Can the pursuit of a world devoid of evil be itself an act of evil? Yes, and that means that were the pursuit successful, it would result in the elimination of the source of that pursuit. In a possible world in which an evil person or group of persons can bring about the end of evil, that individual or group will also meet its end.
In order to eliminate something, one first needs to identify the thing to be eliminated. To eliminate the pests eating the tomatoes in my garden, I have to know what the pests are, and only then take appropriate measures. Things can go wrong. I might misidentify the pest, and do harm to a beneficial insect, for example, as a result. I might correctly identify the pest, and still inflict collateral damage to other organisms, including myself.
In “Four O’Clock,” Oliver Crangle attempts to eliminate evil. However, it is clear to everyone other than Oliver Crangle that he has failed to identify evil, though the failure is not due to a lack of effort on his part. Crangle has amassed a database of information about people in his community. As he describes his practice to an FBI agent, he describes how he works each entry: “I compile them, investigate them, analyse them, categorize them, and I judge them.”
In spite of his apparently voluminous and exhaustive research, Crangle gets it wrong. He identifies individuals as evil who are not. This is immediately clear in his first telephone call, where he “reports” someone as a communist. Crangle is a Joseph McCarthy clone, accusing others of subversion, espionage, and treason through intimidation, fear, hearsay, based on an indefensible political agenda grounded by an extreme ideology. But Crangle casts a wider net than McCarthy. He accuses a physician of malpractice based on a single data point in his possession.
The first problem is that Crangle makes incorrect moral judgments based because he makes incorrect empirical judgments. Malpractice can, in some cases, be a moral wrong, but only when one has committed it. Even if being a member of a certain political group could be a moral wrong, judging someone as morally wrong for membership in that group requires sufficient evidence that the individual is in fact a member of that group.
A second problem has to do with the way Crangle compiles, investigates, analyzes, categorizes and judges. He carries out these activities in complete isolation from other investigators. His only companion, a fitting one, is his parrot. Although he compiles information that is publicly available, there is no check on Crangle’s research and the conclusions he draws from them. Although he is challenged during his accusatory phone calls, he flatly rejects them outright, and issues his claims and associated threats. Were Crangle to take these critiques seriously, everyone would be better served.
Crangle’s isolation is the root of a third problem, and that has to do with the actions Crangle takes in response to his moral judgments. It’s one thing to determine that someone has transgressed morality or the law. It’s another to determine what to do about it. As Thomas Scanlon notes, these are two dimensions of our notion of blame. Our responses to moral transgressions are just as open to moral evaluation as the actions they respond to. Crangle’s initial responses to perceived moral wrongs are acts of threat and intimidation. Since he is acting alone, he doesn’t get the benefit of wise council about appropriate responses or cooperation in carrying them out. Ultimately, Crangle decides that all evil-doers should get the same punishment. His choice, which he claims he will carry out by a mere act of his will at four o’clock, is to reduce all evil-doers to two feet in stature. This is perhaps something God could do, but not something a just God would do.
A just response to an evil act takes into account the nature of the act it responds to. Crangle’s single response to all evil acts would not be just. Categorizing acts as evil or wrong doesn’t tell us much. Is something wrong because it has done someone else harm, or, can an act be wrong evil where no harm results? Just as their are many varieties of goodness, there are different “bads,” and no single response to all of them could make sense. And what is the goal of punishment? Is it to prevent harm, to extract revenge, to seek retribution or something else? These are questions that occupy moral philosophers, particularly those interested in the relationship between morality and the law.
“Four O’Clock” shows us that exacting justice is not a solo affair, that someone who thinks that they occupy the position of judge, jury, and jailer is seriously misguided. Of course, anyone who thinks that they can play all three of these roles alone is also mistaken, unless one is omnipotent and omniscient. Crangle’s illness amounts to his delusion that he is omnipotent, omniscient, and without evil. He’s in for a surprise.
Hampton, Jean, “Correcting Harms versus Righting Wrongs: The Goal of Retribution”, University of California Los Angeles Law Review, 39: 1659–1702.
Scanlon, Thomas, Moral Dimensions: Permissibility, Meaning, Blame, Harvard University Press, 2009. See Chapter 4, “Blame.”