What Evil Is

Why is there evil?

The question has provoked religious and theological speculation and debate for time out of mind. The question, “Why is there evil?” seems to conjure dark and mysterious forces at work in human affairs – so dark and mysterious that the question is unanswerable.

Evil has for so long been a religious issue, though not so much because religion gives an intelligible answer to why there is evil. More because religion affords some ways of coping with, of making our peace as best we can with this dark mystery at the source of our pain and loss.

If we ask instead, “Why is there cruelty?” the question has a different feel – the feel of something that is not an impenetrable mystery, but a matter on which researchers have shed some light, and are at work devising ways to shed more.

I preached here about evil before – nine and half years ago, in October 2013. I said then that the word “evil” functions as a thought-stopper. We say something’s evil, and we’re off the hook to look into the matter any more deeply. "It’s evil – End of story." End of thinking. If we call someone “evil," we’ve given ourselves something that feels like an explanation but actually explains nothing at all. A person calling something evil probably doesn’t want an explanation, doesn’t want to understand, but just wants the thing destroyed – because what follows from, “it’s evil,” is “it must be destroyed.”

In that sermon, I went on to talk about sociopaths – what sociopathy is and some ways society might best deal with having people like that among us. Today, we’ll explore cruelty that comes from normal people. By “normal,” I mean people who have normal levels of empathy. Empathy is how we avoid cruelty, and psychological conditions such as borderline personality disorder, psychopathy, and narcissism are characterized by empathy deficits. But people who have average levels of empathy, may also sometimes be induced to behave cruelly. We’ll look at the sociology instead of the psychology of cruelty – how empathy can get misdirected rather than how empathy may be absent.

I need to clarify what sort of empathy I’ll be talking about. Sometimes people may speak of empathy as a “feeling with” in an enmeshed, unboundaried way. That’s not the form of empathy I’m talking about. I’m talking about empathy as
“our ability to identify what someone else is thinking or feeling and to respond to their thoughts and feelings with an appropriate emotion.” (Simon Baron-Cohen, The Science of Evil, p. 17)
It means suspending single-minded focus on oneself and adopting a double-minded focus of being also concerned with other people’s interests. It need not mean that we can’t keep our interests and others’ interests separate, or that we don’t have appropriate boundaries.

The double-minded focus of empathy allows us to keep an eye on self while also attending to another – identifying what someone else is thinking or feeling, responding with an appropriate emotion. For most of us, empathy is what steers us away from cruelty, and without it we much more easily slide into cruelty – more oblivious to unintentional cruelty, and more prone to intentional cruel.

The thesis that empathy is the solution to cruelty is generally true. If we cultivate the skills of picking up what others are thinking and feeling, which goes hand in hand with knowing what we ourselves are thinking and feeling, and the desire to connect with, care about, and be helpful to others – then we are doing our part to make the world less cruel.

There are two caveats or challenges to this thesis: (1) What about people who lack empathy yet aren’t cruel? And, (2) what about people who have normal levels of empathy, yet still commit acts of cruel harm?

To the first point: It’s true that not all low-empathy people are susceptible to cruelty. People on the autism spectrum are low on empathy, but they are not evil, and are not cruel, notwithstanding the hurt feelings their social faux pas might provoke. People with Asperger’s Syndrome – which is not an official diagnosis, but more an informal name for a certain range on the autism spectrum where the symptoms are less severe than other kinds of autism spectrum disorders – can’t read people. They can’t tell if you’re upset, but if they are told you’re upset, it matters to them, and if there’s something they can do to help you feel better, they are ready to do it, if they know what it is.

Without empathy, which draws us into a shared world, people with Asperger’s may seem to be in a world of their own. So, they talk about themselves mostly and tend to zero in on a single subject. They dislike change. Clinical psychologist and Cambridge professor Simon Baron-Cohen says that this type of person has
“a mind constantly striving to step out of time, to set aside the temporal dimension in order to see – in stark relief – the eternal repeating patterns in nature. Change represents the temporal dimension seeping into an otherwise perfectly predictable, systemizable world.... They may become aware of the dimension of time only during events that contain novelty and that therefore violate expectations.” (Baron-Cohen, p. 156)
For them, change is very frightening, and they are drawn to predictable patterns. For that very reason, people with Asperger’s may make huge contributions to society. They are great systemizers, and can suss out patterns that the rest of us never recognize because we’re too busy attending to our own and each other’s feelings and moods, and going with the flow of time and change rather than trying to step out of it.

So, as we reflect, it’s important to bear in mind that there are ways to be a good person, and make very valuable contributions to society, without empathy.

Now consider the reverse: people who have normal empathy, yet behave cruelly. Where does their empathy go? It’s not gone. It can get hijacked – misdirected. Hannah Arendt coined the phrase “banality of evil” in writing about the trial of the Nazi Adolph Eichmann. Per Arendt, Eichmann wasn’t evil in the sense of intending to do harm. Rather, he was evil in the sense failing to think about the crime he was committing. Evil, in Arendt’s account,
“is perpetuated when immoral principles become normalized over time by unthinking people. Evil becomes commonplace; it becomes the everyday. Ordinary people — going about their everyday lives — become complicit actors in systems that perpetuate evil.” (Jack Maden, “Hannah Arendt On Standing Up to the Banality of Evil,” philosophybreak.com, 2020 May)
Along these lines is the famous Stanley Milgram study. Milgram, a professor at Yale, recruited nearly a thousand volunteer subjects.
“Arriving in pairs, they would draw lots assigning one [subject] to the role of ‘teacher,’ and the other to that of ‘learner.’ The teachers were seated in front of a large device which they were told was a shock machine. They were then instructed to perform a memory test with the learner, who was strapped to a chair in the next room. For every wrong answer, the teacher had to press a switch to administer an electric shock. In reality, the learner was always a member of Milgram’s team, and the machine didn’t deliver shocks at all. But the teachers didn’t know that. They thought this was a study on the effect of punishment on memory and didn’t realize the study was really about them. The shocks started small, a mere 15 volts. But each time the learner gave a wrong answer, a man in a grey lab coat directed the teacher to raise the voltage. From 15 volts to 30. From 30 vots to 45. An so on, no matter how loudly the learner in the next room screamed, and even after reaching the zone labelled DANGER: SEVERE SHOCK. At 350 volts the learner pounded on the wall. After that, he went silent.” (Rutger Bregman, Humankind, p. 161)
Milgram found that
“65 percent of the study participants continued right up to the furthest extreme and administered the full 450 volts. Apparently, two-thirds of those ordinary dads, pals, and husbands were willing to electrocute a random stranger. Why? Because someone told them to.” (Bregman)
Published in 1963, as the world was processing the recent fact of Nazi atrocities, Milgram's study appeared to have answered the question, “What kind of person was capable of sending millions to the gas chambers?” And the answer Milgram’s study suggested was: all of us. It turns out there’s more to it than what has usually been mentioned in accounts of Milgram's experiment.

Arendt’s book on Eichmann came out the same year, 1963, further explicating evil as ordinary – indeed, banal. But I want to say to you today that we humans are better than Milgram and Arendt made us out to be.
“David Cesarini argues that Hannah Arendt stayed only for the beginning of the trial, when Eichmann wanted to appear as ordinary as possible. In fact, had she stayed longer, she would have seen how he had exercised creativity in the murders. He was not just blindly following orders.” (Baron-Cohen)
The story isn’t that Eichmann was a normally empathic person whose empathy was over-ruled by his also normal proclivity for blind obedience to authority. Rather, the full story indicates Eichmann had well-below normal levels of empathy. His failure to think about the crime he was committing was actually an inability to think from someone else’s perspective. It was a failure of empathy.

Eichmann had declared back in 1945,
“I will leap into my grave laughing because the feeling that I have five million human beings on my conscience is for me a source of extraordinary satisfaction.”
Rutger Bregman writes:
“Reading through the thirteen hundred pages of interviews, teeming with warped ideas and fantasies, it’s patently obvious that Eichmann was no brainless bureaucrat. He was a fanatic. He acted not out of indifference but out of conviction.” (p. 171)
The subjects in Milgram’s experiment did have normal levels of empathy – and they actually did a better job of resisting evil than Milgram’s reporting of his results let on.

When, about 12 years ago, Gina Perry learned that archives of Milgram’s audio recordings in his study were available, she was keen to hear them. She learned that that
“man in the grey lab coat – a biology teacher Milgram had hired named John Williams – would make as many as eight or nine attempts to get people to continue pressing higher switches. He even came to blows with one forty-six-year-old woman who turned the shock machine off. Williams turned it back on and demanded she continue. ‘The slavish obedience to authority,’ writes Gina Perry, ‘comes to sound much more like bullying and coercion when you listen to these recordings.’” (Bregman, p. 165)
Additionally, although Milgram had written that “with few exceptions subjects were convinced of the reality of the experimental situation” – that wasn’t true. Think about it.
“Were people seriously expected to believe that someone was being tortured under the watchful eye of scientists from a prestigious institution like Yale?” (Bregman, p. 166)
Eleven years after his 1963 article which had such impact, Milgram’s 1974 book, Obedience to Authority, in the last chapter, includes the information that a questionnaire participants were sent when the study was over showed “that only 56 percent of his subjects said they believed they were actually inflicting pain on the learner.” So that means 44 percent of subjects had doubts about whether the shocks were real. That would account for most of the 65 percent of subjects who pushed the buttons for the maximum shock.

“A never-published analysis by one of Milgram’s assistants reveals that the majority of people called it quits if they did believe the shocks were real.” (Bregman, p. 166)
Still, that leaves at least 21 percent of participants who believed the shocks were real and still continued to the maximum. That’s a lot. And it’s also true that “psychologists the world over have replicated [Milgram’s] shock experiment in various iterations with minor modifications.” They get similar results.

But look. People volunteer for the study because they want to help. They arrive feeling helpful. They want to be of service to science. The man in the gray lab coat had a script of prompts to encourage people to keep going, and the most successful prompt was, “The experiment requires that you continue.” It’s for the sake of science, and learning, and human advancement, and better lives for us all.

This motivation to be helpful also played a role in the famous Zimbardo prison experiment in which students role-played at being guards and prisoners, and the perfectly normal students randomly assigned to play guards turned into raging sadistic abusers of the prisoners. Turns out they did so because they’d been explicitly instructed to do so, and were just trying to be helpful for contributing to scientific understanding. The story isn’t one of a failure of empathy, of an inability to see what someone else is thinking or feeling and coordinate ourselves with it. The story is that the participants were empathetic to the researchers and they sought to coordinate themselves to what appeared to be the noble project of research.

As Rutger Bregman concludes from all this:
“In other words, if you push people hard enough, if you poke and prod, bait and manipulate, many of us are indeed capable of doing evil. The road to hell is paved with good intentions. But evil doesn’t live just beneath the surface; it takes immense effort to draw it out. And most importantly, evil has to be disguised as doing good.” (p. 170)
We are most tempted to evil when it masquerades as good. It’s because we are so very pro-social that we can be sometimes be manipulated into doing harm.

We aren’t monsters, and we aren’t mindless robots. What we are is joiners. And that can sometimes get misdirected. Once we know that, we can resist attempts at misdirection. The empathy that steers us away from cruelty can be trained to not be tricked into instead steering us the wrong direction.
“In 2015, Matthew Hollander reviewed the taped recordings of 117 sessions at Milgram’s shock machine. After extensive analysis, he discovered a pattern. The subjects who managed to halt the experiment used three tactics. (1) Talk to the victim. (2) Remind the man the grey lab coat of his responsibility. (3) Repeatedly refuse to continue.”
These can be generalized into our guidelines:
  • Talk to the injured.
  • Remind the authorities of their responsibility.
  • And repeatedly refuse to comply with systems that are doing harm.
“Communication and confrontation, compassion and resistance. Hollander discovered that virtually all participants used these tactics – virtually all wanted to stop, after all – but that those who succeeded used them much more. The good news is: these are trainable skills. Resistance just takes practice. ‘What distinguishes Milgram’s heroes,’ Hollander observes, ‘is largely a teachable competency at resisting questionable authority.’” (Bregman, pp. 174-75)
That’s what I am urging today. Cultivate empathy. Pay attention to what other people are feeling. This includes having empathy for yourself. Coordinate with other people’s feelings – while being self-defined and boundaried.

Overall, we become more joyous people, and our world becomes brighter when we can do that. And keep an eye out for the possibility that coordinating with other people’s feelings might take you toward rather than away from cruelty. Where that’s a possibility: talk to the injured, encourage authorities to be responsible, and repeatedly refuse to continue.

So may it be.


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