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Do you think people who are phenomenally evil and profiting off of others’ suffering are conducting according to a set of internal values that are legitimate from their point of view, although they may not be legitimate by commonly accepted social standards?

Forgive me if I’m not using proper terminology. I am a relatively new enthusiast reader of philosophy, and I would like some insight into this question, which I have been contemplating. I would not mind if your response was highly opinionated and individual, because I believe that textbooks do not always give the best answers.

My understanding is that the actions of every being are driven by decisions and judgments which make sense to themselves, which is to say one is always doing the correct thing in the moment when they are doing it, according to their own values. Does it mean that nobody can do anything that’s actually wrong in their own book?

Do you think even the most evil individuals are conducting according to values that they deem legitimate and just, and thus cannot be faulted for doing things the way they do?

EDIT: typos

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    People seldom have a consistant "own book" of moral principles. Usually people exhibiting antisocial behavior (whether there are really "evil" people is debattable) adapt their justifications to the situation at hand, even if it means contradicting moral jusgement they made earlier.
    – armand
    Commented Oct 2, 2023 at 5:06
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    Not at all. In philosophy even the existence of other minds is debatable thus your claim of "their own system of values" is doubtful for average evil people. Many people including evil ones simply follow their own habitual hypothetical imperatives or do present/short-term cost/benefit analysis, yet philosophers tried to construct consistent moral systems via reason and non-hypothetical universal intuitions such as Kant's famous categorical imperatives. As you cannot enter evil people's mind maybe they're actually unpleasant and constantly suffer in pain and fear, clearly you're different... Commented Oct 2, 2023 at 6:02
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    But values must be "shared", otherwise there is neither society nor ethics. If you follow for the sake of argument the ubiquitous "solipsist" approach of many pseudo-philosophical discussions, there is no issue at all: if you are the only being in the world there are no "others" and thus the only being you can produce suffering is yourself. If so, it is absolutely "rational" to conducting yourself according to principles that are legitimate in your own system of values. Commented Oct 2, 2023 at 14:05
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    I know this is about philosophy, but I think understanding what’s happening biologically is an important piece of the puzzle. Here’s a video on how a psychopath’s brain reacts (compared to a normal accepted brain): youtu.be/AHk7S6prF6M
    – GammaGames
    Commented Oct 2, 2023 at 14:45
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    To delve into the famous Kantian categorical imperatives, see Kritian Berry's Kant 1793 reference Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone Book One: CONCERNING THE INDWELLING OF THE EVIL PRINCIPLE WITH THE GOOD, OR, ON THE RADICAL EVIL IN HUMAN NATURE... Commented Oct 2, 2023 at 18:13

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There are three points to consider here. Firstly, people do not always act in accordance with their own values, which is why we experience emotions such as guilt or regret, so it is possible that person might act in a way they know to be evil. Secondly, people might behave in a way considered evil by others because they are acting in ignorance or thoughtlessly- in other words, they might not have a conscious set of values. Finally, even if a person behaved in a way considered evil by others, because in their own mind their behaviour was entirely valid and acceptable, that would not mean that they 'cannot be faulted'- others, who hold different values, can still fault the behaviour of that person.

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Adolf Eichmann infamously cited Kantian ethics as justifying his banal servility towards the higher ranks of the Nazi regime; Himmler attempted to cultivate in the SS (the special murder corps of the regime, so to speak) an attitude of clinical detachment. Whether the doctors who worked in Auschwitz, say, were so detached in their death clinics, I don't know (I've read little about the Doctor's Trial), but it's conceivable that these people thought of themselves as acting on some sort of "reasonable principle of the matter."

One would recommend Hannah Arendt's The Origins of Totalitarianism for analysis of the "murderous logicality," the (supposedly) impeccable, but mere, consistency of both the Nazi and Soviet regimes' destructiveness with the premises of their worldviews:

Once their claim to total validity is taken literally they become the nuclei of logical systems in which, as in the systems of paranoiacs, everything follows comprehensibly and even compulsorily once the first premise is accepted. The insanity of such systems lies not only in their first premise but in the very logicality with which they are constructed. The curious logicality of all isms, their simple-minded trust in the salvation value of stubborn devotion without regard for specific, varying factors, already harbors the first germs of totalitarian contempt for reality and factuality. [1962 ed., 457-8]

The Origins is not a perfect book, and is rhapsodical even, but she cites her sources fairly well, and writes with the poetry of her people's suffering shining through like a cry spanning both Heaven and Hell.

But now then from Socrates (in the Meno) to the scholastics,S to Immanuel Kant indeed, and later Donald Davidson, it has been thought that there is something intrinsically deficiently rational, or even counter-principled, about incorrect practical/unethical thought. This is somewhat reflected in the debate over generalism and particularism in ethics (see also the less neutral article on just moral particularism in particular). With respect to Kant again, he denies the human possibility of a diabolical will, finding the worst human evil not in an outright rejection of reason as the faculty of principles but in an inversion of two deep principles' ordering over and/or against each other.


SAs they have put the question to themselves:

And in the first place what was the nature of the sin of the rebel angels? In any case this was a point presenting considerable difficulty, especially for theologians, who had formed a high estimate of the powers and possibilities of angelic knowledge, a subject which had a peculiar attraction for many of the great masters of scholastic speculation. For if sin be, as it surely is, the height of folly, the choice of darkness for light, of evil for good, it would seem that it can only be accounted for by some ignorance, or inadvertence, or weakness, or the influence of some overmastering passion. But most of these explanations seem to be precluded by the powers and perfections of the angelic nature. The weakness of the flesh, which accounts for such a mass of human wickedness, was altogether absent from the angels. There could be no place for carnal sin without the corpus delicti. And even some sins that are purely spiritual or intellectual seem to present an almost insuperable difficulty in the case of the angels.


Further reading

  1. Reasons for Action: Internal vs. External
  2. Reasons for Action: Justification, Motivation, Explanation
  3. Structural Rationality
  4. Radical Evil: Four Conceptions
  5. Christine Korsgaard, The Sources of Normativity
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'Legitimate' is the wrong term to use here. People always do what they feel is right (in the emotive sense of the word). This could mean that they think their actions are legitimate, sure, but it could also cover a lot of other cognitive options: e.g., that the action is necessary, normal, conventional, justified, appropriate, satisfying, effective, urgent… People can be internally conflicted, with different emotional 'right-feelings' pulling at them (the essence of cognitive dissonance), but in the moment of action one of those conflicting feelings wins out so that the person believes the action is 'right'. If people don't think an action is 'right' on some grounds, they will do something else.

This may make a person's actions more comprehensible, but it doesn't exculpate (remove fault or blame). Morality and ethics are social concepts — they weigh the value to one against the cost to others — so they cannot be evaluated looking at an individual's action in isolation. This is (in fact) the driving idea behind formal law: to avoid pitting one person's 'feeling of right' against another person's 'feeling of right', and instead weigh the costs to others against the benefits of the act. Thus, killing someone in self-defense is considered blameless (the cost to the other is equivalent to the benefit one receives), but killing someone for money is a fault (the cost to the other is incommensurate with the benefit one receives). In both cases the actor thinks he is 'right' to kill, but only the first case is considered 'ethical'.

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Much of this question is probably more about psychology, but...

Some "evil" people may consider their own actions to be legitimate (especially those with a clinical condition in which they lack empathy).

Others may be acting against their conscience*. I don't expect this to be the case for too many, at least not on the long term, because your conscience represents what you naturally tend towards. It seems unlikely that they'd be fighting their conscience every step of the way, and more likely that their conscience just works differently to the way the rest of ours does.

* "Conscience" can also be substituted for any rationalisation one might try to use to justify one's actions.

If they consider their actions legitimate, should they be faulted?

Well, it depends what you mean by "faulted".

If we consider someone to be a threat to others, we'll probably lock them in prison (or in a mental institute) all the same.

But if they didn't see the problem with their own actions, it might make sense to try to focus more on rehabilitation (and dissuasion) than "punishment". It would also make a stronger case for liveable prison conditions (assuming you weren't already convinced by concerns around their human rights, what would happen after they leave prison, how much trouble they'd be as a prisoner giving poor living conditions, and the mental health of prison guards).

You may end up with a similar conclusion if you accept that "free will" is poorly defined and our actions seem to just be a result of our biology and environment.

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  • The conscience can be burned to the point of being nonfunctional.
    – Joshua
    Commented Oct 2, 2023 at 18:08
  • The point of punishment is precisely to rectify a disordered will which overindulged in its own desires and therefore must be re-balanced through some kind of frustration. There is no rehabilitation without punishment (even if only self-punishment through a guilty conscience, like Raskolnikov), though there is punishment without rehabilitation - it all depends on what the punished makes out of the punishment dealt upon him. Punishment through external forces becomes the more important precisely when the offender sees no problem with their own actions, as he lacks a guilty conscience.
    – Mutoh
    Commented Oct 4, 2023 at 13:04
  • @Mutoh If you punish someone in ways they deem unfair, they may simply become hostile to authority, rather than learning to avoid the same action in future. "There is no rehabilitation without punishment" - that seems needlessly pessimistic, and trivially false, from my perspective - it dismisses the very idea of conscious reasoning to reach a conclusion about how to act. You don't need punishment to see that the drawbacks of a future act outweigh the benefits. "it all depends on what the punished makes out of the punishment" - evading responsibility for what may just be ineffective punishment
    – NotThatGuy
    Commented Oct 5, 2023 at 8:20
  • @Mutoh "even if only self-punishment through a guilty conscience" - seems to somewhat undermine your argument, because this suggests that you may need to do no more than evoke a guilty conscience. This may involve trying to get them to empathise with those they hurt, which could potentially be achieved with as little as a conversation. Also, many criminals already have a guilty conscience even before sentencing, which, by your reasoning, may be sufficient for rehabilitation (of course, you can't know if they truly have a guilty conscience, but you can't truly know any mental state).
    – NotThatGuy
    Commented Oct 5, 2023 at 8:28
  • @NotThatGuy whether the punished learns from the punishment is not essential to punishment being effective, but merely that the offender gets what he deserves (e.g. taking away a thief's stolen goods), i.e. justice. Rehabilitation and prevention are accidental to punishment. You can't force someone to learn a lesson even under torture if, like Alex DeLarge, he doesn't want to, and, short of death or lobotomy, nothing can absolutely ensure he won't reoffend. Recidivists can get harsher sentences as an offense is more serious after you're supposed to have learned, but there's still no guarantee.
    – Mutoh
    Commented Oct 5, 2023 at 18:34
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Do you think people who are phenomenally evil and profiting off of others’ suffering are conducting according to a set of internal values that are legitimate from their point of view

Yes.

Such a person might say "My own welfare matters, and possibly the welfare of my family and close friends. I don't care about anyone else. If I can enhance my own welfare at the expense of strangers, I will do that."

Sure, you might call it evil. But I think it counts as a value system, no?

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Under the conception of classical natural law, all that is willed is willed under the guise of good even if it may be objectively evil. In other words, to want something is inevitably to value it as good one way or another. The drug addict who wants drugs, even though he may be aware that his drug usage is destroying his health, still prefers the good of the pleasure it gives him over the pain of suffering from abstinence, and is willing to exchange the good of bodily integrity for it. His desire is nevertheless objectively disordered and therefore evil, insofar as he's pitting a subordinate good (pleasure) against a superordinate good (bodily integrity). It's clear, then, that regardless of his judgement he's not acting in his best interests.

So, in a sense we can say everybody has "good intentions". Every evil is willed insofar as it is valued to be good, consciously or not - even those who choose evil knowing it's evil. But considering that the will is drawn towards goodness rather than being the source of goodness itself, wills can still be faulted for choosing disordered goods.

For more info, I recommend the article "Being, the Good, and the Guise of the Good", in Neo-Aristotelian Perspectives in Metaphysics.

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Psychopaths come in many varieties, from sub clinical to pure. Some experience regret and guilt. Psychopaths are consistent, it's a trait, not just consistently too bold (as with APD) or unable to "profit from experience" (an ICD phrase), but consistently relate to others with socially unsactioned dominance. So it seems a bit like you are asking whether psychopaths have impulse control problems, whether their dominance is thought through. APD in the DSM 5 lists

Impulsivity: Acting on the spur of the moment in response to immediate stimuli; acting on a momentary basis without a plan or consideration of outcomes; difficulty establishing and following plans.

For what it's worth, I do not collapse egotists, sagacious or profane, into psychopathy or vice versa. In effect, I believe psychopaths no longer need social reinforcement, unlike the merely selfish and evil.

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  • just my two cents from people watching and maybe psychopath spotting
    – user67675
    Commented Oct 3, 2023 at 21:08
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This is very good question, and I think there is one perspective that hasn't been touched upon in the other answers.

There is often an implicit assumption, that moral values come from some sort of religion - a 'higher power'. I disagree; not that I'm an atheist, at least in the sense that I strongly believe that there are no gods or divine powers, but I'm indifferent to the question.

Our moral codes simply come from what benefits your group - being trustworthy, caring, etc were evolutionary advantages, first in the small family groups of apes that came before us, later in the tribe and in society, and now perhaps for humanity as a whole. You are good if you act in accordance with the moral code and perhaps evil if you act against.

This would explain why certain small groups - terrorists, gangs etc - can have strong moral principles internally, but still act atrociously towards others; outsiders are seen as enemies or simply not fully human, perhaps, and are therefore legitimate targets.

None of these thoughts are new, of course; however, from these considerations follow that members of such groups most likely see themselves as good or at least justified in some sense. In the extreme case you have the individual to whom everybody else is an enemy or simply doesn't matter; a psychopath would an example of this, and again they don't consider themselves evil (see eg Without Conscience by Robert Hare). If I were to hazard a guess, I'd say that the only people to genuinely consider themselves 'evil' are probably mentally distressed and are in my experience anything but 'evil'.

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As NotThatGuy said, this seems more about psychology than philosophy, even if you actually meant 'conducting themselves'. The Question assumes such people actually have a system of values.

Either way, of course they are, to the extent it can be measured. How could it be otherwise?

Mr Evil's actions stem from two basic ideas:

The most obvious, and prolly less useful, is 'Ordinary people aren't allowed to do this, but I'm going to…'

The second, and prolly more useful is more simply 'I'm going to do this…' to which might well be added 'Why would you question that?'

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There is no such thing as a universally accepted definition of good and evil. People have all sorts of reasons and arguments why it is ok or not ok to kill somebody.

See e.g. the conflict in the Middle East: You have orthodox Jews, Zionist Jews, left-wing Jews, moderate Palestinians, radical Palestinians, some with religious motivation, some with nationalist motivation, and they all have their system of values, their (rough) ideas of right and wrong and from an abstract point of view, you cannot say what is ethical and what is not.

I can, of course, analyse if people believe obvious lies, are inconsistent in their behaviour etc.

Nevertheless, this does not mean that you have to say "everybody is right in their way, we cannot punish anybody for anything." You can judge somebody in your standards (e.g. human rights, rule of law, etc.), but you cannot assume that this persons shares or believes in them.

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  • There is no universally accepted definition of good and evil ≠ there is no objective standard of good and evil. If there is an objective standard, not only one can say what is ethical and what is not from an abstract pov, also it's not dependent on consensus
    – Mutoh
    Commented Oct 3, 2023 at 20:36
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Yes, people (including ourselves) bring forward justifications for their immoral actions because it is uncomfortable to do something we know we shouldn't. But often those excuses would not hold up to closer scrutiny, are therefore dishonest and yes, we can fault people (including ourselves) for being immoral and dishonest.

Whether, by contrast, somebody who really didn't know better and did something objectively bad can be faulted for it is probably one of the most fundamental ethics questions.

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Yes. The so called “evil” people act according to their value system. For example in the past Islamic terrorists carried out several attacks on innocent people and countries. They have a value system in place. Similarly drug cartels have a value system in place. Evil which we mostly find in religions ,like satan or Mara or devil etc, also have a value system. Heaven and hell also have a value system. However ,how long the system remains in its place is a different matter? Values change.

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There is no behavior so abhorrent that a set of rules cannot be concocted to justify it:

I do what I want.

Eric Cartman

Evil isn't a lack of rule following. It also isn't simply undesirable behavior. A rock can kill people and we don't consider it Evil.

Evil is an unfortunate choice that didn't have to be made.

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