Elsewhere, in a discussion about using the word evil in relation to factory farms, I brought up an incident from the class for high school students I taught a month or so ago. We had just finished watching the documentary "Death on a Factory Farm" (if HBO asks "HBO Canada or HBO USA," choose the latter) and I was trying to impress upon them a significant point: they needed to video of a pig being killed via hanging in order to proceed with animal cruelty charges. They didn't understand why the hanging was so important. The reason they needed to video of the hanging is, in simple terms, that if the practice is generally accepted, then it cannot by definition be cruel. Hence, regardless of how horrible generally accepted practices are, they are completely legal. So, just providing footage of gestation crates, of piglets being thrown up to ten feet into a cart, tossed by their tails or ears into the back of a school bus (what they used to move animals on the farm), segregating dying animals among themselves without food or water or medicine, not providing medical assistance to sick or injured animals, use of electric prods, etc. is not sufficient because these are the normal practices of all pig farms. Cruelty, under the law, requires exceptional cruelty. Thus, the investigation focused on getting footage of the favoured method of euthanasia on this farm: hanging pigs by chains from forklifts. Once I had established this point, the students wanted to know if the people working on the farm were evil - only an evil person would willingly act this way. I wasn't expecting that question and I wasn't sure how to proceed.
Now, this is important. In much animal rights/animal welfare literature, the concept of evil is strongly resisted, largely for rhetorical rather than theoretical reasons: if you are trying to convince someone to change the way they live their life, calling them evil is likely not especially productive. My first attempt to answer their question was to point out a series of incidents in the documentary: the defense lawyers and many locals attending the trials would routinely point out that these are radical animal rights activists coming in from California (the farm was in Ohio) to tell them how they should live their lives. They experienced the animal cruelty charges as an attack on their lifestyle. To an extent this is true. Afterall, most of the people in this community are farmers and all of them had come from farming families. Generations of their families had lived in this way. What they were doing - raising animals for slaughter - was completely normal to them as were the practices entailed in raising animals for slaughter. In effect, to accuse one of them of acting cruelly was to indict the entire community for being cruel and evil. This led the students to consider if evil was dependent upon one's standpoint: how could what they do seem evil to use but seem absolutely normal to them?
After this line of discussion, I tried pushing it a little further and asked them what would mean if the farmers - even the ones charged with animal cruelty - weren't evil. What if it is the system as a whole that is evil, but that the individuals themselves are not necessarily good or evil? The point here, in part, being that if they want to call the farmers evil and if they themselves eat meat, then there is a good chance that they are also evil. The students certainly didn't feel evil even though many of them ate meat, besides they would know - or so they thought - if they were evil or not.
I then pointed out that all of us have incredible capacities for violence and cruelty without even being aware that we are acting in violent and cruel ways. I told them about the Stanford prison experiment. The basic conclusion of the experiment is that so long as an authority is telling us to do it, we tend not to experience the action as evil or cruel. This, in turn, led to another unexpected development. A student who was Jewish - she had previously talked about kosher restrictions on her diet - said this sounded a lot like the Holocaust. I agreed with her that it did, but I didn't push the point. She went on to say that it was hard to call individual Germans evil and that it would be hard to distinguish between death camp guards and regular Germans, but that she also wanted to call the Holocaust as a whole one of the greatest evils ever perpetuated by humans against humans. I agreed with her: it is hard to say that every individual German suddenly became evil in 1933 and suddenly became normal again at the conclusion of the war. Given this, how are we to think about the Holocaust? Surely, we want to call it evil but doesn't that also mean that millions of regular, everyday Germans went into a decade long trance of ultimate evil and then came out as normal as ever? This hardly makes sense.
The conclusion they came to, it seems, is that we need to differentiate between "subjective evil" (the evil individual) and "objective evil" (the evil institution). People can operate within objective evil without themelves being subjectively evil. However, that does not mean that all people in an objectively evil system are more or less good - there are surely subjectively evil people too: those who derive a great deal of pleasure from cruelty. The advantage of this, they agreed, was that we could also talk about incidents of subjective evil admidst a generally objectively evil situation - Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka, for instance.
The question they unfortunately never raised was the relation between the objectively evil institution of the factory farm and the rest of society: without the factory farm, societies as they currently exist could not exist. In order to consume nearly 60 billion animals annually worldwide, it is necessary to produce animals under factory conditions. Does that mean that if our societies cannot exist without these objectively evil insitutions that we ourselves are all subjectively evil?