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The Concept of Evil, and Joseph Duncan April 30, 2008

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Criminal Justice, Current Events, Ethics, Nina Rosenstand's Posts.
 In my Introduction to Values classes we usually have a discussion about the concept of evil. We talk about whether it is sufficient to use concepts such as “morally wrong,” “thoroughly self-serving,” or “extremely offensive” to cover the perception of the worst conceivable human conduct toward other living beings, or whether there is some justification in using the controversial term evil. The underlying reluctance among ethicists to use the e-word is, of course, because it seems to imply a religious world view, with a condemnation of the action or person in question grounded in a religion, and perhaps even an assumption of a force of evil existing independently of the human mind. (And it also has something to do with partisan politics: whether one feels comfortable talking about “evil-doers,” or whether one doesn’t.) Here we can veer off in several directions: We can talk about why ethicists generally opt for a non-religious terminology (and whether that makes sense), but we can also talk about whether the term evil automatically implies a religious view. For some, it does. For others, it simply signifies the ultimate condemnation of a person by a society who has witnessed the most egregious breaking of its rules. And even within the non-theistic application of the term there are two directions where we may go: One is inspired by Hannah Arendt and (lately) Philip Zimbardo and goes toward a broadening of the term, a suggestion that evil is something we are all potentially capable of engaging in: the “banality of evil  that makes ordinary people end up tormenting other human beings because they think they have to, or because they have somehow become persuaded that the others deserve it. The other direction is a narrowing of the term, reserving it for the kind of behavior that stands out as being extraordinarily grotesque and deliberately cruel—the kind of behavior we might also call inhumane.
          As an example of the latter I have, for the past few years, brought up the name of Joseph Duncan:  In the late spring of 2005, Duncan killed a family (mother, son, and mother’s fiancé) and abducted the two younger children from their home in North Idaho. He took the children, 8-year old Shasta and 9-year old Dylan, to a remote campsite in the Bitterroot Mountains of Montana, where he proceeded to sexually molest and torture them for weeks, until he killed the boy. Presumably saving Shasta for a later thrill-kill, he brought her down to a North Idaho town in the middle of the night, going west (he claims he was trying to bring her back). They stopped at a Denny’s, and thanks to the vigilance of waitresses and guests, Shasta was recognized from TV and billboards, and rescued, and Duncan was arrested. Details about the murders and abductions have come to light, so we now know that Shasta witnessed the abuse and murder of her brother, and that Duncan (probably anticipating that she, too, would soon be dead) told her how he killed her family, and (I believe) also about other children he had abused and murdered. He has already pled guilty to the four murders and child molestation, and now he is about to face his death penalty hearing—with Shasta as the sole surviving witness against him. And she is a very effective witness—she knew exactly the location of the campsite where her brother had been killed and dismembered, and she was able to recall details of Duncan’s stories that have since been corroborated.

Consider Duncan as he is now fighting for his life in court—do we want to call him evil? Might we want to reserve the term “evil” for his actions, but not apply it to him as a person—under the assumption that he is somehow redeemable? Or would you feel better if we didn’t use the term evil at all? Let me add the latest twist to the story: The court had tried to work out a deal so Shasta would not have to face her tormentor in court, since her testimony is already videotaped. But now Duncan has fired his lawyers and petitioned to represent himself in court—which he has a constitutional right to do. He will have to undergo an additional psychiatric evaluation, but if he is found to be sane, Shasta may find herself in the horrific situation of being cross-examined on the stand by the man who raped her and murdered her family. Now some would say that these are the unforeseeable twists and turns of a legal system that, on the whole, is fair and equitable. For others, it is morally repugnant that this can even be an option. Is Duncan trying to manipulate the system in order to have a last face-to-face confrontation with Shasta? Is he trying to appear as a sympathetic victim of circumstances—the determinism defense? Is he creating grounds for an appeal later? Or does he have a death wish? These are complex questions. But for the purpose of our discussion here, I want to ask you, does this make you more or less likely to label Duncan evil? He knows what he is doing—there is no doubt about that. He was released from prison by a judge whom he had fooled into thinking that he was rehabilitated, immediately before going on his killing spree. Duncan may not be sane in the manner of most of us, but he is very much aware of what he is doing.



1. Paul Moloney - April 30, 2008

The term evil does have a religious connotation. To argue from a religious standpoint diminishes one’s argument in philosophy. The focus in philosophy is on reasoning. If reason is the greatest good for the philosopher then unreasonableness is the greatest evil. Evil can be considered in relation to evil. Socrates did not consider his death to be an evil because he thought it more reasonable to die in his circumstances. He considered it better to die than to become unreasonable.

2. forrest noble - April 30, 2008

“In religion and ethics, evil is defined as: the morally objectionable aspects of the behavior and reasoning of human beings — those which are deliberately devoid of conscience, and show a wanton penchant for destruction or self fulfillment at the expense of others, and are devoid of empathy”

That certainly seems to describe our “lost soul” above. Although he might have had some remorse, as he asserted, and was trying to bring back the little girl. If so, that would only say that he might not be completely evil. Of course he probably has serious psychological maladies, but that would not take him out of the evil category for religious people, and probably not others either — providing he is adjudged to be sane.

Next, let’s move on to a non-religious definition of evil: tending to cause great harm or injury to others without empathy. — He seems to match this definition pretty well too. If he had empathy it certainly was little apparent. ——— OK he’s got 2 out of 3 strikes.

Let’s try one more non-religious definition: the quality of being morally reprehensible according to the law of the society or country in which you live.

It seems he meets this definition too. 3 out of 3 is not good for him. Let’s see if I can find a definition that may not apply to him: Evil: malefic: having or exerting a malignant influence.—- unless this little girl turns around in her life and for instance is abusive to her children which is related to this evil doer, then at least the malignant influence part seemingly does not apply to him since we have no knowledge given concerning his life before this time.

I don’t like the word evil in general as a description of a person’s character since I’ve been accused of being evil because I am an atheist.

But in this guys case, what say you all? Is he evil? I say thumbs down!

your friend forrest

3. Huan - May 1, 2008

I suppose if we view the self as a series of likes and dislikes, this guy’s detrimental likes would automatically label him as evil. Considering that his likes are malicious, regardless of whether it is deterministic or not, he would still be labeled evil. The only way to escape the label would be to stop liking such actions.

However I would definitely question the practicality of the label. First we are unable to eliminate people with malicious likes by labeling and punishing them at the moment, and I don’t see how we ever could. Second I’d say these labels are extremely restrictive, often resulting in too much use of our emotional non-thinking moral responses, eliminating any creative intellectual analysis. I’d say such habits are quite wasteful of our giant thinking brain, but this may lead to a rather existential argument.(Nothing wrong with that though!)

We like our clear absolute answers, we like our cookie cutter morals, but are they that great for us though?

4. Paul Moloney - May 2, 2008

If we are morally evil according to the degree that we are unreasonable to someone then we are all morally evil to some degree, so if we label other people evil if we have to include ourselves. The people that label Forrest as being evil because he is an atheist can be labeled evil for judging him.

In a sense philosophy is all about people and in a sense it is not about people. Philosophy depends on those that offer arguments. In a sense, it is not the person that is important but the argument that is made by the person. In philosophy, Forrest being an atheist has no bearing; it is the arguments he offers on a topic that have bearing, and he has given some good arguments on this subject.

To label someone evil is not a philosophical argument; in fact it is a logical fallacy. It means that a person has no argument to offer.

This topic is, though, very complicated and there are different issues involved. It is impossible to do justice to it by making a few comments.

5. Nina Rosenstand - May 5, 2008

Great comments–I appreciate all your contributions. Now add to the mix: Austrian Josef Fritzi who imprisoned his daughter in the cellar for 24 years, and fathered 6 living children by raping her on a regular basis. He, too, knew what he was doing, to the extent that he was able to carry on this atrocity undetected for more that two decades. And now he is very sorry–that he has been caught. Morally wrong? Mentally ill? Psychologically disturbed? Misguided? Evil? We have a multitude of ways to discuss such a phenomenon (and Kant may be the most useful philosopher to lean on here: an utter reduction of the daughter, her children, and even his wife (who was lied to and manipulated) to being merely a means to an end). I opt for reserving a term for a behavior that is beyond the pale–a behavior that involves careful planning, and full awareness of the suffering caused. I side with Kant and opt for keeping the e-word in reserve for just such a situation…

6. forrest noble - May 6, 2008


I agree that this guy Fritzi has many problems. His biggest will be with the law, and then in confinement. There is no capital punishment in Austria. He’ll never see the light of day for the rest of his life, which is seemingly certain. Morally bankrupt, or having misguided urges, would most certainly be understatements.

The other characteristics you mentioned would probably all apply: multiple psychological disturbances, mentally ill, a version of the e-word based upon every definition of the word that I could find: insane? maybe. He should try for that one. With the right defense maybe he will have a better chance in a mental institution than in jail. Even in isolated confinement there would seemingly be a good chance that he would be killed. If so, probably few tears would be shed by his many kids on his behalf, however. He would be both the father and grandfather of these incest-spawned children.

He certainly will have a claim to infamy.

your friend forrest

7. Paul Moloney - May 6, 2008

Assuming what we hear is true, this is a most hideous case. What insanity actually is will probably be disputed until the end of time.

It is known that philosophy, in its purest sense, is the love of wisdom. If wisdom can be loved it can also be hated. It is through the pursuit of wisdom that one becomes reasonable and reasonableness is expressed through virtue. No one is virtuous except in relation to another. No one is just except in relation to another. No one is unreasonable except in relation to another.

Virtue is based on reason and reason is based on knowledge. Being unreasonable is also based on knowledge. Being unreasonable is not based on ignorance. To do this much evil necessitates intelligence.

In order to love wisdom we must have some knowledge of it, and in order to hate it we must have some knowledge of it. This is why such an extreme unreasonableness is so evil. It does not seem reasonable to think that someone does this much evil to others ignorantly. In a sense one would have to be insane to be this unreasonable, but one can become insane through unreasonableness.

8. Stephen - May 7, 2008

While the term “evil” does hold a religious connotation, I believe that one can easily discern the implications the word carries and apply it in a manner pertaining more to literature. Today when someone uses the term “Machiavellian,” nobody’s first thought is Italian patriotism or the unification of city-states. If one thinks of evil in terms of Milton’s Satan, evil becomes a manifestation of a rational disposition to intentionally harm.

In the cases of Fritzi and Duncan, both men were rational (as their crimes were pre-meditated), and both were intent to continually cause harm (as seen from the duration of their crimes). This in mind, both men meet the characteristics of Satan: the quintessential evil. Nor do I believe that any form of repentance from either of them is sincere. I do however agree with Mr. Noble in that whatever the outcome of their sentences are, there is a good chance they will not be living much longer.

Also, if one is going to take Kant into account in the Fritzi case, there is something to be said about the imprisoned daughter using her own child as a means to escape . . . .

9. forrest noble - May 7, 2008

A little speculation here concerning the daughter in th Fritzi case using her own child as her means of escape as Stephen mentioned: There are at least two seemingly obvious possibilities that I can think of.

1) The first Concerns one of the definitions of evil which were discussed above: Evil: malefic: having or exerting a malignant influence in morality. For instance if this girl turned out to be non-caring and abusive to her own children then the “malignant” character of the abuse has moved to the next generation.

2) If instead the daughter was fairly certain that her father would not hurt the child (or any of her children) but was just using it as a means to keep the daughter from running away, then she seemingly made the right decision by running. This might be considered a type of Kantian moral judgment.

your friend forrest

10. charlotte - May 7, 2008

I believe Fritzi is a sick, evil, and psychologically disturbed person.. Some now i wonder how his wife never got a clue… How could the girl take care of some of the kids in a small room and never hear noise..I think the whole family is sick, because the wife had to know something. You may have everything sound proof, but some how you should figure something out. I think the man should be kept in a room like his daughter was. Then someone should treat him the same way til he dies.. since there his no capital punishment in Austria.

11. Unclesharkey - May 11, 2008

People, this dude is evil, no two ways about it. To hell with the religious ties to this word. Think of evil as more of a force or desire like love. To make it plain and simple. This person (in the course of pursuing his own desires) has destroyed the lives of several people. He should no longer be allowed to exist.

12. forrest noble - May 11, 2008

Hey Unclesharkey, how did you find me?

This is maybe the Mesa College Philosophy site near San Diego, but what do I know !!??

This guy Fritzi, as I stated above, has a good chance of being killed in prison. He certainly won’t win any popularity contests wherever he goes, if they find out his crime.

your friend forrest

13. Justin Benhoor - May 12, 2008

Personally, I feel like calling this guy mentally ill, insane, or psychologically disturbed is just doing him a favor. Someone who is mentally ill isn’t necessarily all there, or fully aware of exactly what it is that they are doing. Obviously thats why so often we see or hear about criminals trying to plead insanity in the court room to avoid facing the consequences of there actions. Calling a guy like Fritz ill is by far an understatement, because Fritz knew exactly what he was doing. He carefully and cautiously planned it out, and lived it through for 25 years, fully aware of exactly what was going on !

14. Unclesharkey - May 12, 2008

forrest are you stalking me again 😉

“The belief in a supernatural source of evil is not necessary; men alone are quite capable of every wickedness.”

15. forrest noble - May 13, 2008

Unclesharkey, your comment just about sums up my opinion too. Men alone define evil and are the only perpetrators of it.

And I’ll have to stop that stalking s___. It’s evil, I think.

your friend forrest

16. Sheyri - May 14, 2008

Joseph Duncan is a very selfish man. Hi is completely ignoring the pain and suffer he has caused to all the people he has harmed in a physical matter, because he continually keeps making the same decisions. Duncan is considering as a very selfish man because he makes his decisions base on his physical benefit. Duncan knows that his actions and decisions he has maid are not consider as a right decisions a just person makes in today to society. Duncan acts and say thing to make him and others believe his innocent of his actions. Duncan is a dirty headed man who acts in an insanely matter. Plato will probably say that Duncan is an innocent man because he is not aware of the pain he is causing, or because he hasn’t been told that his actions are of an unjust man, but if Duncan knows that he is decisions is something to be shame then his more than an egoist than his also an unjust person.

17. ChaosApothecary - May 15, 2008

Evil is defined as both a noun and an adjective:

1 a: morally reprehensible
2 aarchaic : inferior b: causing discomfort or repulsion : offensive c: disagreeable
3 a: causing harm : pernicious b: marked by misfortune : unlucky

and as a noun

1 a: the fact of suffering, misfortune, and wrongdoing b: a cosmic evil force
2: something that brings sorrow, distress, or calamity

Now these terms are important because they remove “evil” from a religious context and put them into a “neutral” state that can be accepted by many, regardless of religious preference.

Armed with this clear cut definitions of “evil”, it should be plain to see that yet, Joseph Duncan’s acts brought harm, and would repulsive the majority of America, in doing so, he brought suffering to the lives of those he harmed. His actions were evil, and in doing them, he became evil.

The question is not whether or not he is evil, but why on earth someone would do such a thing.

It is too easy to claim them as “insane” simply because it comforts us as a society to believe that there must be something fundamentally wrong with this person, that he must be odd or deranged, that his actions are a fluke never to be repeated again.

Yet we know that there have been terrible murderers all through history, and assuming that all of these people don’t have some sort of severe brain damage, how could they possibly have come to the conclusion that hurting/torturing/killing other people was justified?

They are not ignorant of morals or social norm, indeed their ability to blend in is part of whats makes them so dangerous. So if they know how to act, how society expects them to act, what possesses them to break from the norm?

I doubt that it is any sense of “want” simply because desires can be suppressed with enough fear of public judgment, but more of a “need”.

As with people like Theodore John Kaczynski (the Unabomber), who felt that it was up to him to destroy technology’s hold over the population. This wasn’t just something he wanted to do, he needed to do it. It was his moral obligation to save us from technology, in any way possible.

If serial killers are analyzed in a similar fashion, I’m certain that all of their killings could be found to fulfill a “need”, though I can’t begin to imagine what those needs might be.

Does this make them evil? To society, yes; but to themselves, I highly doubt it.

18. Jack H - May 15, 2008

This man is obviously not reasonable. It’s insane to think the possibility exists that he will get to see and torment his daughter one last time before he is put to death. If both of their stories corroborate then I think this is a no brainer, let him burn. George Bush Jr would definitely call this man an “evil-doer”. What I know is that i could call him names all day, but the fact is that his brain doesn’t tick the ways ours does and he should be wrapped up in a mental hospital. I do not think he should be allowed to testify against his daughter, they could put her in a separate room live on camera with a person there asking questions, but she should not have to directly face that crazy man who did unspeakable things to other living beings.

19. Abigail - October 22, 2008

Good words.

20. 2013 was the 50th Anniversary of “The Banality of Evil” | Philosophy On The Mesa - December 17, 2013

[…] in Abu Ghraib. (I’ve visited the subject several times before in this blog, such as in “The Concept of Evil, and Joseph Duncan,” and “On a Scale of 1 to 22…”, so essentially I’m merely summing up what […]

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