The semantics of moral thinking do matter.
Charles Manson was the devil.
The sentence is not ironic or a figure of speech: the murderer, who died in a California prison this past weekend after completing some 40 years of 12 consecutive life terms, was a personification of evil.
It can be argued that many of our contemporaries have difficulty grasping the concept of evil, and they have difficulty with the reality of evil, even when it stares them in the face.
This was not so with Manson and his gang, who committed gruesome and shocking crimes.
Our laws, our mores, our chatter, however, reflect an unease with the very word. The death penalty for heinous crimes is rarely applied in Western countries; in fact in most Western countries, and many of our states, it is not on the books.
Our medical and social sciences emphasize derangement in the head and discomfort in the environment, and not coincidentally our penal codes favor rehabilitation over punishment. The fact that many of our prisons are living hells should suggest to our penal and criminal law experts and the experts on whom they rely that criminals manifestly believe in just deserts, even when society as represented by the criminal justice system does not.
The Manson case confirms that some deep re-think is in order, as deep re-thinkers and artists often have proposed (viz. Dostoevsky). After all, the man was a textbook case of the criminal-as-victim. The abandoned fatherless child who grew up in ghastly abusive circumstances, why was he not allowed to plead “not my fault”?
The notion of evil does not by any means exclude the sense of compassion; quite the contrary, they depend on each other.
The false compassion of the welfare nanny states that dominate public policy in advanced societies displaces the true pity and awesome respect of eternal forces that evil and forgiveness both demand.
The institutionalization of compassion, like the scientification of evil, results in contempt for both and the blurring of notions of right and wrong. This in turn makes it impossible to sustain any sort of hierarchy of moral sentiments.
If I give to charity I am doing the right thing and the civic thing, but I am not a hero or a saint. If a teenager shoplifts an item or gets a ladder to climb up to a girls’ dorm and take a peek, he is a naughty little jerk who deserves punishment but he is scarcely a criminal. That we have lost all sense of proportion, as shown by the conflating of rapists — a capital crime in most societies until quite recently — and selfish entitled louts in the midst of our current wave of Salem witch hysteria is, in one respect at least, a positive sign. It shows that we in America remember that there are moral absolutes, even if we have forgotten how to think seriously about them — which I am not at all sure can be said of many of our fellow-Free World societies.
We go ape-moral instead of Solomon-moral, because we suddenly realize we are on the brink of nihilism.
But when was the last time we followed through? We make little progress in restoring sobriety on the big and eternal questions of right and wrong when we permit airheaded whiners to earn easy self-esteem points by suddenly turning holier-than-thou in workplaces that no one ever suspected of functioning like monasteries.
Sensible and realistic moral thinking teaches that monasteries should not be expected to function like monasteries. When we understand this we may have a shot at thinking truly. Realism is not cynicism.
It is realistic to call Manson evil. It is cynical to tolerate, even reward, individuals who celebrate him and his gang as understandable rebels against an allegedly unfair world. That kind of corrosive cynicism, expressed with shocking crudity by future associates of a future president, exists, in softer, more “rational” forms throughout our free societies. Thus expressed, it does not shock, it is the norm — a norm that may subvert us if we do not see its relation to the overt hate and violence that the devil instills in the hearts of men.