One of the more puzzling things about contemporary arguments regarding what things a good or free society ought to allow and what things it ought to forbid is our turn toward the “expert,” the ethicist, the person who has made a professional career of teasing out deductions from moral premises. But what really qualifies such a person to be regarded as a beacon of wisdom? Aristotle famously said that the best way to learn about justice would be to observe a just man. The dictum is not tautological. In the life of a Mother Teresa, for example, we may learn literally countless—that is, not reducible to numbers—lessons in love and magnanimity, whence we may confirm true principles already held, and reveal others whose existence we had not suspected. We would be confronting the just life not as an academic exercise, but as an intensely personal challenge.
The same aridity and insubstantiality can be found in “professional” conclusions that a certain act is ethical or unethical. Such terms are pallid substitutes for older, harder words, like right and wrong, or good and evil, or straight and crooked, or upright and depraved. They relieve us of the necessity of existential analysis. It is as if one were playing a game, with moves that would either promote or hinder our objective, but would remain comfortably extrinsic to us. But those older words are ineluctably existential. An act that is wrong is, etymologically, twisted: cf. wry, wrinkle, writhe, the contortions of the face of a man seized by wrath, a mind warped by evil; also Latin perversus, turned inside out. It is what gave Dante the happy idea of portraying Purgatory as a corkscrew mountain, whose turnings would unwind the bends in those whom the world had made crooked.
Now the thing about crookedness is that it is inherently unstable. Hammer a crooked nail head-on and you will bend it all the more. A car that is out of alignment will grow worse with every jolt of a pothole. So too with the lived reality of evil. It is disintegrative. “Sin will pluck on sin,” says Macbeth, knowing that the evil of his murder of King Duncan is not “the be-all and end-all.” “For he that once hath missed the right way,” says Spenser’s Despair to the Red Cross Knight, speaking truly, “the further he doth go, the further he doth stray.” “While they adore me on the throne of Hell,” says Milton’s Satan, referring scornfully to his fellows in crime, “the lower still I fall.”
To recognize the disintegrative character of evil is not to commit the fallacy of the slippery slope. Granted, a step in one morally neutral direction does not imply a further step in the same direction. To raise taxes by 5 percent is not to raise taxes by 10 percent. Nor does the affirmation of a certain kind of action in certain circumstances imply an affirmation of a superficially similar kind of action in other circumstances. To spank a child for drawing with a crayon on the walls is not to whip him for painting them. But evil is like a progressive and deadly disease. To engage in an evil act, again and again, is more than the acquisition of a habit, which will make the same act easier and easier to commit, but which has no effect upon the person otherwise. If we accept the insight of the ancient Platonists—that evil as a thing-in-itself does not exist, but is instead a privation or a corruption of a good that should be there—then the turn toward evil is a turn toward non-being. To embrace evil at the core is, as it were, to riddle oneself with unreason, with nonexistence. It is to warp, to rot.
We should recall, then, that the ancients never equated wisdom with a great facility for ratiocination or calculation. To be in one’s wits, to be wise is, literally, to see (cf. Latin videre, Greek idea). But evil twists the mind. A bad man is worse than a bad dog, not just because he can put his evil to greater effect, but because the evil causes him to see things wrong-side-out, so that he will apply his reasoning powers to unreason. If he is possessed of great natural intelligence, he may become a genius in depravity. Alfred Kinsey, the teenager, was not yet hiring pederasts to molest infant boys in his laboratory; he was not yet collecting warped data from prison populations, and stretching it to “reveal” things about ordinary people. But by the time he was corrupting a nation with lies, I doubt that the greatest topologist in the world could have mapped the tangles of his heart to distinguish what was left of the genuine Kinsey and what was the serpentine and all-eating cancer.
In this sense all murderers are suicides, all liars are dupes. When, in Milton’s Paradise Lost, the Father offers grace to fallen mankind, it is described in terms of vision:
And I will place within them as a guide
My umpire Conscience, whom if they will hear,
Light after light well used they shall attain,
And to the end persisting, safe arrive.
But those who reject that grace will walk in darkness:
This my longsuffering and my day of grace
They who neglect and scorn, shall never taste,
But hard be hardened, blind be blinded more,
That they may stumble on, and deeper fall.
Quite aside from the theology, the view of what happens to evil men is correct and is ratified by history and experience—the rogues’ gallery of twentieth-century despots alone provides evidence enough. With all his prodigious intellect, and even by way of that intellect, Lenin was a blind man; and they who followed the cruel mastermind were blinded too.
Then the first question we might ask of an ethicist who tries to persuade us, with diagrams and statistics and syllogisms, that what we had thought was evil is actually all right, is not “What degrees do you have?” or “What articles have you published in peer-reviewed journals?” but “Who are you?” It isn’t an easy question, nor is it decisive. An otherwise decent person may be, for a long while, better than his evil philosophy, and then we may thank God for foolishness and inconsistency. But it ought to be asked.
Who are these medical ethicists who recently have concluded, with wonderful logic, that parents have a right to murder their infant children—and who call it, with telling duplicity, “after-birth abortion”? We would not turn to Larry Flynt or Hugh Hefner for a definition of decency; why should we turn to these people to advise us on which children we may kill and when? Are they crooked? Why should we follow the crooked, when we want to walk straight?
I am not recommending ad hominem attacks, or the ignoring of rational (or irrational) arguments. I wish merely to assert that when an ethicist, or anyone else for that matter, recommends that an action previously considered wrong be permitted, the burden of proof is particularly heavy, and we are justified in examining the virtue of the recommender. A warped heart, a warped mind— the one will eventually follow upon the other. Similarly, when a person of acknowledged moral courage, a Mother Teresa, warns us that an action which we have permitted is evil, we would be wrong not to pause and reconsider. Yes, we may admit the confusion of motives in any human being, and the rarity of pure saints or pure demons. But the virtuous life is an art; and one learns art not from theorists but from the artists themselves.
Anthony Esolen is Professor of English at Providence College and the author of Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child and Ironies of Faith. He has translated Tasso’s Gerusalemme liberata and Dante’s The Divine Comedy.