Here's one for serious people with more than a nanosecond's attention span.
Anthony Daniels, M.D., writing under the pseudonym "Theodore Dalrymple," delivered a thought-provoking piece in the August 2004 issue of City Journal entitled "The Frivolity of Evil," and I have returned to this nugget of wisdom repeatedly over the past decade.
Daniels was a physician who worked in the underbelly of British society. On the brink of retirement, he asked some necessary questions about the nature of evil in our "nonjudgmental" secular societies and offered answers that are bound to annoy those who cringe at the use of the very word "evil," implying, as it does, the existence of "good" and other "moral" concepts. Daniels is uncomfortable, too, not with the use of the word itself, but rather with the nature of the "fact" of the evil that he has seen.
Why do people commit evil? What conditions allow it to flourish? How is it best prevented and, when necessary, suppressed? Each time I listen to a patient recounting the cruelty to which he or she has been subjected, or has committed (and I have listened to several such patients every day for 14 years), these questions revolve endlessly in my mind.
He notes the repeating pattern of low-level violence that permeates homes, that "spills out onto the streets." Child and spouse abusers, drug dealers and other criminals, soccer thugs; the streets ooze them from their sewer grates.
Perhaps the most alarming feature of this low-level but endemic evil, the one that brings it close to the conception of original sin, is that it is unforced and spontaneous. No one requires people to commit it. [I]n modern Britain, no such conditions exist: the government does not require citizens to behave as I have described and punish them if they do not. The evil is freely chosen.
Not that the government is blameless in the matter--far from it. Intellectuals propounded the idea that man should be freed from the shackles of social convention and self-control, and the government, without any demand from below, enacted laws that promoted unrestrained behavior and created a welfare system that protected people from some of its economic consequences. When the barriers to evil are brought down, it flourishes; and never again will I be tempted to believe in the fundamental goodness of man, or that evil is something exceptional or alien to human nature.
In this world of "low-level but endemic evil," many people become "depressed" and came to Daniels for "treatment."
There is something to be said here about the word "depression," which has almost entirely eliminated the word and even the concept of unhappiness from modern life. Of the thousands of patients I have seen, only two or three have ever claimed to be unhappy: all the rest have said that they were depressed. This semantic shift is deeply significant, for it implies that dissatisfaction with life is itself pathological, a medical condition, which it is the responsibility of the doctor to alleviate by medical means. Everyone has a right to health; depression is unhealthy; therefore everyone has a right to be happy (the opposite of being depressed). This idea in turn implies that one's state of mind, or one's mood, is or should be independent of the way that one lives one's life, a belief that must deprive human existence of all meaning, radically disconnecting reward from conduct.
A ridiculous pas de deux between doctor and patient ensues: the patient pretends to be ill, and the doctor pretends to cure him. In the process, the patient is willfully blinded to the conduct that inevitably causes his misery in the first place. I have therefore come to see that one of the most important tasks of the doctor today is the disavowal of his own power and responsibility. The patient's notion that he is ill stands in the way of his understanding of the situation, without which moral change cannot take place. The doctor who pretends to treat is an obstacle to this change, blinding rather than enlightening.
Daniels relates stories of women who, abused as children by their mothers, continue to have children by different men, to none of whom they are married and none of whom take responsibility for the financial or emotional support of the children they father. These women, and "their men," continue to perpetuate the pattern of parental abuse on their children.
My patient was not just a victim of her mother, however: she had knowingly borne children of men of whom no good could be expected. She knew perfectly well the consequences and the meaning of what she was doing, as her reaction to something that I said to her and say to hundreds of women patients in a similar situation proved: next time you are thinking of going out with a man, bring him to me for my inspection, and I'll tell you if you can go out with him.
This never fails to make the most wretched, the most "depressed" of women smile broadly or laugh heartily. They know exactly what I mean, and I need not spell it out further. They know that I mean that most of the men they have chosen have their evil written all over them, sometimes quite literally in the form of tattoos, saying "FUCK OFF" or "MAD DOG." And they understand that if I can spot the evil instantly, because they know what I would look for, so can they--and therefore they are in large part responsible for their own downfall at the hands of evil men.
Mistakes are possible, of course: a man may turn out not to be as expected. But not even to consider the question is to act as irresponsibly as it is possible for a human being to act. It is knowingly to increase the sum of evil in the world, and sooner or later the summation of small evils leads to the triumph of evil itself.
This truly is not so much the banality as the frivolity of evil: the elevation of passing pleasure for oneself over the long-term misery of others to whom one owes a duty.
Daniels delves into the reasons for the existence, and, more seriously, the growth, of this "evil."
There is obviously something flawed in the heart of man that he should wish to behave in this depraved fashion--the legacy of original sin, to speak metaphorically. But if, not so long ago, such conduct was much less widespread than it is now (in a time of much lesser prosperity, be it remembered by those who think that poverty explains everything), then something more is needed to explain it.
A necessary, though not sufficient, condition is the welfare state, which makes it possible, and sometimes advantageous, to behave like this...But if the welfare state is a necessary condition for the spread of evil, it is not sufficient. After all, the British welfare state is neither the most extensive nor the most generous in the world, and yet our rates of social pathology--public drunkenness, drug-taking, teenage pregnancy, venereal disease, hooliganism, criminality--are the highest in the world. Something more was necessary to produce this result.
Here's where we get down to the nub of the matter, and Daniels' most profound observations. If you're a moral relativist, if you're sickened by those who are "judgmental," then go no further.
Here we enter the realm of culture and ideas. For it is necessary not only to believe that it is economically feasible to behave in the irresponsible and egotistical fashion that I have described, but also to believe that it is morally permissible to do so. And this idea has been peddled by the intellectual elite in Britain for many years, more assiduously than anywhere else, to the extent that it is now taken for granted. There has been a long march not only through the institutions but through the minds of the young. When young people want to praise themselves, they describe themselves as "nonjudgmental." For them, the highest form of morality is amorality.
There has been an unholy alliance between those on the Left, who believe that man is endowed with rights but no duties, and libertarians on the Right, who believe that consumer choice is the answer to all social questions, an idea eagerly adopted by the Left in precisely those areas where it does not apply. Thus people have a right to bring forth children any way they like, and the children, of course, have the right not to be deprived of anything, at least anything material. How men and women associate and have children is merely a matter of consumer choice, of no more moral consequence than the choice between dark and milk chocolate, and the state must not discriminate among different forms of association and child rearing, even if such non-discrimination has the same effect as British and French neutrality during the Spanish Civil War.
Ultimately, the moral cowardice of the intellectual and political elites is responsible for the continuing social disaster that has overtaken Britain, a disaster whose full social and economic consequences have yet to be seen. A sharp economic downturn would expose how far the policies of successive governments, all in the direction of libertinism, have atomized British society, so that all social solidarity within families and communities, so protective in times of hardship, has been destroyed. The elites cannot even acknowledge what has happened, however obvious it is, for to do so would be to admit their past responsibility for it, and that would make them feel bad. Better that millions should live in wretchedness and squalor than that they should feel bad about themselves--another aspect of the frivolity of evil. Moreover, if members of the elite acknowledged the social disaster brought about by their ideological libertinism, they might feel called upon to place restraints upon their own behavior, for you cannot long demand of others what you balk at doing yourself.
There are pleasures, no doubt, to be had in crying in the wilderness, in being a man who thinks he has seen further and more keenly than others, but they grow fewer with time. The wilderness has lost its charms for me.
I'm leaving--I hope for good.