Who Determines What Is Evil?

The following blog is an essay taken from Richard’s newest book titled, Reflections on the Existence of God. It is now available and is receiving very favorable reviews.

In this accessible read, Richard Simmons offers valuable insights for those grappling with life’s biggest questions.”

—ERIC METAXAS, #1 New York Times bestselling author and host of the nationally syndicated Eric Metaxas Radio Show


When I was a young boy, I remember seeing a movie on television about a true event that was the first big crime of the century (similar to the O.J. Simpson case). It was called the Leopold–Loeb case, and took place in the 1920s.

It involved two teenage boys, 18-year-old Richard Loeb, and his best friend, 17-year-old Nathan Leopold. Loeb was a smart young man and was fascinated with crimes and mysteries. His great desire was to commit the perfect crime. Leopold was equally intelligent and was headed to Harvard Law School, even though he was only 17. Leopard was fascinated with philosophy, particularly the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, and he believed that legal obligations didn’t apply to superior beings. And so, when Loeb discussed with him the possibility of trying to commit the perfect crime, he went along with it. They kidnapped a young boy in their neighborhood, and they bludgeoned him to death in the back of their car. They took him to a site and they poured acid all over him, so he wouldn’t be recognizable, and dumped him. They eventually were caught, and finally confessed.

Their families were very wealthy and hired the top legal team in the country, headed by Clarence Darrow. Mr. Darrow employed a brilliant legal strategy that saved them from the death sentence. His main argument to the jury (right out of the transcript of the trial):

“Is there any blame attached because somebody took Nietzsche’s philosophy seriously and fashioned his life on it? Your honor, it’s hardly fair to hang a 19-year-old boy for the philosophy that was taught him at the University.”

In other words, he was saying that you can’t execute these young men for following the teaching they received in college. They had followed Nietzsche’s godless worldview, and it had become the foundation of their thinking. Darrow’s argument prevailed, and they were not executed. Another way to consider this is to think of Adolf Hitler, whose life was profoundly impacted by Nietzsche’s writings. If you were given the opportunity to challenge Hitler face to face and confront him with the great evil of slaughtering millions of innocent people, he would have responded that there is nothing wrong with these actions, and that they are for the common good of the human race. This strikes at the heart of the nature of morality. Hitler would appeal to the logic of his worldview. He believed that the survival of the fittest is a fact of nature, and he was being consistent with that fact. He clearly believed he was improving the human race by ridding society of inferior beings (the Jews) and creating a master race. He believed there was nothing immoral in what he was doing. If you are an atheist, how do you respond to this logic? It is important to know that this is not just hypothetical reasoning on my part; this is what Hitler actually believed. On October 10, 1941, Hitler stated:

“Today war is nothing but a struggle for the riches of nature. By virtue of an inherent law, these riches belong to him who conquers them… That’s in accordance with the laws of nature. By means of the struggle, the elites are continually renewed. The law of selection justifies this incessant struggle, by allowing the survival of the fittest. Christianity is a rebellion against natural law, a protest against nature. Taken to its logical extreme, Christianity would mean the systematic cultivation of the human failure.”

In order to influence the German people’s worldview, Hitler ordered that a propaganda film be produced and shown in German movie theaters. In the film, there is a psychiatric institution with a narrator who declares:

“Wherever fate puts us, whatever station we must occupy, only the strong will prevail in the end. Everything in the natural world that is weak for life will ineluctably be destroyed. In the last few decades, mankind has sinned terribly against the law of natural selection. We haven’t just maintained life unworthy of life; we have even allowed it to multiply! The descendants of these sick people look like this!”

It was not surprising that three years later, after the film had been released, the German mental institutions began gassing to death thousands of innocent patients. It is quite clear that, apart from a transcendent lawgiver, there is no real basis for moral law other than the law of the jungle. As the celebrated atheist Richard Dawkins has put it:

“This is one of the hardest lessons for humans to learn. We cannot admit that things might be neither good nor evil, neither cruel nor kind, but simply callous—indifferent to all suffering, lacking all purpose.”

What is most interesting is, after Germany lost the war, the German Nazi leaders were put on trial at Nuremberg. As the Nuremberg trials began, questions arose over what laws should be used to judge the Nazis. Before the trial began, the Allies had prepared a Charter Tribunal consisting of the rules of procedure, the rules of evidence, and the laws under which the Nazis would be prosecuted. The Nazi defendants claimed that they were being tried by ex post facto laws, and several authorities in international law criticized the Allied judges for the same reasons. The Nazis on trial logically appealed to the fact that they consistently followed the mandates of their country and government and that their actions were in obedience to the laws in effect at the time. They argued that they could not be convicted simply because their behavior deviated from the contrary value system of their conquerors. The chief prosecutor for the United States at the Nuremberg trials, Robert H. Jackson, appealed to permanent, transcultural values. He appealed to a law beyond the law, a universal law. He said that a system of ethics must point beyond itself—it has to be transcendental, and its basis cannot rest within the finite world. Otherwise, how could one, in good faith, say that the Nazis were wrong in their actions?


Richard E Simmons III is the founder and Executive Director of The Center for Executive Leadership and a best-selling author.