The Marginalian
The Marginalian

Mary McCarthy on Human Nature, Moral Choice, and How We Decide Whether Evil Is Forgivable

“One has to assume that every man is a thinking reed and a noble nature, even if only part-time.”

Mary McCarthy on Human Nature, Moral Choice, and How We Decide Whether Evil Is Forgivable

“A true friend of mankind whose heart has but once quivered in compassion over the sufferings of the people,” Dostoyevsky wrote in his spirited case for why there are no bad people, “will understand and forgive all the impassable alluvial filth in which they are submerged.” But there are instances of evil so incomprehensible in their injustice that even the largest heart is emptied of forgiveness. In the face of such acts of evil, the question of how blame is assigned and forgiveness dispensed swells to contentious proportions, and yet it is a question that each of us must answer in the privacy of our interior moral chambers in order to contend with the consequences of evil and answer the call of goodness.

That complicated and possibly unanswerable question is what writer and political activist Mary McCarthy (June 21, 1912–October 25, 1989) addresses in one of her letters found in Between Friends: The Correspondence of Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy (public library) — the magnificent volume that gave us McCarthy on love and Arendt’s admonition against trying to change one’s lover.

In the spring of 1971, Arendt shared with McCarthy her notes for what would become The Life of the Mind — her extraordinary contribution to the prestigious Gifford Lectures, at which Arendt was the first woman to speak since the series was established in 1888. As was often the case in their decades-long friendship, McCarthy responded with lengthy, intellectually vibrant, opinionated yet considered feedback on the ideas Arendt was teasing out — chief among them, human nature, moral will, and the origin of evil.

Mary McCarthy (Photograph: Getty)
Mary McCarthy (Photograph: Getty)

What emerges from McCarthy’s letter is a meditation of immense timeliness amid our cultural ambivalence about whether to treat perpetrators of evil — shooters, rapists, terrorists — as motivated by a morally unforgivable conscious choice or by an involuntary mental failing. With remarkable intellectual elegance and moral wisdom, McCarthy articulates the elasticity of choice in the vast space between absolute mental frailty and absolute free will — a choice that steers how we navigate our parallel capacities for good and evil and determines how those actions are to be judged by those whom they impact.

In a philosophically lucid and psychologically insightful passage that illuminates the trouble with personages like Donald Trump, McCarthy writes:

I rather agree with Kant (and always have, without knowing that Kant said it) that stupidity is caused not by brain failure, but by a wicked heart. Insensitiveness, opacity, inability to make connections, often accompanied by low “animal” cunning. One cannot help feeling that this mental oblivion is chosen, by the heart or the moral will — an active preference, and that explains why one is so irritated by stupidity, which is not the case when one is dealing with a truly backward individual.

With an eye to perpetrators of supreme evil such as Adolf Eichmann — one of the major Nazi organizers of the Holocaust, who had inspired Arendt’s classic treatise on the banality of evil eight years earlier — McCarthy adds:

A village idiot may be far less stupid than Eichmann. Hence the old equation between “simplicity” and goodness of soul and heart. An idiot of course can be reflective; he thinks in your sense, probably quite a lot, maybe more than most people, since his other mental powers are deficient, and he “connects,” which is somewhat different from making logical chains of ideas, though I would be hard put to say how the simple meditative associations of an idiot were distinguishable from the process of normal logic.

Responding to Arendt’s ideas about the crucial difference between thinking and knowing, McCarthy furthers this weighing of conscious choice versus mental deficiency:

I think your distinction between thinking and knowing is very illuminating… Using my own terms, I’d say that the thinking or meditation of a simpleton was at the opposite pole from the reasoning of a child (though on the surface they may resemble each other), in that the child is always seeking knowledge, clear definitions, answers, i.e., his mind is acquisitive. The simpleton too may acquire a few magpie trifles of certainty but on the whole he tends to play with them rather than put them to use.

McCarthy returns to the central question of whether evil is a conscious moral choice or an unconscious mental failing, which in turn determines whether and to what degree we excuse or condemn it:

Surely the longing (or nostalgia) for beauty, wisdom, love, justice is just as much a natural need in human life … as the thinking-as-intercourse-with-oneself you describe. They aren’t in contradiction … but linked together. One has to assume that every man is a thinking reed and a noble nature, even if only part-time. If empirically this doesn’t appear to be so, then one is thrown back on such a formulation as Stupidity-is-caused-by-a-wicked heart to explain an Eichmann — or Man-is-inherently-good-but-corrupted-by-institutions. I prefer Kant’s. Perhaps I’m dull-witted, but it seems to me that what you are saying is that an Eichmann lacks an inherent human quality: the capacity for thought, consciousness — conscience. But then isn’t he a monster simply? If you allow him a wicked heart, then you leave him some freedom, which permits our condemnation.

Complement this particular fragment of the wholly magnificent Between Friends with James Baldwin and Margaret Mead’s forgotten conversation about forgiveness and the vital difference between guilt and responsibility, philosopher Martha Nussbaum on anger and forgiveness, and Plato’s abiding ideas on free will, moral agency, and how to negotiate our capacities for good and evil.

Published June 21, 2016




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