So I’ve been mulling over this question and there’s not anything empirical I can think to search for to answer it besides something that would sound like “this part of the brain lights up when X happens,” and I figured I’d ask you guy because you’re some of the most well-read people I know.
Do you think that humans still hold onto an intrinsic barbaric nature and all culture and learning does is stuff that down as deep as it can? For instance, we can explain away hatreds between cultures or between races as a lack of culture and knowledge but is there a simpler answer that there’s just pure hate in people that doesn’t have any explanation? Did people like the Mongols rape and pillage vast swaths of the world because that was what their society (or lack thereof) taught them that, or are they still riding a wave of barbarism - an animalistic, instinctual way of life? Do people murder their spouse for a reason or there a simple answer of “that person’s just evil” that we’re ignoring? I know we often point to Adolph Hitler as our example of just pure, unexplainable evil, but is that more prevalent than we think? Do savage rape/murders or serial murders happen because this person is just straight barbaric and there’s no deep societal explanation for it?
I’m not really comfortable with the barbarism/knowledge framework you are using, among other things. I also question whether we can say that actions done with no explanation can be really called “evil.” A murder done because someone just snapped somehow seems less evil to me than a murder done because you want to take someone’s money.
I do think, though, that spite is something very powerful in human nature, and even if everything is reasoned out and presented, people can still choose to do the opposite of what they are “supposed” to do, out of spite if for no other reason. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Notes from Underground is one of my favorite books.
So you are NOT asking, as the title implies, that there is a true, metaphysical, big-E Evil abroad in the world, but that some people are just born jerks? That’s a more boring question, but the answer is the same: no. I never liked the simple dichotomy of Nature vs Nurture, but here I come down squarely on the Nurture side. On the other hand, some are born genetically inclined to insanity, like schizophrenia, so a tendency to sociopathy can be genetic. But no, what research suggests is that our natural bend is to cooperation, though cooperation can also be used to oppress and kill others. On the third hand…
Oh, a Great Debate requires me to debate with someone besides myself?
Civilized societies reach out the most, and tolerate differences the best, when they’re well fed. Once the populace gets to starving, heavy “othering” of minorities is much easier.
Yes, alas, we’re still killer apes at heart, which education goes a long way toward suppressing. Really bad people find latitude to assume leadership in hard times.
Just as the typical middle class family is only ten paychecks away from bankruptcy, so our civilization is just ten days of famine away from rioting.
And, yes, there are evil people out there, who would happily put gays and Jews in death camps starting right now, if they had that kind of power. The comforting fact is that, in relatively well-to-do democracies, they don’t get that kind of power.
In the book ‘what it is like to go to war’ the author talks about how people have a dark side that can be brought out pretty easily in military training. I forget his exact argument but he said that it was not that hard to bring out people’s evil side when preparing them to become soldiers. You take non-violent people and you can turn them into killers pretty easily.
Due to evolution there is a constant give and pull between the individual and society. The individual wants to extract more resources from society than they contribute while others in society want to avoid being robbed. Society is equipped to punish cheaters, loafers, layabouts, threats. etc. So a person who is actively ‘anti-social’ is going to make themselves a big target.
There is a theory that one of the reasons humans are more egalitarian than other primates is because we learned to gang up on alpha males. Back in history if an alpha male was a total asshole we just got together and stoned him to death, or stabbed him to death. With the advent of the nation state that option went away as the alpha male controlled the police and military. But it probably shaped our evolution a bit.
There is also the fact that we do what makes our life easiest. In contemporary society violence has few rewards and many drawbacks. Violence results in a criminal record, is stigmatized, etc. Bullying, emotional abuse and verbal abuse are far less stigmatized and are not criminalized, so those are far more rampant than physical violence in current society. Almost everyone is exposed to or is an asshole, bully or malicious because the negatives of that behavior are low (compared to other forms of violence like sexual or physical). I wonder if there are societies where being physically violent is ok, but being a bully or verbally abusive is heavily stigmatized or criminalized. Maybe the opposite happens, people are physically violent but emotional/verbal bullying is something people rarely experience or witness.
Whenever the topic of evil and/or religion comes up, it makes me wonder how long it would take to selectively breed a race of humans who are loving, happy, emotionally resilent and kind. Pick the top 5% of people most genetically prone to those behaviors and breed them. Then breed the top 5% of their kids. Do that a few more times and in 5 generations you probably have a human race full of Ned Flanders/Jesus types. It would take 80 years tops if we rushed it. A blink of an eye in evolutionary terms. Thinking about that helps me when I feel an urge to believe in god (because if god was real and cared, he would’ve done that by now).
To answer your question, yeah evil exists and I’d guess about 5-10% of the population is fundamentally evil (although most realize that actually being evil will make their life harder so they repress it the same way a normal person represses a fart in church. That or they choose careers where being evil and destructive is ok. Police, military, etc). Some people get pleasure from harming others, and some just don’t care if their goals require others to suffer. I think Hitler was the latter. He wasn’t a sadist so much as a zealot and narcissist.
No, I don’t, because this initial premise is so wrong it’s just not funny. The “intrinsic nature” of humans, if it exists at all, is far from barbaric. The “killer ape” thing is a myth, we are much more the “friendly ape” than the killer.
Isn’t that the problem? Any animal can kill. It takes a gregarious, friendly group to be good at it. I don’t think it’s a mutually exclusive thing. Humans are good at making friends, being sociable, understanding each other, helping each other, caring for one another, loving one another. That’s part of the reason we’re so good at killing.
I think I am actually asking if there’s the big-E Evil in the world, but I’m more asking if that we prop ourselves up to be egalitarian and nice to everyone but the Big E Evil still runs deep in everyone. We tend to set up crime and actions in a Marxist way - as functions within a society and that these actors are molded by society. If we change these parts of society, then misogyny would disappear or racism would eventually disappear, but I’m genuinely curious if extreme crime like murder, genocide, and rape comes from an unexplainable savagery that’s not linked to societal conditions at all.
I’d love to see what you’ve read that says this is a myth. I’m not being a douche, I’m sincerely wanting to know an answer to this.
But if someone is born sociopathic/psychopathic/whatever, are they truly “evil”? Such people are very dangerous, yes, and need to be restrained or killed for everyone’s safety; but “evil” implies choice.
I think that there’s plenty of people who choose evil, who decide that they prefer cruelty and ruthlessness; but it’s not “true evil” if they are born that way.
The whole “killer ape” idea stems from before the general public was aware of just how efficient, and frequent, killers chimps are. At hunting other animals, warring with rival troops and in-group infanticide, they seem to have all the same instincts we do or worse (see below). Our killing instincts are not distinctive enough to justify naming us after it.
And (non-Arctic) we have always gotten more of our food from gathering than hunting. We’re just not the killers we think we are - that idea of the great caveman hunter and living off mammoth steaks? Myth - and it’s a myth we were creating even at the time, with the religious aspects of it enshrined in cave and burial. Even today, Bushmen H/Gs venerate hunters and the meat they bring in - but it’s the mongongo nuts that provide their actual steady nutrition. Man became behaviourally modern off the easily gathered seafood of the South African coast, not the antelope hunted in its interior.
And while I’ve read people saying HGs had more violent lives than agriculturalists, this doesn’t seem to be borne out bya recent study - HGs don’t war. They murder, but for the same personal reasons non-HG people do - sexual jealousy and interpersonal conflict. But they don’t often war
that kind of large-scale aggression is a post-agricultural trait.
Imagine putting 70,000 chimps in a sports arena. What do you think would happen?
And before anyone brings up soccer hooligans or the like, remember that Dibble said “more like”. We are more like the friendly ape than the killer ape. We live in groups with much less tension and violence than your typical chimpanzee. Of course, there are bonobos, too, and they have pretty peaceable societies.
Seems to me that bloodlust used to be considered a sign of health and vigor, and was actively encouraged in some cultures … but by now we’ve pretty much realized that it’s a sign of personal dysfunction and not much more.
To get back to actual Evil for just a bit (if nobody minds), how often is genuine evil the actual intent of someone when they set out to do something? Even when discussing the designated jackass of the opposing political party’s latest shenanigans, can you say that she/he is doing evil for evil’s sake if the she/he believes in the outcome fought for? I believe it was Heinlein that said “Your enemy is never a villain in his own eyes.”
Are their true villains, outside of the mentally ill of course, in this world?
I don’t agree with that argument, because I don’t think that calling evil good makes it good. That argument only works if you accept “good” as meaning nothing more than “my side”, and evil nothing more than “their side”; but in fact moral systems have objective differences, whether you call them Good and Evil, Nice or Nasty, or Morality System A and Morality System B.
And quite often enemies do think that what they are doing is evil; societies often coerce people into doing or supporting things they oppose. Armies with unwilling conscripts would be an obvious example; the guy attacking you may well be doing so simply because he’ll be killed himself if he doesn’t. And quite a few people do seem to buy the idea that everyone’s evil, and there’s only “evil on my side” and “evil on your side” to choose from.
As for the OP, evil’s in the intent. I’m with Der Trihs about this- socio/psychopaths aren’t necessarily “evil”. Their actions may be horrible, and they may need to be imprisoned and/or killed, but they may not be “evil”, any more than a violent wild animal is evil.
The CEO who makes a decision to get 5 cents profit per unit at the potential cost of a few deaths per hundred thousand, with the expectation that the 5 cents per unit would still cover the cost of any lawsuits and still be profitable… that strikes me as undiluted evil.
Likewise, I’m not 100% convinced Hitler was exactly evil- clearly he was mentally ill, and possibly not as responsible for his actions as would be required for tagging with “evil”. His henchmen like Goebbels and Heydrich… yep, straight up evil.
There are certain combinations of human characteristics than when allowed to dominate lead to outcomes that I’d consider evil. Desire for power, suspicion against and disregard of those outside your defined group, and end-justify-the-means-thinking spring to mind first. But even if an individual lead chiefly by these would be evil, by themselves and in moderation none of these register as evil in my mind. So no, distilled true evil doesn’t exist and never has.