The nature of evil is… hedonism?

Alison’s father, Charles, likes to think about the nature of morality. Given my own obvious interest in the subject, that’s a pretty neat coincidence. And the nature of evil especially is an area that deserves a lot of thought, given that as Anarchists we face an immoral system that encourages evil actions. In fact, I have already written an entry on why the nature of evil is parasitic.

Anyway, Charles recently came up with this definition of evil:

Evil is the incapacity to deny oneself instant gratification.

At first glance, it doesn’t seem to make that much sense. But look at crime (properly defined) as an example. Most crimes arise from the allure of getting easy money, revenge or whatever else one wants, without having to make long-term plans. In some cases, as in crimes of passion, the gratification is almost immediate. Either way, crimes denote a lack of desire to delay it.

One may counter that some crimes can take years to plan, and thus involve denying instant gratification. I’d say that in those cases, the goal is so involved that working for it would probably still take much longer. But certainly we’re no longer talking about “instant,” which does somewhat dampen the strength of the argument.

The desire for instant gratification is what I call hedonism. I have also often said that Christianity is a form of hedonism, because it trades off our capacity to think and reason for instant self-righteousness, self-esteem, and fuzzy feelings. Does that mean that Christianity typifies a form of evil? Definitely: the evil of refusing to think.

But hedonism surely cannot be the nature of all evil. For one thing, there are people who hold principled positions that are immoral (such as utilitarians and authoritarians). There are very few of those people, because it is very difficult to hold an immoral position consistently, but they exist.

Another counter-example would be soldiers and policemen. It would very difficult to say that these people, being engaged in systemic evil, pursue instant gratification. However soldiers do tend to enlist on a spur of the moment desire: instead of working to serve their family better or go to college, they decide to sign away their free will (and often don’t get what they wanted). After that decision, one could argue that they have surrendered their capacity to make further decisions. The same, however, cannot be said for policemen. And yet they commit very evil actions indeed.

I don’t think it’s really possible to make an all-inclusive definition of evil that gets into any kind of detail (meaning that I exclude the basic definitions) without taking into account the nature of the systems that one lives in. But Charles’ attempt is pretty good, and I like it. it certainly applies to the vast majority of evil that we see today.

3 thoughts on “The nature of evil is… hedonism?

  1. roma38 February 27, 2008 at 16:18

    Christianity is not about instant gratification at all, it is about differed gratification in fact, waiting for the afterlife, the kingdom of heaven etc.

    Btw I read your book, I admit I found the bits regarding ‘value’ and what it is hard going. To me value is just something I desire, I could be deluded and desire a worthless piece of land, but that is valuable to me. I found your thinking on anarchism valuable and worthwhile though.

    I found your ‘childhood search’ for God, asking Him to show you a sign which failed to materialize after few days leading you to confirm your original thoughts about the non existence of God, naive.

    It is as if you are testing a God, making demands of Him/Her, so that you can accept Him/Her as if He/She needs you to accept and worship Him/Her.

    I do not suppose it occurred to you that if there is a God He/She has no compulsion or desire to acquiesce to your demands? A God by definition would be someone who does whatever He/She/it likes, without concern for little godlings making their demands.

  2. andrewgreve February 27, 2008 at 21:36

    Could we say that the policeman is hedonistic in that he would rather ‘do the easy thing’ of following the propaganda and the course that has been set for him in his life? I am not sure I agree that soldiers and policemen (as just two examples) do not pursue instant gratification in this regard. It’s sort of like why I wanted to be a public school teacher. Looking back, I can see pretty clearly that that course had hedonistic tones. “Work for 25 years, get good money, its easy, time off, blah blah blah…”

  3. Francois Tremblay February 27, 2008 at 21:37

    Yes, I would agree with that as a general principle, although it might not apply to all of them.

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