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IOWA Alumni Magazine | October 2011
The Dark Side of Life
A philosophy course examines the complex nature of evil and the moral dilemmas that test the human heart.

Robert Alton Harris pointed a pistol at two high school boys eating lunch outside a California fast-food restaurant. He ordered them to drive him to a secluded area, promised no one would get hurt, and then laughed maniacally as he gunned down the 16-year-olds. Shortly after committing double homicide, Harris drove the stolen car to an apartment, where he savored his victims' half-eaten hamburgers and flicked bits of human flesh off the barrel of the gun.

Obviously, Harris seems to be a paradigm of wickedness. His actions showed callousness, indifference to others' suffering, and disregard for human life. When we think of evil, inexplicably heartless murderers such as Harris, Hannibal Lector, or Osama bin Laden easily come to mind. But what about people who turn a blind eye to all the poverty in the world, or the average German citizen during the Third Reich who remained silent as Adolf Hitler unleashed genocide on six million Jews? "We want [to make evil into] a caricature, because it's safe," says UI philosophy department chair Diane Jeske, who teaches "The Nature of Evil" course. "We say to ourselves, 'I'm not like Hitler, planning the Final Solution,' but Hitler couldn't have done what he did without the acquiescence of the people."

In other words, evil not only lurks in the black souls of monsters, but may also infect ordinary people facing extraordinary moral dilemmas. People like us.

In "The Nature of Evil," Jeske teaches students from a variety of majors that philosophy isn't a dead theoretical enterprise—it's critical to our daily lives. The class brings to life the abstract ideas of Immanuel Kant and other philosophers by applying them to real case studies, ranging from the Cathar Crusades of early 13th century France to the recent Kansas trial of the BTK killer.

Though Jeske never conclusively defines evil in the course, students make up their own minds as they study philosophical works, watch a documentary on Enron businessmen consumed by greed, and read first-person interviews with mass murderers. They ponder how evil differs from run-of-the-mill badness, whether wicked actions always reveal an evil character, and the reasons why people may sincerely believe their dastardly deeds are good.

And, if you have never done anything evil, maybe you're just lucky. Students entertain this idea as they learn about "moral luck"—how life circumstances beyond our control can affect the ethical decisions we face. Take the case of Franz Stangl, an Austrian family man and police officer who accepted a promotion as commander of a Nazi concentration camp that massacred 900,000 men, women, and children. Known as the "White Death," the whip-carrying commandant claimed he was motivated by the need to survive and protect his family rather than anti-Semitic ideology. If true, what would Stangl's life have been like if Germany had never invaded Austria? If he had been born in the United States, would his professional ambitions have led him to become a war hero instead of a diabolical killer?

As they analyze Harris's 1978 murders of those two teenage boys, students consider whether his horrific childhood played a role in his moral depravity. Born hours after his father kicked his mother in the stomach, Harris endured an upbringing of abuse and neglect. He was teased at school for a speech impediment, tortured at home by an alcoholic father and a mother who showed him no love, and abandoned at the age of 14.

Could Harris's troubled youth be used as an excuse for his crimes? What about mental illness or moral insanity? Students read Ted Bundy: Conversations with a Killer for insight into the mind of a psychopath. By studying the infamous serial killer's interview responses, students hypothesize that Ted Bundy never internalized moral law, but treated it as the average person would dinner etiquette. He mimicked the remorse expected of him without showing a true understanding of compassion. Much like a thief justifying that no one would notice a missing jelly bean from a full candy jar, Bundy said about his killing spree, "What's one less person on the planet?"

Indeed, some psychological studies suggest that psychopaths lack the mental capacity for empathy. In the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, psychopathy is listed as an antisocial personality disorder where patients show a beguiling, controlling, and narcissistic nature. Some experts believe that such people exhibit biological differences in the parts of the brain that control emotions, fear, aggression, and decision-making. If so, can or should they be held accountable for a neurological dysfunction?

The class also considers the role of cultures in these complex matters. Should individuals be held guilty for their evil actions if cultural factors blind them to moral demands? After all, some African tribes view female circumcision—which horrifies most Westerners—as a rite of passage rather than mutilation of children. Here in America, families in the late 19th and early 20th century took commemorative photos at lynchings. In civil rights historian Philip Dray's book, At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black America, undergrads read that "lynching was an undeniable part of daily life, as distinctly American as baseball games and church suppers."

Though UI English senior Ryan Beckenbaugh recognizes that people are strongly affected by their society's norms, he doesn't think the cultural defense is a legitimate excuse. "You have the moral obligation to check your facts if the consequences of your beliefs could be catastrophic," he says, "just as a civil engineer building a bridge has the moral responsibility to check his figures to make sure the bridge won't collapse."

Unfortunately, many people would rather practice self-deceit than engage in honest reflection of their actions and character. In Stangl's case, the commandant refused to empathize with his prisoners or admit he was participating in genocide. Even in his last days, he wouldn't entertain hypothetical questions like, "Did you ever think what if that had been your wife?"

In addition to the moral failures of undeniably evil individuals, the UI course also examines some of the most respected people in world history. Students ponder how Thomas Jefferson—the author of the Declaration of Independence, who penned the famous words "all men are created equal"—could keep slaves. Through examining Jefferson's life, students learn that even our heroes can exhibit hypocrisy and duplicity—but that doesn't necessarily make them evil. They realize that making moral judgments can be complex and difficult.

Though concentration camps and slaveholding may seem like cultural sins of the distant past, Jeske encourages students to think about the moral issues that today's culture tends to overlook. Most people never consider that their meat probably comes from a factory farm, where many animals spend their lives confined in small, filthy cages and may remain conscious as they are slaughtered. Others change the channel when a "Save the Children" commercial comes on television, unable to bear their obligation to famished kids crawling with flies and withering away into skeletons. "We don't want to face the truth that we're not as morally upright as we think we are," says Jeske. "Instead of making ourselves better, we just don't think about it."

In 1961, Stanley Milgram shocked the world by showing the depths to which people can fall. In his classic and controversial psychological study, Milgram claimed to be studying punishment as a learning tool and asked participants to administer an electric shock to a person. Unaware that the equipment was fake, more than half of them obeyed Milgram's order to turn up the voltage, even as the affected person cried out in pretend agony. The experiment revealed that humans can be socially influenced to act despicably.

Of course, evil that's easy to identify in others is hardest to spot in ourselves. That's why Jeske believes that teaching students to think about their moral principles should be an essential part of any education.

Beckenbaugh, who plans to practice law to "put the bad guys away," agrees. "I wish more people would take university philosophy classes, because they provide a safe environment where you can slow down, take a look at your life, and become aware of the dangers humans are capable of," he says. "It's scary to see how far a human could stray from a good life by taking a few small missteps."

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