Can people be born evil?

In a debate on another message board, I came up with the following reasoning (I don’t pretend to be the first to do so, perhaps someone can point me to some papers detailing the arguments?):

Suppose that we accept that evil is a state in which a baby could possibly be born in, just like illiteracy.

We all know that every baby is born illiterate. However, a baby has no idea what illiteracy is. This shows that a baby does not need to know what evil is to be evil. Now, if we argue that someone has to be taught to read and write, and being classed as literate is subjective, then if we assume that babies are born evil and must be taught good, and good and evil is also subjective, then to accept the first (literacy etc.) must imply that we should also must accept the second (good and evil etc.).

It’s 1.10 am here, and I’m sure I’ve missed out a large part of my argument, and I suspect that it can be worded in a better way, but I hope you get the idea.

Can anyone see any major flaws in my logic or reasoning?

I think it would just as easily (and arbitrarily) be true to say that children are born ‘innocent’ - in that they are oblivious to morality and ethics. Evil (as far as I’m concerned) is knowing what is right, but deciding not to do it.


We all know that every baby is born illiterate. However, a baby has no idea what illiteracy is. This shows that a baby does not need to know what evil is to be evil.


OK. Here is your first mistake. Since “evil” is defined as “morally wrong behavior,” and morals are learned, you have to have the morals before you can have the evil. Evil is a concious decision - the baby does need to know what evil is before it can be evil. A child can be careless and cause great harm, but unless it knows that what it is doing is wrong, and makes a concious and willful decision to act in that manner, fully aware and accepting of the consequences to himself and others, then it can’t be evil. In fact, I would argue that the very definition of “child” precludes “evil.” Once someone accepts responsibility for their actions in such a manner, they are no longer children.

See mangetout’s reference to “innocence.”

I think there’s a lot of messy edges to the argument, and some things will have to be clarified – like which of the many definitions of evil are we talking about?

I believe babies are born amoral, and the capacity for morality develops later. This doesn’t necessarily mean that morality is purely artificial. To jump from your example, many linguists (including Noam Chomsky) believe that the fundamentals of grammar are hardwired into the human psyche, and yet we don’t start speaking or writing until some time after birth.

For me, evil is a lack of ethics, and ethics are the capacity to empathize with another human being. Like any other mental capacity, it’s something that develops as we age.

Some people never develop it – consider the sociopath, a person who never learns to empathize, and who sees human beings as objects. Sociopathy could simply be seen as a form of blindness or deafness, and incapacity to understand an sympathize with the pain of another.

“Evil” is not in any way, shape or form a personality state, it’s a value judgement typically based on observations of an individual’s behavior . The question might be more productively phrased as “Can people be born with strong, inborn aggressive and asocial personality tendencies?”. The answer is yes, and if the opportunity presents itself these personalities can often be led, driven or enticed to “evil” behavior. It’s a bit of slippery slope, however, as to where expediency ends and evil begins. Were the German guards at WWII the prison camps “evil” when they put Jews in the ovens or were they just following orders?

Or both?

Two concepts seem relevant to me here.

The first is a point from a favourite philosopher of mine that “we are what we do, not we intend.” From that perspective, it doesn’t matter if a person has “a good heart” (whatever that means). If they’re pushing people into ovens (and if they know they’re ovens, and if they know the people haven’t done anything, if their owen immediate survival doesn’t depend on it…), if they’re commiting an atrocity, they’re evil.

The other is the concept of “the banality of evil” – that one way to help otherwise good people participate in a grotesquely evil act is to regularize and systematize it so that it becomes somehow routine. The “only following orders” is one manifestation of this. But simply because evil is routine doesn’t make it less evil.

I’m not a moral relativist. I don’t think evil is purely relative. I do believe it’s situational – that is, the same act can be evil or good depending on circumstances. But I think the wilful, conscious promotion of human suffering can usually be classified as evil.

Sure. Ever seen The Family Guy? :wink:

are people born gay?

Nobody knows for sure at the moment, and I suspect the full set of causes might be horrendously complex and interlinked. I understand that twin studies suggest that there may be some predetermined component.

Whatever the case, the huge volume of anecdotal information (which is so abundant and consistent that I really think the ‘plural of anecdote is not data’ argument would be rather inappropriate) suggests that it isn’t a ‘choice’ in any meaningful sense of the word.

Well, only one in two million people has what we call the “evil gene”.

Hitler had it.

Walt Disney had it.

And Freddy Quimby has it.

Can people be born evil? Of course… Din’t you see the Disney Cartoon “Lilo and Stich” :smiley:

Evil is different things to different people and cultures. Lopping off someone’s hand for stealing is downright evil in our culture, but totally acceptable in other cultures. Unless you’re a religious person, the word “evil” doesn’t really mean a helluva lot. I agree with the previous posters who say that choosing to go against your society’s accepted moral standards is evil. I don’t believe you’re born to it; but we all have the capacity for it.

I just don’t see the “blank slate” morality approach as being a real possibility. I doubt, that as social animals we are born without certain “moral” attitudes toward one another – as seems to be the position of some here. For example, the ‘reaction’ we call “empathy.” The feeling of “shame.” What purpose do these feelings serve? IMO, these are genetic reactions that preserve our social bonds with other individuals. By preserving our social bonds our individual genes gain that much of an advantage. ‘Group behavior’ can be seen working its advantage in many species in nature. Not saying there isn’t a ‘tug and pull’ between self-interest and group-interest. There is. Walking that line is what it is all about when living in a group as a social animal. Solitary animals can act with reckless self-interest. Social animals cannot. So - If we accept that familial “love”(familial bonds) is a genetic mechanism that protects our genetic legacy than why would it be different on a bigger scale when considering social bonds? If determining the limits of self-interested behavior is described, in part, by our genetic inheritance than why isn’t this the basis for a “morality.”

Here is an excerpt from E.O. Wilson’s Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, that IMO, supports this -

I’m as much a psychologist as I am a walrus, but I’m not sure that the empathy thing is actually innate; young children seem to have to learn that their peers are also people with their own desires, hopes and feelings, up until this realisation, they can be quite innocently selfish.

I agree with Mangetout. While all societies members exhibit these traits, they are learned. If a child doesn’t learn compassion, he is either mentally deficient or was emotionally deprived as an infant or small child. Kids will learn these things through example.

I’m not sure you and Mangetout are expressing the same idea – but you might be. The ability to be ‘aware of other minds’ may create ‘empathy.’ If so, than ‘empathy’ is a natural progression and not something than has to be taught. Unless, you’re contending that the ‘awareness of other minds’ also has to be taught.

But it’s possible for something to be innate without manifesting immediately after birth.

Take sexual desires – mostly people consider them innate, one aspect of our animal natures. But they’re not switched on at birth. They manifest later.

I believe that that empathy is innate, but that it kicks in later. For most people, during the teenage years. Some children seem to manifest it early, and others never develop it. But that can be said of any aspect of our psychological and physical development.

As for the idea of “evil” being purely a cultural construction, I don’t agree. As I said, I would define “evil” as a total lack of empathy, an inability to see other human beings as anything more than objects – a lack of respect for human life, other than one’s own.

In my view many personality attributes make someone more likely to be capable of evil acts. Self righteousness, inability to empathize, fanaticism, narcissism, being overly conformist and obedient, and things like that. I would assume some people are genetically hard wired to be this way over others so yeah some people can be born evil.

Well, according to Judeo-Christian tradition, we are all born evil, and must be made right through belief in God and our actions.

If nothing else, I think people are born selfish. Without being taught otherwise, a child’s first instincts are self-preservation and self-gratification. Until we learn, one way or another, that we sometimes need to forego our own desires for the good of the community, we will continue to always do what is best for ourselves.

Even as adults, after we’ve learned compassion and empathy, do we care if we’ve been hired for a job to replace somebody who was unjustly fired? Or do we tell ourselves “good for me”?

“Evil” is a pretty useless adjective if you try to pry it from the context of a society/culture. “Evil” is essentially code for “not socially acceptable to some arbitrarily severe degree”. When you talk about being born a certain way, you’re talking about genes and prenatal environmental factors, which are complicated, but not irreducibly so, and empirically scrutable. “Evil” is not a tractable concept from a biological or psychological standpoint. It’s a moving moral target, at best, and morals are themselves highly inconstant over space and time.

Now, if you want to get into something that has some hope of attaining a usefully descriptive definition in the biological and social sciences, you might try “sociopathy” or “psychopathology”. In general, the answer then appears to be “yes”, it’s possible to be “born that way.” Children may have to learn how to be social creatures, but some individuals appear to be maladaptive; they simply lack the capacity for empathy and the checks on impulsivity that are generally regarded to be beneficial traits by our species.

I’m told such individuals are quite rare, with maybe only a few hundred living in the US at any time.