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Faces of Evil–Duncan and Fritzl? March 16, 2009

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

As chance will have it, two stories that we’ve been following are unfolding in the news simultaneously, both of them making claim to revealing the face of what I call egregious evil (what Kant calls radical evil is slightly different, involving giving up on the very possibility of goodness. Good article here.) Joseph Duncan was, until Friday, facing trial in Riverside Ct, CA, for yet another murder, the murder of 10-year old Antonio Martinez (a murder he has, essentially, confessed to already). If you’ll recall my previous posts about Duncan, he was already found guilty and sentenced to death—3 times—for the murders of a family in Idaho. However, last Friday the Riverside Ct. judge put his trial on hold, citing the necessity for a new competency evaluation. Despite the fact that Duncan has been repeatedly tested by federal authorities and found competent to stand trial in Idaho, the Riverside judge (who is not bound by federal rulings) feels that it is necessary to evaluate Duncan as he is now, to determine if he is competent to stand trial. As much as some of us would just prefer for Duncan to get put back where he was, on Death Row, and spare the rest of us the sight of his face again, the CA judge’s ruling is sound. Duncan may have been utterly competent to not only stand trial but represent himself in court in Idaho, but his mental condition may have deteriorated since then (or he has found a way to fake incompetence). March 30 he will be evaluated by two court-appointed psychiatrists, and he has vowed not to cooperate. Is this Duncan’s death wish at play, or is he just toying with the court, getting a bit of extra time away from Death Row, in his usual narcissistic way?

                The other case is of course the Josef Fritzl case in Austria. A quick summary: Fritzl kidnapped his daughter when she was 18 and kept her locked in a small room in the basement, where he raped her and fathered children with her, for 24 years. One sick baby was not given medical assistance and died. Fritzl is now standing trial for a number of felonies, from kidnapping to rape and incest to murder, and today he pleaded guilty—to incest.  His defense lawyer has asked the jury to consider Fritzl as a “human being.” That is a dangerous road to go down—it implies that “heck, we’re all human, and don’t we all want to imprison our daughter, abuse her sexually, have kids with her and let her live in terror for 20 years?” What removes these two cases from any consideration within the category of Hanna Arendt’s concept “the banality of evil” is that in either case, the perpetrator pursued a course of action for his own self-gratification that is utterly beyond what any slightly self-centered person might dream of. What might ordinary fairly selfish people contemplate in the darkness of their soul? Killing their spouse? Killing their boss? Killing their landlord, as in the old Eddie Murphy poem/skit? Having sex with Dad’s new wife, or with Sis’s new husband, or teenage daughter’s best friend? Or perhaps hold up money transports, or some similar illegal but fairly trivial scenario. But even your run-of-the-mill criminal, or ordinary selfish person with dreams of having a “Ring of Gyges” just does not dream of killing a family so he can abduct and sexually torture the children, or kidnap his daughter, imprison her, and abuse her sexually and mentally for decades. Just another human being? Sorry, no. We may sometimes view human nature as a sad, frail, ill-tempered thing, easily tempted to do violence. But for one thing, neuroscience hasn’t found much evidence to support this view. And for another, we may be easily led into the banality of evil, but egregious evil is not a matter of being easily mislead. It is, in most cases, a matter of choice, with full awareness of the overwhelming weight of the moral and legal tradition. No innocence due to ignorance here. No claim that “I was just following orders.” This is why we tend to question the sanity of such people—because anyone who takes such radical steps to go against the social grain for the sake of personal satisfaction surely must be crazy. But both Duncan and Fritzl have been found to be at least as sane as it takes to understand the possible consequences of their actions—they hid, and obfuscated, and lied. In the spirit of Socrates, we’d rather believe them to be sick, than to have to face the fact that they made conscious choices, with their rational capabilities intact. So “sane” they are—until we abandon the criterion of rational sanity for a new criterion of emotional sanity.  And that will have its own set of  problems.

(Update 3/18: Fritzl has pleaded guilty on all counts.)



1. Paul Moloney - March 16, 2009

It seems that when something evil is done, it is common to attribute it to human nature. When it comes to the genius of Einstein, who says, “Well, that’s human nature for you.”

2. Dwight Furrow - March 21, 2009


You make an absolutely crucial point. The actions of Duncan and Fritzl cannot be explained by self-interest run amuck and there is nothing human about them. Most evil is the product of ordinary people reacting badly to fear, frustration, or resentment. This is an entirely different category. Confusing ordinary evil with radical or egregious evil is a common mistake that leads to lots of misunderstanding about human nature.

3. On a Scale of 1 to 22… « Philosophy On The Mesa - September 15, 2010

[…] encountered his work before, here’s another angle on the work of Stone, tying it  in with our ongoing discussion of the concept of evil. A trend in moral philosophy which was pretty well established in the 20th Century has been broken […]

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