In a previous post, I explained that we cannot actually choose to do evil insofar as it is evil. Nonetheless, we can choose to do evil even though we know that it is evil. This is possible because of the nature of attention. Freely choosing what to attend to is both wise and necessary for rational though. Choice in attention can also be used for self-deception, allowing us to do what we know is evil.
Attention and knowledge are two different things. There are many things that we know but do not consciously think about. This is true even with respect to a particular question. We must consciously focus our minds on the relevant information to the questions at hand. Doing this is a display our ability to control our own attention. We attend to what is relevant and ignore the rest. Attention is our conscious awareness of something.
When we are tempted to do what is wrong, we cannot both attend to the wrongness of the act and commit the act. When we commit an evil act, we intend to do the act insofar as it is good. However, because the act is evil, we could only intend to commit the act if we blinded ourselves to the fact that it is evil. Otherwise, we would be committing the act both as it is good and as it is evil. Since committing the act as it is evil is impossible, we could not do so. Therefore, all acts of evil involve self-deception.
I will use the example of murder. Murder is always wrong. There are no exceptions. However, murder and killing are not the same thing. Murder is the intentional killing of an innocent human being. So there are a number of ways to deceive oneself about particular murders. One might claim that the victim was not human, not innocent or that one’s act was not intentional. So let’s take a particular example of murder. A slave owner kills their runaway slave for leaving. Their death was intentional. The slave is human. The slave is innocent – running away from slavery is not immoral. Therefore, the act is murder. The slave-owner never agrees with the person who points these things out. He does not even agree to himself that these things are true. Instead, he argues that the slave is guilty because the law punishes runaway criminals and gives authority to punish them to their owners. The slave is also not human – at least not fully human – because he is black.
The problem is that the evidence for these claims never really existed. The law cannot make what is immoral become moral. Everyone knows this. Yet the slave owner never pays attention to the this fact. If someone brings it up to him, he denies that it is relevant. If necessary, he will point to considerations of time. He does not have the time to get into a pointless discussion about philosophy. He may point to a mistake you made a divert attention away from what he cannot acknowledge. He may point out that you have moral faults and shouldn’t blame him.
The problem is that choice in attention is necessary. We need to focus only on what is relevant to a discussion rather than every little detail that is related. If the slave is male, that is an irrelevant fact. His height, weight and accent are also irrelevant. Yet our determination of what is relevant is an intellectual habit that our choices can perfect or degrade.
There are a few final matter to be discussed with respect to evil acts. These are how evil acts differ from good acts that can be better and what the differences are between self-deception, willful ignorance and intellectual error.