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Joseph Duncan Update #3: Kant vs Taylor August 15, 2008

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Criminal Justice, Current Events, Ethics, Nina Rosenstand's Posts.

Should we allow Duncan a moment to express himself? Ordinarily I wouldn’t, but since we have previously talked about evil, it is interesting to see Duncan use the term about himself. In a letter to his mother he speculates about the concept of evil, and evil in him. So while others may have qualms about using the e-word about Duncan, he doesn’t hesitate using it about himself—albeit with qualifications:

There is a huge resevior [sic] of hatred – evil – that drives me to hurt people, even those I love.… I am driven by my hatred for our society  (“the system”) but at the same time tortured by my own compassion. … God has shown me the face of evil, he has also allowed me to see that evil is an illusion that is given life via our ignorance and fear, evil is real only because we make it real, if I could somehow teach people this we could develop many new and effective ways to fight evil which is hatred that manifests itself in any intelligent system… Our society is permiated [sic] with these evil “entities” (if you will)…Evil can live in a person and in a society as well. … I have been inflicted by an evil ‘demon’ that is nurtured by our so-called criminal justice system… I am still fighting my demons and asking God to guide me as he can.

Is there true recognition of moral failure here? No, of course not. He blames “the system,” he blames people’s ignorance, he seems to blame God for not stopping him, and he denounces “evil” as a social construct at the same time as he recognizes his “demons.” This is a narcissistic mind, and at every step of the way he twists his analysis into one of finger pointing. What it does show is that according to Kant’s definition of evil—persisting in doing self-serving acts with the full knowledge of them being morally unacceptable—fits Duncan perfectly.

What is it that is so morally revolting about Joseph Duncan? Of course the man has violated every rule of ethics and decency in every book, so from the knee-jerk visceral reaction to the cool, rational side of judgment, Duncan is a wrongdoer. But I am reminded of a famous analysis by American philosopher Richard Taylor who presents three stories of moral callousness: a young boy puts a pin through a bug and watches it squirm; kids pour gasoline over a cat and set fire to it; and Nazi soldiers bash the head of an infant in, and kill an old defenseless man. Taylor’s point is that if we line up all the familiar philosophical arguments against such behavior, what truly hits home isn’t that such actions have bad consequences, or they go against a universal moral rule, or fail to meet the standard of the Golden Mean, etc., but that they are done without a shred of compassion. Taylor argued, almost all by himself in the philosophical climate of the late 20th century (now more people are beginning to see things his way) that the true moral quality is compassion, not a rationality-based response. In the case of Duncan we can watch Taylor’s theory come to life: What is so immensely troubling about the story of Duncan’s killings (as is the case with most serial killers and rapists) is the lack of just ordinary human compassion (so much for his notion that he is tortured by his own compassion). His victims were bugs to him, and he liked to watch them squirm. In court it came out that he showed Shasta videotape of torturing her brother Dylan before shooting the boy in front of her, and he had the two kids write letters home to their dad, assuring him they’d be home soon, in-between the torture sessions, and prior to killing Dylan.  But as much as I have taken a shine to Taylor’s emotionalism, I still like to find a satisfying philosophical reason-based foundation for my revulsion, and I think I have to turn to Kant, again. What is so dreadful about Duncan? There are a lot of criminals who don’t have compassion for their victims, but Duncan adds an element to this callousness: He uses others merely as a means to an end, in a highly manipulative and organized manner. This is what he has done throughout all his life of crime—reduced others to simple tools for his own pleasure and needs, thinking and planning his next moves. And now that he apparently wants to die, his manipulative behavior continues: As Shasta had been nothing but an instrument for Duncan’s needs (maybe less for sex than for the feeling of power), I suspect he had plans of making her the tool of his dramatic exit, himself cross-examining the star witness against him, staging his own death sentence as a result of the confrontation. Who did he hope would play him in the movie, I wonder? This, fortunately, was prevented—her testimony was heard on tape, not live, in court yesterday.

I find that Kant and Taylor are not mutually exclusive; one theory is rationality-based, and evaluates the moral failings of a self-centered deliberation process; the other is based on emotions, and spotlights the lack of fellow-feeling in criminal acts. We need both aspects—the expectation of a rational “Golden Rule” understanding, as well as of a fundamental human empathy—to understand the abyss of wrongness/evil that Duncan presents to us. And later, when the jurors reach a decision about the penalty, we may be able to talk about this dual approach as two sides of a judgment: reason-based punishment combined with whatever measure of human empathy that may seem appropriate.







1. Paul Moloney - August 16, 2008

It seems that the love of pleasure diminishes and finally eradicates compassion. It is not the love of any pleasure that does this, but the pleasure one has in being cruel. If there were no pleasure in being cruel, it does not seem that anyone would bother to be cruel. To value the experience of a cruel pleasure more than a human life is seemingly the height of unreasonableness. I would argue that a cruel pleasure is an unreasonable pleasure and, therefore, an unnecessary pleasure, and I am saying the very least. I would also argue that an unreasonable pleasure is one that cannot be enjoyed because I would argue that the enjoyment of a pleasure depends upon its reasonableness. An unreasonable pleasure is a meaningless pleasure, as meaning is found in reason. There is no intellectual satisfaction found in meaningless pleasure. People kill and rape for a pleasure they will never enjoy. Even if there is pleasure in being unreasonable to others, there is no enjoyment in it. On the other hand, the more reasonable we become the more we enjoy pleasure, even pleasures that might be considered insignificant by others.

I do not think that reason and emotion can be separated. Some may hold the view that emotional people are unreasonable. It can be true that some people are emotional because they are unreasonable, but that does not mean that emotion itself is unreasonable. It would seem that emotion can be quite reasonable. Indeed, it would seem unreasonable not to be emotional at times. It seems also that those that are unreasonable toward us are those that are insensitive to our feelings, either because of their unreasonableness or because of the ignorance that follows upon their unreasonableness. We are angered by those that are thoughtless to us because we consider their thoughtlessness due their unreasonableness toward us. Killers and rapists can be people that are emotionless.

It may be that compassion is the premier emotion. Compassion does not belong to ignorant people nor does it belong to unreasonable people. I have to think that compassion follows upon knowledge and since reason follow upon knowledge it can be said that compassion follows upon reason. One has to know when and where to be compassionate and especially to whom to be compassionate. The person that is most reasonable to others would be the same person that is most compassionate to others. Simply being reasonable to someone seems to be a form of compassion. I would think that compassion is an indication of a high degree of intellectual perfection.

2. Dwight Furrow - August 16, 2008


I agree with you that what you call Taylor’s “emotionalism” –Duncan’s lack of compassion–doesn’t quite explain our revulsion at Duncan’s behavior. But I don’t think Kant helps much here.

Kant’s account of immoral behavior undergoes some development. As I recall in the “Groundwork” (1785?) immoral behavior is any action that cannot be universally willed without contradiction. This would mean lots of ordinary acts of compassion would be immoral because they cannot be universalized. This hardly provides us with grounds for revulsion!

In the Critique of Practical Reason (1788 ?) he thinks of immoral action as the attempt to employ “self-love” as an unconditional practical principle. In other words, acts motivated by pure self-interest are immoral. These would be cases in which I aim at a state of affairs that serves my interests and I simply don’t consider the humanity of another person except incidentally as it might help me bring about that state of affairs. So I treat the humanity of another person only as a means to my own ends.

Much garden variety immorality–ordinary deception, thievery, and some rape and murder–is motivated by self-interest in which the humanity of others is ignored, and Kant’s explanation of these cases seems to be in the right direction.

But in Duncan’s case, the humanity of others is not just incidentally involved in his quest to promote his interests. He actively seeks to violate the humanity of his victims, independently of his interests. The object of his will just is the dehumanization of another person.

In my upcoming book, I distinguish between ordinary evil and radical evil. Ordinary evil arises from ordinary people coping badly with their situation, acting from excessive, misplaced anger, fear, resentment, etc.–Arendt’s the banality of evil. Radical evil chooses evil because it is evil–this describes Duncan. It seems to me Kant is describing ordinary evil. I don’t think he has conceptualized radical evil. (although my knowledge of Kant is well short of comprehensive)

I think we find Duncan’s behavior revolting because at a certain level we cannot understand it. All of us are self-interested much of the time and we understand that motive rather well. Most of us, thankfully, don’t recognize dehumanization as something good it itself.

As to the golden rule, I’m not a big fan. Duncan seems to oscillate between utter narcissism and self-hatred. In those moments of self-hatred, the golden rule will be a monstrous doctrine. Perhaps even a true narcissist is indifferent to how others treat him.

3. Nina Rosenstand - August 17, 2008


I agree, to some extent: Kant’s analysis of evil is flawed, for one thing because it has to cover the spectrum from the “little” evil to the extreme forms. I suspect that the religious connection is the root cause of this flaw: From the time of Aquinas the concept of evil has been linked up with disobeying God’s natural law, and the result is a too-broad brush; “everyone does it.” It does not reach the level of horrors that someone like Duncan reveals to us. But go back to the time of Augustine and you get a more interesting version (borrowed from Plotinus): evil as privatio, the lack of God’s presence, or shall we say in modern terms, the lack of goodness/compassion. Makes it sound almost like Taylor’s analysis!

I like your distinction between the banality of ordinary evil and radical evil—mainly because I, too, make that distinction (with a different choice of words) in the new 2009, 6th edition of my ethics textbook!(The Arendt-Zimbardo comparison I referred to in my first Duncan post, April 30.) Philip Zimbardo carries Arendt’s analysis into the post-Abu Ghraib era, and Arendt’s brilliant concept is certainly a marvelous addition to our modern vocabulary, but both she and Zimbardo seem to forget to reserve a place for the acts of deliberate harmdoing for the sake of harm. But, interestingly, somebody like Eichmann whom Arendt uses as the primary example of evil’s banality, and if not he, then certainly other Nazi officials with executive powers, would probably qualify as agents of radical evil.

However, whichever form “evil” takes, I think Kant has a point that it does involve self-centered (not necessarily self-interested) actions, done with the full understanding of their moral wrongness. In Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone he presents the ultimate version of this as evil, and sees it as part of the human condition that we are supposed to rise above–he even calls it “radical evil.” To my recollection he does not include the kind of extreme harmdoing that Duncan represents, however, but I’d have to go back and re-read it. As for the Golden Rule: as much as it is not a cure-all, and sometimes has rather monstrous results, such as you describe, to me it represents (or is supposed to represent) some basic, minimal comprehension that others are people, too. Not the gracious recognition of the Other’s humanity á la Levinas, but a simple “We’re all in this together.” Better than nothing.

4. sandrar - September 10, 2009

Hi! I was surfing and found your blog post… nice! I love your blog. 🙂 Cheers! Sandra. R.

5. Maryann Spikes - November 18, 2009

Excerpt from my article on the Golden Rule, largely based on Prof Rosenstand’s text…you can find that article by clicking on my name: “Kant’s criticism of the GR is answered this way: The Golden Rule (treat others how you would want to be treated) includes the Platinum Rule (treat others how they would want to be treated), considering we would want others to put themselves in our shoes in their interactions with us. So you should put yourself in the shoes of a person who genuinely needs help and help them even if, in the same situation, you would not ask for it. However, this does not mean we would, in the process of putting ourselves in the other’s shoes, adopt someone’s values which conflict with God’s values, as becomes obvious in answer to another criticism of the Golden Rule, this time from my friend Seph: “‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,’ … of course means that if you are a masochist you would like others to treat you poorly, and will thus treat them poorly as well…probably not the best social program.” A masochist is not following the Golden Rule when s/he treats him/herself poorly, and s/he knows it, or else s/he would have no idea of what “treat poorly” means in order to put it into action. It is like a twisted game of “opposite day”. This Golden Rule dialectic shows how granting negative and positive rights does not mean helping people who should be helping themselves: Thesis: Give others what they want, Antithesis: Give others what you want, Synthesis: Give others what a self in its right mind would want. A self in its right mind would not want to be helped (to take resources from others) when it should be helping itself.”

The Golden Rule is both rational and intuitive (the ‘fellow-feeling’ you menionted–self is other, other is self). My article explains how it is essential to every moral theory, and that where every moral theory goes wrong is when it departs from the GR.

6. Maryann Spikes - November 20, 2009

…if we truly feel that we do not have free will and cannot control our thoughts and behavior, this will be reflected in our choices, especially if we think that in the end, none of it matters. Look at Joseph Duncan’s blog at http://fifthnail.blogspot.com as an example, albeit an extreme one. To ask if Duncan’s choice of evil was compelled begs the question of whether or not evil is even a real option. Did Duncan commit evil? Was he free to have chosen better, and would it have been essentially better than what he chose, or is “better” an illusion, is there no alternative to evil, because there is no essential good, and therefore no evil (no privation, absence, of essential good), and so he did not choose evil in the first place? Click on my name to explore this further.

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