Thursday, May 24, 2007

The Evil Competition: Nazis and Communists

Stephen Browne has an interesting post , distributed as a column by The Atlasphere, that wonders why Nazis are the epitome of evil while the Soviets and Communist Chinese have body counts that are orders of magnitude larger. Hitler is the ultimate way to call some one evil, but Stalin, Lenin, or Mao are not. This is something that I have wondered myself. I am disgusted by the college students I see wearing t-shirts with Che, Mao, or Lenin on them. Are they just stupid and ignorant or something much worse?

I posted a comment to Stephen Browne's blog along the following lines (I forgot to copy and paste it and the comment is awaiting approval, so I am rewriting from memory).

I wonder if part of the reason that the Nazis are seen as worse, as more evil, than the Soviets, etc., is the systematic, methodical plan to kill entire races of people. The communists had their camps and mass executions, but they generally only murdered their perceived enemies and those that were deemed beyond 'rehabilitation' or 'reeducation'. They didn't target, to my knowledge, people solely because they were Jewish, gay, gypsie, etc.

Another aspect of this is that the Nazis had no qualms about murdering children. They actively targeted and killed children of all ages. (1.5 million Jewish children were murdered by the Nazi's during the Shoah). To my knowledge, the communists usually didn't target children for execution. (not to imply that children weren't murdered by the Soviets/Chinese/etc.)

I think for many people in comparing the Nazis with the Soviets/Chinese/etc. considerations of intentions and goals are trumping the body counts.

Ultimately, both the Nazis and Communists were and are evil. There is a certain point where trying to make distinctions like "more evil" no longer makes sense.

12 comments:

JohnJEnright said...

I think that's a good point about the futility of distinguishing degrees at the Hitler v. Stalin level. Carried on too long it starts sounding like a macabre version of one of those sports debates, like: who is the best first baseman of all time.

Shannon Chamberlain said...

I think that the Soviets did engage in some mass purges of ethnic groups. The Cossacks come to mind. One might argue that it's a different sort of case--the Cossacks did engage in some active resistance to the Bolsheviks--but certainly not all of the Cossacks did, and all of the Cossacks were branded as enemies of the revolution. In this, I think it's more like the Nazi purge of the Jews: the Jews were also represented as the enemies of the Reich for concrete reasons relating to a status as "enemy." Crazy reasons, mind you, but reasons.

Shawn said...

I don't know the extent of the anti-Cossack activity in Soviet Russia. I am not surprised to hear that the Soviets went after ethnic groups. (They weren't exactly friendly to the Jews.) My point was not to exonerate Soviets from any ethnic mass murdering (far from it), but to try explain the perception of the Nazis as more evil because of the latter's explicit racist ideology tied to a systematic genocidal program.

Robert Poe said...

I think that there are many points that need to be cleared up before a proper conversation on the topic can proceed:

1) Why is any group, or individuals acting as part of said group, considered the "epitome of evil?" Did not many of the Nazi trials reveal that in most instances we weren't face-to-face with insane psychopaths but with military officers following orders. This is not to say that the actions carried out by the Nazis weren't outright horrid, but these were not Satan's minions made flesh. An excellent essay on this topic is written by Hannah Arendt entitled Eichmann in Jerusalem. For her, this notion of evil is a banal one.

2) Stalin, Lenin, Che and Mao are all distinctly different figures and must each be handled individually in a comparison with the atrocities of Hitler and the Nazi regime. By lumping these figures together, you simply appear to be attempting at making the argument that Communism is bad. The problem though is that each of these figures attempted to embody Communism in different ways. Yes millions died as a result of starvation in Maoist China; Stalin was a ruthless dictator, though arguably hardly a Communist given his abandonment of many Marxist economic practices; Che was assassinated by the CIA, abandoned by Castro, in one of Cuba's many attempts to support revolutionary movements in oppressed countries; and Lenin was the figurehead of the violent Communist revolution (in a country that Marxism was destined to fail by Marx's very own theory -- it was too poor and underdeveloped, Marx always imagined it in Britain), though his health failed shortly thereafter and his death followed quickly.

The point here is that Communism as a theory of government as developed from Marxism does not advocate (and actually advocates the capabilities of all people) the extermination of anyone. A constituent feature of Nazism that separates it from merely being Fascism is its explicit adherence to principles of racial superiority and extermination.

Yes, Stalinist Russia was a horrible historical period, as were many aspects of Maoist China. Yet your declaration that Communism is evil does not follow.

What of the horrid conditions that maintain present-day neoliberal capitalism around the world? There might be some "note-worthy" statistics there.

Definitely an interesting topic, thanks for posting.

Shawn said...

I was not trying to make an argument that Communism was evil; I was assuming it. The point, after all, was to compare two evils. I have no need to make an argument for such an obvious conclusion about a politico-economic system that denies basic liberties and rights to those within its borders. Communism may not argue explicitly for the extermination of racial or ethnic groups (that's just a nice afterthought in most communist regimes), but Communism's goal is to destroy the individual qua individual. The capabilities of individuals, developed (in theory at least) yes, but alienated from the individual's own ends and goals and put to socially determined uses. Whether by firing squad or planned starvation, the intent and goal were the same: murder of those who were not going to be put to socially determined uses.

I sometimes wonder what the body count is for countries that have governments that are, more or less, restricted to the protection of the individual rights from the violent invasion of others and have economic systems that suffer the "horrid" conditions of greater technological innovation, upward mobility, and wealth creation. One must imagine that they are on par with governments that routinely murder those with in its borders. (apologies, but sarcasm is sometimes the only way to deal with such an absurd claim)

Robert Poe said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Shawn said...

I deleted the prior comment. My blog is not a discussion or debate forum. I welcome comments, but I will not allow commentators to use my blog as a platform for ideas that are not only wrong, but when put into practice cause suffering and death.

Shawn said...

Some people just don't quit. Comment moderation is now turned on.

The Yangist said...

"There is a certain point where trying to make distinctions like 'more evil' no longer makes sense."

Maybe not, but consider such a ranking for all moral persons. And say, statistically, it likened to a function of the sort [(10/((sqrt{X+1})/(X+1))], where X measures a quantity of evil performed and Y measures the goodness of a person.

If such a task was feasible, it would not be so interesting (as you say) to note the amount of evil two people commit and say how much more evil one person is compared to another (since the difference would be minuscule farther along the X axis), and then see how someone might be even more evil than the likes you mention.

However, it would be interesting to make such a comparison to see who is less evil, and then cite the correlative characteristics of the people and their actions that correspond to a greater amount of goodness. If we are able to arrive at some "function for evil," then it seems like an interesting venture to see what would happen if we took comparative evils and worked backwards. Think of it as tracing backward along the X axis until we reach some sort of maximum Virtue (where X is zero and Y is 10, according to the hypothetical model I gave).

Anyway, I thought that might be of some vague interest... Good going on the new job. You were a great adviser over the years, so I'm sure you'll be a great lecturer, as well.

Shawn said...

Thanks for the comment. Interesting, but I think a function to define moral rankings is not the way to go. I don't think these things are quantifiable and so I don't think they can be expressed within a mathematical function or graph.

Even so, I am also not sure what the point would be. After all, the tough guestions would have to be answered before the formula could even be used. In order to define the quality of Y, we already have to know the "characteristics of the people and their actions that correspond to a greater amount of goodness." So the formula couldn't really tell us anything about a person's goodness or their wickedness: we know these going in.

The Yangist said...

"I don't think these things are quantifiable and so I don't think they can be expressed within a mathematical function or graph."

Perhaps not, though I would be willing to conduct such an experiment solely for the prospect of gaining a clearer understanding of how ethics functions normatively and metaethically.

This also means that I sacrifice much of the philosophical end of ethics in favor of a more scientific approach to the matter. And so I would argue that this thought experiment could be assessed as a legitimate experiment, with proper controls and error-checking.

"Even so, I am also not sure what the point would be. After all, the tough guestions would have to be answered before the formula could even be used."

This is exactly right. An experiment like one I propose could be executed in an effort to answer questions of normative ethics and metaethics, but performing the experiment would rely heavily on all sorts of background assumptions, like the following:

1.) Large data pools of moral judgments made by many people about multiple historical figures can offer insight into the elements that construct moral judgment.

2.) Large data pools of moral judgments made by many people about multiple historical figures can be averaged to estimate their overall value of a relative function that one can graph on Cartesian coordinates.

4.) The data pools and quantity of historical figures assessed offers a reliable statistical trend.

5.) Once plotted, we can relate any two figures in two sets whose members are the totalities of each historical figures' respective actions. From there, we can judge the intersect of the sets among proximal historical figures as more relevant data for causes of moral judgment, while rejecting the intersects among distal historical figures as less relevant to moral judgments.

Well, it seems now that I have proposed a rather huge and elaborate project in need of many more specifications and methods for adequate experimentation.

But what's more interesting to me about what I have now proposed is that success with such an experiment may ruin the philosophical study of ethics by reducing it to a conjunctive study of sociology, neurobiology, psychology, and history, to name the ones that stand out the most.

"In order to define the quality of Y, we already have to know the 'characteristics of the people and their actions that correspond to a greater amount of goodness.' So the formula couldn't really tell us anything about a person's goodness or their wickedness: we know these going in.

Not exactly. We only know a large collection of moral judgments about certain people (Stalin, Hitler, etc.) given by certain people. We would arrive at information about what makes people good or evil by contrast with other figures who our subjects have judged. As the data becomes larger, the pool of relations between judged figures {j(1)...j(n)} becomes larger, and so what actions that are shared among agents closer together on the developed "function of evil" as opposed to those who are farther apart determines what actions can more likely be attributed to more evil or more goodness. In the scenario I propose, we are only using evil and goodness descriptively. What goodness and evil are becomes clearer with the acquirement of sufficient data.

But I'll just have to leave it at conjecture unless I am willing to dedicate the time to produce a more scientifically rigorous proposal for a "morality experiment."

Shawn said...

It would be an interesting sociological project, but I do not think that it would tell us about ethics. It would tell us what people believe about right/wrong/good/evil, but it wouldn't make the question of what makes something right or evil any clearer.

As you said, the terms would be descriptive only: what a hundred thousand folks have identified as good, worthwhile, etc. This doesn't tell us at all about whether that activity is good. Some 70% of Muslim Arabs in the Middle East think (according to some polls) that suicide bombing is an acceptable act of defending Islam. These judgments about right and wrong can indicate a lot of different things, but they don't indicate that something is right or wrong/good or evil.