Continuing my series of RAQs (Rhetorically Asked Questions) on evil’s nature and origins. Let’s move on to some of the other big questions.
Where does evil come from?
Nah, for serious, almost every culture associates evil with the supernatural and most have a sort of mastermind who either created Evil or introduced it into the world. Major mythological players include: Ahriman (Zoroaster’s “bad god”), Abaddon (Hebrew demon), Iblis (Islamic devil), Pandora (Greek myth… but on their timeline this was long after a dude had stayed in charge of the universe by eating his own children, so for the Greeks before there was evil there was EVIL!), Samael (Hebrew, “The Poison Angel”), Satan (Hebrew, “The Adversary,”– more like an angel whose job it is to question God than an Ultimate Evil, also not that jerk Snavely the Serpent who trips up A&E in the Garden), and of course The Devil, a largely extra-biblical dillweed who seems based more on Ahriman than on anything in Hebrew or Christian scripture but whom looms large in Fundamentalist Christian circles, regardless. This is interesting, since a strict reading of the Book of Genesis indicates that Adam and Eve’s “Fall” involved gaining knowledge of Good and Evil. Evil was clearly already part of Creation in that story, and an element dependent on moral awareness.
Regardless of the source the idea that evil stems from something alien outside of humanity seems omnipresent and no matter how many times we kill it it pops up again.
I don’t buy it. It’s attractive, but for all the wrong reasons. It absolves humanity of responsibility. It lets us literally demonize our enemies. It justifies the unspeakable.
There’s a contemporary philosophical group known as “Evil Skeptics.” They think the idea of– and the word for– evil should be retired; this concept of evil as an extreme, incomprehensible force that exists outside of humanity is part of the reason why. There are parts of the world where people are still burned as witches… or for being gay. Or looking gay. When your only tool is a torch everybody looks like… kindling, apparently.
I’m religious, but I’m certain evil doesn’t come from outside the human heart and mind. It is born, lives, and dies inside us.
Okay, smart guy, where do you think evil comes from?
Abandonment, betrayal, suspicion, rage, self-righteousness, self-hate, mental illness, emotional and physical pain, power, greed, fear, desperation, denial, revenge. Evil isn’t just the province of Sith Lords and raspy-voiced supervillains.
Evil lies in our common experiences.
There are many ways to consider this question. Some would go with the Seven Deadlies; we all have base impulses. When describing evil, however, Sloth isn’t what leaps to mind– though evil inactions are probably more pervasive than evil actions, and harder to confront as well. Others might consider things like corrupt systems and negative emotions as direct (if vague) wellsprings of inequity.
My list is hardly comprehensive. I’ve struggled to keep my concepts simple, recognizable, and useful. It does not cover every possible hypothetical– like the malicious paralytic voyeur who wouldn’t change anything if he could but is unable move or communicate so he’s also powerless (blame Daniel Haybron for this one)… or, I don’t know, ghosts who punish bad people by giving them farts. Both gray areas if you asked me.
My point is this is a simplification. These ‘Elements of Evil’– not to be confused with the Temple of Elemental Evil, nerds– do not exist wholly independently. Like chemical elements they interact with each other; unlike chemical elements they also create each other– Pain leading to Fear leading to Hate leading to Darth Vader seeming a lot less cool and so forth. They commingle and sometimes cancel each other, and often exist with little material effect on the world. They are not the only sources of evil, but they are common and relatable sources of evil. If we can’t see them in ourselves then it’s only because we’re not looking.
And yeah, they’re mostly just a bunch of feelings. The first three– Pain, Fear, and Malice— do not just create evil. They also create each other in a never-ending game of Tag… or Pandemic. Apathy can also stem from traumatic sources, but it largely exists because… it’s easy. I guess Sloth is back in after all. Self Deception, perhaps the most complex of the lot, exists not only because it is easy, but also because it helps relieve our pains and fears. Finally, Power gives us the ability to effect change but it also degrades our powers of empathy.
Individually, these Elements are deadly, but they never really exist alone. They work together, reinforcing each other, each forcing the others to thrive and grow inside us. It’s like a perfectly designed system for Making Shit Worse.
In spite of all this, Shit frequently Gets Better.
Pain is a good starting place; it’s easy to relate to. We understand how it can cling to us, change us. It’s meant to be a tool for our bodies and minds, to give us strength to break free, a warning signal that says “Get out! Those are your balls in the frying pan!” It’s only when we can’t get out, when there’s no way to stop the pain, that Pain itself starts to do damage. When you feel your skin start to sizzle you will break your hands on that cast iron trying to escape, even if deep down you know it isn’t helping.
Or, if you have the option, you might look for someone to blame. Drowning victims will grab at any chance, will drown rescuers or bystanders trying to save themselves. It’s not about strength– we can all drown in pain.
That’s where things get twisted and intertwined. Pain creates Fear and Malice, or even Apathy if it wears on long enough. Pain makes us Self Deceive, imagining scapegoats or telling ourselves that we’re okay when we’ve forgotten what the word means. We look for a way to stop hurting, even for a moment. Maybe this leads to addiction– to alcohol, to meth, to humiliating strangers online. Maybe, like I did, you start waking up every morning knowing a part of you is planning a murder, because the same person keeps hurting it and because it’s too afraid of the Pain.
That was circa 2011, and no one was hurt or terrorized. I removed myself from the situation. I got a glimpse of what I could do, though, backed into a corner with flames all around. I got a whiff of my capacity for evil.
It’s always justified, isn’t it? Whatever we choose to do? Pain + Self Deception= Justification. When you start justifying, consider it a warning. Something’s happened to make you not want to think clearly; you’re on the verge of the unthinkable.
Pain is a self-replicating bastard of a virus, using us to manufacture more Pain. If we don’t want more evil dancing around the planet we need to help people in pain, wherever we find them, without question or judgement.
The antidote for Pain is compassion. Knowing that another person understands even a tiny part of our pain can take it away, stop its festering. Over time compassion can help us heal, however imperfectly. To move forward, though, we have to have a way to end the Pain, and this might involve truly desperate measures like not doing our favorite thing or asking for help.
Fear, even more than Pain, is a feeling we all know from birth. We look at the dark shapes in our bedrooms late at night and we feel the urge to shine a light, to shout, to hide under covers and hope we haven’t been seen. Have you ever seen a baby startling, looking around everywhere every time his father snores? That’s fear. It’s funny for us to watch because we know there’s no danger. For the baby, though, there’s definitely a jackal hiding in the room.
Fear has a lot in common with Pain. It’s intended as a defense; it triggers our adrenaline flow, turns us into flight-fight-freeze machines. It’s intensely personal and if we can’t escape our fears– again, if they last too long– they distort our vision of the world. If we’re scared and can’t find a source, we look for something to be scared of– and then try to fight it. When we’ve been scared long enough, we get scary– either as self defense or just from a Malicious need to share our feelings. Past a certain point, fear even hurts, becomes Pain.
Fear is especially easy for outsiders to manipulate for their own (Selfish/Malicious) gains. Scared or in Pain we often want scapegoats, someone to victimize so we can feel strong again. Our Fear allows us to Self Deceive, to justify bringing new pain and fear into the world. We feel like we’re owed it; the cynical, the fearful and the cruel easily exploit this combination of feelings.
The antidote for fear is safety— not just physical safety, but comfort, the feeling of safety. This can be hard– especially for people afraid to admit their fears… or people who simply aren’t safe. It’s no accident that Afghanistan is a violent place– multiple generations have grown up surrounded by nothing but fear and rage. That can’t be counteracted by a conversation or a weekend retreat; like some great cathedrals, it might take generations of work to make a difference.
It’s also no coincidence that Fearmongers often come across as fearful, anxieties papered over. They try to manipulate people through Fear because it’s the emotion they understand best. It has a deep hold on them, and– when our empathy fails us– there’s a human tendency to think other people are Just Like Us. If fear defines your life, you might think it dominates everyone else too. If you’re horrible, you can exploit that. It works great until your cowardice is exposed. One more thing to be scared of, I suppose.
Malice is the most inscrutable of these feelings. How, for example, is it different than hate? I’d argue that hate is a single aspect of Malice which, like all of these Elements, comes in more isotopes than chemists have yet dreamed of. Malice is the desire to hurt others. We might do it to feel powerful, or to revenge (sometimes real) wrongs, or for no definable reason– the pleasure of hurting someone, of getting away with something Bad and Mean cannot be denied. It’s often outweighed by other emotional considerations– most of us have bad moments, but don’t really want to hurt the ones we love– but it’s still there. It makes us feel powerful, significant, alive.
There’s a theoretical evolutionary advantage to malicious behavior in a small society– particularly vengeful behavior. If our fellow Ugly Bags of Mostly Water see that we will nurse a grudge, expend every ounce of energy to burn them down if they hurt us, then the rest of our tribe will learn not to cross us. It’s a risky behavior. The immediate danger– beyond getting our asses handed to us– is that our Malice will be reciprocated and replicated, a chain reaction of revenge and misery that ends up being the motivation for most supervillains.
In a large society– and modern societies stretch not just through cities but across oceans– the risk is still there but the advantage largely disappears. How often will you see the dink who cut you off in traffic? How will he learn not to mess with you, since he’ll likely never see your face? He won’t… unless he’s the vengeful type, too. Then you can count on him to remember the dirty diaper you hurled at his windshield, and you can count on him to memorize your license plate.
Malice always has a point of origin, but sometimes it feels like it springs fully-formed into the world. It is also the hardest Element to sympathize with, at least when we see it in others– though most of us are at least as malicious as we are kind. We’re damned good at justifying our feelings to ourselves, though, and damned good at making mistakes.
Even when the damage it inflicts is huge, Malice itself is a petty, short-sighted thing. Perhaps in its raw form it is just a form of Self Deception– a momentary distraction from our own Pains and Fears. Our brains are pleasure-seeking machines. We get addicted to the high of cocaine and the slow bliss of heroin. These mechanisms exact a price for their gifts, and later we might turn to the same drugs just to feel something… or to feel nothing at all. Addiction to Malice works much the same way– we feel the high from it, and its close cousin schadenfreude, and we want another hit. Soon we need more badness to feel the same amount of pleasure, or we need a distraction from the misery we’re creating in ourselves and others.
The antidotes for Malice are love and reason. There’s no way to never feel malicious, but love– and feeling loved– helps us see Malice for the poison it is, and keeps us from hurting people. Pain and Fear destroy reason, but when we can retain it it helps us see the consequences of our actions before irreversible damage is done. Yes, a part of us always wants to pull the wings off of flies. No, it never gets to drive.
Self Deception is universal. We all tell ourselves lies, often for the sake of our mental health. This starts in childhood, when we explain to ourselves that our toys are our friends and when our parents leave the room they can stay. They counteract the Fears that surround us when we’re small and helpless. As adults our experiences drain us, and sometimes the only way to keep your feet moving is to whisper “just keep swimming” or “I’m a stable genius” until it starts to make sense. Following trauma, denial can be one of the only ways for victims to cope (in the short term). Again, it’s a valuable tool. And again, when abused it becomes an indiscriminate weapon, shedding the blood of enemies, friends, and self alike.
Most of us use a wide array of Self Deceptions in our daily lives. We cast ourselves as the heroes of our own stories, we listen to evidence that confirms our biases– no matter how flimsy– and ignore strong evidence to the contrary. We tell ourselves that no one heard our butts toot.
Some of the most toxic Self Deceptions are justifications and rationalizations– the reasons we give for the things we do, often after the fact. Justifications are our attempts to explain how our worst excesses are actually right and necessary– justified. Rationalizations are similar, attempts to explain how emotional behaviors– often based in Fear, Malice, and Pain– are actually well-reasoned rational responses, things any sane person would do in your place. It’s about better living through lying, or at least being able to live with yourself when deep down a part of you keeps saying maybe I don’t deserve to.
Then there are denials and distractions, coming in more flavors than Baskin-Robbins’ worst nightmares. Denying or ignoring the reality of the people around you– their feelings, their equality– is a form of Solipsism, the feeling that when we blink our eyes the world goes away,
the philosophy grown-ass adults should abandon around the time their infant brains develop object permanence. This is disturbingly prevalent; I suppose it saves you from caring (Apathy) about strangers when you think of them as obstacles, threats, and puppets instead of the feeling, thinking Bald Plains Apes we all are.
There’s the great distraction of thinking that morality is about how everyone else’s behavior enrages you, while studiously ignoring your own. There are the things we blame ourselves for so we won’t have engage with the mistakes we really made. There’s shame, the lie we use to tell ourselves we’ll be better next time, or to force others to feel bad because of standards that have nothing to do with morality, logic, or… them. There’s tribalism, the feeling that groups we identify with– political parties, sports teams, Hogwarts houses– are always right, and that it’s disloyal and immoral to ever say otherwise. There are ideologies– religious, political, mystical– that we use as substitutes for morality and critical thinking; faith may be about belief but morality is about action. There are the scapegoats, targeted because someone has to pay for our Pain, and the Fearmongers who profit, manipulating and adding to the web of lies we’re so eager to stay stuck in.
And yes, Pain and Fear play a strong role in Self Deception, of course they do. Those are the feelings that make it hardest for us to think clearly.
The closest thing to an antidote for Self Deception is self awareness, which sounds obvious but is hard to see when we need it. This is similar to the increasingly buzzword-friendly idea of mindfulness, in that it involves taking a moment to examine yourself and discern your true motives. If you’re going to ruin someone’s life then you should at least tell yourself the truth about why you’re doing it– and if you find yourself trying to justify anything that hurts families, friends, enemies, strangers then know in advance– you’re in the wrong. Maybe that means you’re “only” as bad as your perceived opponent. Maybe. Doesn’t matter. You’re the bad guy when you yell at a stranger, shake a baby, lie about a contract, force someone out of their home.
When we do the wrong thing, we’re the bad guys. Being the hero of a silent story absolves noone.
Apathy might be nothing but a specialized form of Self Deception, yet another survival mechanism, this one allowing us to weather the worst storms by letting go. That observed, it is terrible for the passive evil it allows to exist. The old maxim is that for evil to flourish all that’s necessary is for ‘good’ men to do nothing. The air quotes are mine, because if we do nothing then we’re not good, we just enjoy thinking we are. Regardless, the idea is true, but incomplete. Apathy is responsible for so much more than simply turning a blind eye to others’ behavior. It also allows us to be our own worst selves.
Especially when coupled with Self Deception, Apathy enables cynicism, lets us tell ourselves that our actions don’t matter. Inaction is an easy first step from this point, but it can also be convenient to explain to ourselves that even unconscionable actions don’t matter. “If I don’t evict that family without cause,” the internal argument might go, “someone else will.” Apathy then lets us ignore the consequences of our failures… or at least pretend to.
Apathy is a key component of Kant’s old nemesis, Selfishness, as well. It’s easy for most of us to care about ourselves, and except in the heat of the moment– a soldier jumping on a grenade– it often takes effort to sympathize with a stranger. Apathy is the enemy all of creations, including the creation of new bonds (or the maintenance of old) between people. Apathy is also the father of Solipsism and stagnation, the feeling that we are somehow more real than everyone else in the universe, and therefore more deserving. Instead of working for the things we want, we resent it when others get them– or worse, put the lie to our assumptions by being more deserving.
The antidote for Apathy is awareness, similar to self awareness but broader. Plugging into the larger world around you and seeing how strangers’ stories and feelings are so much like your own. This is honestly one of the reasons I read, not for self improvement, but because of the pleasure in seeing the universe from a new (often fictional) perspective. One side effect is that I can’t ignore people when I’d like to. When you can even guess at where someone’s coming from it gets hard not to care.
Power is a necessary part of contemporary and historical social structure. Having a few people at the top making great and terrible decisions is efficient. It has helped the modern world make great progress (and occasional regress). With power comes not just the temptation for abuse, though, but also a tendency to entrench, to hold onto power whether deserved or not. The least competent rulers need to stay in power; without it, the weight of their errors will come crashing down on their heads.
Even in the case of benevolent overlords power has a different effect, corroding morality at its core. Neuroscientist Sukhvinder Obhi’s research indicates power, prestige and the like damages the capacity for empathy and compassion. People who have more money and influence think it’s because they deserve money and influence. It’s a Self Deception for the ages, but the next step along its trail of assumptions is even more toxic– that people who have less are lesser, a single step away from saying they aren’t human.
If a person’s not human, you can treat her like an animal.
And so it goes.
Obhi’s work specifically deals with power in people, not organizations, but it since organizations are made of people it seems universally relevant. The people most able to do good are less psychologically able to understand what ‘good’ is and the situation seems to degrade further when individual responsibility disappears.
Powerful institutions also follow this pattern of protecting their own interests, regardless of morality or even reason, and of viewing outsiders and members alike as either nonentities or pawns– remember Solipsism? The Roman Catholic Church made this choice countless times by moving sexually abusive priests around inside the institution, doing nothing to protect congregations from these predators in their flock. Penn State made the same choice in the Jerry Sandusky case. And why?
It’s unknowable, of course. I don’t have the power to gaze inside anyone’s skull.
But if they’d had nothing to lose they likely would have done the right thing.
The abusers themselves also had a great deal of personal power over their victims; they were set above them by circumstances. Without rehashing the well trod ground of the Milgram and Stanford Prison Experiments, it seems like power does more than tempt us. It creates selfishness and Malice where there was none. This is equally true of Power in its various forms– a beaurocrat’s petty power, a dad’s power over his daughter, executive power over an entire nation. Even if we protect our own, we tend to reduce potential adversaries/strangers to targets on a drone’s monitor.
And of course the struggle for Power between the powerful is always a rich vein of Evil to mine.
The antidote to Power (it’s dark side, anyway) is humility. I love the Roman tradition of reminding generals and emperors memento mori— you, too, will die. A less extreme version of this might be “you, too, are human.” Find someone to whisper it to you. Death comes as a part of the package, sure, but so does life and choices… and there’s nothing more hollow than a man regretting the damage he’s done.
Why not Anger? Wrath? Greed? Hell, why not the Seven Deadly Sins?
My list as arbitrary as any, and plenty of horrific crimes have been motivated by lust, rage, greed and a host of other negative traits.
My counterargument is that the evils perpetrated under the auspices of ‘crimes of passion’ (or Sloth) wouldn’t be possible without the Elements of Evil outlined above. For corporate greed to poison a town, Apathy and Power are at least as necessary as greed. Yes, most violent crimes are committed by someone in a rage, but Pain, Fear, and Self Deception are the cause of the rage. I think the Elements are closer to the root of the problem, and the Seven Deadlies are more like… the trunk? Some kind of fungus growing near the root? You know, symptoms and complications or maybe opportunistic infections taking advantage of a weakened immune system.
Ugh. No. Too much like demons again, and a terrible segue to a new metaphor.
When we talk about evil, the existing systems seem poorly designed to describe the problems. The Elements of Evil theory is at best a first step, but without first steps we’d never take a second. So yeah, further discussion welcome.
For Further Consideration:
The NPR podcast Hidden Brain has had a profound influence on my thinking in this series. Dedicated to social science research that reveals the inner workings of the human mind, the show has at points touched on much of what I consider the reasons for evil behavior. Episodes of interest include: “Liar, Liar,” “The Mind of the Village,” “Think Fast with Daniel Kahneman,” “Counting Other People’s Blessings,” and “Filthy Rich.”
I am an NPR junkie, so it’s not surprising that I first encountered Sukhvinder Obhi’s research on Power’s effect on the brain via NPR. Dr. Obhi’s web page of course goes into more detail on his work on Power, Action and Agency, and Cultural Psychology.
To better understand the role of Apathy and “the banality of evil” in the moral world, I recommend Dr. Hannah Arendt’s “Eichmann in Jerusalem.” Dr. Arendt’s 20th century work helped redefine the concept of evil in a post-Holocaust world. Unfortunately, there have been multiple multi-million murder events since, evidence we aren’t using the tools at our disposal.
Robert Jackall’s book Moral Mazes demonstrates how Power can corrode morality on both sides of the equation– Controller and Controlled. He describes the amoral survival-based code where you only tell your boss what he wants to hear and never take a stand. It is about systems of Power guarding their (short term) interests and threatening human lives in the process.
For an understanding of why standing up to Power matters, I recommend the 1983 Soviet nuclear false alarm incident, aka the day the Stanislav Petrov saved the world.
Happy reading. Be better than evil.