Can Evil be Measured by Scope?

In discussions about “evil,” the question of “scope” often arises. Can there be degrees of evilness? Consider Hitler and Stalin, who are both credited with the murders of tens of millions of innocent people. Should Stalin, who is blamed for more deaths than Hitler, be considered “more evil”?

It helps to sharpen the focus on this question by introducing another figure for comparison, that of Charles Manson. Like Hitler, Manson is often considered the embodiment of evil, an incarnation of the devil. Also like Hitler and Stalin, Charles Manson, said to possess tremendous charisma, was charged with “orchestrating” murders, as opposed to actually committing them himself. His motivations for the slayings were eventually discovered to be an apocalyptic paranoia and sense of superiority. By preaching his view to impressionable and idealistic sympathizers, he drew together a group of insiders (later known as the “Manson Family”) who blindly did his bidding. When it came time to kill, Manson simply had to give the order to his followers, who acted without question. Isn’t it eerie how these details of Manson’s story so closely resemble those of Hitler’s and Stalin’s?

And yet there are differences between the patriarch of the Manson Family and the “evil dictators.” For one thing, Manson was undereducated. He was homeless. And he was not the leader of a country or a political party. But the primary difference may be one of scope: in 1971, Manson was convicted of masterminding the murders of 9 people – just a tiny fraction of the number of lives Hitler is believed to have exterminated. Nine deaths, versus tens of millions – yet these two men are often referred to interchangeably as epitomizing evil.

What seems to unite Manson and Hitler in our minds as “evil incarnate” is not the number of people killed (the “how much”), but the degree of horror we experience over the nature of the killings (the “how”). When World War II drew to an end, people around the world were appalled and yet numbed by the overwhelming quantity of ghastly deaths – such a number that the unbearable details of each individual’s demise seemed to get swallowed up. In the case of the Manson Family crimes, public reaction was centered on the murder of a single victim, that of Sharon Tate, an actress who had been nine months pregnant at the time of her brutal death. That the murderers ignored her pleas for the life of her unborn child, writing the word “pig” on the door of her home in her own blood, exemplifies the type of disregard for human life that we can equate with Hitler’s indiscriminately bloodthirsty Final Solution. In comparing the crimes of Manson and Hitler, it seems that Sharon Tate emerges as an icon of blameless victimhood, her fate personifying the randomness of unfathomable malevolence.

I wonder if it is that “unfathomable” quality that provides the true link between Manson and Hitler, and which qualifies a person as “evil” in our minds.

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