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EvilReview - Evil
A History
by Andrew P. Chignell (Editor)
Oxford University Press, 2019
Review by Roy Sugarman, PhD
Sep 24th 2019 (Volume 23, Issue 39)

More than two decades ago, my colleague and practice partner, Prof Victor Nell, commented to me that we, as psychologists, had not yet learned to investigate the nature of evil. He set out to do just that. This argument, at the time of writing, seems never more cogent. At this time, once again, American gun crime has turned to mass murder. The issues as always, are as to what constitutes mental illness, and what constitutes pure evil. Hitler was conceived of as a madman, but obviously was not. Germans as Nazis were plentiful and happy to raise their hand in the salute to evil, and turn on each other, as the Gestapo documented. Gilead, in modern TV terms uses religion to produce hate, evil in the guise of religious adherence to the pages of uncertain origin. Christians were put to war with lions in the Colosseum, while prostitutes waited for their clients to be sufficiently aroused, and thousands gathered to watch public beheadings in Christian countries, as Muslim extremists do now.

Humans are capable of evil. This is not madness, just the animal nature escaping from our veneer of frontality, of frontal-executive inhibition.  Serial killers are often mad by any definition, and evil too, but are capable of knowing wrong from right for the most part, and prosecuted as such. Jews and Muslims are not evil, if we can make a general statement, but some are, and then right-wing critics demonize them as murdering mullahs or apartheid Zionists. Evil is in the eye of the beholder.

Nell, on the intentional infliction on cruelty, wrote in his precis that he had to deal with critics of his approach to the topic, an original article labelled "provocative" by genocide writers:

 "This response deals with seven of the major challenges the commentators have raised to the target article. First, I show that the historical-anecdotal method I have followed has its roots in sociology, and that there is a strong case for the development of a "psychology of history." Next, the observational data suggesting that intentional cruelty cannot be restricted to humans is rebutted on the grounds that cruelty requires not only an intention to inflict pain, but to do so because that pain would cause the victim to suffer – which requires a theory of mind. Third, in the light of the commentaries, I recognise that not only predation but also intraspecific aggression contributes to the development of cruelty. Fourth, I contrast nativists and environmentalists, the former regarding cruelty as a universal human capacity and the latter holding the view that cruelty is acquired through social learning, and argue that there is an otherworldly quality to the environmentalist view. I then show (the fifth challenge) that the target article does generate testable hypotheses. Sixth is a consideration of the implications of the target article for the re-admission of the concept of evil to the psychological lexicon; and seventh, a consideration of the commentaries which note that the cultivation of compassion is a tool for the prevention of cruelty. The last section of the response replies to questions of detail and rebuts some misrepresentations of my argument". 

JM Coetzee, a palaeontologist, wrote that those who deal with evil become tainted by it, that evil is contagious. Perhaps this might explain the evil action which Nuremburg suggested could not happen at behest of Allied soldiers, but of course, we know from My Lai and other atrocities, that is a dubious argument. But, nevertheless, Nazi soldiers like Wilm Hosenfeld and countless others simply refused to be contaminated by evil, and refused to become tainted by it, as Coetzee suggested was possible. Compassion, as Hosenfeld noted, in his biography written by his family, included the mantra (indeed the title of the book), I try to help everyone. Compassion was the antidote, Nell wrote.

So Nell refers to the historical-anecdotal approach of sociology, and now Chignell does that. Nell often spoke to me of Hannah Arendt's formulation that the problem with evil was that it was banal, and in Eichmann's own words, all that he had to do was suspend his thoughts, his morality in fact, as Nell has mentioned (mirror neurons, theory of mind). Eichmann didn't lack compassion, he just suspended it by not confronting it in his mind, but simply transported people from A to B without thinking of the dismantling destruction of A, the industrialized death at B. He did not think he was in the evil murder business, but just in the benign and efficient transport business. It makes sense then that Chignell kicks off with the discussions between Arendt and Karl Jaspers, then a study of evil words, and then a foray into the evil depicted in the Hebrew Bible.  As with Nell, he brings in works on early history, and depicts evil in the writings of Plato, Euripides and Seneca, Plotonius, Augustine, and Medieval mystics. Islam and evil, Dante, Calvin, and of course always the idea of witches and demons, targeting women, as in Salem. Kant, Don Giovanni and Leopardi are examined but he certainly ends up with the banality of evil in Arendt's writing, and post Holocaust. He ends with contribution from Chan on google and not being evil.

A lot to get your head around. Motzkin speaks of the concept of moral evil post Holocaust, noting that evil is not the absence of good, but rather we could better be served thinking of good as only existing in the absence of evil. Radical evil is different, because it is evil even when there is not positive good to which it can be compared, if we think post-Holocaust, and there is now ordinary evil and radical evil. Crimes against humanity are denials of humanity, and thus radically evil because it makes it impossible to evaluate any other actions of humans as either evil or good. Neutrality, as with Eichmann, are impossible, as there are degrees of radical evil,  as segregation laws have demonstrated, or Trumpian comments that label people of color as "the other" who invade "our country" may be recognized as radically evil, but less so than gas and ovens. In Yehuda Bauer's terms, you should not be a perpetrator, or a bystander, you have to intervene or attempt to.

Huxford appreciates Motzkin's struggle with defining evil, normal evil, radical evil etc and opines that we have to begin with Kant. As noted above, moral evil is a thing, and the only real evil. Radical evil cannot be eliminated, but only fought, and thus one cannot be a bystander. Thoughts and prayers do not do it, actions count, hence the chants in recent times of "do something". Moral evil is what man does to man. Animals, as Martin and Watkins note, are not autonomous beings, and merely react to their environment, and lack the space between incoming provocation and outgoing action to deliberate on their response: they just do, they do not plot to be nasty. Autonomous agents are the only beings with intrinsic moral worth, and hence capable of evil. Motzkin also deals with moral evil, radical evil, and autonomy. Moral salience thus occurs in us, intrinsically, because we can contemplate a situation and act morally or not, moral evil being a human possibility. Humans have religion though, to draw on.

Early Islamic writing and thinking produced the idea that both good and evil possess a crucial function in the setup of the world, a form of Satanic test in Germann's evaluation of the early texts. In this way, evil is integrated by deity into governance of the universe, in response to the early loss of paradise in seeking the fruit of knowledge. In Relational Frames Theory terms, the capacity of humans to give ourselves knowledge and learn by framing relationships into meaningful patterns, is also the source of anxiety, sadness, evil perhaps. Evil in the holy Qur'ān is primarily then a moral value, in this case, disobeying the ruling deity, both in act and mindset, having pride, becoming an unbeliever, in other words, disobedient and failing to submit.

Indeed, if evil and the bible come to mind, Adam and Eve (Newsom) must follow most typically, as in The Fall from Grace, as narrated by Augustine (King, later on in the book). This means that dualistic versions of good and evil emerge later than the first five books of Moses, rather being a more Christian era phenomenon. The classic story of suffering is seen in the bible in the book of Job, clearly a mythic fable, where deities including Satan struggle over the religious convictions of Job, and put him to the test, without his consent or knowledge. Perhaps evil is not more than being 'wicked' in biblical terms, a more concrete approach typical of the Pentateuch rather than the New Testament.  Given Hillel noted that the entire message of the Talmud was that we should treat our neighbors as we would want to be treated in return, the nature of the wicked would be those who bring us to groan when they govern us (Proverbs 29:2b) and that the desire of the wicked craves evil, and his neighbor finds no compassion in his sight (21:10) according to Newsom. When the argument comes in Job as to who is wicked, and who is righteous, although the wicked may prevail, it is only brief, and the righteous will prevail in the end, and for longer. Ultimately, in the Hebrew Bible world, the wicked, like Sodom and Gomorrah, are destroyed.

King is not that keen on Kant, turning to Augustine as I noted above, who drew on the Hebrew's narrative, establishing the discourse on evil in less biblical concrete terms, but as a philosophical argument of morality, a profound metaphysical problem in a world dominated by a caring god, leading to dualistic approaches to the problem. Sentient beings such as man are thus vulnerable to defective free choices and all suffering is morally justified, evil being a form of privation. Evil, like wickedness, is in combat with good, and so as with the argument above, the evil will not triumph in the end. However, the argument that the Judeo-Christian deity is omnipotent, suggests that the struggle must be one-sided in good's favour, and secondly such an all-creating deity could not be so, and create evil too and thus be the cause of evil and also try to defeat it? God's creations are thus not God, and may inherently not be that perfect, as only He is perfect, not his creations, so suffering evil and doing evil are distinguishable: free choice amongst humans, says Augustine, can result in Moral Evil again, the defective result of defective choosing. In terms of privation, as mentioned above, it is the absence of something we ought to do but didn't. This is a failure to choose. Short term and self-centered choice can only provide brief good, as in Relational Frames, and in the long run cannot prosper. Pursuing temporal good cannot equate to the Eternal Good as embodied by the deity. Rational beings can pursue that which is morally evil, and Augustine and the stoics thus have differing views on suffering.

As Kamtekar notes, Baumeister and others opined that the victim has a different view of the damage done compared to the perpetrator's view. For instance, as Manchester proposed, the teenager who beats a fellow into a pulp, resulting in coma, doesn't perceive any permanent effect as the person didn't die for instance. Again, Nell's view of theory of mind is pertinent here, as the doer doesn't relate to the person who got done, in the view of Socrates anyway. The sufferer thus has to seek explanations, the easiest of which is some presentation of Evil in the tormentor, a character trait. Plato would have seen the evil action as a reasonable action to achieve a given end, or otherwise a sign of the evil one's evil nature. If you can't estimate the goal of the former argument, then you default to the fundamental attribution of the evil agency of the perpetrator. Some crimes are hard to explain in terms of Euripides, and Seneca goes for some evil mythology, but both are struggling with the world as Plato saw it in terms of explaining evil. Perhaps, as Halteman reflects, our meat eating is a form of evil predation, as juxtaposed with non-human predators. Do animals have a say, do they believe we are evil, or just justify our role as predators, not torturers? Of course, the initial 10 tenets of the bible that applied to non-Jews included the humane slaughter of animals, rather than just ripping off a limb from a life creature. Jews got lumbered with 613 good deeds that create angels on three levels in heaven according to the Kabbalah.

Wood notes that the German view prior to the 20th Century would focus on two themes, namely the sense that evil is an expression of an evil individual will, or secondly, a view of the theodicy as venue. We are back to Kant, and now Fichte and Kierkegaard, neglecting the second theme. Radical Evil for Kant was an inherent tendency, the first theme, and common to many others' working of the problem, a sense of volitional control dominating. We have to commit an action we know should not be committed. Otherwise, forbidding it is just a form of manipulating: evil has to be inherently so. Doing means self-deception that it is warranted. Fichte sees two drives, one natural, and one that serves the self, and is detached from the natural drive, a despairing refusal of respect for one's rational selfhood which then lies at the root of all evil. For Kierkegaard, one can be in despair without being aware of it, and hence self-deception is at the root of despair, and abandonment of self. The question of self requires honesty and authenticity, unlike the activities that demand deception, such as politics, in avoiding answering a question that would be devastating if answered unambiguously and honestly. So the only concept of sin for him is that of Socrates, namely sin is ignorance and in defiance of God. For others, like Geddes, evil is just banal.

Arendt found Eichmann to be a superficial and minor figure, not the architect of evil, despite his actions, which he managed by failing to self-reflect, a core principle let us say of ethical practice in medicine. No one mentions Nazi doctors in this book, which is an omission really, as they had to follow the principle of justifying their ghastly inhumanity or being unable otherwise to pursue their cruel practices. He was the thoughtless evildoer, not evil inherently, but capable of evil deeds. That is a warning to all of us. Motzkin notes post-holocaust that the Germans could justify their murderous behaviour as some form of justifiable attempt at redemption, at redeeming the Aryan races. No matter how badly we view the days of Genghis Khan, his murderous Mongolian rampage wasn't personal or genocidal. Radical evil is the denial of shared humanity, as in "no human would live that way" implies that people who do, are not human.  This would be a misreading of Darwin and a delight of Eugenics. In this way, only pure Germans were human. If Jews are not human, the evil nature of killing them can be condoned, although Hosenfeld and Schindler et al would disagree. German authority for instance gave Das Reich Regiment carte blanche to kill civilians without facing Nazi sanction, leading to atrocities by this Panzer group in the later days of the war in France, e.g. Oradour-Sur-Glane disappearing off the inhabited map at their hands. They were thus absolved of evil, and their commander lived a long and happy life in Germany after the war: most Nazi's were not prosecuted. This is the distinction between instigators and compliers in Motzkin's thinking. Instigators do not think of their choices as evil, but justified, and therefore not neutral, but a necessary evil. They do want the compliers however to see the actions as neutral, following orders, no matter what. Hosenfeld and others did not see it that way. The terrain of neutrality has been occupied by the radical evil, so that any adoption of neutrality furthers the radical evil; bystanders are thus neutral and furthering the radical evil of the morally corrupt. It all boils down to your values.

So the book covers vital facets of the difficult concept of what evil is, and how it comes about in otherwise nice people who do horrid things, sometimes to nice people, sometimes to others. Neutrality is not an option post-Holocaust, as being neutral furthers the aim of the instigators of evil, and makes you a complier with evil. Evil is only inherent in some definition, perhaps Dahmer was evil, or just mad enough to carry out evil actions, or perhaps Eichmann was evil, or perhaps just his actions were. Self-reflection according to Arendt is key. All we need to do to be evil is to carry out evil without self-reflection as we adopt neutrality. Under His Eye, or not.

There are many books on evil now, but the history is so well edited by Chignell that you should seriously consider this a must have. I know that Professor Nell would have approved, but would have wanted more, seeing cruelty from the eye of the psychologist, and fractionating it as he did.


© 2019 Roy Sugarman


Roy Sugarman PhD, Director of Applied Neuroscience in the Performance Innovation Team, Team EXOS Az USA


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