other profitable ventures.

And I won't say anything else except if you think that is evil then I'd hate to hear your definition of the good.

by Wojciech on

John, I don't have any problem with the definition of capitalism. My problem is that its reality doesn't exactly live up to its definition. One example is the recent fiasco of Libor manipulation and ISDAfix scandles.

"None are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free" - Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Also, your dualism frightens me.

by wjwiippa on

Epicurus is generally credited with first expounding the problem of evil, and it is sometimes called "the Epicurean paradox" or "the riddle of Epicurus."

"Either God wants to abolish evil, and cannot; or he can, but does not want to. If he wants to, but cannot, he is impotent. If he can, but does not want to, he is wicked. If God can abolish evil, and God really wants to do it, why is there evil in the world?"

David Hume's formulation of the problem of evil in Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion: "Is he willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then is he impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then is he malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil?" "[God's] power we allow [is] infinite: Whatever he wills is executed: But neither man nor any other animal are happy: Therefore he does not will their happiness. His wisdom is infinite: He is never mistaken in choosing the means to any end: But the course of nature tends not to human or animal felicity: Therefore it is not established for that purpose. Through the whole compass of human knowledge, there are no inferences more certain and infallible than these. In what respect, then, do his benevolence and mercy resemble the benevolence and mercy of men?"

Immanuel Kant argued for sceptical theism. He claimed there is a reason all possible theodicies must fail: evil is a personal challenge to every human being and can be overcome only by faith.

In Buddhism, there is no theistic "problem of evil" as Buddhism generally rejects the notion of a benevolent, omnipotent creator god, identifying such a notion as attachment to a false concept.

The Book of Job is one of the most widely known formulations of the problem of evil in Western thought. In it, Satan challenges God regarding his servant Job, claiming that Job only serves God for the blessings and protection that he receives from him. God allows Satan to plague Job and his family in a number of ways, with the limitation that Satan may not take Job's life, although his children are killed. [NB: the term satan is not truly a proper name, but literally means 'the accuser' being preceded by the article ha 'the' in ancient texts]. Job discusses his condition with three friends and questions God regarding his suffering which he finds to be unjust. A fourth friend, Elihu, arrives to chastise Job for standing on his own righteousness, rather than God's. God then responds to Job in a speech "out of a whirlwind" (chapters 38,39) and more than restores Job's prior health, wealth, and gives him new children, as though he has been awakened from a nightmare into a new awareness of spiritual reality.

In Islam, all that is good in this universe is related to existing things which originated from the will of Allah. Likewise all bad things are related to non-existence inherited from original nothingness of the universe. For example: life is the name of an existing thing while death is non-existence of life. In fact death physically or spiritually does not exist in the universe. Likewise, all human behaviors that tend to push humanity towards non-existence are considered as evil but these behavior themselves are name of non-existing things. For example: lack of self control, lack of knowledge, lack of education, lack of self-respect, lack of health, lack of modesty, and so on. The only possible way to eliminate evil or non-existence is to fill the void with good or existing things. Since the only source of existence is Allah, no good can be achieved without help and will of Allah.

Thomas Jay Oord argues that the theoretical aspect of the problem of evil is solved if one postulates that God's eternal nature is love. As necessarily loving, God always gives freedom and/or agency to others, and God cannot do otherwise. Oord calls his position, "Essential Kenosis," and he says that God is involuntarily self-limited. God's nature of love means that God cannot fail to offer, withdraw, or override the freedom and/or agency God gives creatures.

I cut & pasted some points that were of interest because I first thought this was about the problem of evil.

As for Hitchens' comment, this comes from rule ethics, viz., a cricle of people agree who is in their circle and what rules will apply to them.

Rule ethics is the only solution I found for ethics and is Hitchens' point in the comment. [I can't get to the article.] The societies he listed were anathema to the West, ignoring Pyoungyang's raison d'être: simply that the North Koreans are Beijing's stooges and that is the epitome of evil.

by John Woods on


I have studied philosophy for many years, and if it doesn't help you with value choices and give you some sort of guidance for decisions then what use is it?

Now my interest has moved into investing. I enjoy this field because it is like a daily experiment in human beings relating to one another and it's history is unlimited and well documented.

Ben Graham told his students that for an experienced analyst any stock will be at some price too expensive where you will risk your capital, or at some price too cheap therefore representing a good bargain. He further went on to say that you don't need to know the precise weight of a man to tell if he is overweight. Another famous investor said that it is better to be approximately right than to be precisely wrong. Warren Buffett said that a good investment idea if truly understood, should be able to be demonstrated on the back of a napkin, if it has to be more complicated than that, then either you don't understand it, or the people who are selling it to you don't want you to understand it. And the debate of the whole past century has been around the question of whether the market is efficient or inefficient.

The people who have posited that the market is inefficient have been able to exploit lazy thinkers who posited that the market was an efficient (utopia). Where you could buy anything at any price without studying the underlying values therein.

It seems to me that when looking at any situation in philosophy you begin with the extremes so you have a frame of reference as to the possibilities and then you analyze where a particular instance falls within those extremes. This does not mean you have to select the extremes, but without reference to those extremes you have no compass.

My point with Levi is that pretending those extremes don't exist is not a solution to the real problem and not a sufficient answer for why Hitchens' philosophy is wrong. His philosophy is wrong because it drags us back to a far more primitive stage of collectivism.

In simpler terms. I am arguing that just like our markets are inefficient because markets reflect millions of people's hopes, desires, psychology, predictions, speculations, emotions, rationality, etc. So is the world. By its very nature.

A collectivist philosophy cannot create some perfect utopia free of wars or conflict, in fact they tend to make the abuses far more extreme. Capitalism will never be without its faults (like Libor) because it also is inefficient. The point is to acknowledge the inefficiencies and bring people who steal to justice and let the legal system sort it out.

Even then. The world and the markets will still be inefficient. But it is better than any of the alternatives, as demonstrated by the most rapid progress humanity has ever made in the past 200 years.

Karl Marx thought he was going to create a utopia on earth. Did it work? That's my point. So that since you have had nearly all of these philosophies tried out in real life (history is the laboratory of philosophy) it is very clear which ones work the best without much debate.

And it should surprise no one that respect for individual rights and freedom has worked best so that finally the intellectual sphere and common sense reach the same conclusion.

We don't need something more complex than that.

by Levi Asher on

John Woods: I like the way you approach these questions because, like me, you really believe that philosophy can solve many of the world's problems, and you are not too afraid or too embarrassed to think big, and to propose ambitious solutions. I think you and I are in agreement, too, about the ultimate goal: full freedom and peace for all people of the world.

I still differ from you in a few major ways. I still find your embrace of Ayn Rand-esque total capitalism unrealistic, given the actual evidence we have seen of what happens whenever our government moves towards deregulation. In a word, what happens is corruption. Cheating, stealing, gluttony and moral rot. Greedy behavior that pretends to be heroic in an Atlas Shrugged sort of way, and ends up just being greedy and corrupt in a destructive and shameful way. I'm talking about all our favorite scandals and fiascos -- the Savings and Loan scandal, the dot-com bubble, Enron, AIG, Freddie and Fannie, Merrill Lynch. Lehman Brothers. The fact that you can look this history in the eye and still wax lyrical about the glories of unbridled capitalism tells me that you are a big dreamer, but not very realistic.

Second -- even though I appreciate you saying that you think military power should only be used in self-defense (and I also appreciate that Ayn Rand held this good ideal) I think again that you are being credulous in believing that this in any way resembles the way military power is currently being used by the elected leaders of our own country.

So, to sum up, I like your ambitious goals and dreams (they resemble my own) but I just don't see much connection to actual reality as shown by the history of, say, the last 100 years, or the last 50 years, or the last 30 years (pick your historical period -- they ALL show that these ideals don't work).

by John Woods on


My opinions of Rand have diverted in the past year or so, but not too far. Ben Graham said that one thing he observed over the course of his life was that often was starts out as a very solid and accurate premise can get carried into a position which makes it unsound. I think this is the case with Rand, and I will explain briefly.

First, I fundamentally agree with her philosophy. But the problem is that the world she wanted is not the world we live in today, so it is highly unlikely to emerge without some major collapse first.

For example. I have been reading more Buffett today, and in investing you can tell that this man is extremely cautious and aware of capitalism's forces. For example, all investment decisions begin with the rate of return that the US Treasury pays out on it's own securities. This is known as the risk free rate of return. Every investment is at once measured against this standard, because the way our system is currently working, it is impossible for the government to default because it needs money it just prints it. When he begins stepping out on the ledge further, he starts looking for companies who are granted special monopolistic privileges by the government, such as patents, special licenses, etc. It is only after these types of investments have been fully valued that he moves on to companies with very strong competitive advantages. For example, like a Walmart, who at least in the southern portion of the US has a massive, fully automated distribution system which is very difficult to compete with, it is estimated that if someone wanted to compete with Walmart, there would have to be several attempts to take them down, by very large money groups, all of which would lose considerable amounts of their capital in the fight because they would be starting at a competitive disadvantage.

But there are highly unregulated industries, for instance the technology sphere, which Warren Buffett steers clear of because he knows that the competitive forces of capitalism are currently thrashing these companies around like crazy while they fight it out, and the innovations are moving forward too rapidly to have any idea what will happen. It's like settling the Wild West.

So that Ayn Rand's ideal of total laissez faire capitalism DOES WORK. It has unleashed human potential like no system in our history. Even despite its boom and bust nature, it has still carried us much farther than any other philosophy.

Finally Levi, think deeply about what you are saying. Did you get up this morning and choose which outfit you would wear? Did you decide which car you would drive to work? Which highway you would drive on? Did you take a shower with running water this morning? Are you communicating with me on a device which delivers massive amounts of information all over our country at the touch of a button? If you don't like your job, can you quit and go somewhere else to work? Do you have to choose from 50 places to eat today or 100? What is responsible for all these choices you have to make? Capitalism. The unleashing of human potential in search of profits. It brings out the best in most of us, the greatest amount of the time?

If an occasional blip here and there, a breaking down of the system, which has to be repaired happens, but it still enables you to have this life. How in the world could you call that a failure? What in the world are you expecting? If it is more than that, then it is probably something that you never could achieve anyways. If a system is successful in delivering the goods 95% of the time, and then 5% of the time it breaks down, isn't it the ultimate perversion of truth to call that system a failure? What real world examples do you have of a system which has performed better? Keeping in mind that just because you can attempt to shoot holes in one system, does not automatically by itself exonerate your own into a position of primacy.

Do you know how much money was made in the competitive throes of capitalism for the airline industry since Orville Wright took off at Kitty Hawk? Net. Zero. Why? The competitive forces of capitalism have squeezed every single bit of inefficiency out of that market place. There were so many people chasing the idea that a flying machine, that could transport millions of people around the world each day would have to be a great business. But because they all got in there and started competing, capitalists who invested in that industry if they stayed in from then till now, would have realized zero profits. Nearly the same thing in the auto industry. Nearly the same thing in the railroads.

This is the kind of competitive force that Ayn Rand was advocating for in our economy. Now, once the government gets involved, and grants people special privileges then the calculus changes completely.

Where I begin to diverge from Rand not that any of her theories were wrong, I think she was right. I have reached a point where I can visually see it happening in the markets each day now. Where I disagree with her, is the idea that it is impossible for a person to achieve so much wealth that their self interest is no longer check on their risk taking. This is clearly not true. It probably is true in the laze faire world she wanted where competitive forces are ringing every bit of profit out of a particular industry and driving it forward.

But once wealth gets so huge, that a person has 14 homes, including a castle on the French Riviera, 28 cars, their kids college all paid for at Wharton and Harvard, and money to last them for 20 retirements. I think it is highly questionable that this person will not begin taking risks which he wouldn't do if he didn't have all of those things, and that this could put the whole system in jeopardy. But even then you see Warren Buffett coming up with the giving pledge, which will hopefully help trim some of those excesses voluntarily. Depriving people who have too much money from risking the system, and also their hedge funds, and investment advisors, etc for more productive purposes within society. So at the other extreme I find myself in some degree of disagreement with Rand, there is a point where it is too much.

But isn't this a wonderful country where our problems are what to do with too much wealth being created? I could think of worse problems.

I want to make one thing clear though, I do not think it is possible to have a healthy economic system and diverge too far away from Rand's principles, that is the lesson for anyone who would argue a foothold for government to compromise our capitalist system all the way into the backward collectivism of socialism or communism, which would surely be a thousand times worse.

John Woods

by John Woods on


Also how in the world did the dot com bubble make it into the list with Enron? One is an example of human beings interaction with the business cycle (read Extraordinary Popular Delusions & The Madness of Crowds by Charles Mackay and Joseph de la Vega). The other is an example of flat out thievery. The dot com bubble has to do with unknowledgeable people and their tendency to speculate, which has been with us as human beings long before capitalism, and will always be with us so long as we are human. The Enron situation has to do with knowledgeable people knowingly defrauding their shareholders. The later has nothing to do with Rand. While she did advocate holding your own self-interest above everyone else, she made it very clear she was talking about achieving your own values honestly. She never advocated advancing yourself by defrauding others, one of her most famous articles was about how force and fraud where the destroyers of modern civilization (reason and individualism). But her position was that you do not automatically indict all of humanity as being guilty of fraud, instead you let the legal system work that out, on a case by case basis by examining the evidence.

The question is not to have a system without faults (there isn't one, and there can never be one), the question is when a system makes an error, does it self-correct, does it clear the mistake? Does it have any corrective measures intrinsic to the system itself?

I think ours does have those characteristics to a greater degree than any system that has ever been devised to date. Both from a legal perspective, and also because investors and individuals have immediate control over their own capital and they can choose to stop investing or stop spending money with companies who defraud.

I don't think of Enron as an indictment against capitalism. I think Enron's bankruptcy is a vindication of capitalism. It cleared the error.

John Woods

by Wojciech on


I admire your ambition. but this:

"The point is to acknowledge the inefficiencies and bring people who steal to justice and let the legal system sort it out."

is simply not happening in the real world. Ideally, yes, this is what SHOULD happen, but the fact is that it is not happening.

by Levi Asher on

John Woods: once again, I think you are a good spokesperson for the ideology of free-market capitalism, whether or not this is rooted in Ayn Rand. You make some good points. Overall -- well, we're getting pretty far from our main topic at this point, so maybe I'll just let your points stand. Maybe we need a separate Philosophy Weekend blog post just about capitalism (and Objectivism) so we can hash this out in detail.

I hope you don't mind, though, if I just cherry-pick a couple of points to respond to.

First, yes, many great innovative things were created in our capitalist economy. They were not created in a Rand-esque extreme free market economy, of course, but rather were created in actual 20th Century and 21st Century western quasi-socialist economies that combined government regulation with capitalism. So, the fact that we enjoy our cars and our TVs and our computers wouldn't indicate that we need more capitalism and less government interference -- rather, it would seem to indicate that our current mix of capitalism and government interference might not be working so badly.

While we're on this topic, here's one innovation we all enjoy and are all using at this very moment that is entirely the product of government research, NOT free market capitalism: the Internet. As I've written before, it's a godsend that Microsoft did NOT invent the Internet before our government did. If free-market Microsoft had created the Internet, it's pretty much a sure thing that the Internet would suck.

Finally, you ask why I include the dot-com bubble in my list of financial scandals. Well, you're right to point this out, since it's not usually included in the list. However, since I was personally in the middle of the dot-com bubble during the late 90s, I know from direct observation how rotten the dot-com bubble was. I wrote about it here:

by Wojciech on

getting back to the you guys believe Satan exists? why or why not? I ask because people who do believe he exists seem to think he is the representation of absolute evil.

by Levi Asher on

Wojo, having been observing human nature closely for many decades now, I feel very confident that:

1) Satan does not exist (or, if Satan exists, he hasn't made himself seen)

2) there is no such thing as absolute evil, incurable evil or irredeemable evil.

That's what I think.

by John Woods on


Even if a few murders slip through the system, is not an excuse to imprison everyone, or to throw out the entire criminal justice system, both extremes are irrational. The capitalist system where millions (maybe billions) of people make use of their own capital and the tool called calculation to get at the truth, and then withhold money from abusers. Followed up the legal justice system which has the ability to carry it further than just bankrupting the abusers but also to deprive them of their freedom for the rest of their lives. Is the best possible solution to the problem. So while it may not be perfect, I challenge you to devise something better. That is my point.

So that it works in reality as good as any system could, and it does put some people in jail, and it definitely bankrupts the majority of them. Note the Enron case where investors (not government) figured out what was happening, and deprived that massive organization of all of its liquidity within a matter of days, bringing it crashing to the ground, and then it's CEO who was imprisoned and died there.

It seems to me that what you are looking for is some mythical system which can pre-judge the minds and hearts of millions of people and make 100% accurate predictions in advance, about what the future will hold. Nothing can do that, but capitalism does a very good job of uncovering frauds and flushing them down the toilet faster than any other system I have studied.

I guarantee you a company like Enron would be allowed to exist in perpetuity in Russia.

Finally Levi... Give me a break, when the internet was turned over to the private sector, it was literally 4 unix computers that could send basic text messages from one campus to the other in the event of a war.

I no longer believe in zero regulations for the reasons I said earlier, that once people accumulate so much wealth, that their lifestyle would not be affected one bit if they took huge gambles because their resources so far outstrip their needs. In those cases, you can no longer rely on self interest to force people to be rational. But at the same time, it does not follow that everyone who amasses large amounts of wealth are going to turn out to be frauds either (take Warren Buffett). It's just that the capacity for it exists and the likelihood increases.

I think that system would work in a pure Laissez Faire society, the way Ayn Rand envisioned it, because people would never get that wealthy, because so many other people would be competing for those profits as to keep it more evenly distributed, but not in the one we live inside of today.

Regulations create larger organizations because competition cannot enter there and they grow over time underneath huge monopolies, protected by government, and that power is used to enact further regulations in other areas, repeating the process, and creating huge pockets of money and power which are no longer diffused by the forces of competition, and no longer tied down by self-interest of the proprietors.

A quick study of history will make this clear, in the early 1900s it was JP Morgan who was bailing out the federal government, but since the government granted exclusivity to the Federal Reserve System, it has now reversed and become the federal government bailing out private banks. Which means that instead of wealthy private individuals bailing out the tax payer, you now have the government extracting resources from the tax payer to bail out wealthy private bankers. But this is just an example of the socialists getting the end result they have been advocating for the whole time, and the more regulations they get, the more similar kinds of results they will get. Or in the words of Reagan, the more the planners fail, the more the planners plan.

So it is not that capitalism has thrived because of regulation, but in spite of it, which is a testament to it's power. As Adam Smith said that all that is really needed for prosperity to develop among honest people is for you to leave them alone!

So what is the next best thing? I think the next best thing we have these days is to listen to Mortimer Adler's vision of capitalism which is slightly more muted from Ayn Rand's. In his view rather than adopt socialism (where the government uses force to constantly extract resources from companies and individuals) or communism. Instead what we should have is a whole lot of individuals (no matter how small) learning to identify companies with very strong competitive advantages, and then start buying shares in those companies. This way the means of production (ownership) which Karl Marx discussed, is spread from one shore to the other, and so are the benefits/profits. If you discover you have invested in fraud (like Enron), you compensate for this eventuality by not investing too much of your savings in any single company, and you pull your money from that business and move it into another one that you have more confidence in.

In this way, the every day Joe that lives in America will own a greater piece of it's prosperity, and leave the profit motive in tact, without resorting to government force which will do nothing except extinguish personal ambition and send our whole country into the dark despair of deflation and depression. If you do not like where you work, quit, start your own business.

"None are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free" - Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

(That maybe true, except he gives no specifics, except that none of us are free, and he implies that none of us can ever be free. Why? Because he is an authority in every situation and throughout all time? And he has declared it so? I would argue that more damage has been done to average people by philosophers to attempt to use all sorts of logical fallacies (argument from authority to name one) to try to convince their adherents into believing falsehoods.)

These are not the "illusions" of freedom. We have real freedom. You can go anywhere you want, and do nearly anything you want in this country, until you achieve some degree of success in life only then does it start to get difficult to continue to improve. Instead what too often is the case, are people who have no ambition or courage, that want to sit back on the sidelines and gripe about what the government isn't giving them. It's not the government's job. Put yourself out there. Start something. Take a risk. Work your butt off. Then take your money and buy a piece of America. Those very small 2%-3% dividend payments seem small but over the course of a lifetime, if you manage the process properly, they turn into massive accumulations yielding handsome future incomes, and you will have deserved it!

John Woods

by John Woods on

John Woods revision:

"None are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free" - Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

"None are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they are forever enslaved." -- John Woods

by Levi Asher on

John, first, about the development of the Internet -- no, in fact, all the innovations that created our beloved Internet took place under public funding, via state universities, public-funded research centers, and libraries, until 1995, which was when Wall Street began to pay attention. The government didn't always play the key role, because state universities and university-affiliated research centers stepped in. I'm talking about Cal Berkeley, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, University of Kansas ... as well as international government-funded science centers like CERN, where the WWW itself was invented. These public organizations created the great culture of the Internet that we still enjoy today. Capitalism missed the boat on this innovation completely. It took Apple about 10 years to catch up to what the public organizations were doing. Microsoft still hasn't caught up, and neither has IBM or Oracle.

About everything else you say -- you are inspiring me to open up the question of capitalism itself in a future Philosophy Weekend post. There's plenty to discuss here. I'm curious why you seem to equate wealth with happiness. But that's really a topic for an entirely different discussion, isn't it ...

by John Woods on

To put this in elementary terms. I equate wealth directly with happiness. Why? It's simple, because if I have 3 million dollars in my investment portfolio yielding 7%, with my risk spread out across many investments, then this means I receive 210,000 dollars per year to take care of my family and I am free. Quite literally, until the government comes in and tries to confiscate it for some charity that it has designated as more crucial than my own freedom. So I do not equate money with happiness, but I do equate freedom with happiness, and to be truly free, it does require money. That is unless you decide to relinquish from your responsibilities for yourself and your family and get on the government dole instead.

Btw, thank you for correcting my spelling errors, much of my thoughts have been flowing out faster than I could type accurately.

by Wojciech on

Thanks for your response(s), John. I'll save my disagreements for another time.

Levi, I'm with you man. I am coming closer and closer to disbelieving satan's existence. The old story that God put him on earth to test people's faith...i can dig that on a couple levels, but not for the most part. If God is all knowing, wouldn't he already know how strong somebody's faith is? Why would he need to "test" their faith or "figure out" their faith...wouldn't he already know?

In the Quran, they call him "Shaitan." He's got an army of spirits or "jinn" that are basically unhappy with the setup in Heaven so they roam the earth causing mischief in the minds/hearts/souls of humans. This story I have more accordance with, understanding that it wasn't God who cast him/them out of Heaven but it was their own choice.

I am reminded of Burroughs "evil spirit" (is that what he called it? i've had a few drinks) and i do think everybody has good and bad twisted up inside them, not necessarily evil but something in them that is working against their and others best interests. Or a better metaphor might be light and dark. I don't believe anybody is completely good, or completly "evil"(for lack of a better word). i think we're all a bit of both.

The idea of evil as privatio boni (Augustine) is rarely met with in Hitchens Hall. This idea tends to emphasize the Argument from Evil as destructive of the concept of God. The upshot is that this seems to establish Evil.

My own sense of actual evil that can oppress a nation or people or group in the sense that they will go to war on the strength of it is that evil is like snow blindness. The blizzard of lies, racial theories etc. that are established through centuries of "everyone knows that" can lead to an overwhelming of the moral sense of direction.

For instance I thought that it might be a good idea to topple Saddam. Think again chump. From now on I will just assume that I am being told lies. That’s safest.

by mnaz on

--- "I think you (John) and I are in agreement, too, about the ultimate goal: full freedom and peace for all people of the world."--- Levi

--- "If that means we have to have a war every 30-40 years. Then that's what it means."--- John

This is truly a great discussion. Thanks to all. But the above snippets didn't seem to square with each other. The second statement seems very much an expression of the classic mindset of open-ended, expansionist militarized imperialism. Which has become, in many ways, the American identity. Even if we hardly realize it. Hard for me to see much fundamental agreement here.

by Levi Asher on

I see your point there, Mnaz.

As a pacifist who tends to get into debates, I'm so used to hearing that "it's okay to have a war once in a while" that I sometimes fail to react to that really bad belief as strongly as I should.

by mtmynd1 on

Congratulations, Levi, on this most successful topic! It's like people have been holding back on their opinions are regarding the "evil/good" subject, especially noticeable during the turbulent times we are all experiencing in some way or another across our globe... not always an 'evil' for many and conversely not 'good' for others.

What this subjects always boils down to is that eternal duality we all live with... and are reluctant to accept as truth or even fact. Yin/yang is the most understandable way that explains this phenomenon and has been embraced initially by the East for possibly thousands of years... a concept (truth?) that are complimentary forces and not opposing as many choose to believe.

"Evil" versus "Good" is also a misnomer, 'good' being not the opposite but more like 'innocence' which we all as living, breathing individuals never remain innocent but rather grow and hopefully mature into rational, sensible hu'man beings who accept two forces within Nature that is necessary for life to exist.

When we proclaim that something or someone is "Evil!" what we are saying is this something/someone is completely out of balance with the reality. Chinese medicine has successfully restored the health of millions knowing dis-ease is brought about by imbalance of the body to respond in a healthy manner - cure the imbalance and health is restored.

This same principle is used to restore a situation or anothers health. When world leaders become unbalanced thru various reasons or causes, many have gone off into believing they are invincible and have gained their power from some divine source. In reality they are sick and their sickness turns into 'evil actions.'

A favorite evil subject for the 20th Century is Hitler. The extreme manner in which he treated certain peoples, Jews, Gypsies and Homosexuals, was a moment in history that will quite possibly be in our minds for hundreds of years, so despicable those acts of brutality were. Was Hitler attempting to restore balance within the Reich which he strongly felt was in itself out of balance with the Jews initially to blame for the imbalance of wealth? the reason for the downfall of a once proud Nation due to the homosexuals? were the Gypsies seen as a target because of their 'unacceptable' ways" ? I'll leave those answers to historians but they are fundamentally an attempt to restore balance and Hitler thought he had the answers. Evidently thousands more apparently agreed with him or would there be the events of horror that followed them?

Out of balance... when one side of that attempt to balance becomes an effort to refute it's complementary, "all Hell breaks loose". To what degree this 'hell' becomes is how much 'evil' we see within that imbalance.

It's not a hu'man thing but the power of Nature which is also subject to this eternal balancing act. We American's have been witness to the incredible power of Nature , (which we call "wrath" due to it's strength), which does not allow a hu'manly perfect existence without droughts, volcanoes, hurricanes, tornadoes, floods or combinations of the any two. We're all subject to dualism whether we accept it or not... and dualism in itself will prove there are those who will not accept it.

If we live our lives within as much balance as we are able to accept, our lives take on a rather calm, peaceful pace that when the inevitable balancing act happens, we are not subject to extremes that challenge our minds and bodies from going nutz or getting deathly ill.

by hypcollector on

..sea of screens..

...the dimmed glowing nights have been lifted. The twisters and grapefruit hail had been avoided. Turn our attention to the hypnotized and plead for them to listen. It is calling. It being the unknown source. Knowledge and faith colliding. Big bang? bet brother, a big bang to be sure. Loud and spectacular. But only for the attentive and aware. Rightousness can be demonstrated over and over and it will not matter. All for nothing. And everything. Liberating freedom and it starts every moment.. ..publishers clearing house, keeping hope alive....the answer to our current state of confusion. The drink for our current thirst. The shot for our current hope but gives no faith...disappointment assured. The suckers are in a never-ending line, trying to fill the empty void. Cash and cars. Chicks and rock & roll...and a sea of screens lit up the darkness...

by mnaz on

and another thing . . . if we "have to have a war" every so often, then let's have more full disclosure on the matter. if these wars are driven largely by protecting and expanding wealthy capital interests, then let's be a little more realistic and honest about what the goals really are. no more corporate welfare at the expense/sacrifice of public treasure (and blood).

if more countries need to be invaded to fuel the capitalist juggernaut, then stop feeding me "noble lies" and leave my confiscated tax money alone. pony up private funds and privatize this dirty work. (already happening to some extent. war privatization is on a big upswing in the last decade, but we still have those hundreds of billions in no-bid contracts paid for with public money to deal with.)

by Levi Asher on

Well said, mnaz.

by Brian on

"Did you get up this morning and choose which outfit you would wear? Did you decide which car you would drive to work? Which highway you would drive on? Did you take a shower with running water this morning? Are you communicating with me on a device which delivers massive amounts of information all over our country at the touch of a button? If you don't like your job, can you quit and go somewhere else to work? Do you have to choose from 50 places to eat today or 100? What is responsible for all these choices you have to make? Capitalism. The unleashing of human potential in search of profits. It brings out the best in most of us, the greatest amount of the time?"

Perfect summation of why objectivism and Rand are logical, *ethically coherent* philosophies for those with power, e.g. privileged white males in the USA. Why would you not defend the status quo? After all you have multiple cars... and apparently the education to quit your job and choose another if you decided. It is not so for the VAST majority of the world... but of course the ethical conclusion that those in power can make is that these people are lazy, undeserving, etc.

Further, although I would agree to an extent about the ways that human ingenuity is catalyzed by capitalism, especially viz. technology.... but in the face of a current situation of increasing, absurd levels of inequality even in a leading "developed" nation like USA, I woud seriously question exactly what you see as the underlying virtue to all this choice? What has all our "freedom of choice" actually produced?

And finally, objectivists are often completely religious when it comes to the ideas of agency and choice... which is unsurprising since their privilege and status was obviously the just product of their virtuous good decisions and hard work, etc... and had NOTHING to do with the random circumstance of their birth, the parenting they received, the education norms among their peers etc etc. (*rolls eyes*)

"Choice" is always a finite set. Among the range of normal and feasible choices for a certain class of young 20 year olds may be where they decide to buy a $6 cup of fro-yo. And for others it might be whether to pay for bus fare or a bag of rice.

Levi, have you read Alain Badiou? He is a VERY powerful modern thinker from the French wave of 1960s+ theory that nonetheless departed in a very original and divergent way from his peers in psychoanalysis, poststructuralism, postmodernism, etc.

I absolutely love his formulation of ethics, ontology, subjectivity, and truth modeled on, among other things, Cantor's set theory (!)... If you can, I highly endorse his "Ethics: An Essay Concerning the Understanding of Evil". I wouldn't even say I'm a devotee, or won over by some of his more challenging arguments, but he has nonetheless inspired me to think in radically new ways and is therefore AWESOME.

by Dana on

I can't claim to have read the entire Comments section, but I'm a bit surprised that Hannah Arendt's Banality of Evil didn't receive a share of the discussion.

by Levi Asher on

Great reference point, Dana -- well, with your help, Hannah Arendt is now included here. The phrase "banality of evil" is very relevant, I think, and I suspect Arendt coined it not only for Adolph Eichmann but also to represent her friend Martin Heidegger, the Nazi philosopher. It's a phrase that recurs for me often ... evil is indeed most often banal.

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