The Science Of Good And Non-Science Of Evil (UPDATED)

I had a great conversation yesterday with a clinical psychologist on the nature of good and evil as understood by contemporary science.  I related my recent thoughts expressed here that there seems to be a subset of secular thought that can only understand radical evil as originating from some outside agency, rather than as a real human possibility.  He pointed out a recent work on the psychology and science of evil by Simon Baron-Cohen (brother of Sascha Baron-Cohen of Borat fame) and pronounced it “crap”.  By defining “evil” as “lack of empathy”, Baron-Cohen went on to use as an example a guard in a Nazi death camp who forced inmates to kill their best friends.  As my conversation partner noted, this not only implies but indicates not only an understanding of empathy as an abstract concept, but a very real sense of empathy; while twisted, perhaps by some kind of psychosis, he could only enjoy such torture if he not only understood but felt the pain his torture caused his victims.  Thus, it seems, a theory if not disproved, at least falsified by at least one prominent example.

He further stated that the “science” of Good, at least as generally understood as sympathetic reactions and actions that benefit others, often at the expense of oneself, is fairly solid.  Indeed, there seems to be some cause to believe there is a genetic basis for human beings to act in ways beneficial toward others and we have, over the course of our history as a species, self-selected for this particular gene (or perhaps set of genes), which not only increases our general beneficence toward others, but tends as a corollary to enlarge the circle of those toward whom our Good acts are aimed.  Evil, on the other hand, he said was more than likely a social construct rather an integral part of being human, genetic or otherwise.  An example he didn’t cite, but I considered, was the practice of female infanticide in China (and other societies as well).  Often female infants were removed from the home soon after birth and left to die either by the elements, predators, or starvation.  Raising girls was not only costly, bringing little benefit to the home; there was the very real financial burden of providing a dowry to a prospective husband.  It was understood to be easier and cleaner just to kill the infant and try again for a boy.  Obviously, those societies where such practices occurred did not consider them evil by any means; on the contrary, they served multiple personal, familial, and social goods, at very little cost precisely because the social worth of girls and women was negligible to nonexistent.

We who look upon such practices might shudder at such murderous pragmatism, being all too swift to call it “Evil”.  While I would certainly insist it is both cruel and unjust, a practice that should be banned by force of law, I’m not sure calling it “Evil” in some absolute moral sense adds anything to our disgust at the practice.  On the contrary, it is an instance of falling in to what I call “the kitten burning trap”.  The original post at slacktivist has suffered link degradation, but I managed to copy and paste it four years ago:

Every once in a while, I am sorry to say, some sick bastard sets fire to a kitten. This is something that happens. Like all crimes, it shouldn’t happen, but it does. And like most crimes, it makes the paper. The effects of this appalling cruelty are not far-reaching, but the incidents are reported in the papers because the cruelty is so flagrant and acute that it seems newsworthy.

The response to such reports is horror and indignation, which is both natural and appropriate. But the expression of that horror and indignation also produces something strange.

A few years ago there was a particularly horrifying kitten-burning incident involving a barbecue grill and, astonishingly, a video camera. That sordid episode took place far from the place where I work, yet the paper’s editorial board nonetheless felt compelled to editorialize on the subject. They were, happily, against it. Unambiguously so. It’s one of the very few instances I recall when that timidly Broderian bunch took an unambiguous stance without their habitual on-the-other-hand qualifications.

I agreed with that stance, of course. Who doesn’t? But despite agreeing with the side they took, I couldn’t help but be amused by the editorial’s inordinately proud pose of courageous truth-telling. The lowest common denominator of minimal morality was being held up as though it were a prophetic example of speaking truth to power.

That same posturing resurfaced in a big way earlier this year when the kitten-burners struck again, much closer to home. A group of disturbed and disturbing children doused a kitten with lighter fluid and set it on fire just a few miles from the paper’s offices.

The paper covered the story, of course, and our readers ate it up.

People loved that story. It became one of the most-read and most-e-mailed stories on our Web site. Online readers left dozens of comments and we got letters to the editor on the subject for months afterward.

Those letters and comments were uniformly and universally opposed to kitten-burning. Opinon on that question was unanimous and vehement.

But here was the weird part: Most of the commenters and letter-writers didn’t seem to notice that they were expressing a unanimous and noncontroversial sentiment. Their comments and letters were contentious and sort of aggressively defensive. Or maybe defensively aggressive. They were angry, and that anger didn’t seem to be directed only at the kitten-burners, but also at some larger group of others whom they imagined must condone this sort of thing.

If you jumped into the comments thread and started reading at any random point in the middle, you’d get the impression that the comments immediately preceding must have offered a vigorous defense of kitten-burning. No such comments offering any such defense existed, and yet reader after reader seemed to be responding to or anticipating this phantom kitten-burning advocacy group.

One came away from that comment thread with the unsurprising but reassuring sense that the good people reading the paper’s Web site did not approve of burning kittens alive. Kitten-burning, they all insisted, was just plain wrong.

But one also came away from reading that thread with the sense that people seemed to think this ultra-minimal moral stance made them exceptional and exceptionally righteous. Like the earlier editorial writers, they seemed to think they were exhibiting courage by taking a bold position on a matter of great controversy. Whatever comfort might be gleaned from the reaffirmation that most people were right about this non-issue issue was overshadowed by the discomfiting realization that so many people also seemed to want or need most others to be wrong.

Whether it’s kitten-burning or infanticide or suicide bombing – name your poison – there is nothing all that strenuous in speaking out against egregious moral evil.  I remember all too well in the wake of the September 11 attacks, the decision by Pres. Bush to leave in a line in his speech to Congress about “the Axis of Evil”, and far too many on the right insisting the liberals/progressives/secularists either refusing to call evil what it is, or perhaps even being unable to recognize it.  I have always thought this whole formula, from “Axis of Evil” to complaints about us amoral liberals, has it exactly backwards.  It is quite easy, requiring the moral sense of most children no older than four or five, to understand that certain actions are wrong, be it kitten-burning or blowing up buildings.  Calling it “Evil” does absolutely nothing to address the matter at hand; praising oneself for moral clarity in the face of obvious horror moves us no closer to dealing with the underlying matter at hand.  Like Kant’s famous dictum that adding “being” to a thing doesn’t explain anything, adding “Evil” as some absolute moral descriptor to an act adds nothing to the act itself.  Rather than describe the action, on the contrary it provides a kind of self-satisfaction to the one doing the naming that brings us no closer to understanding than we were prior to saying, “This is evil.”

Is “Evil” a social construct?  I think, to an extent, this may well be so.  Certainly your run-of-the-mill serial killer, say John Wayne Gacey, is amenable to comprehension as a compulsive, sadistic pedophile.  Also, Gacey understood that his actions were wrong; this his quick slide in to alcoholism as a way of numbing the moral anguish he suffered even as he felt compelled to act.  Psychopathy and sociopathy are not “Evil” precisely because they are explanatory terms with substantive meaning.  The acts such persons might perform may well be described as “evil”, but calling such persons “Evil” does a disservice to our ability to understand why such persons act in the ways they do.  Which leaves me, yet again, wondering if “Evil” is a social construct.

All the same, I have a sense that “Evil”, while perhaps not personified by the fallen angel Lucifer, or the Divine Adversary/Legal Advocate Satan, nevertheless exists.  In the post to which I linked above, in which I discussed representations of evil in contemporary popular movies, I referenced Grave Encounters.  There is a moment in that film that fills me with more dread than the jump scares utilizing computer technology to alter the images of a couple actors.  After the investigators realize there is more to the asylum than meets the eye, they try breaking through the locks on the front door.  After several attempts, they manage to do so, only to discover that, rather than the comfort of freedom outside the walls of the asylum, more and more corridors stretch before them.  They are, quite literally, without an exit from the bad things that seem bent on their death and destruction.  They turn to make sure they’ve gone through the correct door, and discover it was, indeed, the exit.  Yet it is no longer; it is only a marker to more darkness, more threats to their lives and their sanity, and more death.

More than anything else in this movie, that moment terrified me.  Even more, this is a depiction of my understanding of hell: No escape, even when one seems so well marked.  Rather than sensible, intelligible corridors that, no matter how confusing, nevertheless have and end with and exit, there is neither rhyme nor reason, nothing to make sense of the byways and hallways and rooms in which one is now trapped with no escape.  Perhaps this is a far better metaphor for evil than the puking possessed child, or the murderous revenant.  Precisely because it escapes our human ability to reason through and understand what is happening; perhaps because it presents what is both impossible and yet far too real to ignore, with the understanding that it holds fear, not in a handful of dust, but a never-ending maze of fear and death; perhaps all this and more is why true evil cannot be grasped by the categories of science.  It is, in the end, both unintelligible as we understand “intelligibility” and more than just madness but an inescapable, unending maze without reason, thought, or the ability to be understood by us.

This is far more chilling than any serial murderer to me.  To find oneself in such a situation, with no recourse to reason and no escape in sight – this is more than evil to me.  This would be hell.

UPDATE: It seems I spoke a bit too soon.  Dr. Michael Welner has developed a Depravity Standard that is open to the public for use in creating a standard free from class, race, or other bias.  You can take the survey here as I did.  There is also an explanatory article (.pdf) entitled “Work In Progress: Defining Evil  Through The Depravity Standard And Clinician’s Inventory For The Everyday Extreme & Outrageous (CIEEO)”.  Its purpose is two-fold: to assist courts in assessing levels of depravity in particular crimes with reference to a standard that is not prone to personal bias or even religious ideology.  It is also clinical, an inventory to catch certain tendencies toward abuse and violence before they manifest in order to intervene.  I won’t give away some of the examples from the survey, but I can tell you that I found some of the grouped examples to span from “Somewhat Depraved” to “Extremely Depraved”, on the scale the authors had created.  Perhaps that was on purpose.  In any event, while certainly an exemplary tool both for law enforcement and adjudicators after the fact as well as clinicians, I still find myself wondering if we are addressing “Evil” as a moral category separate from “Depravity” as a descriptor of particular actions by individuals whose motivations may and probably are open to understanding through clinical or other examination.  Which, as I began, leaves us with the question open as to whether “Evil” is a category open to scientific understanding in and for itself.  Still and all, both the “Work In Progress” article and the survey itself were most helpful, and I was happy to participate in an on-going research project that will assist others in determining how best to approach a variety of criminal and clinical situations.


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About gksafford

I'm a middle-aged theologically educated clergy spouse, living in the Midwest. My children are the most important thing in my life. Right behind them and my wife is music. I'm most interested in teaching people to listen to contemporary music with ears of faith. Everything else you read on here is straw.
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