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.