Unmotivated Malice

Last night, I read the following line in Hegel’s Philosophy of Religion: “Among the Athenians the death penalty was exacted if one did not allow another person to light his lamp from one’s own, for one lost nothing by doing so.” The point of this legislation seems to be that a society cannot tolerate unmotivated malice, to which even simple selfishness is preferable.

When I was too tired to read anymore, I sat down to watch one of Kieślowski’s Decalogue films, which I have been slowly working through. I had passed through the bizarre film number 4 (with its incest theme) earlier in the afternoon and so turned to film number 5 — which turned out to be about a young man who, out of unmotivated malice, murders a taxi driver who is portrayed as having earlier acted with unmotivated malice. The murderer is then defended by a lawyer who regards the death penalty as unmotivated malice, an opinion that the onscreen portrayal of the execution seems to me to support.

(This juxtaposition was striking, but it doesn’t come close to the Law & Order episode that was apparently written by Agamben.)

6 thoughts on “Unmotivated Malice

  1. It’s perhaps too obvious to relate this to Augustine’s retelling of the Eden story in terms of his own childhood theft of pears: he did not want pears, didn’t like the pears, threw them away. But that didn’t stop him stealing them.

    It’s his conception of pure sin I think, setting up a completely free situation where we choose the evil for absolutely no reason. The fruit of original sin.

  2. I think you have to read the whole of Augustine’s story about the pears, because I think he’s actually being (typically) a total drama queen about his supposed “unmotivated malice” — maybe one of the other kids did it for that reason, but he confesses that he did it to be cool. It reminded me of a Nazarene kid who hadn’t really committed any serious sins but felt the need to spice up the conversion narrative.

  3. Impertinent young theologians: I have read the whole of the story. It may be that Augustine made the story up to provoke people, but he’s definitely ramming home the unmotivated bit of this. O’Donnell agrees – http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/jod/conf/frames2.html

    Interestingly, the question of whether you can understand someone’s motivation was crucial to understanding whether it was an example of mad violence or punishable violence in the nineteenth century. So Athens legislation was overturned and confirmed: unmotivated violence can no longer be punished, but becomes subject to administrative rules outside the law.

    Agamben again, dammit.

  4. I didn’t mean to accuse you of not having read the story, though that is what I ended up doing. What I mean is that I don’t think it makes sense to isolate that moment of the story, since he later talks himself down and says that he basically did it out of peer pressure.

  5. Chill: I think I must be using my techy font or something.

    Yes, he points out that he would not have done it on his own, but importantly does not say he desired anything his friends could give him: his pleasure was in the crime itself.

    So: Augustine and Adam and Eve were mad because their sin was unmotivated. Lock ’em up!

  6. In the case of Adam and Eve, especially Adam, the peer pressure aspect is even more obvious! Is “being like God” (what the serpent promises) not considered a benefit?

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