Is being evil an essential property?

In the previous post on Paul van Tongeren‘s lecture at the ‘Nacht van de Filosofie‘ (Night of Philosophy) in Amsterdam I noted that it is prefectly sensible to say that a smart person has done a dumb thing. Likewise, doing an evil act does not entail being an intrinsically evil person. This merits some more research.

First it is important to distinguish between necessary properties (which could not have been otherwise) and non-necessary, or contingent properties (which could have been otherwise). Saul Kripke noted about a wooden lectern (the one he was standing behind) that it does not make sense to say that this lectern could have been made out of ice. Not, at least, if it was in fact made of wood. His argument runs as follows: we could of course discover that the lectern was in fact made of ice, and through some cunning preparation had been made to look as if it was wood. But, if it is in fact made of wood, it makes no sense to say ‘this lectern could have been made of ice’, since it would have been a different lectern. Of course, another – ice – lectern could have stood in place of the current wooden one, but it would not have been this – wooden – lectern. If the lectern is made of wood, it is necessarily made of wood. Being made of wood is an essential property of the lectern. Standing in this room is not essential – of course this lectern could have stood in another room.

Similarly, Kripke holds that Obama (Nixon in his examples) could not have become the 44th President of the United States (which is perfectly intuitive), but that he could not have had different parents – if someone had, that would have been a different person. As in the case of the lectern, we could of course discover that Obama does in fact have different parents from the ones we believe to be his parents – but assuming that the people we believe to be his parents are indeed his parents, it makes no sense to say ‘Obama could have had different parents’ – that ‘Obama’ would have been a different man, not the man we call Obama. Being born of some parents is essential. Becoming the 44th President of the United States is not. [NN, pp. 312-314] The notion of essential properties is not unproblematic in its own right – but it is clear that there are non-essential properties. ‘Standing in this room’ is not essential for a lectern, being ‘the 44th President of the United States’ is not essential for Obama. Since ‘non-essential’ is all I need for my argument, we can disregard the complexities of essential properties. Suffice it to say that some properties at least are clearly non-essential.

Where does that leave us with being evil? It seems clear that being evil is not essential – even in the case of the exemplar of evilness, Adolf Hitler, it makes perfect sense to say ‘Hitler could have died in World War I’ or ‘Hitler could have stayed a smalltime painter in Vienna’. In both cases he would have been an unremarkable man, long forgotten, and maybe not a nice person, but neither a very evil one. So being evil is not essential. And it is not essential because it makes perfect sense to assume an evil person could not have performed the acts which made him evil, and thus would not have been evil. So even the complete collection of all evil acts performed by a true villain, does not make that person necessarily evil.

If we look at lesser examples, it becomes even clearer. If my former boss, or a former love, or a trusted friend, has done me wrong, it does not make them evil. It does not make them evil, because it makes perfect sense to assume they could have avoided this evil deed. And even assuming they did do it, it is one deed amongst many. As I have shown, even if all deeds by a person had been evil, being evil would not have been an essential property of this person – we still could dissociate the person from the evil deeds. Even more so in the case of a person who has just done one, or a few, bad deeds, it is perfectly possible to dissociate the person from the deed(s).

Evil is not an essential property in the worst of cases. It certainly isn’t in the everyday variety. If someone has done me wrong, it is perfectly possible to separate the deed from the person, to know this deed has been done by the other, to still condemn the deed, but to forgive the other.

For Kripke’s views, see: ‘Naming and Necessity’, Saul Kripke, in: Semantics of Natural Language, eds. D. Davidson and G. Harman, 1972, and ‘Identity and Necessity, Saul Kripke, in: Identity and Individuation, ed. Milton K. Munitz, 1971

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