[Paleopsych] Theodore Dalrymple: The Frivolity of Evil

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City Journal Autumn 2004 | The Frivolity of Evil by Theodore Dalrymple

    Oh, to be in  E ngland

    The Frivolity of Evil
    Theodore Dalrymple

    When prisoners are released from prison, they often say that they have
    paid their debt to society. This is absurd, of course: crime is not a
    matter of double-entry bookkeeping. You cannot pay a debt by having
    caused even greater expense, nor can you pay in advance for a bank
    robbery by offering to serve a prison sentence before you commit it.
    Perhaps, metaphorically speaking, the slate is wiped clean once a
    prisoner is released from prison, but the debt is not paid off.

    It would be just as absurd for me to say, on my imminent retirement
    after 14 years of my hospital and prison work, that I have paid my
    debt to society. I had the choice to do something more pleasing if I
    had wished, and I was paid, if not munificently, at least adequately.
    I chose the disagreeable neighborhood in which I practiced because,
    medically speaking, the poor are more interesting, at least to me,
    than the rich: their pathology is more florid, their need for
    attention greater. Their dilemmas, if cruder, seem to me more
    compelling, nearer to the fundamentals of human existence. No doubt I
    also felt my services would be more valuable there: in other words,
    that I had some kind of duty to perform. Perhaps for that reason, like
    the prisoner on his release, I feel I have paid my debt to society.
    Certainly, the work has taken a toll on me, and it is time to do
    something else. Someone else can do battle with the metastasizing
    social pathology of Great Britain, while I lead a life aesthetically
    more pleasing to me.

    My work has caused me to become perhaps unhealthily preoccupied with
    the problem of evil. Why do people commit evil? What conditions allow
    it to flourish? How is it best prevented and, when necessary,
    suppressed? Each time I listen to a patient recounting the cruelty to
    which he or she has been subjected, or has committed (and I have
    listened to several such patients every day for 14 years), these
    questions revolve endlessly in my mind.

    No doubt my previous experiences fostered my preoccupation with this
    problem. My mother was a refugee from Nazi Germany, and though she
    spoke very little of her life before she came to Britain, the mere
    fact that there was much of which she did not speak gave evil a
    ghostly presence in our household.

    Later, I spent several years touring the world, often in places where
    atrocity had recently been, or still was being, committed. In Central
    America, I witnessed civil war fought between guerrilla groups intent
    on imposing totalitarian tyranny on their societies, opposed by armies
    that didn't scruple to resort to massacre. In Equatorial Guinea, the
    current dictator was the nephew and henchman of the last dictator, who
    had killed or driven into exile a third of the population, executing
    every last person who wore glasses or possessed a page of printed
    matter for being a disaffected or potentially disaffected
    intellectual. In Liberia, I visited a church in which more than 600
    people had taken refuge and been slaughtered, possibly by the
    president himself (soon to be videotaped being tortured to death). The
    outlines of the bodies were still visible on the dried blood on the
    floor, and the long mound of the mass grave began only a few yards
    from the entrance. In North Korea I saw the acme of tyranny, millions
    of people in terrorized, abject obeisance to a personality cult whose
    object, the Great Leader Kim Il Sung, made the Sun King look like the
    personification of modesty.

    Still, all these were political evils, which my own country had
    entirely escaped. I optimistically supposed that, in the absence of
    the worst political deformations, widespread evil was impossible. I
    soon discovered my error. Of course, nothing that I was to see in a
    British slum approached the scale or depth of what I had witnessed
    elsewhere. Beating a woman from motives of jealousy, locking her in a
    closet, breaking her arms deliberately, terrible though it may be, is
    not the same, by a long way, as mass murder. More than enough of the
    constitutional, traditional, institutional, and social restraints on
    large-scale political evil still existed in Britain to prevent
    anything like what I had witnessed elsewhere.

    Yet the scale of a man's evil is not entirely to be measured by its
    practical consequences. Men commit evil within the scope available to
    them. Some evil geniuses, of course, devote their lives to increasing
    that scope as widely as possible, but no such character has yet arisen
    in Britain, and most evildoers merely make the most of their
    opportunities. They do what they can get away with.

    In any case, the extent of the evil that I found, though far more
    modest than the disasters of modern history, is nonetheless
    impressive. From the vantage point of one six-bedded hospital ward, I
    have met at least 5,000 perpetrators of the kind of violence I have
    just described and 5,000 victims of it: nearly 1 percent of the
    population of my city--or a higher percentage, if one considers the
    age-specificity of the behavior. And when you take the life histories
    of these people, as I have, you soon realize that their existence is
    as saturated with arbitrary violence as that of the inhabitants of
    many a dictatorship. Instead of one dictator, though, there are
    thousands, each the absolute ruler of his own little sphere, his power
    circumscribed by the proximity of another such as he.

    Violent conflict, not confined to the home and hearth, spills out onto
    the streets. Moreover, I discovered that British cities such as my own
    even had torture chambers: run not by the government, as in
    dictatorships, but by those representatives of slum enterprise, the
    drug dealers. Young men and women in debt to drug dealers are
    kidnapped, taken to the torture chambers, tied to beds, and beaten or
    whipped. Of compunction there is none--only a residual fear of the
    consequences of going too far.

    Perhaps the most alarming feature of this low-level but endemic evil,
    the one that brings it close to the conception of original sin, is
    that it is unforced and spontaneous. No one requires people to commit
    it. In the worst dictatorships, some of the evil ordinary men and
    women do they do out of fear of not committing it. There, goodness
    requires heroism. In the Soviet Union in the 1930s, for example, a man
    who failed to report a political joke to the authorities was himself
    guilty of an offense that could lead to deportation or death. But in
    modern Britain, no such conditions exist: the government does not
    require citizens to behave as I have described and punish them if they
    do not. The evil is freely chosen.

    Not that the government is blameless in the matter--far from it.
    Intellectuals propounded the idea that man should be freed from the
    shackles of social convention and self-control, and the government,
    without any demand from below, enacted laws that promoted unrestrained
    behavior and created a welfare system that protected people from some
    of its economic consequences. When the barriers to evil are brought
    down, it flourishes; and never again will I be tempted to believe in
    the fundamental goodness of man, or that evil is something exceptional
    or alien to human nature.

    Of course, my personal experience is just that--personal experience.
    Admittedly, I have looked out at the social world of my city and my
    country from a peculiar and possibly unrepresentative vantage point,
    from a prison and from a hospital ward where practically all the
    patients have tried to kill themselves, or at least made suicidal
    gestures. But it is not small or slight personal experience, and each
    of my thousands, even scores of thousands, of cases has given me a
    window into the world in which that person lives.

    And when my mother asks me whether I am not in danger of letting my
    personal experience embitter me or cause me to look at the world
    through bile-colored spectacles, I ask her why she thinks that she, in
    common with all old people in Britain today, feels the need to be
    indoors by sundown or face the consequences, and why this should be
    the case in a country that within living memory was law-abiding and
    safe? Did she not herself tell me that, as a young woman during the
    blackouts in the Blitz, she felt perfectly safe, at least from the
    depredations of her fellow citizens, walking home in the pitch dark,
    and that it never occurred to her that she might be the victim of a
    crime, whereas nowadays she has only to put her nose out of her door
    at dusk for her to think of nothing else? Is it not true that her
    purse has been stolen twice in the last two years, in broad daylight,
    and is it not true that statistics--however manipulated by governments
    to put the best possible gloss upon them--bear out the accuracy of the
    conclusions that I have drawn from my personal experience? In 1921,
    the year of my mother's birth, there was one crime recorded for every
    370 inhabitants of England and Wales; 80 years later, it was one for
    every ten inhabitants. There has been a 12-fold increase since 1941
    and an even greater increase in crimes of violence. So while personal
    experience is hardly a complete guide to social reality, the
    historical data certainly back up my impressions.

    A single case can be illuminating, especially when it is statistically
    banal--in other words, not at all exceptional. Yesterday, for example,
    a 21-year-old woman consulted me, claiming to be depressed. She had
    swallowed an overdose of her antidepressants and then called an

    There is something to be said here about the word "depression," which
    has almost entirely eliminated the word and even the concept of
    unhappiness from modern life. Of the thousands of patients I have
    seen, only two or three have ever claimed to be unhappy: all the rest
    have said that they were depressed. This semantic shift is deeply
    significant, for it implies that dissatisfaction with life is itself
    pathological, a medical condition, which it is the responsibility of
    the doctor to alleviate by medical means. Everyone has a right to
    health; depression is unhealthy; therefore everyone has a right to be
    happy (the opposite of being depressed). This idea in turn implies
    that one's state of mind, or one's mood, is or should be independent
    of the way that one lives one's life, a belief that must deprive human
    existence of all meaning, radically disconnecting reward from conduct.

    A ridiculous pas de deux between doctor and patient ensues: the
    patient pretends to be ill, and the doctor pretends to cure him. In
    the process, the patient is willfully blinded to the conduct that
    inevitably causes his misery in the first place. I have therefore come
    to see that one of the most important tasks of the doctor today is the
    disavowal of his own power and responsibility. The patient's notion
    that he is ill stands in the way of his understanding of the
    situation, without which moral change cannot take place. The doctor
    who pretends to treat is an obstacle to this change, blinding rather
    than enlightening.

    My patient already had had three children by three different men, by
    no means unusual among my patients, or indeed in the country as a
    whole. The father of her first child had been violent, and she had
    left him; the second died in an accident while driving a stolen car;
    the third, with whom she had been living, had demanded that she should
    leave his apartment because, a week after their child was born, he
    decided that he no longer wished to live with her. (The discovery of
    incompatibility a week after the birth of a child is now so common as
    to be statistically normal.) She had nowhere to go, no one to fall
    back on, and the hospital was a temporary sanctuary from her woes. She
    hoped that we would fix her up with some accommodation.

    She could not return to her mother, because of conflict with her
    "stepfather," or her mother's latest boyfriend, who, in fact, was only
    nine years older than she and seven years younger than her mother.
    This compression of the generations is also now a common pattern and
    is seldom a recipe for happiness. (It goes without saying that her own
    father had disappeared at her birth, and she had never seen him
    since.) The latest boyfriend in this kind of ménage either wants the
    daughter around to abuse her sexually or else wants her out of the
    house as being a nuisance and an unnecessary expense. This boyfriend
    wanted her out of the house, and set about creating an atmosphere
    certain to make her leave as soon as possible.

    The father of her first child had, of course, recognized her
    vulnerability. A girl of 16 living on her own is easy prey. He beat
    her from the first, being drunken, possessive, and jealous, as well as
    flagrantly unfaithful. She thought that a child would make him more
    responsible--sober him up and calm him down. It had the reverse
    effect. She left him.

    The father of her second child was a career criminal, already
    imprisoned several times. A drug addict who took whatever drugs he
    could get, he died under the influence. She had known all about his
    past before she had his child.

    The father of her third child was much older than she. It was he who
    suggested that they have a child--in fact he demanded it as a
    condition of staying with her. He had five children already by three
    different women, none of whom he supported in any way whatever.

    The conditions for the perpetuation of evil were now complete. She was
    a young woman who would not want to remain alone, without a man, for
    very long; but with three children already, she would attract
    precisely the kind of man, like the father of her first child--of whom
    there are now many--looking for vulnerable, exploitable women. More
    than likely, at least one of them (for there would undoubtedly be a
    succession of them) would abuse her children sexually, physically, or

    She was, of course, a victim of her mother's behavior at a time when
    she had little control over her destiny. Her mother had thought that
    her own sexual liaison was more important than the welfare of her
    child, a common way of thinking in today's welfare Britain. That same
    day, for example, I was consulted by a young woman whose mother's
    consort had raped her many times between the ages of eight and 15,
    with her mother's full knowledge. Her mother had allowed this solely
    so that her relationship with her consort might continue. It could
    happen that my patient will one day do the same thing.

    My patient was not just a victim of her mother, however: she had
    knowingly borne children of men of whom no good could be expected. She
    knew perfectly well the consequences and the meaning of what she was
    doing, as her reaction to something that I said to her--and say to
    hundreds of women patients in a similar situation--proved: next time
    you are thinking of going out with a man, bring him to me for my
    inspection, and I'll tell you if you can go out with him.

    This never fails to make the most wretched, the most "depressed" of
    women smile broadly or laugh heartily. They know exactly what I mean,
    and I need not spell it out further. They know that I mean that most
    of the men they have chosen have their evil written all over them,
    sometimes quite literally in the form of tattoos, saying "FUCK OFF" or
    "MAD DOG." And they understand that if I can spot the evil instantly,
    because they know what I would look for, so can they--and therefore
    they are in large part responsible for their own downfall at the hands
    of evil men.

    Moreover, they are aware that I believe that it is both foolish and
    wicked to have children by men without having considered even for a
    second or a fraction of a second whether the men have any qualities
    that might make them good fathers. Mistakes are possible, of course: a
    man may turn out not to be as expected. But not even to consider the
    question is to act as irresponsibly as it is possible for a human
    being to act. It is knowingly to increase the sum of evil in the
    world, and sooner or later the summation of small evils leads to the
    triumph of evil itself.

    My patient did not start out with the intention of abetting, much less
    of committing, evil. And yet her refusal to take seriously and act
    upon the signs that she saw and the knowledge that she had was not the
    consequence of blindness and ignorance. It was utterly willful. She
    knew from her own experience, and that of many people around her, that
    her choices, based on the pleasure or the desire of the moment, would
    lead to the misery and suffering not only of herself,
    but--especially--of her own children.

    This truly is not so much the banality as the frivolity of evil: the
    elevation of passing pleasure for oneself over the long-term misery of
    others to whom one owes a duty. What better phrase than the frivolity
    of evil describes the conduct of a mother who turns her own
    14-year-old child out of doors because her latest boyfriend does not
    want him or her in the house? And what better phrase describes the
    attitude of those intellectuals who see in this conduct nothing but an
    extension of human freedom and choice, another thread in life's rich

    The men in these situations also know perfectly well the meaning and
    consequences of what they are doing. The same day that I saw the
    patient I have just described, a man aged 25 came into our ward, in
    need of an operation to remove foil-wrapped packets of cocaine that he
    had swallowed in order to evade being caught by the police in
    possession of them. (Had a packet burst, he would have died
    immediately.) As it happened, he had just left his latest
    girlfriend--one week after she had given birth to their child. They
    weren't getting along, he said; he needed his space. Of the child, he
    thought not for an instant.

    I asked him whether he had any other children.

    "Four," he replied.

    "How many mothers?"


    "Do you see any of your children?"

    He shook his head. It is supposedly the duty of the doctor not to pass
    judgment on how his patients have elected to live, but I think I may
    have raised my eyebrows slightly. At any rate, the patient caught a
    whiff of my disapproval.

    "I know," he said. "I know. Don't tell me."

    These words were a complete confession of guilt. I have had hundreds
    of conversations with men who have abandoned their children in this
    fashion, and they all know perfectly well what the consequences are
    for the mother and, more important, for the children. They all know
    that they are condemning their children to lives of brutality,
    poverty, abuse, and hopelessness. They tell me so themselves. And yet
    they do it over and over again, to such an extent that I should guess
    that nearly a quarter of British children are now brought up this way.

    The result is a rising tide of neglect, cruelty, sadism, and joyous
    malignity that staggers and appalls me. I am more horrified after 14
    years than the day I started.

    Where does this evil come from? There is obviously something flawed in
    the heart of man that he should wish to behave in this depraved
    fashion--the legacy of original sin, to speak metaphorically. But if,
    not so long ago, such conduct was much less widespread than it is now
    (in a time of much lesser prosperity, be it remembered by those who
    think that poverty explains everything), then something more is needed
    to explain it.

    A necessary, though not sufficient, condition is the welfare state,
    which makes it possible, and sometimes advantageous, to behave like
    this. Just as the IMF is the bank of last resort, encouraging
    commercial banks to make unwise loans to countries that they know the
    IMF will bail out, so the state is the parent of last resort--or, more
    often than not, of first resort. The state, guided by the apparently
    generous and humane philosophy that no child, whatever its origins,
    should suffer deprivation, gives assistance to any child, or rather
    the mother of any child, once it has come into being. In matters of
    public housing, it is actually advantageous for a mother to put
    herself at a disadvantage, to be a single mother, without support from
    the fathers of the children and dependent on the state for income. She
    is then a priority; she won't pay local taxes, rent, or utility bills.

    As for the men, the state absolves them of all responsibility for
    their children. The state is now father to the child. The biological
    father is therefore free to use whatever income he has as pocket
    money, for entertainment and little treats. He is thereby reduced to
    the status of a child, though a spoiled child with the physical
    capabilities of a man: petulant, demanding, querulous, self-centered,
    and violent if he doesn't get his own way. The violence escalates and
    becomes a habit. A spoiled brat becomes an evil tyrant.

    But if the welfare state is a necessary condition for the spread of
    evil, it is not sufficient. After all, the British welfare state is
    neither the most extensive nor the most generous in the world, and yet
    our rates of social pathology--public drunkenness, drug-taking,
    teenage pregnancy, venereal disease, hooliganism, criminality--are the
    highest in the world. Something more was necessary to produce this

    Here we enter the realm of culture and ideas. For it is necessary not
    only to believe that it is economically feasible to behave in the
    irresponsible and egotistical fashion that I have described, but also
    to believe that it is morally permissible to do so. And this idea has
    been peddled by the intellectual elite in Britain for many years, more
    assiduously than anywhere else, to the extent that it is now taken for
    granted. There has been a long march not only through the institutions
    but through the minds of the young. When young people want to praise
    themselves, they describe themselves as "nonjudgmental." For them, the
    highest form of morality is amorality.

    There has been an unholy alliance between those on the Left, who
    believe that man is endowed with rights but no duties, and
    libertarians on the Right, who believe that consumer choice is the
    answer to all social questions, an idea eagerly adopted by the Left in
    precisely those areas where it does not apply. Thus people have a
    right to bring forth children any way they like, and the children, of
    course, have the right not to be deprived of anything, at least
    anything material. How men and women associate and have children is
    merely a matter of consumer choice, of no more moral consequence than
    the choice between dark and milk chocolate, and the state must not
    discriminate among different forms of association and child rearing,
    even if such non-discrimination has the same effect as British and
    French neutrality during the Spanish Civil War.

    The consequences to the children and to society do not enter into the
    matter: for in any case it is the function of the state to ameliorate
    by redistributive taxation the material effects of individual
    irresponsibility, and to ameliorate the emotional, educational, and
    spiritual effects by an army of social workers, psychologists,
    educators, counselors, and the like, who have themselves come to form
    a powerful vested interest of dependence on the government.

    So while my patients know in their hearts that what they are doing is
    wrong, and worse than wrong, they are encouraged nevertheless to do it
    by the strong belief that they have the right to do it, because
    everything is merely a matter of choice. Almost no one in Britain ever
    publicly challenges this belief. Nor has any politician the courage to
    demand a withdrawal of the public subsidy that allows the intensifying
    evil I have seen over the past 14 years--violence, rape, intimidation,
    cruelty, drug addiction, neglect--to flourish so exuberantly. With 40
    percent of children in Britain born out of wedlock, and the proportion
    still rising, and with divorce the norm rather than the exception,
    there soon will be no electoral constituency for reversal. It is
    already deemed to be electoral suicide to advocate it by those who, in
    their hearts, know that such a reversal is necessary.

    I am not sure they are right. They lack courage. My only cause for
    optimism during the past 14 years has been the fact that my patients,
    with a few exceptions, can be brought to see the truth of what I say:
    that they are not depressed; they are unhappy--and they are unhappy
    because they have chosen to live in a way that they ought not to live,
    and in which it is impossible to be happy. Without exception, they say
    that they would not want their children to live as they have lived.
    But the social, economic, and ideological pressures--and, above all,
    the parental example--make it likely that their children's choices
    will be as bad as theirs.

    Ultimately, the moral cowardice of the intellectual and political
    elites is responsible for the continuing social disaster that has
    overtaken Britain, a disaster whose full social and economic
    consequences have yet to be seen. A sharp economic downturn would
    expose how far the policies of successive governments, all in the
    direction of libertinism, have atomized British society, so that all
    social solidarity within families and communities, so protective in
    times of hardship, has been destroyed. The elites cannot even
    acknowledge what has happened, however obvious it is, for to do so
    would be to admit their past responsibility for it, and that would
    make them feel bad. Better that millions should live in wretchedness
    and squalor than that they should feel bad about themselves--another
    aspect of the frivolity of evil. Moreover, if members of the elite
    acknowledged the social disaster brought about by their ideological
    libertinism, they might feel called upon to place restraints upon
    their own behavior, for you cannot long demand of others what you balk
    at doing yourself.

    There are pleasures, no doubt, to be had in crying in the wilderness,
    in being a man who thinks he has seen further and more keenly than
    others, but they grow fewer with time. The wilderness has lost its
    charms for me.

    I'm leaving--I hope for good.

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