A while ago I wrote a series of posts in which I explored the Problem of Evil (or Eeee-vil if you like). This is a classic philosophical problem that atheists sometimes like to throw at theists. If God is all powerful and all good then how can there be evil?
My take on this problem was rather different. For one thing I consider the Problem of Evil to be one that does not merely belong to theists to grapple with. The Problem of Evil challenges all views of the universe in which right and wrong have some objective basis –whether that basis is theistic opinion, or reason or mental health. If right, for any reason, is able to be objectively distinguished from wrong, then we all have to wonder why we continue to do wrong at all. There must be some other drive or creative force to explain why even a million or so years of humanity has done little to shift the perennial problem of evil. This experience that evil persists ultimately obliges us to doubt the sovereignty of reason or the normality of empathy as much as the theist must doubt the sovereignty of a loving God.
I’d like to revisit the question of evil in this post but with a different focus. I’d like to ask the pragmatic question of how we can understand what produces evil. In doing so I will present two different views that try and understand wrongdoing. I’m going to avoid the tricky theodicy of evil mentioned above – anyone interested in that aspect can revisit those earlier posts – and focus on ways of understanding evil’s causation that throw up possible interventions.
Learning theory and developmental models.
When an infant cries in the night, waking us up, we do not consider this bad or wrong. We want our child to alert us if they are distressed. Likewise it is good if they are hungry that they demand food. We are not offended if they demand food while we are preparing it – how are they to know we are preparing the food for them? We are not, after a slow breath, offended even when our child spits out the food we have prepared, calling it yucky. We do want them not to swallow what tastes bad to them. It’s a useful self-preservation skill for someone who is still tasting the dog.
If our teenage child demands food while we are preparing it we might be frustrated and point out what they should have observed. If they spit it out, calling it yucky, then we might be righteously frustrated by their lack of tact but still we would not judge this incident in the same way as if a grown and fully able person was expected us to hurry up with dinner and then griping that it wasn’t to their taste. What is appropriate, even desireable, for a person at one age and stage is not appropriate in another situation.
This attitude to wrongdoing is really helpful when parenting. Is your kid pushing boundaries or testing limits? So they should be. You in return should respond in a way that is loving but also acknowledges realities that your child needs to understand ie. a banging pot in their parents ear is bloody annoying or your sisters artwork is not improved in her eyes by your scribbling on it. At an early enough age a kid pulls our hair or pokes our eye, not to sadistically enjoy causing pain, but in the same way that they might ring a bell. Through our reactions we teach children whether this is a good game or not. We advise them that there is a real person like themselves in this body holding them. We also show them what this means by compassionately responding to their own pain. The specific stage at which children develop empathy is hard to pinpoint but it is usually observable before age two (and arguably not perfected in this life). It’s development is the slow result of authentic and congruent interactions with others.
It can be difficult to apply a development model to older children’s behaviour. We may want to ascribe maliciousness to their actions when they disrespect us, they have more adult sized heads after all, but it makes sense to think of their actions developmentally. You are the unelected ruler of your child’s castle. Is it appropriate to lie to such a ruler? You might even be a little concerned about your child’s intelligence if they automatically took the rulers word that it was wrong and never had a go.
Younger children can’t lie but it’s a skill that we actually want all children to develop – we applaud it in actors for example who can pretend to be entirely different people. We simply want them to know when to use the skill and when not to. Developing that knowledge is usually going to happen by them trying lying out and us responding genuinely ie. by trusting them less. This is how they learn about concepts like trust and reputation and the consequences of lying. As children get older they can learn more and more hypothetically. They can imagine what it would feel like to be lied to for example, but we shouldn’t be surprised if they resort to testing their theories of right and wrong. Only through relationships with others are the nuances of ethical human behaviour worked out.
It would be wrong to characterize this idea of the development of moral character as simply being taught right from wrong. The emerging adult develops an understanding of the concepts that underpin right and wrong. This means the awareness that other people have feelings and that those feeling include such complex ones as feeling put down or put upon. Perhaps more importantly they experience being on the recieving end of genuine love. These understandings are put together so that the emerging adult can to some extent, draw their own conclusions about what is right and wrong. Specific conclusions can even be overturned from one generation to another: an honest butcher can father a proud vegan.
A learning theory or developmental approach to moral growth understands aberrant behaviour as coming from development that is missed or gone awry. Usually the further explanation for this incorrect development is a lack of appropriate authentic and congruent relationships in a persons life. Sometimes intellectual impairment or other neuro-biological factors are seen to be in play, such as high cortisol levels, the body’s stress hormone. The corrective intervention is usually seen as taking time and involves establishing the necessary relationships that the person has missed out on. These relationships have to include consequences for negative behaviour but not simply as a punishment to change behaviour. Rather the consequences are ideally natural consequences. They are part of holding a genuine space for the other person to experience what they need to in order to develop a socially appropriate morality.
There is clinical evidence to support these kinds of interventions and thus the developmental model that they draw from. We know that many people diagnosed as sociopaths or psychopaths will grow out of it in time. There are obviously no experimental studies to support developmental ideas of how people become inclined towards evil. It’s unconscionable to imagine controlled testing of different parenting models to see if they make one child into a villain and another into a hero. Schools are very interested in building empathy amongst students. Diverse interventions based on learning theory claim excellent results in schools but its hard to be sure of their data. When terrible acts of violence and cruelty are displayed in the media, our desire to blame improper development may have much to do with our hope that, by parenting well, we can avoid the fate of the perpetrator’s parents, who often seem bewildered by what their child has done.
Systems theory and social models.
Developmental models can tell us how people become “bad people” or fail to aquire what they need to be “good people” but they struggle with the problem of how supposedly “good people from good homes” with a history of authentic caring relationships, do bad things. This is a problem that seemed to have occurred when U.S. soldiers brutally tortured and degraded the inmates of Abu Ghraib prison in 2003. The U.S. Military at the time sought to blame a few bad apples for the mess. One of those bad apples enlisted, as an expert witness in their defence, psychologist Phillip Zombardo.
Phillip Zombardo has made a lifelong study of what makes people willing to comitt atrocities and is most famous for his deeply troubling study, the Stanford Prison Experiment. In this social experiment he showed how within only a few days, through dehumanization of their victims, uniforms to establish anonymity and socialization into authoritarian roles, ordinary people could act with terrible cruelty to their peers. The experiment began with socially adjusted participants but had to be shut down in six days because it had become dangerous to participants who were roleplaying prisoners. To use Zombardo’s own language, it was not bad apples that were to blame in the Stanford Prison Experiment or Abu Ghraib, but a bad barrel; a set of social conditions that enabled and normalized cruelty.
Zombardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment is an intense case study that is supported by the repeated experimental work of Stanley Milgram. His study in 1963 found that an overwhelmingly percentage of ordinary people would apply electric shocks to a stranger even if that stranger was screaming for mercy. All that was required was that they were asked to do so by a person in a white lab coat who promised to take responsibility for the act and that their involvement was introduced incrementally. Once again there is nothing to suggest that participants who complied with potentially murderous instructions were in any way developmentally impaired. They were ordinary people.
Looking at the barrel rather than the apple enables us to understand evil on the scale that was tolerated by Germans under Nazism, Whites under apartheid in South Africa and arguably Australians in relation to our off shore indefinite detention policies. In each of these cases near universal developmental impairments seems unlikely. Systems theory can seem at first despairing though. We can’t necessarily rely on our good character to ensure that we will not commit terrible evil. We might find ourselves slipping into it step by step until our capacity to recognize our behaviour as evil is severely diminished.
Critics fear that systems theory diminishes any personal responsibility for our actions. It is important to note that not every person capitulates and co-operates with systematic evil and that some personalities capitulate all too easily. Hannah Arendt, a German Jew herself, explained the Nazi Holocaust with the acceptance that many compliant Nazis were not sadistic or psychopathic personalities in their individual selves, no more than Milgrams study participants or the guards of the Stanford Prison Experiment were. Her understanding was that evil on that scale is committed, not by sadists so much as by nobodies, people who have forgone their moral agency to become the ultimate obeyers. Hannah Arendt was adamant that even under the most totalitarian systems people voluntarily obey or resist. In her most famous quote from her book published in 1963, the Banality of Evil, she says;
[U]nder conditions of terror most people will comply but some people will not, just as the lesson of the countries to which the Final Solution was proposed is that "it could happen" in most places but it did not happen everywhere. Humanly speaking, no more is required, and no more can reasonably be asked, for this planet to remain a place fit for human habitation.
Phillip Zombardo is currently engaged in a project designed to cultivate and promote the people who can stand up to evil and the conditions they thrive in. These are the people who form the small portion who refused to electrocute strangers in Milgrams work, the whistleblowers who expose events like at Abu Ghraib, or the Germans who stood up to the Nazis. Contrary to what we usually hear from school programs wanting to produce positive behaviours, the Heroic Imagination Project views dissent positively. It views social conformity as the greatest enabler of evil. The crucial space needed to resist evil is what Hannah Arendt refers to as the conversation we can have with ourselves.
What use are interventions like the Heroic Imagination Project in preventing those acts of evil which are seemingly indifferent to the rules of society, even closed societies? Although rare, violence by “lone gunmen” who act in isolation and against expectations, does exist. It seems counter intuitive to suggest that such villains need to obey less and listen to their convictions more. Two responses come to mind. Firstly that the Heroic Imagination Project is right to focus, not on the abberant perpetrator, but on the aberrant but more important heroes in these stories. These people are far better role models than the lone gunman and to some extent whoever we focus on will be a role model whether we call them the villain or hero.
Secondly, it is possible that aberrant lone gunman are not so aberrant or lone as they think. Often their choices are consistent with beliefs shared by others. While no more than a tiny proportion of men kill their partner we recognize that those who do are obeying social scripts that exist about men’s pride and women as property. If a shooter targets dancers in a gay club as occurred recently in Orlando this is certainly consistent with a range of social and religious messages. Even in these cases where the perpetrator of evil is clearly disobeying certain laws and mores it may be that they are simply obeying more fiercely other laws. Even if they might view themselves as some kind of tragic hero, they may have allowed themselves to be a nobody in a system of prejudice.
I began this post wanting to pierce the darkness around why people do evil. The Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando has been blamed on masculinity, Islam, U.S. Conservatism, internalized homophobia and easy access to weapons. Fingers have been pointed at the perpetrators family, the man himself has been called mentally ill and they have been treated as a symptom of their society. All of these are perfectly reasonable speculations. Early and contradictory reports from news sources with agendas can’t be treated as evidence of anything though. I felt a need to look away from that news cycle to get some perspective.
I've finished this post with a little more clarity and hope. We aren’t completely blind about what produces evil. We might even be on track to knowing how to reduce incidences of evil. That might not give us an easy explanation of an individual case like the Pulse nightclub shooting. There are a lot of unanswered questions and a lot of untested ideas, in developmental models particularly, rushing to answer them. But as humans we aren’t entirely throwing our arms up in resignation either. We are challenging the fear that evil will always be a mysterious eruption from beneath an opaque surface. We are shining a light on where it comes from. We are planning to live in this world without the shadow of inexplicable destruction stalking our attempts to dance and have fun.