Sources of Evil

Evil and Hope, part 1

I have my doubts about whether there is such a thing as evil. There is certainly harm. People do things that harm other people, that harm living beings and this earth. People are not all sunshine and light. Harm happens.

How does it happen? The source of harm, I’m going to say, is one of two general categories: either there’s a medical condition, or there’s a lack of skills.

First, the medical conditions.

Sometimes there’s mental illness that can cause a person to harm themselves and others. Antisocial Personality Disorder is now the preferred term for what we used to call psychopaths and sociopaths. People with antisocial personality disorder feel the basic emotions: anger, fear, sadness, disgust, surprise, joy, acceptance, anticipation. They do not feel the social emotions: love, guilt, shame, and remorse.

Some people are born this way: they are genetically incapable of those social emotions. Other people are born a little weak in these areas, but with the right kind of environment they can build up a capacity for the social emotions – or, with the wrong kind of environment, they can lose what capacity they had for them.

People with antisocial personality disorder show no regard for right and wrong, ignore the rights and feelings of others, tend to antagonize, manipulate or treat others harshly or with callous indifference. Without the guidance we get from guilt, shame, and remorse, and without feeling the bonds of love connecting us to others, people with antisocial personality disorder can do terrible harm.

This fits the picture of “evil,” but I don’t think it helps us any to call that evil. We need to engage with the issue to find the best treatment and social response, and labeling it “evil” doesn’t help us do that.

Of course, I need to stress that most individuals with serious mental illness are not dangerous. At the same time, there are dangerous people, and sometimes psychosis is what makes them dangerous. Schizophrenia can sometimes cause violent and harmful behavior. Bipolar disorder is usually nonviolent, but is associated with a slightly increased risk of violence.

There are a lot of ways things can go wrong with the brain.

Charles Whitman was a twenty-five-year-old student at the University of Texas in 1966 when, one August day, he climbed up the UT Tower to the observation deck, lugging with him a footlocker full of guns and ammunition. At the top, he killed a receptionist with the butt of his rifle. Two families of tourists came up the stairwell. He shot them, and then he began to fire at people below. He shot 49 people before being killed by the police. Earlier that morning Whitman had murdered his mother and stabbed his wife to death in her sleep.

An autopsy revealed that
“Whitman’s brain harbored a tumor the diameter of a nickel. This tumor, called a glioblastoma, had blossomed from beneath a structure called the thalamus, impinged on the hypothalamus, and compressed a third region called the amygdala.” (David Eagleman, "The Brain on Trial, Atlantic Monthly, 2011 Jul/Aug)
When those areas are impinged upon it can lead to very aggressive behavior, and overpowering impulses to violence and inability to regulate emotions in the normal way.

Whitman sensed what was happening to him, but couldn’t stop it. The note he composed the evening before his death related:
“I talked with a Doctor once for about two hours and tried to convey to him my fears that I felt [overcome by] overwhelming violent impulses. After one session, I never saw the Doctor again, and since then I have been fighting my mental turmoil alone, and seemingly to no avail.”
Charles Whitman had been, by all indications, a fine, bright upstanding young man. And then this tumor made him crazy violent. In that final note, he wrote:
“I don’t really understand myself these days. I am supposed to be an average reasonable and intelligent young man. However, lately (I can’t recall when it started) I have been a victim of many unusual and irrational thoughts. It was after much thought that I decided to kill my wife, Kathy, tonight... I love her dearly, and she has been as fine a wife to me as any man could ever hope to have. I cannot rationa[l]ly pinpoint any specific reason for doing this...”

That sure sounds like evil, doesn’t it? -- chilling in its premeditation, and the calm, deliberate way he prepares to kill the woman he loves. But Charles Whitman did not suffer from a spiritual condition called evil. He suffered from a medical condition called glioblastoma.

* * *
This is part 1 of 2 of "Evil and Hope"
See also
Part 2: Evil as Lack of Skill

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