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The Mystery of Evil

Ville Kokko

Posted on January 5, 2019 04:50

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Human evil is hard to understand not because the phenomenon is complicated but because of our mental blocks about it.

I had long been looking to understand the nature of evil in the sense of things of what humans do to each other and other beings. Then I came upon a single book that seemed to lift the veil and reveal what was making it seem like such a mystery. This book was Roy F. Baumeister's Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty.

I don't know how well I would have understood the point even by reading Baumeister's book if I hadn't come to it the right way.

I had recently read Niall Ferguson's War of the World, a history of both the world wars. What stuck with me there was the dehumanization of others thought evil.

Basically, both the Germans and the Japanese were made to believe that their enemies were sub-human, which allowed them to commit atrocities against them. And then when the British, Americans, and others saw what the Germans and the Japanese had done, they thought they were subhuman monsters and started treating them accordingly – which just showed everyone was the same.

This was followed by Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature: The Decline of Violence in History and Its Causes. This book had many startling insights, but what was most relevant for the current topic was the idea of the expanding circle of empathy, I think taken from Peter Singer.

Simply put: We don't naturally feel empathy towards most people, let alone living beings. We naturally feel it only towards those closest to us, but culture can increase the scope.

Yet this doesn't mean that we now feel empathy towards everyone. Just that the possibility exists.

This brings us to Baumeister's book. The first insight I want to bring up is roughly what is popularly (not so accurately) thought of as "the banality of evil". Evil things are often done by perfectly ordinary people who just don't see the wrongness. Empathy is not universal.

The second part is even more important because it explains why we cannot understand the first.

Humans have strong psychological tendencies to (unconsciously) assume someone doing harmful things must be bad inside and have no understandable reasons; yet if we do something that harms another, we tend to downplay the harm and think it only a reasonable reaction to circumstances.

This creates an illusion where we're totally different from the bad people, making it even easier for us to do bad things. The truth is that it's easy to simply not care. That's why we need ethical thinking. Thinking you're a good person who would automatically shirk from doing anything bad is a delusion.

Since these are automatic ways of thinking, it's hard to get this point, let alone apply it.

We are not saints. Those others are not monsters. We are all animals, like the tiger that kills to live without thinking about it, who also moralize others – and sometimes even have the sense to do the right thing ourselves.

Ville Kokko

Posted on January 5, 2019 04:50

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Source: NYU News

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