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Evil: The Worst Story ever Told?

“Ironically, the criminals I see evaluate and justify their own violence-the torture and hostage taking and human sacrifices they commit-by means of exactly the same kinds of moral value judgments that our legal system uses: “the bitch deserved it”” or “the son of a bitch deserved it.””

This sentence is from Preventing Violence, a book by James Gilligan, an American psychiatrist who acted as Director of Mental Health Services for the Massachusetts Prison system.

Gilligan argues that people become violent because they perceive that the only recourse to rid themselves of deep feelings of shame is to hurt others to gain respect. He suggests that we ought to take a preventive medicine and public health approach to violence.  We should seek to prevent violence by attacking its root causes through initiating social and economic change.

We make the ex post facto rationalization that since a person committed an act that we do not condone; the person deserves punishment because of our initial moral intuition that they are evil.

However, evil is not an “objective thing that actually exist[s] independently of our subjective feelings and thoughts, rather than a word we all too often use to rationalize, justify, and conceal, from ourselves and others, our own violence toward those we hate and wish to punish.”

Gilligan continues to say “Once we have labeled someone as evil there is often no limit to the cruelty and violence we can feel justified in administrating to them.” In fact, the United States criminal justice system has been condemned by the United Nations Committee against Torture due to the practices of capital punishment, long-term solitary confinement and stun-gun usage.

Rather than focusing on punishment (revenge?) of(on) those who commit crimes, Gilligan and many of his colleagues suggest that we focus on primary prevention of violence. To clarify, primary prevention of disease includes insuring a sanitary water supply and waste disposure as well as raising people above the poverty line. Primary prevention has been shown to many times more effective against certain infectious diseases than tertiary prevention or treatment. Tertiary prevention occurs when someone has already become sick (or violent).

Primary prevention of violence can take the form of remedying the inequities between the socioeconomic classes that can be a source of both continual shame (scarcity, discrimination, etc) and the apathy that can lead a person to commit violence for the perceived lack of other avenues. Violence is ingrained in our society in many ways such as in our concepts of masculinity and heroism. Can we change that unfortunate "fact"?

The moral intuition of “evil” is an example of our use of “make-sense epistemology.”According to Haidt, “a correct understanding of the intuitive basis of moral judgment may [] be useful in helping decision makers avoid mistakes and in helping educators design programs (and environments) to improve the quality of moral judgment and behavior.” If we recognize our biases then we can try to account for them rather than just rationalizing our pre-made “moral intuition”. If we ask questions such as “What made the person act this way? What could we improve to avoid this scenario?” If we recognize the social problems that cause violence and if we decide to value peace, we can work to create it. That’s a lot of ifs…

I’m thinking of writing my paper on this topic and writing my thoughts out helped me see what the paper might be like, so thank you forum and classmates!



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