If there are greater and lesser degrees of goodness, there must also be greater and lesser degrees of evil.
As people strain to understand the evil of Bernard Madoff, it is clear to most that there must be a special circle in Hell reserved for him.
When we think of supreme evil we often think of serial killers, mass murderers, and genocidal maniacs.
And yet, Dante saw evil differently. Those whom he placed in the ninth circle of Hell, the worst of the worst, are traitors, people who betray a sacred trust.
Those consigned for eternity to live in the mouth of Satan are Judas, Brutus, and Cassius. They all betrayed leaders who symbolized secular and religious community.
Taking a life is one thing; taking many lives is exponentially worse. Yet, destroying the basis for community is worse yet.
From the newspaper, "The Jewish Forward" comes the following judgment of Madoff: "The loss of money and trust has dealt Jewish philanthropy-- a pillar of American philanthropy-- a blow from which it will not recover soon." Another person active in that world commented: "He has savaged Jewish civil society for a decade." Link here.
And an article in "The New York Post" shows that among those who suffered the most from Madoff's perfidy were his closest friends, his intimates. Madoff had no problem preying on the vulnerability of people he knew the best. Link here.
Look at it this way. Can you imagine sitting down to lunch with someone you are defrauding out of his life savings?
We all feel hate and anger; in some situations they are a necessary way to defend ourselves. In others, the heat of passion gets the better of us and we can see ourselves committing evil actions. And yet, who among us can even imagine stooping to the level of depravity required to do what Madoff did?
Perhaps the supreme evil is an evil that is simply unimaginable... to the point where it feels that the person who commits it is not a human being, but a monster.
In this context some writers have commented that Madoff was surely worse than a criminal. At least with a criminal you know what he is and you can take measures to defend yourself. The same applies to your sworn mortal enemies. These people are less evil than Madoff because they never pretend to be anything other than what they are.
Remember that Brutus and Cassius where confidants of Caesar. They owed their exalted positions to Caesar. Judas, as you know, betrayed Christ right after participating in a Passover seder with him.
Some people will recoil at these religious references. They prefer psychiatric categories like psychopath and sociopath.
The problem is: when you introduce a psychiatric label the next question is whether the person is curable.
When it comes to Madoff that is surely not the question. The larger ethical issue is whether he should be forgiven.
In one of the most prominent systems of ethical thought, Christianity, there is one sin that can never be forgiven. That is, blaspheming the Holy Spirit.
Obviously, Christian ethics is about forgiveness of sins. How does it happen that there is a sin that even God cannot forgive?
The theologians have spend some serious time pondering this question. Augustine, for example, declared that blaspheming the Holy Spirit denotes chronic impenitence. A man who is unwilling to repent his sins can never be forgiven. If you are not contrite, if you do not ask for forgiveness, then it cannot be given.
This is consistent with the notion that penitence applies best to people who have committed evil acts in a fit of rage, out of weakness or out of ignorance. When you are not in your right mind you might commit an action that does not represent your character or your virtue.
Can the concept of penitence apply to someone who looked his best friends in the eye, sat down to have lunch with them, and the defrauded them of everything they had?
Should Bernard Madoff be forgiven?
Here, the answer must be negative. If you have seen the clips of Madoff returning home after his court appearance, you have probably noticed a slight, but perceptible, smirk on his face.
That smirk tells us that Madoff feels nothing but contempt for the bonds of trust that he, whether singly or with others, has destroyed.