October 5, 2009

Are we ever justified to think someone's bad?

There's all the difference in the world between saying something of behavior and attributing something to a person. The sentences "you behaved badly" and "you're bad" exhibit this difference.

Here I do not want to think there's a difference between first, second, and third person cases. Whether it's "I," "he," "she," or "you," the principle remains the same. Here all pronouns are equal. By "Here all pronouns are equal," I mean to emphasize that thought about oneself is on all fours with thought about others, or ought to be, and vice-versa.

There's all the difference in the world between calling something "evil" and calling it "bad." (I take it Nietzsche most famously emphasized this, but I wouldn't claim to have ready any scholarship on that point.) Toxins, beer, and poetry can be bad. Only persons can be evil.

These two differences are importantly related. Firstly, why should we need "evil," anyway? Secondly, why should we ever need to attribute things to persons rather than talk about behavior? You need to say something about someone's intentions if you want to say "he's a bitch" or "she's kind-hearted." Nothing without intentions can be evil.

"He's a bitch" might mean to abbreviate "He frequently acts like a bitch," but I'm not convinced the abbreviation works harmlessly.

If one never cared to separate the saved from the damned, the "us" from the "them," would one ever need "evil" or "intentions"?



I suppose it's obvious enough that this line of questioning is intimately related with the line of questioning about those lines from Holland, 1945, and it's the sort of thing I've been worried about recently. Prima facie, things would be better if we just let the heavy moral part of the equation drop out. Then we could just focus on doing no harm and stay on the lookout for illicit inferences about stains on persons that won't wash out. Presumably those who think we need heavy moral language think something crucial will be lost if we stop thinking that way. What the hell could that be?

Referring to the questions in the subject lines of these posts, maybe a way to tie the two lines together would be to ask, "If the answer to the second question is 'no,' does the first question just go away and stop causing trouble?"

If the answer to this question is "yes," then so much the better for us, and so much the worse for those who would separate the wheat from the chaff.

(Damn it, I guess for now I won't worry about the illicit us/them reasoning in my conclusion.)

2 Comments:

Blogger Tony Gonzalez said...

This makes me think about thinking about people as "criminals," as I more often have found myself doing in my reporting (probably for worse).

October 5, 2009 at 11:55 PM 
Blogger Chase Purdy said...

I think that's an interesting way to frame the question. Maybe because I've just started I don't think of people as "criminals" just yet...but I know I'm flirting with the territory when I begin thinking things like, "How in the hell are these people out there..."

A good reason to escape crime writing for well-rounded feature pieces, for sure.

October 6, 2009 at 9:03 AM 

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