Purpose, the true perpetrator of evil

Hitler had a higher purpose. He believed that he was placed on this this earth to pull the Aryan race out of the dirt and put it in its rightful place; above everyone else. He believed that it was his job—his role, his duty—to resurrect the German state, to be the harbinger of Teuton greatness. Unfortunately, he was mistaken. Hitler wasn’t on some God-decreed mission. He was deluded, caught up in the tendrils of his own imagined importance, and the terrible cost of these mistaken assumptions had to be borne by the world. Similarly, you and I think that we have a higher purpose. We craft compelling stories that lend meaning to our existence and cling to them despite all contrary evidence. We tell ourselves that we are here to do X, that everyone is here for a reason, some reason. 

If we ignore the debate concerning the truth of such beliefs we can ask ourselves, “What are the consequences of this mode of thinking?” The answer, as ever, is complicated. Undoubtedly, purpose has utility. It is one of the only class of beliefs that consistently allows us to go beyond ourselves. The individual who is sincerely invested—via belief—in a higher purpose transcends himself, transcends his humanity. Belief in our purpose makes it possible for us to bear individual cost in the name of collective gain, to sacrifice ourselves in some ways for others. But such a stance, as well as enabling us to commit good deeds, also enables us to become perpetrators of evil.

Early on in the The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich the author, William Shirer, describes the birth of Hitler’s purpose. It came, according to Shirer, as a consequence of a belief in heroism, greatness and mastery. He cites certain passages of Friedrich Nietschze’s work…

“The strong men, the masters, regain the pure conscience of a beast of pray; monsters filled with joy, they can return from a fearful succession of murder, arson, rape and torture with the same joy in their hearts, the same contentment in their souls as if they had indulged in some student’s rag . . . When a man is capable of commanding, when he is by nature a “Master,” when he is violent in act and gesture, of what importance are treaties to him? . . . To judge morality properly, it must be replaced by two concepts borrowed from zoology: the taming of a beast and the breeding of a specific species.”

​…and describes how they formed the foundation of Hitler’s worldview:

“Such teachings, carried to their extremity by Nietzsche and applauded by a host of lesser Germans, seem to have exerted a strong appeal on Hitler. A genius with a mission was above the law; he could not be bound by “bourgeois” morals. Thus, when his time for action came, Hitler could justify the most ruthless and cold-blooded deeds, the suppression of personal freedom, the brutal practice of slave labor, the depravities of the concentration camp, the massacre of his own followers in June 1934, the killing of war prisoners and the mass slaughter of the Jews.”

It was Hitler’s purpose—multiplied by his inherent insecurities and cruelty—that allowed him to commit such terrible crimes. His purpose, steered by his savage tendencies, was the engine that propelled him onwards, into and beyond the realms of inhumanity. 

Of course, you and I are not Hitlers. But with a strong enough sense of purpose? With an unbreakable, unchallengeable belief in some imagined mission? We may not get close to imitating the dictator of the Third Reich, but we can certainly creep up the spectrum, away from good and towards evil. See, the primary virtue of purpose is also its primary vice: purpose allows us to endure pain and suffering for the good of others, but it also allows us to inflict the former in the name of the latter. On the wings of purpose, we can soar above ourselves. But the undertaking of such a flight also leads us to leave behind simple human qualities like kindness, compassion, generosity, goodness and gratitude. So do not trust to purpose. Use it, but do not rely on it. Do not come to depend on it because, like the chains of habit, it is a heavy yoke to throw off.