Certain prominent political leaders who grab our attention (you know who I mean) sometimes seem crazy and sometimes seem evil. Which is it? To answer that, we need to ask ourselves what’s the difference between crazy and evil.
Some people say “it is more compassionate to call someone ill than to call someone evil”. The diagnosis of illness makes us want to heal while the diagnosis of evil makes us want to condemn and punish. This is false. When people are ill sometimes we quarantine them and allow them to die. When people we care about do evil, sometimes we preach at them and try to get them to mend their ways.
Some people say “people who are evil are free to change” while “people who are sick are compelled by their illness.” This is either false or so philosophical as to be useless. Some people are so evil that they will never change. Some people who are sick will get better by appropriate psychotherapy.
Some people say health is an objective scientific category while good and evil are subjective. This is not true either. When we define mental illness we make judgments of what sort of human life is worthwhile and what sort of human life is not worthwhile. Sometimes we don’t notice because we appeal to a concept of function and disfunction, but these are always explained in reference to an ideal of human flourishing. The man who sits in his room all day counting motes of dust is functioning perfectly well — as a lonely dust mote counter. To call him catatonic or obsessive or paranoid requires some conception of how a good human life differs from his.
An argument that illness and evil are the same is that the opposites are the same. There is no real difference between the extremely good human being and the extremely mentally healthy human being. They are both human ideals that we laud, imitate, and are inspired by.
Calling someone mentally ill and calling somebody evil are both mechanisms of social ostracism. If somebody is crazy, we don’t want to listen to his advice, we don’t want him taking care of our children, and if he’s dangerous we lock him up. Similarly if somebody is evil; we watch ourselves around him, are wary of obeying his counsel, and if he does something bad enough lock him up or kill him. What’s the difference then?
Let’s take a very simple case of social ostracism. Joe, Mary, and Edward are lost in the woods with very little food. Joe says to Mary: “I had a dream last night. My pet dog Bomba appeared to me as a ghost and said if we kill Edward he will lead us to safety.” Edward says to Mary “Let’s wait until Joe is not looking and kill him and eat him, and if we make it to safety we will say he died falling in a ravine.”
Let’s say Mary does not listen to either of her companions, and that evening they are saved. Mary tells the authorities (or her closest friend) Edward is evil. Joe is crazy. Beware of them. What does she mean?
The message from Joe was weird and led her in an unfamiliar way. The message from Edward was entirely normal but something she doesn’t want to give in to. Mary’s method of resisting the call of insanity is different than her method of resisting the lure of evil. How is it different? I’m not sure, but I think it’s different. Or it might be. In certain circumstances.
What if we come across Mary and Joe walking alone and they tell us that they killed Edward because they were following the advice of a dog in a dream. We might say that Joe drove Mary crazy.
What if we come across Mary and Edward walking alone and we learn years later that they killed JOe. We might say that Edward seduced Mary to evil.
Or we might say that Edward and Mary made a tough but necessary choice. Or we may say that Joe’s dog Bomba really saved them.
In that case would it mean we ourselves are crazy? Would it mean we ourselves are evil?
If we are crazy or evil, do we ostracize ourselves?