If there’s any ability more critical to one’s safety and happiness than the ability to distinguish the evil man from the good, I can’t imagine what it might be.
I’m treading on theologically uncertain ground in this. It’s Christian doctrine that no individual is irredeemably evil. I subscribe to that doctrine. Nevertheless, there are those who consciously embrace evil during part or all of their lifetimes. The greatest of these are long remembered; their crimes remain prominent in the histories for decades, even centuries. Of course there are preferable paths to greatness, yet great evil has a peculiar glamor of its own.
But most of us don’t come into direct contact with the great monsters of history. For one thing, there aren’t enough of them. For another, it isn’t guaranteed that they’ll be recognizable as villains during their lifetimes. A great deal of seeming good has been done by thoroughly evil men, and much destruction has been wrought by well-intentioned men who thought they were doing good.
The prerequisite for recognizing the villain is the ability to recognize evil.
The beginning of the journey starts with the recognition that there is such a thing as truth: statements that accord with objective reality. Truth is fundamental to human understanding, and therefore to all questions of morals and ethics. The following comes from an essay I posted at the late, much lamented Eternity Road on September 20, 2010:
For reasons that would require a large history to delineate, Americans have been led away from the understanding of absolute truth. We've been treated to elaborate, amphigorical explanations of why "the cat sat on the mat" should not be taken as a statement of unchallengeable fact, even if we can see Kitty sitting on the damned thing with our own eyes. Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, and the rest of their tribe literally made careers out of the campaign to destroy even the possibility that language, our vehicle for thought and for interaction with one another, can express truth. But without a trustworthy, serviceable conception of truth, there can be no knowledge, including knowledge of Man's nature. Since the understanding of Man's nature is the key to reasoning about right and wrong, without truth we can make no approach to moral and ethical standards.
Without truth, evil becomes not merely undefined, but undefinable.
It should follow that a conscious attempt to persuade others to accept an untruth – a falsehood or a dangerously inaccurate statement – is evil. It’s possible to harm others in other ways, of course, but as I said above, much harm is done by the well-meaning. Also, the infliction of harm is sometimes necessary to effect justice. However, with the exception of games in which no one’s rights are at stake, conscious deception, whether crude or artful, is always evil.
Consider, if you will, the oft-repeated lie that many thousands of Iraqi civilians – the fictions given have varied between 100,000 and 300,000 – were killed by American forces during Operation Iraqi Freedom. Some of those – the already deceived – purvey this lie unknowingly. But others do so knowing perfectly well that it’s false. In the usual case, those liars proceed thence to lies about the theft of Iraq’s oil by American corporations. Their purpose is evil: to paint the American liberation of Iraq from the Ba’athist regime of Saddam Hussein as itself evil.
Other large-scale lies of recent vintage include claims that the federal government distributes heroin and cocaine in black communities; that AIDS was invented in a government lab as a weapon of war; and that a third of American children routinely and involuntarily “go hungry.” Those who promulgate such falsehoods have an agenda. They believe getting others to accept their deceits will serve that agenda. The truth – that heroin and cocaine, the “recreational drugs” of choice for an unfortunate number of persons, are mostly produced and sold by private criminal organizations; that the source of the AIDS virus was most probably West African chimpanzees; that food is so available in the U.S. that the most common health problem the poorest Americans face is obesity – doesn’t serve that agenda.
These lies, in other words, are tools villains use to twist the minds of the ignorant and insufficiently skeptical. Their purveyors seek to make you into a tool: to use you for their own ends.
The conscious intention to use others for one’s own ends and against their interests is the defining characteristic of the villain.
A healthful skepticism about bombastic claims is a survival necessity in our time. Not all hyper-dramatic claims are strokes in support of an evil enterprise, of course, but even those are worth a cocked eyebrow and some desultory fact-checking. No one’s email has ever been chosen to win a vast sum of money in some European lottery. There are no African heiresses looking to share their good fortune with you, if only you’ll oblige by sending them your bank account number and routing information by return mail. And sorry, lonely gents, beautiful Russian ladies aren’t gaspingly eager to meet and mate with you.
No, he who asks you to accept such claims isn’t necessarily a villain...but if I were you, in my future interactions with him I’d keep one hand on my wallet and the other on my gun. Be prepared with the sharpest of sharp questions: “Who? By when? How do you know? Who else have you serviced? Can you provide references?” Count evasive answers against them.
But soft! What email through yonder server breaks? Well, looky here! Intergalactic Representations Ltd. has read this blog and is certain they can make me a world-famous author! All I have to do is send them a copy of my most recent story and a check for $2500, and they’ll be on it faster than you can say “Eschew Rebarbative Anfractuosities And Obfuscatory Vermiculations!” Now where did I leave my checkbook...
(Recommended: M. Scott Peck’s The People Of The Lie)