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.]
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.