Saturday, January 9, 2010

The Shadow Knows

the shadow knows!

Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? So began the 1930s mystery radio drama, The Shadow, and eighty years later, it's still a good question. You might think psychiatry is tailor-made to provide an answer since evil is often talked about in connection with certain kinds of psychopathology. By assuming cruelty represents sickness, we try to make sense out of senselessness.

I'm just not entirely certain that's true. I mean, yes, psychopathology can help explain why one person mistreats another. It doesn't settle the issue of whether or to what extent, there is such a thing as evil, something without which the world would be clearly better off. At this point, psychiatry generally defers to theologians and philosophers. When dealing with patients, we want to bracket moral judgment in favor of providing treatment because caring for people is what we do.

Approaching evil as a moral issue, however, is not as straightforward as it sounds, because we quickly find ourselves confronted by conflicting principles. This isn't easy even for religion and philosophy to unravel. When someone hijacks a plane and crashes it into a building intending to destroy the infidels, we've left Kansas far behind.

Well, isn't that why we have laws? asks one. The problem is, the rule of law can reflect moral concerns, bringing us back to having to decide whose morality will carry the day. Whoever has the most power makes the law, answers another. That's all well and good, but this country was founded on the idea that the voice of minorities should be heard. We don't write laws on the grounds that might makes right. We need to establish a broader basis for deciding what constitutes evil because, in a pluralistic world, morality is not necessarily unilateral.

So, how do we do that? I think we have to start by asking whether there is something much more fundamental that can serve as a kind of baseline. Something that creates the conditions of possibility for asking questions of right and wrong in the first place.

In medicine, we have the oft-quoted phrase, First of all, do no harm. In other words, before we even think of prescribing treatment, we are committed to refraining from doing anything intentionally harmful to a patient. Consequently, thoughtless, careless, unnecessary "harm" constitutes an evil because it violates the essential value we place upon human life.

And this is what I mean. We begin by establishing where our values lie. Not with what might be morally superior or inferior, but with what is important, what we're willing to stand by and stake our lives upon. Decisions about good and evil are utterly dependent upon identifying what truly matters to us. Once we've done that, then, like the Shadow, we'll be in a position to recognize evil when it shows its face.

(Creative Commons image by lamont_cranston via Flickr)
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