There is no evil. Do an inventory of this planet and you will find no living, breathing, menacing evil. There is just human behavior, in all its self-serving short-sightedness. Evil is a concept, a reification of an observed pattern. It is a useful semantic short-cut to flag dangerous (as in “unsafe”) people. But there is no evil per se.
The topic of evil has been a long-standing interest of mine and this writing is to acknowledge that a major cultural milestone has been reached in the discussion of evil. Read Simon-Baron Cohen’s “The Science of Evil” or at least a review of it by NY Times.
Much of what I have been blogging and writing about has been focused on compassion and forgiveness. As I see it, all human behavior breaks down to two elements of psychology: motive and effort. Motive is universal: we are all pursuing wellbeing, moving from minus to plus, operating – at core – on the pleasure principle. So, in this sense, we are all motivationally-innocent. No evil here. Just living. Effort-wise, we are all doing the best we can at any given moment in time. Of course, one’s best is safe and beneficial to others but another’s best is dangerous and even possibly sadistic. Why is that?
Because we are all different. If something is organically amiss in your brain – say, you are under-stimulated – or, if something is culturally amiss in your mind – say, you haven’t been conditioned for and reinforced for empathic behavior – then, of course, your pursuit of wellbeing is likely to be zero-sum, i.e. happening at the expense of someone else’s wellbeing. That’s life: we can only operate on the variables at hand.
So, we are motivationally innocent. And effort-wise we are all doing the best we can (even if it sucks and hurts someone in the process). No evil here either, just the reality of modern-day jungle. Does this mean that we have to open up the jails and let everyone out? Of course, not. As a society, we have to stay safe from those who are unsafe. As a society, we have to protect ourselves against those who – for reasons of nature, nurture, or both – are unable to pursue their wellbeing within the cultural-legal parameters. But as a civilization, we don’t have to demonize the less empathic of us as “evil.”
The concept of evil, as I see it, is the only evil. [And I don’t even mean that really. Why have we reified painful human behavior into the concept of “evil”? Because that’s what the mind does: it tracks patterns and organizes them and labels them for ease of reference. So, even the concept of “evil” isn’t really evil.]
You might be thinking: “Who is this naïve guy?” Good question. A reader of mine will know that I respect all identity-questions as valid jump-off points into self-knowledge. Indeed, what are my “exposure credentials” or “credentials of suffering” to be asserting that there is no evil? Have I suffered enough in my life for you to take my point seriously? You judge:
- Grew up in the Soviet Union, with my family hiding our partial Jewish background to safeguard us from the Soviet antisemitism. [it didn’t feel like evil, just as a reality to adapt to]
- 2 years in the Soviet military which is notorious for its hazing cruelty. [it didn’t feel like evil, just as a reality to adapt to]
- Soviet military – compulsory – at that time was akin to slavery* [you are made/culturally forced to do what you wouldn't do otherwise] [it didn't feel like evil, just a cultural reality to survive]
- A few years in the Perestroika Russia: been mugged a few times during those wild times. [it didn’t feel like evil, just as a reality to survive]
- Worked in the American jail [saw no evil there either, just human beings that I could relate to, pursuing their wellbeing the best way they knew how, some hoping to improve, some still too defended to broaden their survival tactics; but once again, no evil].
There’s been more but it’s, of course, all small potatoes. This brief autobiographical foray is here to preempt righteous moralizing from a reader that will tout his or her suffering credentials instead of participating in a tactful discussion of the utility of the concept of evil.
In sum, I wish to issue a round of reading applause to Dr. Cohen for a brave, gutsy, well-thought and coherent challenge to the concept of “evil.” Evil – if there is such a thing-less thing – is nothing other than lack of empathy, a deficit to try remediate (say, through empathy-training), not some dark, demonic force lurking within us; evil is a limitation to empathize with and to protect yourself from, not a reason to exclude a fellow human being from the sphere of our compassion.
*Slave is a historically Slavic concept: slave (n). circa 1290, “person who is the property of another,” from O.Fr. esclave, from M.L. Sclavus “slave” (cf. It. schiavo, Fr. esclave, Sp. esclavo), originally “Slav,” so called because of the many Slavs sold into slavery by conquering peoples. [source: www.etymonline.com]
Last reviewed: 2 Oct 2012