Tuesday, October 16, 2007

What is Evil?

A prisoner of war is a man who tries to kill you and fails, and then asks you not to kill him.
Winston Churchill

I've been pondering about this post for several days after reading about Japanese men starving to death and the Japanese seemingly indifferent to their plight. There is no cultural or religious tradition of charity in Japan. This seems an odd dichotomy from a Buddhist society that refined Zen Buddhism with its compassion for all living things. The Japanese believe that families take care of their own. It is not for the State to provide welfare assistance. A collective belief that leads to collective indifference or lack of compassion that leads to a collective evil? Is it evil, or is it another perspective?

One could say that all evil has its roots in a lack of compassion for others, both individual and collective evil. This definition seems suitable, and yet, it seems lacking. One could say that evil stems from a lack of mindfulness or attention in the moment, but this too, seems lacking. Then, you have exceptions. For instance, the fire bombing of Dresden and Japanese cities were immoral and evil, but they were seen as necessary at the time to break "the will of the enemy". What is a war crime is defined by the winner, not the loser of the war. Then there is the taking of prisoners and their treatment. The Japanese did not have high opinions of POWs. They thought surrender was shameful and disgraceful. Yet, there were those Japanese guards who took care of POWs and treated them like men, but they had to be careful with their charity or they would be killed as well. There are instances of Allied troops shooting surrendering Germans. The movies usually show this as a callous and indifferent action, practically impersonal, yet unambiguously evil. Yet context is not always provided. There were instances of SS men killing prisoners and surrendering SS men setting traps for Allied soldiers. One man would throw his weapon down and appear to surrender while a comrade would jump up from behind cover and kill as many Allied troops as he could with submachine gun fire while their guard was down. There were other variations of this theme, but woe to the German or Japanese who surrenders to troops who have suffered losses from these kinds of traps.

But you say, that is war. War is all about survival. Nothing else matters. Evil doesn't enter into it. On the level of the individual, that is mostly true. But wars would not exist if societies or populations didn't support them. Wars generally happen for three reasons:

1. A society or group of people wants to steal land and resources from another group of people rather than pursue a peaceful solution to their problem.
2. A society is fragmenting and the rule of law breaks down resulting in a civil war due to some longstanding conflict or tension within the society itself. The society itself could not solve the problem and people decided that might makes right.
3. A society feels threatened by a neighboring society and decides that they have nothing to lose by attacking the other since their way of living is being threatened and is disappearing before their eyes. We saw this with Japan and now we are seeing it with certain Muslim sects.

No matter the cause, we see endless cycles of bloodshed occur as people and societies grow and collide in an ever smaller world. The Greeks lamented about it in their tragedies about families thousands of years ago. We see it now manifesting between Sunni and Shia, Shia and Shia in Iraq as groups and communities vie for power. We see China stamping out Tibetan Buddhism, one of the most peaceful religions. The Chinese pollute their water and air, and need more resources for further growth. We Americans supposedly fight in the Middle East for our way of life, but everyone knows that if there was no oil under those ancient sands, we would not care to be there at all. We are paying for our oil with American, Iraqi, and Afghani blood, but fighting for what?

Have I answered my own question? Doubtful. It will likely be answered sometime in the future - by the individual in the moment and by societies after the rubble and bodies have been cleared and the rebuilding has started.


Perhaps in addition or instead, you could ask, "Is there such a thing as evil?"

When each instance of individual or societal "evil" is found to have a cultural reason or a genetic reason, and in fact these reasons vary, is there any need for the term?

Just because we were taught it, doesn't make it so.

:-) Enjoyed your post.
I would tend to say, with the Japanese, that on a policy level it's just another approach.

More later...
I think on the society/policy level there is a lack of compassion. There's also created, at the same level, a sense of shame in the individual for not being self-supporting. That doesn't mean that individuals are not compassionate; rather, it makes them less likely to know that someone is in need.

The article portrayed both a "I'll help you" and a "you earned it" point of view - while both were represented, I wonder what percent would hold each, and whether knowing somebody, if only in passing, makes a difference. And how thataht compares to various other places, including the US.

With the stories of surrender and ambush, you illustrate, much as in Jon's recent post, how understanding somebody's point of view can change the view of their actions.

I think that encouraging and fostering empathy in others is really the solution. It's done not at a policy level (though it can be supported at a policy level) but at a personal one.
Interesting post John

The Japanese certainly are difficult to understand. World War Two impacted on them enormously - perhaps 4 million dead - although they caused the deaths of more than 30 million other Asian people. The treatment of Allied POWs was unfortunately minor by comparison.

Yet the Japanese have tried to distort and minimize the war in their textbooks. Quite inscrutable - to use the obvious.


I didn't even think to mention Japanese biowarfare experiments or their atrocities and the subsequent American cover up of Unit 731 ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unit_731 ) and its activities. As a microbiologist and molecular biologist by training, I find offensive biowarfare research quite immoral and outright stupid. If anything was evil, Unit 731 and their activities would certainly qualify as such. It would likely be doubtful that their research would even save lives taking into account their research on starvation and hypothermia, but anyone citing their data as the basis of his research would likely be condemned as well. Unit 731 together with the Nazi human experiments show that microbiologists and physicians can do horrible things to others in the name of clinical research, basic science and human curiosity.

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