The nature of evil

In our current angst over terrorism and extremism, I think it is important to understand the motivation of the agents behind the evil acts if we are ever to remedy the situation. The observable element of evil (actus reus) is the harm done to innocent individuals. However, in order to prevent evil acts, we must understand the motivation behind the evil (mens rea). The Radiolab podcast “The Bad Show” gives an excellent survey of the possible varieties of evil. I will categorize evil into three types, each with increasing global impact. The first is the compulsion or desire within an individual to harm another. This is what motivates serial killers like the one described in the show. Generally, such evilness will be isolated and the impact will be limited albeit grisly. The second is related to what philosopher Hannah Arendt called “The Banality of Evil.” This is an evil where the goal of the agent is not to inflict harm per se as in the first case but in the process of pursuing some other goal, there is no attempt to avoid possible harm to others. This type of sociopathic evil is much more dangerous and widespread as is most recently seen in Volkswagen’s fraudulent attempt to pass emission standards. Although there are sociopathic individuals that really have no concern for others, I think many perpetrators in this category are swayed by cultural norms or pressures to conform. The third type of evil is when the perpetrator believes the act is not evil at all but a means to a just and noble end. This is the most pernicious form of evil because when it is done by “your side” it is not considered evil. For example, the dropping of atomic bombs on Japan was considered to be a necessary sacrifice of a few hundred thousand lives to end WWII and save many more lives.

I think it is important to understand that the current wave of terrorism and unrest in the Middle East is motivated by the third type. Young people are joining ISIS not because they particularly enjoy inflicting harm on others or they don’t care how their actions affect others, but because they are rallying to a cause they believe to be right and important. Many if not most suicide bombers come from middle class families and many are women. They are not merely motivated by a promise of a better afterlife or by a dire economic situation as I once believed. They are doing this because they believe in the cause and the feeling that they are part of something bigger than themselves. The same unwavering belief and hubris that led people to Australia fifty thousand years ago is probably what motivates ISIS today. They are not nihilists as many in the west believe. They have an entirely different value system and they view the west as being as evil as the west sees them. Until we fully acknowledge this we will not be able to end it.


One thought on “The nature of evil

  1. I think this is already included in second type—eg volkswagon—-but one sees this also when say, a wilderness area with endangered species, indigenous people etc. is decided to be worth sacrificing to build a luxury resort, golf course, maybe a ranch (eg current oregon case), some monoculture plantation (palm oil, maybe cocaine…). Hawaiins recently blocked consruction of a telescope on a traditional cultural site. Or, when it is decided that putting resources into poverty stricken areas is seen as less important than building casinos, luxury hotels, cultural institutions, funding nasa etc. Current debates over GMO foods, and animal experimentation, and even climate change science, is driven by science and social welfare interests, or is more just inerests of ‘mad scientists’. Some times of course as in african game parks frequented by wealthy tourists, one can argue revenue generated will at least partly go to deal with these issues. Some wealthy people devote fortunes to culture, science, and the environment—the ‘robber barons’.. Universities once were founded and funded by people involved in the slave trade.

    I’m not sure if one can really also seperate the 3 kinds above (besides knowing exactly what is evil—eg settling of the USA ‘by any means neccesary’). It seems almost a matter of scale—one ‘pathological individual’ like a mass murderer may just ‘self-similar’ to a collective — and as in physics, a ‘collective mode’ made of individual particles may itself be viewed as a ‘quasi’particle.
    Same in biology—alot of people see the earth, societies, ecosystems, etc. as ‘superorganisms—- with analogues of DNA such as memes or other self-replicating and organizing properties. Some, mostly radical sorts or fiction writers, also see human society as ‘evil’ or as ‘diseases’ on the earth, as many would say about isis.


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