The following is adapted from "The Frivolity of Evil," by Theodore Dalrymple in City Journal, Autumn 2004.
[Dalrymple's article is superb. I've changed much of the original, but also used much without change. Obviously, any ideas that the original author didn't intend are mine, and I gratefully acknowledge his work in stimulating any ideas I may have added
After 14 years of hospital and prison work, I am retiring. Someone else can do battle with the growing social pathology of Great Britain.
My work has caused me to focus on the problem of evil. Why do people do evil things? What conditions allow it to flourish? Each time I listen to a patient recounting the cruelty to which he or she has been subjected, or has committed (and I have listened to several such patients every day for 14 years), these questions arise anew.
I spent several years in places where atrocity had recently been, or still was being, committed. In Equatorial Guinea the previous dictator had killed or exiled a third of the population. He had executed everyone who wore glasses or possessed a page of printed matter for being a disaffected or potentially disaffected intellectual.
In Liberia I visited a church in which over 600 people had taken refuge and been slaughtered. The outlines of the bodies were still visible in the dried blood on the floor, and the long mound of the mass grave began a few yards from the entrance. In North Korea I saw the acme of tyranny, millions of people in terrorized, abject obeisance to a personality cult whose object, the Great Leader Kim Il Sung, made the Sun King look like the personification of modesty.
Still, all these were political evils. I optimistically believed that in the absence of the worst political deformations, widespread evil was impossible. Working in a British slum proved this conclusion wrong.
Of course, beating a woman from motives of jealousy, locking her in a closet, breaking her arms deliberately, terrible though it may be, is a long way from mass murder. But men commit evil within the scope available to them. Most evildoers merely make the most of their opportunities--they do what they can get away with.
From my work in one six-bed hospital ward I have met thousands of perpetrators of the kind of violence just described, and thousands of their victims. And when you take the life histories of these people you find that their existence is as saturated with arbitrary violence as that of the inhabitants of many a dictatorship. But instead of just one dictator, there are tens of thousands.
Perhaps the most alarming feature of this low-level but endemic evil is that it is unforced. No one requires people to commit it. The evil is freely chosen.
Part of the problem is that intellectuals convinced society that man should be free from constraints of social convention or self-control, and the government then enacted laws that promoted unrestrained behavior and created a welfare system that largely protected people from the economic consequences of such behavior.
When the barriers to evil are brought down, it flourishes.
Of course, my personal experience is just that. Admittedly, I have studied the social world of my city and country from an odd vantage point: from a prison and from a hospital ward where practically all the patients have tried to kill themselves, or at least made suicidal gestures. But scores of thousands of cases have given me a window into that world.
Elderly people in Britain today feel they must be indoors by sundown or risk being robbed, or worse. Why this should be the case in a country that within living memory was law-abiding and safe? During the blackouts in WW2, young women walking home in pitch dark were perfectly safe from the depredations of their fellow citizens.
In 1921 there was one crime recorded for every 370 inhabitants of England and Wales; 80 years later, it was one for every ten residents. There has been a 12-fold increase since 1941 and an even greater increase in crimes of violence. Clearly, something bad is happening. And just as clearly, it's not that people have simply become materially poorer.
Yesterday a 21-year-old woman came in, claiming to be depressed. She had swallowed an overdose of her antidepressants and then called an ambulance.
The word "depression" has almost entirely eliminated the word and even the concept of unhappiness from modern life. Of the thousands of patients I have seen, only two or three claimed to be unhappy--the rest have said they were depressed. This semantic shift is significant, for it implies that dissatisfaction with life is pathological, a medical condition, and thus the responsibility of the doctor to alleviate, by medical means.
Liberals have convinced us everyone has a right to health; depression is unhealthy; therefore everyone has a right to not be depressed. The problem with this reasoning is that it implies that one's state of mind, or mood, is independent of the way one lives one's life. Such a belief, of course, completely disconnects conduct from outcome--and would thus seem to deprive human existence of all meaning.
Thus when a "depressed" patient comes to the hospital, a ridiculous pas de deux ensues: the patient pretends to be ill, and the doctor pretends to cure him. As a result, the patient remains blind to the conduct that causes his misery in the first place. The patient's mistaken notion that he is ill prevents him from understanding the true situation--which is that his problems are the inevitable result of behavioral choices. Indeed, those choices could not possibly produce any other outcome than the one he is experiencing. Thus no *effective* change is ever undertaken.
My patient had already had three children by three different men--a common situation for my patients. The father of her first child had been violent; the second died in an accident while driving a stolen car; the third, with whom she had been living, had demanded that she leave his apartment a week after their child was born because he no longer wished to live with her. (The discovery of incompatibility a week after the birth of a child is now common.)
She could not return to her mother because of conflict with her mother's latest boyfriend--who in fact was only nine years older than she and seven years younger than her mother. This compression of the generations is also now a common pattern and is seldom a recipe for happiness. (It goes without saying that her own father had disappeared at her birth.) Usually the mother's boyfriend either wants the daughter out of the house because he sees her as a nuisance and an unnecessary expense, or else wants her around to abuse her sexually. This man wanted her out of the house, and set about creating an atmosphere to make her leave as soon as possible.
The father of her first child had, of course, recognized her vulnerability. A girl of sixteen living on her own is easy prey. He beat her from the outset, being drunken, possessive, and jealous. She thought a child would make him more responsible--sober him up and calm him down. Not surprisingly, it had the reverse effect. She left him.
The father of her second child was a career criminal, already imprisoned several times. A drug addict who took whatever drugs he could get, he died under the influence. She had known all about his past before she had his child.
The father of her third child was much older than she. It was he who suggested that they have a child--in fact he demanded it as a condition of staying with her. He had five children already by three different women, none of whom he supported in any way whatever.
The conditions for the perpetuation of evil were now complete. She was a young woman who would not want to remain without a man for long; but with three children already, she would attract precisely the kind of man who--like the father of her first child--was looking for exploitable women. Almost certainly at least one of these men (for there would be a succession of them) would abuse her children sexually, physically, or both.
She was, of course, a victim of her mother's behavior at a time when she had no options. Her mother had believed her own sexual pleasure was more important than the welfare of her child--a common way of thinking in today's welfare Britain.
But my patient was not solely a victim of her mother: she had knowingly borne three children by men of whom no good could be expected. She knew perfectly well the consequences and the meaning of what she was doing.
I often tell these patients, "The next time you want to date a man, bring him to me and I'll tell you if you can go out with him." This never fails to make the most wretched, most "depressed" woman smile broadly or laugh heartily. They know exactly what I mean: that most of the men they have chosen have their evil written all over them--often literally, in the form of tattoos saying "FUCK OFF" or "MAD DOG." And the women understand that if I can spot the evil instantly, because they know what I would look for, so can they--and therefore they are in large part responsible for their own downfall at the hands of evil men.
I believe having children by men without considering even for a second whether the men have any qualities that might make them good fathers is a huge evil. Mistakes are possible, of course: a man may turn out not to be as expected. But not even to consider the question is to act as irresponsibly as it is possible for a human being to act. It is a thoroughly bad thing. And sooner or later it will have consequences.
My patient did not start out with the intention of abetting, much less of committing, evil. And yet her refusal to take seriously and act on the signs she saw and the knowledge she had was not due to ignorance. It was utterly willful. She knew from her own experience--and that of most of the women around her--that her choices, based on the pleasure or desire of the moment, would lead to the misery and suffering not only for her, but also for the children she would have with these men.
This is not so much the banality as the *frivolity of evil*: choosing brief pleasure for oneself at the cost of long-term misery for one's child. What better phrase than the frivolity of evil describes the
conduct of a mother who turns her own 14-year-old child out because her latest boyfriend does not want him or her in the house?
And what better phrase describes the attitude of those intellectuals who see in this conduct nothing but an extension of human freedom and choice, just another thread in life's rich tapestry?
The men in these situations also know perfectly well the meaning and consequences of what they are doing. The same day that I saw the patient just described, a man of 25 came into our ward, needing an operation to remove foil-wrapped packets of cocaine he had swallowed in order to evade being caught by the police in possession of them. As it happened, he had just left his latest girlfriend--one week after she had given birth to their child. They weren't getting along, he said; he needed his space. Of the child, he thought not for an instant.
I asked him whether he had any other children.
"Four," he replied.
"How many mothers?"
"Do you see any of your children?" He shook his head.
It is supposedly the duty of the doctor not to pass judgment on how patients have chosen to live, but perhaps I raised an eyebrow slightly. At any rate the patient caught a whiff of my disapproval.
"I know," he said. "I know. Don't tell me."
These words were a complete confession of guilt. I've had hundreds of conversations with men who had abandoned their children like this, and they all knew perfectly well the consequences for both the mother and, more important, for the children. They all know that they are condemning their children to lives of brutality, poverty, abuse, and hopelessness. They tell me they know this. And yet they do it over and over again.
The result is a rising tide of neglect, cruelty, sadism, and willful malignity.
Where does this evil come from? Clearly something is flawed in the heart of man that he should behave in this depraved fashion. But if there was a time--not that long ago--when such conduct was far more rare than it is now (and in a time of much less prosperity, which must be remembered by those who think poverty explains everything), then something more is needed to explain it.
It seems to me one obvious root of this problem is the welfare state, which makes it possible--often advantageous--to behave like this. The state, guided by the seemingly humane philosophy that no child should be deprived, gives assistance to the mothers. In matters of public housing it is actually advantageous for a mother to be single and have no support from her child's father, as this exempts her from local taxes, rent, and utility bills.
As for the fathers, the state absolves them of all responsibility for their children. The biological father is therefore free to use whatever income he has for his own pleasure. He becomes petulant, demanding, querulous, self-centered, and violent if he doesn't get his own way. The violence escalates and becomes a habit. A spoiled brat becomes an evil tyrant.
But the welfare state is only part of the cause of the spread of evil. After all, the British welfare state is neither the most extensive nor the most generous in the world, and yet our rates of social pathology-- public drunkenness, drug-taking, teenage pregnancy, hooliganism, criminality--are the highest in the world. To produce this requires something more than just the welfare state.
The answer lies in the realm of culture and ideas. For it is necessary not only that it be *economically* feasible to behave irresponsibly and selfishly, but also that people believe it's *morally permissible* to live this way. And this idea has been peddled by the intellectual elite in Britain for many years, more assiduously than anywhere else, to the extent that it is now off limits to question it.
When young people want to praise themselves, they describe themselves as "nonjudgmental." For them, the highest form of morality is amorality.
Many of those on the Left claim man is endowed with rights but no duties. If this is true, people have the right to have children outside of marriage, and the children have the right not to be deprived of anything, at least anything material. How men and women choose to associate and have children is then merely a matter of consumer choice, of no moral consequence.
The Left claims the state must not discriminate among different forms of association and child rearing, even if the result is shown to be catastrophic.
The Left has convinced us that the consequences of such choices--to the children, and ultimately to society--must not be allowed to enter into our consideration. Instead it becomes the task of the state to redistribute wealth (via taxes) to minimize the material costs of individual irresponsibility, and to ameliorate its inevitable emotional, educational, and spiritual effects by employing an army of social workers, psychologists, educators, counselors and the like.
Significantly, this army have themselves come to form a powerful vested interest in continuing the pattern of dependence on the government.
So while my patients know in their hearts that what they are doing is terribly wrong, they are encouraged to do it by the strong belief that they have the *right* to do it--because everything is merely a matter of value-free choice, with no consequences for making poor choices. Almost no one in Britain publicly challenges this belief, nor has any politician had the courage to demand a withdrawal of the public subsidy that allows the intensifying evil I have seen over the past 14 years-- violence, rape, intimidation, cruelty, drug addiction, neglect--to flourish so exuberantly.
With 40 percent of children in Britain now being born out of wedlock--a number that continues to rise--soon there will be no electoral constituency for reversal. Politicians already consider advocating any change along these lines as electoral suicide.
My only cause for optimism during the past 14 years has been the fact that most of my patients can be brought to see the truth of what I say: that they are not depressed; they are unhappy--and they are unhappy because they have chosen to live in a way that makes it *impossible* to be happy. Without exception, they say they wouldn't want their
children to live as they have lived. But the role model they're providing makes it likely that their children's choices will be as bad as theirs.
The greatest factor in the continuing social disaster that has overtaken Britain--a disaster whose full social and economic consequences have yet to be seen--is the moral cowardice of the intellectual and political elites. The elites cannot even acknowledge that we *have* a disaster--obvious as it is--for to do so would open the door to recognizing their responsibility for it, and that would make them feel bad.
Better that millions should live in wretchedness than that the elites should feel bad about themselves--yet another aspect of the frivolity of evil.