‘Like A Lot of Dreams, There Is A Monster At The End Of It’: Naturalism, Evil & The Moral Monster

Like a Lot of Dreams, There is a Monster at The End of It

Naturalism, Evil & The Moral Monster 

By Professor Peter Brian Barry (Saginaw Valley State University)

July 15, 2015         Picture: Alexa Valei/Behance.

 This article is part of The Critique exclusive No Exit From Hell: The Philosophy Of True Detective.

The theoretical leanings of Rustin Cohle, the philosopher-detective protagonist of HBO’s True Detective, tend towards the nihilistic. In True Detective’s first episode, “The Long Bright Dark,” Cole explains to his partner, Martin Hart, that he is both a “pessimist”—which means, he tells Hart, “I’m bad at parties”—and a “realist”. When Cole describes himself as a realist, he probably doesn’t mean what the typical Anglophone philosopher means when she describes herself as a realist. Typically, a self-described realist about A supposes that A really does exist and that A’s existence is not a function of whether or not anyone thinks or believes that A exists. Thus, a realist about morality believes that there are moral properties, such as the property of goodness or rightness, independent of whether or not anyone actually thinks that some action is good or right; a realist about numbers believes that there really are numbers and that numbers are not just a convenient fiction; and so forth. Cole’s realism is more akin to a tough-minded rejection of idealistic and metaphysical extravagance. He has little use for religion, he repeatedly rejects the suggestion that the macabre crimes that he and Hart are tasked to investigate are occult or Satanic in nature, and his conception of human nature is sobering:

“I think human consciousness is a tragic misstep in evolution. We became too self-aware. Nature created an aspect of nature separate from itself – we are creatures that should not exist by natural law… We are things that labor under the illusion of having a self, that accretion of sensory experience and feelings, programmed with total assurance that we are each somebody, when in fact everbodys nobody… I think the honorable thing for our species to do is to deny our programming. Stop reproducing, walk hand in hand into extinction – one last midnight, brothers and sisters opting out of a raw deal”.

But Cole is emphatically not a realist in the philosophical sense about one familiar ontological category: persons. In a memorable monologue in episode three of True Detective—from which its title, “The Locked Room,” is drawn—Cole contends that:

“All your life, all your love, all your hate, all your memory, all your pain—it was all the same thing. It was all the same dream, a dream that you had inside a locked room. A dream about being… a person. And like a lot of dreams, there’s a monster at the end of it”.

The next character we see is the ominous Reggie Ledoux, the freakishly tattooed meth cook who makes cryptic statements about Carcosa, black stars, and eternal recurrence. Later, we learn of Ledoux’s complicity in crimes that strongly suggest that he is a moral monster—that is, an evil person.

Cole’s remarks suggest a tenuous philosophical position. On the one hand, Cole appears to be a thoroughgoing naturalist. While there are various conceptions of naturalism in the philosophical literature, naturalists are united in denying the existence of supernatural beings and entities. But Cole also speaks freely about “monsters”. It is not that uncommon to hear some putative evil person described as a “monster”, especially when the goal is to demonize our opponents of our political community, as the philosopher Philip Cole notes:

“What we have here is a mythology of the evil enemy, such that the enemy possesses the demonic, supernatural powers needed to destroy our communities. This, surely, is a step too far-nobody seriously believes that migrants and terrorists have supernatural powers. But this is exactly what happens through the discourse of evil: the migrant and the terrorist, while they are not represented as agents of Satan, are represented as possessing demonic and supernatural powers” [1].

And if anyone deserves to be regarded as an evil person, it is characters from True Detective like Errol William Childress, the “green eared spaghetti monster” described by his mentally impaired sister-lover as “worse than anybody”. True Detective creator Nic Pizzolatto has described Childress as both “a monster” and “tragically evil.” And that’s the problem that Cole (the philosopher) suggests awaits Cohle (the detective): to the extent that describing someone as a monster involves representing them as having demonic or supernatural powers, no self-respecting naturalist can consistently describe someone as a monster.

There are at least two prototypical qualities that unite the family of monsters: monsters are unnatural, and they are evil [2]. So, to the extent that talk of evil and evil people is tied up with talk of the monstrous, perhaps no self-respecting naturalist should talk of evil and evil people. Cole (the philosopher) commends abandoning talk of evil and evil people altogether on the grounds that the very concept of evil is “irredeemably religious or supernatural or mythological” and thus has no home in a naturalistic framework [3]. Cole is not alone in dismissing the concept of evil person as mythological: we are told that we no longer have the religious or philosophical language to talk intelligently about evil [4], that ‘evil’ is an archaic term used only by primitive cultures, that philosophers avoid discussing evil because it is intimately tied to religious discourse [5], and that the concept of evil doesn’t fit easily into a modern scientific worldview [6].

Does it make sense for a hardened naturalist like Rustin Cohle to think that Ledoux and Tuttle are evil? Can a moral naturalist quite generally think that there are evil people? In my own work, I have taken seriously the thought that evil people are reasonably regarded as moral monsters, if not literal ones [7]. In my recent book, I have tried to explain what evil personhood consists in and make the case that evil people are not beyond being held morally and criminally responsible for their actions [8]. And I contend that the answer to all these questions is “Yes.” There is no reason to think that a thoroughgoing naturalist is committed to denying the existence of evil people and no reason to think that the concept of evil is irredeemably religious or supernatural or mythological. To make the case that this is so, I will articulate my favored conception of the evil person, a conception free from the idealistic and metaphysical extravagance that Rustin Cohle abhors.

To begin, note that many of us, perhaps most of us, think that there is a difference between being an evil person and being merely bad or flawed or whatever. It is odd to regard an event like the Holocaust as merely bad, to regard torture-murder as merely wrong, and to regard unrepentant serial rapists as merely unjust. Arguably, those events and actions and people who are rightly regarded as evil are qualitatively worse than those rightly regarded as merely bad and nothing more. Focus just on evil people, then. If evil people are qualitatively worse than merely bad people, then there must be some difference—some moral difference—that justifies regarding them and them alone as evil. By his own estimation, Rustin Cohle is a bad man; at least, he unflinchingly brushes off Hart’s probing question: “Do you ever wonder if you’re a bad man?” Cohle responds: “No. I don’t wonder, Marty. World needs bad men. We keep the other bad men from the door.” (This follows Cohle’s self-assessment earlier in the episode: “I know who I am. And after all these years, there’s a victory in that.”) Hart’s hypocrisy, his endless moralizing about family paired with his continual cheating, certainly doesn’t suggest that he is a good man. But Cohle and Hart are morally redeemable to some extent; they are certainly capable of heroic action and stand resolute in their cause. So, if Cohle and Hart are merely bad while moral monsters like Reggie Ledoux and Errol William Childress are genuinely evil, there must be something that distinguishes them. But what?

The label of ‘monster’ is usually reserved for someone whose actions have placed him outside the range of humanity [9]. But note that we do not evaluate people only on the basis of their actions. We also evaluate people on the basis of their character. We praise and commend people for their virtues and we blame and resent them for their vices. We encourage our children to be generous and kind and courageous and just and we do our best to keep them from becoming stingy and cruel and timid and unjust. Perhaps, then, we can suppose that the label of ‘monster’ should be reserved for those persons whose characters place them outside the range of humanity. So, insofar as we want to understand what differentiates moral monsters—what differentiates evil people—from the rest of us, we should look to those character traits that prompt us to blame and resent them uniquely. On this way of thinking about evil people, we should look to see which moral vices evil people suffer from.

To be clear, it can’t be the case that being evil is just a matter of being vicious—that is, of having a character plagued by moral vice. If it were, then Cohle and Hart (and frankly most of us) are evil too. Vice isn’t that uncommon, after all. Note too that while Cohle and Hart are deeply flawed men, there is enough that is redeemable about them that we expect good things from them. If they are going to be qualitatively different from merely bad people, then evil people must lack the sort of morally redeeming qualities that we find in Cohle and Hart, and that suggests evil people must suffer from a character that is deeply corrupted in multiple ways.
The thesis that I favor implies that evil people suffer not from just any moral vice but from extreme moral vice:

(ET): a person is evil in virtue of possessing extremely morally vicious states of character.

What is it to be extremely vicious? At least two senses of ‘extreme’ are relevant here. Virtues and vices can come in degrees given their intensity and more intense vices are comparatively worse than less intense vices. A vice is especially intense if it greatly disposes its agent to act in some characteristic way. This is a quantitative measure of extremity, one that seems to accurately characterize many putative evil people; Adolf Hitler was not just somewhat unjust but very much so; Adolf Eichmann was not just somewhat callous but very much so; Ted Bundy was not just somewhat sadistic but very much so; and so forth. Evil people are certainly not rightly regarded as such in virtue of being just a bit unjust or slightly callous or somewhat sadistic, and so forth. A vice that is especially intense is extreme in this first sense. But not just any vice will suffice for being evil, however intense. Some vices, like rudeness or ill-humor, are comparatively minor character flaws and someone suffering from a minor character flaw is surely not evil even if she suffers from it to a significant degree.

Vices can be evaluated as being comparatively better or worse based on the value of their object as well. Vices that have especially disvaluable objects are extreme in this second sense. For example, the objects of malevolence and rudeness are both morally disvaluable but a state of affairs in which undeserving persons are harmed is of greater moral disvalue than a state of affairs in which people are offended. Thus, malevolence, but not rudeness, is plausibly regarded as being extreme in this second sense given that the object of malevolence is not just somewhat disvaluable, but especially so. This is a qualitative measure; vices that are extreme in this second sense belong to an altogether different class of vices: the morally worst vices. I have no final list of those vices that fall within the extension of ‘the morally worst vices’ but any such list will include cruelty, callousness, malice, injustice, and still more.

(ET) is most plausible when the relevant vices are understood as being extreme in both senses of the term. Accordingly, evil people will suffer from vices that have especially disvaluable objects and will suffer from them to significant degrees. Further, insofar as moral vices are understood as complicated multi-track dispositions, we should expect various moral vices to “cluster” insofar as many moral vices share constitutive dispositions; for example, the cruel and the malicious will both be disposed to cause suffering, the dishonest and the unjust will both be disposed to lie, and so forth. Further, insofar as the vices of the evil person are extreme they will be settled; otherwise, they would not greatly dispose their agents to act in characteristically vicious ways. So, we should expect persons suffering from extreme vices to lack morally redeeming states of contrition as well. After all, if evil people had any tendency to feel contrition, their vices would not be settled. Thus, (ET) ensures that evil people will not suffer from just any character flaw and that they will not suffer from just one character flaw. Instead, (ET) ensures that evil people will suffer from a deeply corrupted character, one lacking in anything that could morally redeem them.

If (ET) is correct, then the naturalist faces no obstacle in postulating the existence of evil people and moral monsters. We certainly don’t need to mythologize the concept of evil or invoke supernatural phenomenon to account for their existence. It is enough to suppose that evil people are sufficiently inhumane without resorting to the supposition that they are inhuman monsters. Moral vice is not super-human; it is human, all-too human. Fortunately, while even morally decent people tend to suffer from at least some character flaws, we do tend not to suffer from the extreme moral vices that plague evil people.

This naturalistic conception of evil people has some pretty obvious advantages compared to the view that evil people are literally monstrous. If nothing else, it allows for the possibility that evil people can be transformed, that they can become better sorts of people. Vices can be corrected for and mollified, perhaps only with serious work or intervention by outside forces, but (ET) is at least consistent with hoping that evil people might shed their evil nature. That is in marked contrast to supposing that evil people are literally monsters: there is no hope of rehabilitating werewolves or zombies or Daleks and it would be foolish to try. Perhaps some evil people are beyond redemption or rehabilitation. That is a real possibility. But so long as we aren’t forced to deny their literal humanity, it is not beyond hope to suppose that some are.

While I doubt that there is any good reason to suppose that evil people are literally monsters, it is understandable why someone might be attracted to this view. The real world certainly includes unrepentant child molesters and killers like Errol William Childress and while Childress’ scars help to mark him as unique, he does, for all that, bear the countenance of a human being. Other things being equal, moral monsters like Childress walk and talk and look like the rest of us. So perhaps we are tempted to think that evil people must be monsters to assure ourselves that however much evil people resemble morally decent folk on the surface, they are remarkably different from us at some deeper, more fundamental level: they lack our basic nature. And for that reason we can rest assured that we could never be like them and never do what they do. But how much comfort is there in such a view? Is it really more comforting to suppose that humanoid monsters walk among us inflicting suffering and pain where they can? The supposition that our humanity is a bulwark against becoming a moral monster is a dangerous proposition in any case. Social psychology is littered with examples of people who find themselves doing things that they previously dismissed as inconceivable once they were put in the right situation: think of the infamous Milgram Experiments or Philip Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiments here. Allowing that human beings can be moral monsters, that creatures like us can be evil and can be the agents of evildoing, amounts to acknowledging our corruptibility and that is the first step towards preventing it. Anyone interested in combatting and minimizing evil and its influence has good reason to share some of Rust Cohle’s tough-minded naturalism and deny that we need to invoke literal talk of monsters to account for evil and evildoing. Recognizing just what creatures like us can be and acknowledging just what we are capable of is enough.

Footnotes & References

[1] Philip Cole, The Myth of Evil (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2006), p. 215.

[2] See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cE2n-nwiqDs

[3] Stephen T. Asma, On Monsters: An Unnatural History of Our Worst Fears (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009). p. 283.

[4] Ibid., p. 18.

[5] Susan Sontag, Illness as Metaphor (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1978), p. 85.

[6] David Pocock, “Unruly Evil” in The Anthropology of Evil, edited by David Parkin (New York: Blackwell, 1985), pp. 42-56.

[7] Richard Bernstein, The Abuse of Evil: The Corruption of Politics and Religion Since 9/11 (Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2005), p. 4.

[8] Robert Wright, The Moral Animal: Evolutionary Psychology and Everyday Life (New York: Pantheon, 1994), p. 368.

[9] Peter Brian Barry, “Moral Monsters, Moral Saints, and the Mirror Thesis,” American Philosophical Quarterly 46 (2009), pp. 163-76.

[10] Peter Brian Barry, Evil and Moral Psychology (New York: Routledge, 2012).

Peter Brian Barry
Peter Brian Barry
Peter Brian Barry is Professor and Chair of the Philosophy Department at Saginaw Valley State University. After earning a Master’s Degree at both the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Bowling Green State University, he completed his Ph.D. at the University of Florida. His recent work is in social and political philosophy and moral psychology, especially the philosophy of evil. He is the author of Evil and Moral Psychology (Routledge, 2012) and the forthcoming The Fiction of Evil (Routledge 2016). More information can be found at peterbrianbarry.com.
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