[Paleopsych] Theodore Dalrymple: The Frivolity of Evil
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Sat Feb 5 10:49:04 UTC 2005
City Journal Autumn 2004 | The Frivolity of Evil by Theodore Dalrymple
Oh, to be in E ngland
The Frivolity of Evil
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
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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