A debate on the validity of absolutes

By Madeleine Somerville

It seems that all great battles can be reduced to one fundamental theme: Good versus Evil. Day after day we hear President Bush invoke this age old dichotomy as a means of justifying the sacrifices made by countless humans, the necessity of good Christian America triumphing over the godless “axis of evil” in the Middle East. Disney movies embody this theme in textbook fashion, as beautifully rounded cartoon characters win again and again when pitted against the dark and sinister faces of evil; withered stepmothers, haggard witches, sorcerers cackling with malevolent glee.

Even beyond the silver screen and senseless quagmire of American politics it is easy to see the concept manifesting itself in our own lives. It is just too simple to dismiss people, events and actions as being inexplicable, attributable only to the presence of something beyond comprehension or rationality, the presence of evil.

In the face of such convenient explanations, the question inevitably arises: does evil exist? Can we truly say that a person, independent of all extenuating circumstances and factors, is evil? Can we say that someone is simply born with something missing, with an innate will to do wrong in the world, to cause harm without cause and wreak mayhem without reason?

As a student of sociology I hesitate to use the word “evil” to describe people or their actions. I have been trained to think about the definitions of “right” or “wrong” as culturally subjective and open to interpretation, taught to deny the existence of something inherently bad. That being said, none of my textbooks had a chapter devoted to evil, defining the concept, giving small snapshots into the life of an evil person, examples and exercises on the subject. Evil, it seems, is too obscure to be covered in black and white and while the notions of right and wrong exist on a moral plane, evil tastes like mystery, a wrongdoing so dark that it is beyond our imaginations.

When discussing evil and those who embody it, Adolf Hitler is often presented as the ultimate poster boy. The list of atrocities he committed is endless, the cold, systematic way he carried out his plan has been documented in numerous films and documentaries. It tears one’s heart to glance at the black and white photos, cruelly emaciated bodies, blank eyes staring out over jutting cheekbones, corpses piled haphazardly in mass graves. But is it truly accurate to say that this man was evil? Regardless of all else, he was just a man. Alongside the horror there were brief moments of humanity, images of him bouncing small children on his knee, draping an arm lovingly around his girlfriend, Eva Braun. There was a person behind the terror, a heart behind the hatred.

It goes without saying that none of this excuses his actions, there cannot be and will never be any excuse for the holocaust. If anything it is the fact that Adolf Hitler was just a man that makes his actions so horrifying. We cannot deny that he was human just as we are. He had parents, he was a child once. He had a heart and a brain just as we do, but for some reason chose to use them differently.

Perhaps it is our unerring faith in humanity that causes us to believe in the concept of evil and resort to describing people as such, as if by attributing their actions or character to something beyond this realm, we absolve ourselves of all responsibility. By saying that someone is evil, we remove any traces of similarity; we wash our hands of them and are left secure in our belief that they were somehow “different.” For how could we exist in a world where people like you and me have the capacity to exterminate six million people because of a misguided belief?

It is my belief that a person’s environment and surroundings shape him and while one can be born with specific personality traits and tendencies, the predisposition to evil is simply not one of them. In saying that however, I have to acknowledge that I have never been in the presence of someone who has committed atrocities. Never met a murderer, a rapist or worse. Never looked into a person’s eyes and seen steely hatred or worse, the absence of anything human. Perhaps I would change my mind if I had. Perhaps then I would want to grasp anything I could to foster a belief that I was somehow different. I would take any route I could to convince myself that I didn’t bear some similarity, that there wasn’t some small sense of evil lurking within me right alongside the good.


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