Nate Smith

The Impotence of Evil

18 posts in this topic

I don't fully grasp the idea that evil is impotent, and I'm hoping that others can elaborate on this for me. (Here are some relevant quotes.)

I do understand that evil is in conflict with reality, and is therefore self-destructive. For example, if we put 50 people on a deserted island, and they tried to implement communism, they would die. Communism survives by taking things of value (created by good people or good actions).

And I also understand that evil thrives when good people allow it to.

But nonetheless evil often seems quite potent. For example, when the Nazi's were taking Jews from their homes, they were quite powerful. And we see in America what a majority of mistaken people can vote into office. Aren't there dictatorships that survive despite being opposed (Iraq for quite a while, or Cuba)?

From John Galt:

Evil, not value, is an absence and a negation, evil is impotent and has no power but that which we let it extort from us.

This needs to be elaborated upon for me. Certainly if I tell the IRS agent coming to take my taxes from me that he is immoral, that won't stop him. And I know that that's not what Ayn Rand meant, so I'd like some context or elaboration.

Thanks.

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Nate, as Ayn Rand explains her ideas best, I think the quote below will give you some further understanding of that which you ask.

"The truly and deliberately evil men are a very small minority; it is the appeaser who unleashes them on mankind; it is the appeaser’s intellectual abdication that invites them to take over. When a culture’s dominant trend is geared to irrationality, the thugs win over the appeasers. When intellectual leaders fail to foster the best in the mixed, unformed, vacillating character of people at large, the thugs are sure to bring out the worst. When the ablest men turn into cowards, the average men turn into brutes." [“Altruism as Appeasement,” The Objectivist, Jan. 1966, 6.]

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But nonetheless evil often seems quite potent. For example, when the Nazi's...

We know what the Nazi's were. But what were the various peoples of Europe? Imagine a continent of riflemen in their place, armed with the moral certainty and righteousness that properly belong to the good. How would Germany have fared, then?

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Thanks, both of those comments are helpful.

But as a follow up, do you find the word "impotence" a strange choice in this context? (Granted, she didn't use it in the passage Ray quoted.) Here are two definitions of impotent: "lacking power or ability" and "utterly unable (to do something)"

Evil doesn't seem to be either of these. It seems that Parasitism of Evil or something like that would have been more exact. The choice of "impotence" is what confuses me.

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Nate, I think the term is very precise, evil cannot function nor do they have power without someone else supporting them. Leave evil alone and see how quickly existence wipes them off the face of the planet. The most evil act is to evade reality, to act in an irrational manner and one cannot survive/function/live when they do so without the help of another.

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She used the word impotent because evil is at war with reality and the demands of life as human beings. It does not produce. It survives only when allowed to roam and plunder, like a swarm of locusts. Its "power", whether in the form of a school bully, a local gang or a totalitarian government, is in fact appeasement and pacifism disguised as power.

Your two definitions of impotence are "lacking power or ability" and "utterly unable (to do something)". And, as a major force, evil is - as such and on its own. But so are permanent welfare recipients, yet they keep on living. Although evil could be said to be parasitical, the point was to show that it is not inherently powerful.

There need not be a great physical war between the forces of good and evil, if the former would just man up and use its superior might to squish the latter to a mush. They are gnats allowed to buzz around and bite a giant.

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The analogy at the end of my previous post might seem strange when applied to such relevant a situation as the current war against Islam. They've already caused lots of damage and if they succeed in building and delivering a fission bomb, they are certainly far beyond "gnat" status, given the immense destruction it would cause.

But they and everyone like them throughout history always started out as gnats. I have said that Islam is one of the greatest threats to civilization in history - and it should indeed be fought as such - but once again it is only a threat because the West refused to deal with them in the past, and now won't nuke them to oblivion. Look at the difference in military strength between the US and Iran et al. They may be suicidal, but there would not have been any dancing in the streets of Tehran after 9/11 if they hadn't known they could count on the West's might to be disarmed by its moral uncertainty. And so history demonstrates time and again.

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Impotence refers to an Evil person's inability survive by the production of value, only destroying value, taking it from others. If you consider the Huns that plundered Europe at the time of the fall of the Roman Empire, they were able to "forage" for food and survive for a time by pillaging the villages and farms around the countryside, the big cities already having been sacked and reduced to rubble. But plundering grain stores and killing farmers means that you will have nothing to plunder next season and the Huns, Goths, and Visigoths were nomads, wreaking destruction everywhere, until there was nowhere for them to go, nothing to plunder, and they starved and died off along with those they had deprived of their goods and livelihoods. Even there, many of those plundered, being productive individuals, if they were able to escape, were able to pick up somewhere else, had the productive means to rebuild their lives. Not so the plunderers, Evil lives on the margin. Calling them "impotent" is not to say that they are not enormously destructive, not that they can't ruin the lives of good people, but that they are impotent to produce on their own, are -- as you say -- parasites, and only live at the suffrance of others. If the good people organize, as in this country in its founding and other times, when the Brits had had enough and forced the Magna Carta on the crown, when countless lawmen in the Old West deputized able, upright citizens to break the hold of gangs that ran rampant, the evil can not long survive.

I've said here elsewhere before that Hollywood, even a large fraction of Romantic fiction, has done a great disservice to mankind by inventing the "Evil Genius." Yes, there are intelligent people who become criminals, but one of the hallmarks of the truly criminal mind is an impatience with the need to focus, the need for the chains of cognition that are required to accomplish high levels of success. Evil is generally sloppy, shoddy, lazy. Billy the Kid was nasty, brutish, and short. As was his life. The romantic chimera of the brilliant criminal depends more on the creative abilities of writers. In fact, in an old '70's study reported in a psychology journal years ago (I don't have the source, but it was in ISI Current Contents in the '77 or '78 issue), when surveyed, incarcerated criminals reported that over 80% of criminals got their modus operandi directly from TV or movies, over 90% got their ideas directly or indirectly from TV or movies. In other words, it was not their brilliance, their ability to create, not even to plan a crime, even that was parasitism off an honest, productive individual.

Hitler was popularly elected. Had the majority of the German population not been steeped in Weimar Socialism and victimhood, susceptible to his exhortations, we would have had no World War II. Had Americans been clear on the concept of the superiority of our own culture, of the justice of the free market, of the rule of law, of our right to exist and to defend ourselves, of the unarguable evil of those who would destroy us in the name of Allah (or any other posited entity), we would likely never had a 9/11 attack and would certainly have rained hell and beaten to impotence the forces who would now destroy us. We would certainly not now be arguing about the rightness of a new Cordoba virtually "on the ruins of the World Trade Center" (as the Moroccan title of Imam Faisal Rauf's book calls it) and we would not have a Congress and President depriving us of life, liberty, and happiness in the name of a New International Order, while apologizing to our enemies for our existence.

Impotence, here, refers to the inability to exist of Evil to exist without its victims. Elsewhere... well, there's a pill for that.

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Good comments, thanks.

Part of my misunderstanding was the way I read "evil is impotent." I focused too much on "evil is" and then its description "impotent." In other words, given that evil exists, it is impotent. I was ignoring the conditions of its genesis and looking at it in some of its current forms, which don't seem so impotent, while ignoring how it came to be. So those clarifications are useful.

I have a follow up question. (And this time I am purposefully using a situation where evil already does exist.)

Let's say we have a country where a third of the people are statists, a third are Objectivists, and the final third is indeterminate (or at least can be swayed to vote one way or the other). The first two groups argue about what is good, how the country should be run, and why their politicians should be elected. We have seen in debating with others, simply being right doesn't mean others will agree with you; it's hard to change others' minds. My question in this situation is, are the good ideas in this situation any more potent than the bad ones? In general, once evil does exist, is it more or less potent than good? (Adapting from Alann's comments, potency would be defined as the ability to survive by the production of values. I am not ignoring his comments, I am changing the context. In this context, potency of evil would be defined as its ability to succeed in the transmission of its ideas/values.)

I have a partial answer in mind, but hopefully others can elaborate. I think at this point this is where reality becomes an essential part of the answer. I think the power good has over evil is that it is consistent with reality and ultimately people tend to look to reality (at least in part) to see which ideas seem right. This quote from Ayn Rand seems particularly relevant:

"[T]here is one word—a single word—which can blast the morality of altruism out of existence and which it cannot withstand—the word: ‘Why?’ Why must man live for the sake of others? Why must he be a sacrificial animal? Why is that the good? There is no earthly reason for it—and, ladies and gentlemen, in the whole history of philosophy no earthly reason has ever been given."

This is a great reminder of how a false idea is impotent and needs a failure of the good to survive.

But the reason I have my doubts as to whether the scales will always tip towards the good is because I think America is in a situation right now where the good ideas won't necessarily win out. It seems that since evil was allowed to grow, it may currently have the power to destroy the good, as well as itself. (Granted, in America, there are probably more statists than Objectivists.) And throughout history, there seem to be numerous examples where bad ideas have won out over good ideas. So how big of an advantage, if any, does the good have in this respect (being able to win out in the battle of ideas)?

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(Adapting from Alann's comments, potency would be defined as the ability to survive by the production of values. I am not ignoring his comments, I am changing the context. In this context, potency of evil would be defined as its ability to succeed in the transmission of its ideas/values.)

Which is not a relevant context. Just because you fail to convince someone does not mean your ideas are "impotent", since convincing others is not the measure of their value. If you are an Objectivist in Iran, you can only hope to survive long enough to escape. In the US, you may actually win some over to your side and without the risk of beheading. Statist ideas, on the other hand, propagate much faster in Europe than they do here. The "success of transmission" is largely determined by the character of the society you live in and compatibility of values; it cannot be predicted simply by whether your ideas are good or evil.

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(Adapting from Alann's comments, potency would be defined as the ability to survive by the production of values. I am not ignoring his comments, I am changing the context. In this context, potency of evil would be defined as its ability to succeed in the transmission of its ideas/values.)

Which is not a relevant context. Just because you fail to convince someone does not mean your ideas are "impotent", since convincing others is not the measure of their value. If you are an Objectivist in Iran, you can only hope to survive long enough to escape. In the US, you may actually win some over to your side and without the risk of beheading. Statist ideas, on the other hand, propagate much faster in Europe than they do here. The "success of transmission" is largely determined by the character of the society you live in and compatibility of values; it cannot be predicted simply by whether your ideas are good or evil.

You didn't understand my question. I never said that the potency of an idea has anything to do with how many people you can convince of its truth.

My question is about whether true ideas are more likely to "win" than false ideas.

Perhaps later I will address your "context" comment, but at this time, I don't want this thread to turn into a discussion of that.

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Ok, that didn't come off right at all. Here's what I meant. (I probably am forced to deal with the "context" comment, so here it goes.)

At times, the meaning of a word does depend on its context. For example, let's say someone states: "It is good to be seven feet tall."

That statement would be true if talking about qualities beneficial to success in the NBA. But if that person was using "good" in the moral sense, of what's good for life, then that statement is false. "Good" has different meanings in the two contexts.

Now in Ayn Rand's statement "evil is impotent," Alann pointed out that "Impotence refers to an Evil person's inability survive by the production of value."

I was satisfied with his comments (as well as Ray's and L-C's). So I raised a new question about whether good ideas have any more "potency" than bad ideas. I was changing the context and giving the word "potency" meaning in this new context.

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A disembodied idea is not a force acting in the world, but to the extent that good ideas are adopted, they will have more "potency" than evil ones. Even if evil overwhelms this earth (Europe embracing Islam and the US failing, catastrophically, to choose between statism and Capitalism), it will be only because too many producers let it. But then, humans have free will.

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A disembodied idea is not a force acting in the world, but to the extent that good ideas are adopted, they will have more "potency" than evil ones. Even if evil overwhelms this earth (Europe embracing Islam and the US failing, catastrophically, to choose between statism and Capitalism), it will be only because too many producers let it. But then, humans have free will.

I see what you all were referring to now, and I agree with this comment. But I'm also curious how much correlation there is (if any) between an idea's truth and it's likelihood to spread and be accepted. Are true ideas more "powerful" in the realm of debate? (I'll stay away from using the word potent in this context.)

Looking at the history of science, the answer seems to be a definite yes. While it may take time for ideas to be accepted, we certainly are moving in the right direction.

Can the same be said for economics and political philosophy? I don't know. There have certainly been a number of advocates for free markets over the last few hundred years, but they haven't had a lot of success in influencing the majority in that field.

When I talk politics and philosophy with people, I see that there are so few people that are willing and/or able to look at their basic premises, that it becomes essentially impossible to get them to change their minds. In this limited context, it often seems like the truth has little benefit in the realm of debate with bad ideas. This of course is why Ayn Rand was more concerned with future scholars than present ones.

But at the same time, Atlas Shrugged continues to be one of the most influential books ever written. Is this because the ideas are presented in such an entertaining way? Possibly, but I think it has more to do with how she does such a great job of framing the debate between individualism and collectivism in such an essential way. Most people don't choose bad ideas because they see them for what they are, and this book shows what each is in such a vivid way.

And more importantly, the lack of success that others have had in defending freedom is probably more due to the lack of a moral foundation for it than for a lack of good arguments. The best arguments in the world can't convince people to behave in a way they believe to be immoral. Now that there exists a moral foundation for individualism, perhaps in time we will finally start to see these traditions take hold in academia.

So I guess I lean slightly in the direction of, yes, good ideas do have more likelihood to take hold in the long run.

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So I guess I lean slightly in the direction of, yes, good ideas do have more likelihood to take hold in the long run.

"The three rules listed below are by no means exhaustive; they are merely the first leads to the understanding of a vast subject.

1. In any conflict between two men (or two groups) who hold the same basic principles, it is the more consistent one who wins.

2. In any collaboration between two men (or two groups) who hold different basic principles, it is the more evil or irrational one who wins.

3. When opposite basic principles are clearly and openly defined, it works to the advantage of the rational side; when they are not clearly defined, but are hidden or evaded, it works to the advantage of the irrational side." [Ayn Rand, “The Anatomy of Compromise,” Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, 145.]

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So I guess I lean slightly in the direction of, yes, good ideas do have more likelihood to take hold in the long run.

"The three rules listed below are by no means exhaustive; they are merely the first leads to the understanding of a vast subject.

1. In any conflict between two men (or two groups) who hold the same basic principles, it is the more consistent one who wins.

2. In any collaboration between two men (or two groups) who hold different basic principles, it is the more evil or irrational one who wins.

3. When opposite basic principles are clearly and openly defined, it works to the advantage of the rational side; when they are not clearly defined, but are hidden or evaded, it works to the advantage of the irrational side." [Ayn Rand, “The Anatomy of Compromise,” Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, 145.]

Thanks, I forgot about that passage. Point 3 seems to best address my question, but they're all very interesting.

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So I guess I lean slightly in the direction of, yes, good ideas do have more likelihood to take hold in the long run.

I would agree with this, but I think that in the short run bad ideas actually tend to have the advantage, and here's why. The ideas of individualism and freedom and capitalism are true, but they are also complex and require a lot of effort to understand them fully. For example, take the housing crisis. The base of it was the idea that everyone ought to have the ability to buy a home... even those who wouldn't otherwise be able to afford it. So government made it easier by pressuring banks to give loans and subsidizing the loans through Fannie and Freddie. We understand that in the long run, the inevitable result was the financial crisis. But to someone who doesn't want to get into the details (or who thinks logical arguments are mean to the poor), all they see is that government is trying to help people, and who wants to argue against helping some struggling poor family buy their first house? Our arguments require them to consider complex, long-term consequences that look unduly harsh on those whom we are taught it is our moral duty to help. Their arguments just require them to feel compassion for the downtrodden. And then of course, as things get worse and worse, the arguments that we have to help the poor gain more and more weight amongst those who accept the altruist creed, and then it all goes into a vicious downward spiral reminiscent of Atlas... or of the last 2 years of newspaper headlines.

So yes, the good ideas are likelier to take hold in the long run, and I think we're seeing that in the recent explosion of AS sales and the unprecedented demand for Objectivist ideas... but the short run can be uncomfortable.

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I would like to comment on a point that is closely related to the point that evil is impotent. Namely that idea of Ayn Rand that the majority of men are just ballast. Ayn Rand meant that most men "don´t count", they are not the drivers of events, because they choose to stay out of the field of abstract ideas, especially philosophy.

I see it this way. Most men *are* ballast. And if I lived in a free society, with a healthy culture, I could just ignore them, just like Howard Roark did. But they are also like drunken drivers. Since they accept abstract ideas second handedly, without checking whether or not the ideas correspond to the facts of reality, they are in a fundamental sense "out-of-control". They are like drunken drivers who careen down the highway of life while under the influence. A drunk is pathetic and helpless. But he becomes dangerous in a certain context - namely if he gets behind the wheel of a car, turns the ignition and drives out onto a highway.

In a similar way, the ballast of mankind are dangerous in a certain context. They are dangerous whenever they live in an unhealthy culture, i.e. in a culture which is dominated by bad ideas, such as today´s Sweden. Because then they are likely to permit themselves to be hijacked by these bad ideas. If some random power-luster like Hitler happens to come along, it is likely that many members of the ballast will become his henchmen, i.e. the brownshirts and thugs who fight for this evil power-luster and help him to take power.

So I find it impossible to be like Howard Roark. The ballast around me do "get to me", emotionally. I am unable to just not think of them. When I worked in a factory (I recently became unemployed) I used to think to myself - "Since I am the kind of person who insists on being independent, and on speaking his mind, then if Sweden were to become a dictatorship one day, I might very well wind up in a prison cell or a torture chamber. And since my workmates are the kind of men who do not care to think, it might very well turn out that they reported me to the secret police for the sake of a ration of cooking oil." I felt a shudder of revulsion when I reflected on the moral nature of my workmates. The Swedish working class is a cesspool. I have been living down here in it for the last 35 years, so I know.

I agree 100% with the assessment of my country, Sweden, which Ayn Rand made in her essay "The Age of Envy". Ayn Rand was spot on about Sweden being the promised land of hatred of the good for being the good. I estimate that at least half of the factory workers whom I have been acquainted with over the years, where characterized by that evil trait - hatred of the good for being the good. And the majority of the ones who were not displayed other disgusting character traits instead, such as indifference, humility, hypocrisy, cynicism, militant anti-intellectuality, fear of self-responsibility and the like. I have come to the conclusion that the majority of the Joe Sixpacks and John Does of the world, the *majority* of them not all of them, are not just morally mixed. They are morally *bad*. They are in fact morally depraved.

I resent the fact that the bad choices which the majority of men make, make it necessary for me to fight so hard to change the culture, in order for me to protect myself against *them*. What moral right do they have to permit themselves to be like "drunken drivers" who, objectively, constitute a dire threat to everything which I hold dear?

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