Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Do the wicked prosper?

Our moral sensibilities can be sometimes rattled by the thought that wicked people prosper. We may even express a nihilistic execration that things are not right with the world, that there is something fundamentally wrong with the way things are. But do the wicked prosper? I don't mean to ask, do any wicked people ever prosper, since there are numerous examples of wicked persons prospering, but rather do we see a general pattern of wicked people frequently prospering.

I think the appeal of this idea is clear. I remember reading that there was a turn in pre-Christian Jewish theology, when a philosophy of apocalypticism rose to prominence. The problem faced was, how could a just God permit the world to be so bad? The answer was: we're only in a transition period before the apocalypse. Evil powers now rule, but after the apocalypse, good will reassume power and things will be hunky dory. That's apocalypticism in a nutshell, or at least one version of it. This leads to the assumption, that if evil powers are ruling, anyone who is in power is therefore evil. And it also can lead to the inverse assumption, that if you aren't successful, it's because you're a good person, a good concession prize if your life is constant struggle and you're barely subsisting and enduring trying conditions. Correlatively, if we comfort ourselves by saying that we aren't as successful as we'd like to be, because we're not willing to compromise our values. Those who are successful have compromised their values and are thus bad people. In other words, it's a good way to deal with envy of the successful, by denigrating them and lifting oneself up higher.

Still, I want to know, do the wicked prosper? Now, when I think wicked, two models come to mind: terrible murderous political or military leaders and serial killers. If we focus on serial killers first, we notice that they generally are not models of prosperity. Go through the rolls of known serial killers and you will find lots of people with low pay, low skills job, who are poorly educated and not terribly well off. There are admittedly famous aristocratic serial killers, like Elizabeth Báthory and Gilles de Rais, but these aren't models of success, rather examples of people born into wealth. There are exceptions of course. H H Holmes comes to mind, a man who lied, cheated and stole considerable wealth in his short life, in addition to killing a whole bunch of people. Of course, that he died at 35 should remind us that this is a risky line of work and not one we should pursue if we want to retire. Admittedly, not all serial killers are low class, but even some examples of doctors who prey on their patients, don't really strike us as models of success. I think the reason is simple: their consuming desire to gratify this murderous appetite eclipses the possibility of success. One theory of the identity of Jack the Ripper is that it is Walter Sickert, the British Impressionist painter, but to imagine that one could maintain a career as a skilled painter and still have time for multiple killings without being caught, seems like a lot to do (admittedly there are many other more serious problems with the Sicker-Ripper theory, but I leave that to others).

If we now focus on evil leaders, they of course are successful. By definition, as people who have attained to a prominent enough position to lead many other people, they are successful. The question is, are they successful because they are wicked, or rather wicked because they are successful? Power is known to corrupt--it provides temptations, and provide the freedom to indulge in desires that may have previously been barred. Thus, many wicked leaders may simply become wicked by their success. The wickedness doesn't help them succeed. And again, so far as they indulge their desires, it again must be a hindrance to further success.

And I think we also tend to overestimate the wickedness of evil leaders. Hitler may have killed millions, but a) he never did it himself and b) he did it out of a desire to actualize certain ideals for Germany, to contribute to its greatness. To accomplish something as terrible as the Holocaust requires a great many wicked people, of which Hitler is only one. Yet, I find H. H. Holmes, to be a far more wicked person. He killed people himself, he enjoyed it, took pleasure in it, liked to make people suffer, and he did it for no high ideal, but merely for the pleasure of it.

The qualities that make a person successful are things like determination, commitment, cleverness, resilience, self-control, interpersonal skills. Insofar as one's wickedness may undermine relations with others, insofar as one's wickedness involves indulging in twisted desires, and insofar as one's wickedness puts one on the wrong side of law, it certain must be more of a hindrance than an asset. Admittedly, there are wicked people that do prosper, which may still upset us, but it is more the exception than the rule.

1 comment:

بهروز said...

Dear, I read your article. I live in Iran where being wicked is a must to get to the high positions in the government. Ahmadinezhad and most of his cabinet membersis are very good examples.During Khomeini's time a huge number of political prisoners were shot dead or hanged in Evin prison. I don't know the word in English but there is always someone who shoots the final bullet at the head of those who were sentenced to death. Ahmadinezhad is boasting that he has been the guy to do this ( and for political prisoners only ) more than 4000 times. His cabinet members are among the most tricky and wicked people you can ever imagine. And yet they are quite "successful" in life. I believe in God as a necessity but I don't beleive in him ruling the world or capable of correcting what happens here. Just visit Iran, see the "God's representatives" on Earth and you will reconsider many facts you might beleive in at present.