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How to make yourself look like a prat in one easy lesson

Will Smith has expressed his view that people are essentially good, they just do bad things as a consequence of following the logical train of thought from faulty premises.

Even Hitler didn’t wake up going, ‘let me do the most evil thing I can do today’,” said Will. “I think he woke up in the morning and using a twisted, backwards logic, he set out to do what he thought was ‘good’. Stuff like that just needs reprogramming. I wake up every day full of hope, positive that every day is going to be better than yesterday. And I’m looking to infect people with my positivity. I think I can start an epidemic.”

And this remark has sent the Jewish Defence League into a hissyfit of rage.

Smith’s comments are ignorant, detestable and offensive. They spit on the memory of every person murdered by the Nazis. His disgusting words stick a knife in the backs of every veteran who fought so valiantly to save the world from those aspirations of Adolf Hitler. Smith’s comments also cast the perpetrators of the Holocaust as misguided fellows rather than the repulsive villains of history they truly were. If people do not understand how idiotic and insensitive it was to make such a comment, it is like a Jew saying that James Earl Ray, the assassin of Rev. Martin Luther King, was basically a good person who did a “bad thing.”

Now that is a very dubious interpretation of Smith’s remarks, to put it mildly. I am not sure I agree with Smith that all people are essentially good, although I do think most people are capable of good. I think that absent a biological defect, we develop towards goodness or evil or, more usually, somewhere in the middle, through the exercise of our free will in accord or in conflict with our genetic predispositions, but all people are capable of both good and evil. Some are more predisposed to good, others to evil (and a disproportionate number of evil people are drawn to politics as a career as it offers such rich possibilities for doing just that), but I do not think we are inexorably forced down either path… and thus find it hard to entirely disagree with Smith.

However the theory that Will Smith is presenting is an entirely reasonable one to argue and using the example of a man not unjustly held to be the very epitome of evil seems a fair and relevant way to express his view of human nature. Without a doubt Smith is in excellent philosophical company on the issue of innate goodness and his position is a deeply Christian one.

When Hitler looked in the mirror, I am sure he did not see an evil man gazing back at him. Of course he did what he thought was ‘right’ within his world view, his meta-context, which was framed by the axioms of a collectivist racist drawing on a long history of collectivist and racist thought. To Hitler ‘right’ was whatever was good for the ‘herrenvolk’ which he perceived as being in perpetual conflict with other racial groups. As a consequence his concept of ‘right’ was always going to be monstrous (i.e. the “twisted, backwards logic” of which Smith speaks).

What Smith seems to be saying is that if someone had the chance to sit Hitler down and ‘unpick’ his ‘twisted, backwards logic’, then perhaps they might have been able to ‘reach’ his deeply buried innate goodness. Although I have serious doubts on that score, it is a far from unsupportable argument and in no way speaks to Hitler’s actual manifested goodness but rather the notion of an innate goodness being intrinsic in us all as a species. If you take that charitable view of humanity then of course Hitler (and Pol Pot, Stalin, Genghis Khan and Caligula) had an innate goodness buried somewhere in the deepest basement of their dark souls.

That the JDL feels that is an intolerable position to take rather than just an incorrect one, makes me deduce they are probably not worth the effort of debating, particularly given their preposterous characterisation of Smith’s remarks. And although as I have said, I do not entirely agree with Smith’s theory of innate goodness, if I was him my response to the JDL would be something along the lines of “Screw you, buddy” whilst proffering the Mighty Forks in their direction.

I do not know a great deal about the JDL but a brief trawl of the internet suggests to me that anyone not following certain ritual forms of abomination when discussing anything whatsoever relating to Hitler, is immediately branded as The Enemy Beyond The Pale. What an excellent way to make yourself look like a complete prat, not to mention wrapping yourself in the same psychological cloth as certain Islamofascist crazies who become unhinged at the sight of irreverent cartoons.

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60 comments to How to make yourself look like a prat in one easy lesson

  • Dale Amon

    Absolutely Perry. And regardless of how one argues the case on how Hitler came to his evil, one has to think long and hard about the millions of normal Germans who also came to evil. Any one, JDL included, who fails to look this horror in the face is failing to understand the true monstrosity of the time and neglects the very understanding by which it can be prevented from happening again.

    That normal decent people can, over the period of a decade be turned into monsters is frightening and should be. Screw innate evil. But worry well about the slow and nearly imperceptable transformation.

    Evil is not a starting point. It is a destination which can be avoided by traveling a different road.

  • andrewf

    That was a really good post perry. I just think that most people have this need to rationalize why evil people do evil things… as whether they’re just like u and me but have taken a different paths. I haven’t got a lot of knowledge of psychos but if u read steven pinker book “the blank slate” where he talks about psychos and their lack of empathy it becomes apparent that they cannot relate to the people they kill. So attempting to talk round a guy like hitler would probably be fruitless, though most of the people who did the killing probably could be talked round as i think the psycho rate in the male population is less than 5 %… yeah, i haven’t got a link but i think it’s about 1 or 2 percent

  • Dale Amon

    I had some thoughts which tie this discussion directly into the meaning of Christmas. If the Catholic church got one thing right, it was the idea of confession and forgiveness. I am now wondering if some thinking of 1500 years or so ago came to the realization that no matter how much of a monster someone is, if you give them an out, a way to recognize and admit and repudiate the evil they have done you do a great service to the world. If the culture some one is embedded in walls you into continuing the course of evil upon which you have settled then you will likely do greater and greater harm as years pass.

    The sooner such a person can be ‘saved’ the better it is for all of those as yet unharmed by them.

    One could make the case that had Adolf, after his first million awakened one day unable to live with himself and had crawled on hands and knees into the Vatican… he would still be a monster in the eyes of history but millions would have lived.

    Rather unlikely in that particular case, but on a Christmas day one has to wonder how many possible monsters have been defused by a good Padre.

    Love may not always be the answer, but sometimes it is.

  • Gabriel

    The JDL are racists, that might explain things. As it happened this meant that they were the only people who would protect the New York Jewish commmunity from the Black Panthers in the 60s and 70s (the police refused point blank and Liberals Jews were sticking their fingers so far in their ears they mashed their brains), so they did some good, but they are still basically nutters.

  • John K

    Does anyone still think James Earl Ray assassinated Dr King?

  • However the theory that Will Smith is presenting is an entirely reasonable one to argue …. [H]is position is a deeply Christian one.

    I agree with the first part, but not the second. Catholicism, for example, teaches that people can and sometimes do consciously intend evil. That’s what distinguishes “I have sinned” from “mistakes were made”. Which Christian sects believe that evil is essentially just a blunder?

  • Andrew Cruz

    Serenity,

    Actually, the most important Catholic philosopher – St Thomas Aquinas – teaches pretty much what Smith claims, and this is reflected in the Catholic Encyclopedia’s entry on sin (scholastic terminology alert):

    Sin is nothing else than a morally bad act (St. Thomas, “De malo”, 7:3), an act not in accord with reason informed by the Divine law. God has endowed us with reason and free-will, and a sense of responsibility; He has made us subject to His law, which is known to us by the dictates of conscience, and our acts must conform with these dictates, otherwise we sin (Romans 14:23). In every sinful act two things must be considered, the substance of the act and the want of rectitude or conformity (St. Thomas, I-II:72:1). The act is something positive. The sinner intends here and now to act in some determined matter, inordinately electing that particular good in defiance of God’s law and the dictates of right reason. The deformity is not directly intended, nor is it involved in the act so far as this is physical, but in the act as coming from the will which has power over its acts and is capable of choosing this or that particular good contained within the scope of its adequate object, i.e. universal good (St. Thomas, “De malo”, Q. 3, a. 2, ad 2um). God, the first cause of all reality, is the cause of the physical act as such, the free-will of the deformity (St. Thomas I-II:89:2; “De malo”, 3:2). The evil act adequately considered has for its cause the free-will defectively electing some mutable good in place of the eternal good, God, and thus deviating from its true last end.

    In every sin a privation of due order or conformity to the moral law is found, but sin is not a pure, or entire privation of all moral good (St. Thomas, “De malo”, 2:9; I-II:73:2). There is a twofold privation; one entire which leaves nothing of its opposite, as for instance, darkness which leaves no light; another, not entire, which leaves something of thegood to which it is opposed, as for instance, disease which does not entirely destroy the even balance of the bodily functions necessary for health. A pure or entire privation of good could occur in a moral act only on the supposition that the will could incline to evil as such for an object. This is impossible because evil as such is not contained within the scope of the adequate object of the will, which is good. The sinner’s intention terminates at some object in which there is a participation of God’s goodness, and this object is directly intended by him. The privation of due order, or the deformity, is not directly intended, but is accepted in as much as the sinner’s desire tends to an object in which this want of conformity is involved, so that sin is not a pure privation, but a human act deprived of its due rectitude. From the defect arises the evil of the act, from the fact that it is voluntary, its imputability.

    More here.

  • Andrew beat me to it. Will Smith is really just taking a more or less Thomist position.

    Catholicism believes anyone can be saved, which implies rather strongly that no one is intrinsically and entirely evil. I am rather more equivocal on that issue (and not because I am a non-believer, my notion of ‘saved’ is usefully close enough to the Christian one to be analogous in a ‘moral agent’ sense) but it was not me the JDL were shrieking at, it was Will Smith.

  • guy herbert

    I think Smith is dead right, but I take him to be arguing a slightly different and even more subversive point, one I have frequently put myself, to wit: that almost everybody is trying to be good.

  • JJ, the Mighty Forks is the British equivalent of US middle finger (‘the bird’)… but we use two fingers in a V-sign. If someone makes that gesture at you in the UK, Ireland or Australia/NZ, chances are they are not wishing you ‘peace’ 🙂

  • chuck

    I agree with Will Smith in the case of Hitler. True, there are psychopaths out there for whom the concept of good has no meaning, but I don’t think Hitler was one of them. Lenin? Lenin, like Hitler, cultivated brutality, but I think it was a cultivated taste abetted by temperament and philosophy. Stalin and Mao were probably closer to the psychopathic edge, but just how close I wouldn’t try to say without learning a good deal more about both. Che Guevara probably *was* a psychopath, he seems to have enjoyed killing in itself.

  • lucklucky

    I disagree completely. What makes an essencially good person? Certainly having some core values, or to not have many and essencial “faulty premises” .
    Being Logical on faulty premises isnt the same as being Good.

    Being Good and acting in faulty premises would make possible to recognize them in most of cases because the inner values would be good. No one can be good without values.

    Maybe because it is Christmas but after this post we can infer that the Governement is Good but acts on faulty premises…that’s contradictory to all deserved venom we see written against public officials all year long… 🙂

  • chuck

    What makes an essencially good person?

    Probably temperament and training. In such things, I think it matters as much how people act on political beliefs as it does on what those beliefs are. For instance, there were “good” Nazis like John Rabe. I suspect such people tended to become disenchanted with the party when they discovered its true nature in action, as I think happened to a goodly number of Communists also, but they did support that political movement at some point.

  • Being Logical on faulty premises isnt the same as being Good.

    But I don’t think Will Smith or I said that. He said Hitler was logically following the wrong path (at least I interpret what he said as meaning), i.e. proceeding logically from the wrong premises. If he had better premises, Smith’s point is he may have been capable of doing good. I don’t think we can read much more into his remarks than that, although the JDL seems to disagree.

  • Smith isn’t arguing from a “deeply Christian” position. That term “reprogramming” is a clue. A further clue is that he studied Scientology through (or with) Tom Cruise.

  • Midwesterner

    There is a presumption among most here that there is one single ‘good’ that is to be found. But ‘good’ is no more than how well an action fits with our own values. The reason conversions work is because they first change the person’s values, then they guide that person to the new ‘good’.

    ‘Good’ to a collectivist is ‘evil’ to an individualist and vice versa. First you must choose what you value, and only then can ‘good’ and ‘evil’ become meaningful. I chose individualism because it fit my temperament and happiness. But I know people who would gladly trade away liberty to be free from self-responsibility. It is beyond my comprehension, but I’ve seen it. Unfortunately, it is not that rare. It is the foundation of all democratically founded collectivist governments. How many National Socialists were only ‘following instructions’? They traded their liberty to be free of self-responsibility.

    And the first undertaking of any collective is to eliminate threats to itself. Stalin, Hitler, Mao etc., eliminating people who think for themselves, people who did not submit, was a necessary early part of the process of collectivization. ‘Good’ or ‘Evil’ is not meaningful outside the value system of the speaker. Hitler would have needed conversion to individualism or to some collectivist system that tolerated or favored Jews to change his values. Appealing to some ‘goodness’ deep inside of him would have been an utterly futile endeavor.

    Hitler’s beliefs were not something to be countered rationally. They were a value choice. There are times when violently destroying an idea and its supporters is the only answer. National Socialism was one of those times.

  • Smith isn’t arguing from a “deeply Christian” position.

    Will Smith’s argument as expressed in the linked article is most certainly a deeply Christian position… it matters not a jot if he himself is a Christian. I have no idea what his broader views are as I am really not defending (or all that interested in) the totality of Will Smith’s world view. I am just objecting to a grotesque attack on him for a very specific and quite reasonable statement.

  • There is a presumption among most here that there is one single ‘good’ that is to be found.

    That is certainly not my position and nothing in Smith’s linked statement suggests there is a single ‘good’ either. Given the scope of my defence of him, his wider views are not of paramount importance to me. It may well be that Smith and I would not agree on what is and is not a moral good (if he supports Obrama then that is a pretty safe bet).

  • mr_ed

    In fact, Quakers did meet with Hitler to try to sway him from his course, following the old maxim of “Speak truth to power.”

    If they (I’d say “we” but I’m a pretty lousy Quaker myself) weren’t such pacifists, I’m sure there’d be a QDL that would get right in JDL’s face about this slander and challenge them to a good arm wrestle.

  • Midwesterner

    I think I agree with Will’s statement exactly as he made it. In fact, he says “using a twisted, backwards logic, he set out to do what he thought was ‘good’. That sounds like almost exactly what I said except Will is assuming his own values are his ‘good’, and Hitler’s are the result of “twisted, backwards logic”. I say 180 degrees backwards because the values are different. Will didn’t say Hitler needed reasoning or logic lessons, he said “reprogramming” which generally means ‘have different values installed’.

    I saw an extended (20 min?) interview with Will on the TV and was rather impressed with his thoughts and values. Enough to want to see more of his movies. And enough to think we are close enough that I could use reason to influence his opinions.

    In particular, the comments I was referring to were Chuck’s and lucklucky’s. Apologies for ambiguity.

  • chuck

    I think of “good” as an inborn desire to conform to some social concept of “good”. I also think there are common aspects to social concepts of “good”, but they are much harder to pin down than the desire to be good. That inherent desire is naturally confounded by many other inherent desires; we are, after all, complex psychological organisms put together by chance, descent, and ecological opportunity and consequently contain many tendencies.

    As to Hitler, somewhere in her autobiographical volume, “Testament of Experience”, Vera Brittain recounts attending one of Hitler’s rallies and comments on his perverted spiritual appeal. I think that spiritual side was an essential aspect of Hitler’s success. I think George Orwell also touches on that side of Hitler when he remarks on the attraction that the call to sacrifice and hardship held for the German people. And who can deny the power of Churchill offering nothing “but blood, toil, tears and sweat,” or that he was calling to the same human tendency?

  • mr_ed

    Ahh, my brain left out the part that makes the post more relevant – Quakers explicitly believe that there is “the spark of good” in every person.

    If you speak to that inner goodness, then good things can happen.

  • Dale’s first comment is the most important aspect of this whole issue, and cannot be stressed enough. Hitler, and a few others may have been inherently evil, but surely that cannot be said about the majority of the German people at the time. The truly tragic and terrifying lesson of the Holocaust is that ordinary people can relatively easily be manipulated to do evil things, not to mention that ordinary bystanders (not just in Germany for that matter) can very realistically be expected to look the other way.

  • And that lesson, unfortunately, seems to be lost on some people at JDL, of all places.

  • Smith’s position has a serious flavor of Aristotle. Aristotle also argued that most people wanted to do good – since man was a being designed to do good – but they did evil when they misunderstood the good. At any rate, the idea that Hitler thought he was doing right, even though he wasn’t, is a common belief, and I don’t see why the ADL thinks Smith is denigrating the horrors he committed by saying so.

  • I don’t know about Will Smith, but you are wrong about Hitler. There was no spark of “good” or morality in him. He didn’t just kill Jews for the glory of his race (a mistaken value). He started by murdering German members of his own party, in order to consolidate his power. Maybe in most men there is a spark of good, but there was none in him, not the slightest notion of any moral value, he was a totally amoral killer. In Christian terms he was Satan.
    So Will Smith is both wrong, and dumb to pick such an example, though, not necessarily evil.

  • Sorry Jacob but I cannot agree… I am not saying you are necessarily wrong about Hitler being intrinsically evil but about it being a poor example to illustrate the quite widely shared theory that Will Smith is stating (I am still kicking the idea of intrinsic evil idea around in my head… and not really succeeding in nailing it down yet).

    If one believes that innate goodness is a quality of being a human (no matter how deeply buried), then unless you are arguing that Hitler was a member of a different species, stating that even a monster such as Hitler is theoretically ‘reprogrammable’ (to use Smith’s unfortunate term) because even he contains goodness simply by virtue of being human, well that perfectly illustrates the theory.

    You don’t have to accept the theory to accept the validity of the example used to express it.

  • lucklucky

    “”Being Logical on faulty premises isnt the same as being Good.””
    “But I don’t think Will Smith or I said that. He said Hitler was logically following the wrong path (at least I interpret what he said as meaning), i.e. proceeding logically from the wrong premises. If he had better premises, Smith’s point is he may have been capable of doing good. I don’t think we can read much more into his remarks than that, although the JDL seems to disagree.”

    But having and choosing good or bad premises doesnt count for being a good or rotten person?
    For me it matters.
    He failed to have many good fundamental premises, as such in my book means he was a rotten person.
    I can understand the post argument for someone that was brainwashed and didnt had contact with other information. But Hitler was a smart human being with above level education in a free country.

  • But having and choosing good or bad premises doesnt count for being a good or rotten person?

    If a person acts in a morally correct way because “that is what God wants”, as I do not believe God exist, I would have to say they are acting based on a faulty premiss. That does not make them ‘bad’ or ‘immoral’ however, just mistaken.

    Only some faulty premises lead to immoral acts and evil.

    But Hitler was a smart human being with above level education in a free country

    So what? I am not sure how that is relevant?

  • chuck

    He started by murdering German members of his own party

    Hitler and Rohm didn’t always see eye to eye. Rohm was more revolutionary, Hitler wanted the cooperation of the Army and industry. Also, Himmler wanted to disband the SA at large in favor of the SS and his own power, so plotted against Rohm. I just can’t see those Machiavellian political maneuvers the same way as I see the Holocaust, they smack more of the succession of Kings and Baronial revolution. As does Stalin’s elimination of the Trotskites and perhaps, too, the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre, although the latter is less clear, being thoroughly mixed with religion and the religious wars of the period.

  • Dale Amon

    I also have a difficult time with ‘innate evil’. Someone might have some genetic predisposition to violence or lack of empathy or any of a number of other tendencies. They are, however, only tendencies. Place the same person in a different time and place and the outcome will be very different. Had Hitler been born in middle America he would have been an unknown, or at best a minor politician. Had he been born BC, we would perhaps study his conquests along with Alexander and ignore his slaughter… back then everyone did it.

    The world’s misfortune was that he was born at the time he was and travelled the path from a nobody to a war hero to the embrace of ideas which were all over Germany at the time… and for that matter in England and to a lesser extent America. His genetics and WWI experience perhaps made him the most callously effective at politics by violence… at a time in which such was becoming normal as the Socialist ideology in it’s many forms took root.

    His violence allowed him to defeat and absorb the other ‘right’ wing socialist parties and then take on the ‘left’ wing internationalist socialists as well.

    His rise to a position in which he could create such evil was perhaps due to unique circumstances. One misstep and the German Fascist leader might instead have been someone else, someone more like a Franco or Mussolini. Bad, but something the world is used to.

    So I do not buy the inherent evil. I see someone with the capacity for the merciless use of authority and the charisma to bring others to his cause. He came to the forks in the road and he chose the path.

  • permanentexpat

    Unless I have missed it…although I’ve been reading this thread fairly carefully…I’ve seen no mention of power and its corruptive tendency in the discussion. My own take is that, although I’m not sure about the intrinsic good/evil in our species, the pursuit & acquisition of power, almost without exception, leads to very bad news.

  • A lot of people are puzzled over the origin of evil. I’m not one of them. Humans by nature are rooted in self-interest. Evil dominates history. Evil is so prevalent because evil represents a) the easiest paths to personal self-enrichment, and b) the laziest philosophical paths to determining what is right.

    Unless one assumes a supernatural origin, good is more difficult to explain than evil, “good” defined here as an ethic whose chief assumptions includes the notion that all humans are equally valuable (“created equal,” in Declaration of Independence language). Human self-interest is so prone to develop into self-centeredness that it takes lots of discipline to avoid that path – anyone who has (properly) raised a child knows this. But how did the parents come to discipline their selfishness? Somewhere up the chain of begats somebody knew and accepted what was good and passed it on.

  • chuck

    includes the notion that all humans are equally valuable

    … I would say it includes the notion *some* people are valuable, and not necessarily equally so. I think it starts with family, extends to clan, tribe, neighbors, possibly nation, and likely distinguishes between men and women. The all bit, along with gender equality, is a late development and harder to find. I think Christianity had something to do with the concept in the large, although there have certainly been attempts to base it on something more, umm, rational.

  • Sunfish

    Ahh, my brain left out the part that makes the post more relevant – Quakers explicitly believe that there is “the spark of good” in every person.

    And maybe that’s true in a purely theological sense. I actually believe it myself. Hell, I almost became a Quaker, up until that pacifism thing showed up and either I or the folks around me had a fundamental misunderstanding of what it meant.

    If you speak to that inner goodness, then good things can happen.

    If you mean speaking effectively to that inner goodness, I’m on board with you. There are people who, if that spark exists then it’s so small and buried so deep down that reason and persuasion simply won’t turn them around. When someone is already in the process of committing great evil it’s a lot harder to work on them. They’re already emotionally invested in their course of action and have a certain amount of inertia towards the course previously chosen. And once they’ve started assassinating opponents or shipping people to Siberia or holding hostages, the voice of reason is IMHO badly ineffective.

    And (here’s why I don’t think I’m a Quaker) sometimes, the person needs to be shot in the face. That’s not intended to be a moral judgement or a comment on their possession of the light of God. It’s a simple fact that such an act may sometimes be the only way to avert a greater tragedy.

  • Hitler was, apparently, a vegetarian. Is being a vegetarian evil?

    He may also have been kind to puppies and children (at least Aryan puppies and children).

    So can we argue that Hitler had some kindness in him but also a lot of evil?

  • And (here’s why I don’t think I’m a Quaker) sometimes, the person needs to be shot in the face. That’s not intended to be a moral judgement or a comment on their possession of the light of God. It’s a simple fact that such an act may sometimes be the only way to avert a greater tragedy.

    And as the more I think about the notion of innate irresistible evil, the more I reject it, I would have to agree with Sunfish’s remark above.

    The further down the path you go, the harder it gets to go back to the last cross roads. But the reason for abominating Hitler is not that he was incapable of good… if he was then that actually goes a long way to absolving him of moral responsibility as it just makes him a slave to his inexorable nature rather than a moral free agent.

    No, what makes Hitler so vile is he did have free will and therefore could have made ‘good’ decisions and chose to do the things he did anyway. Now I think Smith was right to say (as Dale has reiterated quite effectively) that if he has not been subjected to the ‘twisted, backwards logic’ of the time and place he lived then maybe he would have made different decisions… but sadly he was and he did not transcend it as many others did. To simply write him off as a corporeal demon allows him to escape the moral blame and I have a problem with that (which incidentally is all a completely different issue than the one Smith brought up).

  • I agree, Perry. It is basically the same call a court of law has to make when an accused is subjected to psychiatric evaluation. Saying that Hitler was insane implies that he did not have an innate ability to distinguish between right and wrong, and gets him off the hook. I wonder if any of the the accused in the Nuremberg trials were subjected to such an evaluation. Was it even part of the established legal process at the time?

  • RAB

    Ah good! All the big thinkers are already on the case.
    I’ll just bung in a musical interlude then.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sL0tYowbIxE

  • Forty posts and not a single Darth Vader reference?

    Princess Leia: But, why must you confront him?

    Luke: Because, there is good in him. I’ve felt it. He won’t turn me over to the Emperor. I can save him. I can turn him back to the good side. I have to try.

    and

    Luke: Your thoughts betray you, Father. I feel the good in you, the conflict.

    Darth Vader: There is no conflict.

    Luke: You couldn’t bring yourself to kill me before and I don’t believe you’ll destroy me now.

    Darth Vader: You underestimate the power of the Dark Side. If you will not fight, then you will meet your destiny.

    I leave it as an exercise to the reader to determine whether Palpatine was redeemable.

  • Why not bring up a real movie then, like “3:10 to Yuma”.

    I’ve always liked you Byron, but even bad men love their mommas.

    there are better quotes, but I could not find them.

  • lucklucky

    “”But having and choosing good or bad premises doesnt count for being a good or rotten person?””

    “If a person acts in a morally correct way because “that is what God wants”, as I do not believe God exist, I would have to say they are acting based on a faulty premiss. That does not make them ‘bad’ or ‘immoral’ however, just mistaken.”

    That is right but i was refering to fundamental premises which i refered in next phrase and that is the context in a Hitler discussion.

    “”But Hitler was a smart human being with above level education in a free country””
    “So what? I am not sure how that is relevant?”

    What is the best way to be sure that a person is evil or good? In my opinion is a person that contacted with Evil and Good and having intelectual hability. Why he didnt recognized evil being a free man?
    He was a self made man, he built his thinking step by step. He was responsible by his inner core.

  • Perry, simply because Smith spouted some words that exhibit a congruence with some Christian views of humanity does not mean that he, personally, was arguing from that Christian point of view.

    And if he thinks that the problem of evil is based on the doings of aliens in the Crystal Universe millions of years ago, and that it can be cured by a Scientology process known as reprogramming, I think your attempt to wedge what he is doing into a Christian matrix you are imposing on him is in error.

    If he was speaking from a Christian point of view, he could have said so.

  • Perry, simply because Smith spouted some words that exhibit a congruence with some Christian views of humanity does not mean that he, personally, was arguing from that Christian point of view.

    Sure, but so what? My point is the position Smith is arguing is a deeply Christian position, not that he himself is deeply Christian (I have no idea on that score and don’t really care).

    The significance of that position being deeply Christian is that it has been around for a very long time (it is a Thomist notion and has far older roots in Aristotelian thought) and that should put the strangeness of the JDL taking umbrage at the idea Smith expressed into context: it is hardly some post-modern new age crap in need of a quick slap-down. I might make the same view and it would still be a Thomist position, and I’m not a Christian either.

    The JDL did not attack Scientology or Christianity, they attacked the statement Will Smith made and quoted the offending passage… and I am attacking the JDL on that same quite narrow basis as I care nothing one way or the other about the JDL’s broader views on things (I know very little about them and only vaguely knew who they were before I wrote this article). Likewise Will Smith is a pretty reasonable actor but I do not really care over much about him personally or whatever other gonzo things he may or may not believe.

    As constructed the JDL attack seeks to anathemise a quite reasonable, well established and by no means unsupportable philosophical position. The world is a target rich environment awash with idiotarian crap that needs to be attacked… the statement Will Smith made is not one of those things and the completely over the top way the JDL chose to do it is what makes them the ones in need of a philosophical kick up the backside.

  • What is the best way to be sure that a person is evil or good? In my opinion is a person that contacted with Evil and Good and having intelectual hability. Why he didnt recognized evil being a free man?

    My guess is that within his utterly collectivist meta-context, ‘good’ was simply whatever benefits (in his view) the metaphysical herrenvolk, and evil is whatever oppose the same. That would be a consequence of what Smith called “twisted, backwards logic”. It is not a matter of intelligence, it is a matters of frames of reference.

    He was a self made man, he built his thinking step by step. He was responsible by his inner core.

    For sure. But the question of ‘how’ did he build up the mental model of the world he did is what I think Smith was talking about and I suspect he is not entirely wrong. It does not change the issue of moral culpability however and I think we agree on that. And that is also why the JDL attack is so bizarre as Smith is not ‘excusing’ Hitler in the quoted article, just seeking to explain the mechanism by which he because the monster he became.

  • Chris Durnell

    Can the idea that people are essentially good square with the Christian conception of original sin? Original sin does not mean people are essentially evil, but it does posit that there is an inherent flaw in humanity that prevents it from being always (essentially?) good.

    It is not the case that exposing someone to their flawed logic will cause them to do what is right instead. I think many people will simply become angry and even more committed to their ways. “Logic” is often used to merely justify people’s inherent prejudices as opposed to challenging them or deciding what things they should believe anyway. If anything, people have used “logic” to excuse all sorts of actions their conscience tells them is wrong.

    I don’t have a problem with Will Smith’s example per se, Hitler obviously thought he was a “good guy,” and he did follow a twisted logic. But I think it is sheer fantasy to believe that one could have convinced him that he was wrong because of faulty premises.

    Repentance and redemption are real, but it’s not based on intellectual arguments.

  • Midwesterner

    I disagree with the belief system that (to chose one) was very well described by Alan K. Henderson at December 26, 2007 04:38 AM.

    Good and evil are entirely decision results from our choices of values. AKH says “Humans by nature are rooted in self-interest.” Not so. Many if not most humans can as well be said to be rooted in the family, the clan, the tribe, the nation, the religion or even their gene pool. History is saturated with examples of soldiers dying on a battlefield for the good of something clearly external to themselves. So, while most Samizdatistas “by nature are rooted in self-interest”, I reject this as a fundamental premise of all human’s nature.

    Therefore we must either conclude that the majority of humans are rooted in evil, or we must accept that rational self interest is not the default mode with the other modes being by default, evil. Rational self interest is the only kind of self interest there is. Since ‘self’ requires independent thought, there can be no self interest without individual thought. Individual thought (the act, not necessarily the quality of it) is what I mean by ‘rational’. Whatever there is going on when an impulsive thief thoughtlessly (literally thoughtlessly) steals something, (or a child) whatever is going on, it can not be ‘self-interest’. So there must be something else at the root of what we perceive as evil.


    Irrational
    behavior def 1a (as opposed to stupid) is a value choice. It means literally, not guided by reason. The higher level thought processes of moral reason are (deliberately or unconsciously) delegated or abandoned (or in the case of a child, not yet acquired). I have seen this expressed in the benign form of someone giving their life decisions over to religion in the mode of “the Bible tells us to …”. Even the first person plural of this expression conveys something of the meta-context of the speaker. Similarly, when criminals abandon moral reason, they are in fact delegating it to the justice system. While the outcomes can be quite different (at least with a ‘good’ religion) I have difficulty seeing a great moral difference in the process the person takes to reach the anti-rational state. The difference is in the morality of the various religions, not the adherents who have transferred their moral responsibility to them.

    When a person abandons or assigns their moral reason to a collective, they enter a system in which all of a person’s products, needs and even life itself are the property of the collective. At that point, the collective’s system of mediation and allocation is the final authority. Whether it is to a church leader, a court judge, a military dictator, or a system of soviets, all of the moral choices are given over to the collective’s moral authority. Here is were Hitler comes into the picture. Once Hitler had chosen his collective, his moral reason is no longer an individual thought process. He functions as the brain of the collective, not the individual.

    We joke frequently here about how some criminals are arrested and others elected. There is truth to that. They hold the same fundamental collectivist meta-context. Political redistributors are better adapted to their collectives, but both criminal and political redistributors are functioning within a collective organism rather than living as independent beings.

    There is a coherent and internally consistent moral code to be found in the collectivist meta-context. The most extreme evils of history are not failures of collectivism. They are its essential nature.

  • chuck

    I like this quote of Riefenstahl as it points up the perception of Hitler as a religious figure, a “good” man.

    “To me Hitler is the greatest man who ever lived. He is really faultless, so simple yet so filled with manly power… He is really beautiful, he is wise. Radiance streams from him. All the great men of Germany—Friedrich, Nietzsche, Bismarck—have all had faults. Hitler’s followers are not spotless. Only he is pure.”

    Who is to say Hitler didn’t believe that of himself? There was also a psychiatric evaluation of Hitler commissioned by the OSS in WWII which includes the following:

    A survey of all the evidence forces us to conclude that Hitler believes himself destined to become an Immortal Hitler, chosen by God to be the New Deliverer of Germany and the Founder of a new social order for the world. He firmly believes this and is certain that in spite of all the trials and tribulations through which he must pass he will finally attain that goal. The one condition is that he follow the dictates of the inner voice that have guided and protected him in the past.

    I took this from the article Hitler’s Library in the Atlantic, which is well worth reading. It finishes up with this Hitler quote.

    “Mind and soul ultimately return to the collective being of the world,” Hitler told some guests in December of 1941. “If there is a God, then he gives us not only life but also consciousness and awareness. If I live my life according to my God-given insights, then I cannot go wrong, and even if I do, I know I have acted in good faith.”

    I think it worth noting that there was also a Lenin cult in the Soviet Union. The idea of man as God was in the air and infected the end of the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth century to the detriment of mankind.

    BTW, someday I would like to see a comparison of Riefenstahl and Eisenstein. The latter has a better reputation than the former, but I can’t see why outside of political fashion. And there is the curious fact that Riefenstahl joined Greenpeace in her later years. I am not sure of the significance of that, but it is a cute little factoid.

  • Can the idea that people are essentially good square with the Christian conception of original sin?

    In a word, yes, but I am soooo not moved to launch into a long exegesis on why, given that it is of only academic interest to me (I am not a believer and my eyes are already glazing over on this thread 🙂 )

  • Alain

    If Smith had used Stalin instead of Hitler, this story would never have come into being. Journos would have just shrugged and said “Of course”

  • Andrew,

    If you scroll down a bit:

    … a sin must be a voluntary act. Those actions alone are properly called human or moral actions which proceed from the human will deliberately acting with knowledge of the end for which it acts. Man differs from all irrational creatures in this precisely that he is master of his actions by virtue of his reason and free will (I-II:1:1). Since sin is a human act wanting in due rectitude, it must have, in so far as it is a human act, the essential constituents of a human act. The intellect must perceive and judge of the morality of the act, and the will must freely elect. For a deliberate mortal sin there must be full advertence on the part of the intellect and full consent on the part of the will in a grave matter.

    In other words, the person has to understand that his action is evil and still choose to perform it. The notion that sin is an intellectual mistake, like solving a math equation incorrectly, is neither Thomist nor Catholic. A person who acts in good faith and simply blunders has nothing to confess.

    You quote the passage:

    A pure or entire privation of good could occur in a moral act only on the supposition that the will could incline to evil as such for an object. This is impossible because evil as such is not contained within the scope of the adequate object of the will, which is good.

    I infer, perhaps mistakenly, that you interpret this to mean no person can deliberately perform an act he regards as evil. I don’t think that’s what the Catholic Encylopedia writer or Thomas could have meant since it would make nonsense of the notion of mortal sin.

    Perry writes:

    Catholicism believes anyone can be saved, which implies rather strongly that no one is intrinsically and entirely evil.

    That’s true, but also quite different from the idea that everyone has fundamentally good intentions.

  • That’s true, but also quite different from the idea that everyone has fundamentally good intentions.

    Intentions are not the issue (from the Catholic perspective, which is what you are discussing) but rather notions of innate goodness, by which is meant a capacity for good.

  • Good and evil are entirely decision results from our choices of values. AKH says “Humans by nature are rooted in self-interest.” Not so. Many if not most humans can as well be said to be rooted in the family, the clan, the tribe, the nation, the religion or even their gene pool. History is saturated with examples of soldiers dying on a battlefield for the good of something clearly external to themselves. So, while most Samizdatistas “by nature are rooted in self-interest”, I reject this as a fundamental premise of all human’s nature.

    Actually, family, clan, tribe, nation, religion and gene pool are components of self-interest.

    As I implied earlier, I believe that children offer an accurate signpost to basic human nature. Children are humans unmodified (or partially modified) by outside forces. Adults can add modifications, but they cannot erase the default setting. Irrespective of secular or religious assumptions, common sense should dictate that self-interest is a child’s default setting.

    But the default drive isn’t the ONLY drive. There is also a charitable impulse. Where it comes from, secular and Judeo-Christian thought cannot agree – but I would hope that both recognize that it is the human exception and not the rule. Including the example of warfare – in most of its history, people fighting for causes outside themselves were draftees.

  • Midwesterner

    Self:

    1. The total, essential, or particular being of a person; the individual: “An actor’s instrument is the self” Joan Juliet Buck.

    2. The essential qualities distinguishing one person from another; individuality: “He would walk a little first along the southern walls, shed his European self, fully enter this world” Howard Kaplan.

    3. One’s consciousness of one’s own being or identity; the ego:

    interest:

    1.

    a. A state of curiosity or concern about or attention to something: an interest in sports.

    b. Something, such as a quality, subject, or activity, that evokes this mental state: counts the theater among his interests.

    2. Regard for one’s own benefit or advantage; self-interest. Often used in the plural: It is in your best interest to cooperate. She kept her own interests in mind.

    AKH said:

    Actually, family, clan, tribe, nation, religion and gene pool are components of self-interest.

    Umm… No, Alan. They are examples of collective interest. The only way to consider them components of ‘self’ interest is to see the ‘self’ as a component of a collective and not an individual being. But that is clearly not one of the accepted usages.

    Children are humans unmodified (or partially modified) by outside forces.

    Again, no. Children do not demonstrate basic human nature any more than they demonstrate basic human physique. They are children. Not adults. Their nature is to remain dependent on their parents until they are either able it live independently or be accepted as a unit of a larger collective (clan, tribe, nation, etc).

    “Irrespective of secular or religious assumptions, common sense should dictate that self-interest is a child’s default setting”

    You are assuming that everyone who alters their behavior to suit the demands of a collective is doing it rationally, by a process of reasoning. Response to stimulus is not rational thought. If it is, then my dogs are pretty deep thinkers. Common sense more likely dictates that a child’s default setting is to please whoever supports it when it gets cold or hungry, much like a stray dog does. Children do not become thoughtful and considerate when they suddenly find themselves cold and hungry. They begin trying behaviors to see what reduces pain. That is precisely when they are most willing to bend themselves to external authority. This is not rational self interest. This is reflexive behavior used in the service of a collective interest.

    I have no idea if you believe in evolution or not, but if any assumption is to be made, it is that innate behavior will benefit passing on inherited DNA, not the perceived comfort level of that particular individual.

    You refer to both ‘self-interest’ and ‘charitable impulse’ as drives. I think you need to recalibrate your use of ‘self-interest’ if you are equating it with an impulse. I think I’ve already covered the distinction but feel free to pursue the point if I’m not clear.

    [most] people fighting for causes outside themselves were draftees.

    So those soldiers who died on Omaha beach were doing it to avoid the alternative? I don’t think I know anybody who was in the first wave but my best friend’s dad was there the 2nd day. I can assure you the draft may have answered the ‘what branch’ but it did not account for the ‘why’. I assume it was not your intent to insult, but I strongly suspect throughout history that a draft is at most, no more than a tie-break. To be willing to die painfully for something as opposed to becoming a citizen of another country suggests to me that there is something more to it than the draft.

  • Re: family, clan, tribe, nation, religion and gene pool – I should have clarified what the self-interest is – all these institutions are personal needs. We are social creatures by nature, and we malfunction if that need is not met; family and clan fulfill that need. The two larger collectives are needed at the very least for economic self-interest; we need to trade goods to survive (physical need) and prosper (psychological need), and tribe and nation (ideally) serve to protect markets from forces of market unfreedom such as fraudulent weights and measures, protection rackets, and the many ways that gov’t has to steal from the marketplace. The four collectives also serve to protect the individual from the criminal trepidations of barbarous individuals and groups. (This also protects markets, as well as personal life and property.)

    Since religion is a subset of philosophy, I’ll use the latter term. Sapient creatures uniquely have the ability to comprehend things that do not exist in the physical universe – ethics and “meaning” – and we go nuts if we don’t use that facility, if we demote ourselves to the level of the lower animals and confine our thoughts solely to feeding, sleeping, and avoiding predators. Thus we cannot function sanely without exercising our natural propensity for philosophy. Tribes based on the different philosophical schools emerge; we need our tribes for the degree of fellowship that is impossible elsewhere.

    The gene pool is a unique interest, in that it is rooted in the future. We are invested emotionally in the four collectives, especially family, and in the wefare of their progeny. Interestingly, Hitler is an example of this phenomenon, his root interest being in the mythical Aryan race. Was Hitler being selfless when he tried to maximize the quality of the gene pool?

    Re: children. You do not get my point – children are centered on self-interest, and they do not lose that center when (and if) they develop selfless tendencies. Let me add a qualifier that should be there whenever I use that phrase: perceived self-interest. The child’s prime directive is to fulfill wants. Adults (ideally) temper that tendency with selfless traits, but self-interest is still the default setting – which is why market capitalism works and socialism and social democracy don’t, BTW.

    Gotta go for now – I’ll respond to the rest later.

  • Chore’s done, I can continue with Part 2 of this reply:

    You are assuming that everyone who alters their behavior to suit the demands of a collective is doing it rationally, by a process of reasoning.

    I never said that self-interest is always rational, as my remark about perceived self-interest in Part One states. I am stating that children are a more accurate barometer of basic human nature than adults because adults have undergone more behavior modification.

    Evolution is irrelevant to my thesis, because my thesis states a claim about what basic human behavior is, not where that behavior comes from.

    I said:

    [most] people fighting for causes outside themselves were draftees

    The soldiers at Omaha are the historical exception. In humnan warfare, most fighting for causes outside themselves fought wars of imperialism – Pope Julius II or some European monarch coveting the surrounding territory. Not all causes outsinde oneself is a good cause.

  • Sunfish

    While poking at the JDL website, I found something else that suggests that JDL has only a tenuous grasp of reality.

    If they conflate a slightly sleazy conversion effort by the Baptists with the mass murder of millions, then I fear that reasoned discussion with them will be impossible.

  • Midwesterner

    Alan,

    We are so far apart that I’m not sure it is useful to pursue this. I enjoy your comments and often agree with your conclusions, but we definitely work from different understandings. I’ll try to give just a few examples.

    to comprehend things that do not exist in the physical universe – ethics and “meaning”

    Either you need to change it to “imagining” things that do not exist, or we disagree. Any ethics that is not a matter of adapting to physical reality is imagination, not comprehension. Far from something that doesn’t exist, ‘ethics’ is an application of value choices to perceived reality. A system of ethics that doesn’t comply with the laws of nature can only be imaginary. And I am not at all certain that imagination is limited to sapient creatures.

    The gene pool is a unique interest, in that it is rooted in the future.

    Er… How can ‘self-interest’ not be rooted in the future. Or at least intended to be?

    Was Hitler being selfless when he tried to maximize the quality of the gene pool?

    Yes. He gave up his ‘self’ (by definition, individual) and chose for his identity a collective gene pool. At that point he dedicated himself to his personal idea of ‘improving’ it. Had he been ‘selfish’ he would have sought personal gain, not collective gain. But he was ‘selfless’.

    children are centered on self-interest, and they do not lose that center when (and if) they develop selfless tendencies. Let me add a qualifier that should be there whenever I use that phrase: perceived self-interest.

    Children are initially thoughtless. They have no perception of ‘self’. They must first develop a clear perception of ‘self’ before they can act in their own ‘self-interest’. What you are describing as ‘selfless tendencies’ are in fact the higher level understanding of ‘self’s’ values and goals. I’m having real problems with your use of ‘selfless’.

    Adults (ideally) temper that tendency with selfless traits, but self-interest is still the default setting – which is why market capitalism works and socialism and social democracy don’t, BTW

    I don’t understand this statement. Are you inferring that market capitalism is ‘ideally’ tempered by socialism and social democracy? If not, what is ideal about selfless traits?

    I am stating that children are a more accurate barometer of basic human nature than adults because adults have undergone more behavior modification.

    I think this reasoning does not hold up well. If children are what basic human nature is, why do all humans ‘grow up’? You refer to the process of growing up as “behavior modification”. No. It is the naturally occuring acquisition of knowledge and the development of reason. Learning and thinking is the basic nature of humans. Not dependency.

    And finally,

    Not all causes outsinde oneself is a ‘good’ cause.

    To a collectivist, anything and everything that benefits the collective is a ‘good’ cause. This is why clear self-awareness and interest is so important to everyone else’s safety.

    I think we are so far apart on this that it is unlikely we will agree to much before the thread rolls off the front page. But this is a topic that is the most basic element of meta-context. We as advocates for an individual respecting society need to work on both word meanings and our presumptions of how and why people behave the way they do. I’ll watch this thread and try to make time to comment, but in any case, I imagine this topic will come up from time to time on Samizdata.

  • Let’s back up a bit. My central thesis is that perceived self-interest is the primary motivation of humans. To state examples of perceived others-interest does not demonstrate that others-interest and not self-interest is the primary human motivation.

    “Motivation” is a better word to use than “drive.” I certainly did not intend to suggest that others-interest is instinct – instinct is involuntary reflexive behavior, like seeking food or fleeing predators.

    On ethics: the subject of morality, human behavior, certainly exists in the physical universe, but the governing authority does not. We assume that ethics are objective, which means that there must be some Law which transcends humanity and to which humanity is subject – C. S. Lewis has some valuable ruminations here.

    Physcial observation can prove whether something is physically beneficial or harmful to something, but not whether it is right or wrong. The latter dichotomy is a product of belief, a value statement about that something.

    Er… How can ‘self-interest’ not be rooted in the future. Or at least intended to be?

    The gene pool doesn’t affect me once I’ve got my genes.

    On Hitler: you gave half of the right answer. His mission was a product of his perceptions of self- and others-interest. It gave him a sense of fulfillment (not to mention a great deal of political power), and it promised what he thought to be a better future for Germans.

    On children: we have a definite language barrier. You appear to be using the word “self” in a different context, which is unclear. Self is the first thing children know – they know their own existence and they know their wants. Others-interest comes later, and most of it is through adult example. My whole point is that building self-interest requires no discipline while building others-interest does; I thought children were the best illustration of this principle.

    On markets: self-interest plays a critical role in all three models. While socialism and social democracy (welfare statism, in my hemisphere) appeal to others-interest, both are also rooted in the State’s self-interest in its power and its sense of meaning. The nannycrats might care about the huddled masses, but in reality validation of the State comes first. Also, socialism and social democracy must reject vast portions of others-interest in order to exist – and in many cases does so openly and with great hostility.

    Free market capitalism maximizes the individual’s ability to pursue economic self-interest. It also maximizes the State’s self-interest in maximizing tax revenues while minimizing domestic strife. Unfortunately, many States are unaware of the benefits capitalism poses to the State…

    In short, human self-interest runs all three systems, and capitalism is the form that allows the greatest number of people to pursue self-interest.