We are not evil.

Recent news stories have spurred a lot of people to say things liiiiike:

“Humans can be evil creatures. No other animal kills for no reason other than survival”.

And I am getting preeeetty sick of it. We are not an evil species. And we are not the only species that kill for apparently random reasons.

Firstly let’s tackle this notion of evil. This is a tricky area of philosophy that I do not claim to be in any way an expert in but here is my interpretation of the subject: I do not believe in “evil”. I cannot define it. People act according to what they believe to be right at that time. I am not in any way saying that terrorist attacks are acceptable, or that murder in any circumstance or situation is excusable. I am saying that we cannot look at a behaviour, like the killing of a human by another human, and just explain it away as being an “evil” act.

By saying something is “evil”, it is like we are saying “that’s just the way it is. We can’t do anything about it. You can’t change an evil person”. The way society would thus tackle such a person or group would be to try to eliminate them, either by locking them away out of sight, killing them, etc. Would these acts be seen as evil? Not by the people carrying out the task. Because to them, what they are doing is “good”. We are going around in circles here. People are always going to have opposing perceptions and ideas of what is good and bad, right and wrong. Labelling what we do not agree with as “evil” and what we do agree with as “good”, we achieve nothing. We must try to understand perceptions of people other than our own. Not accept them, but understand them. The beliefs of others may be just as strong as our own, and they may well believe our ideas and intentions to be “evil”. But without understanding the opposition, we end up victimising, creating in-groups and out-groups, and ultimately carrying out then excusing “evil” acts. Hey, it’s not “evil” if it’s in the name of the law, right?

Now on to part two of my rant. Humans are most certainly not the only species that kill their own group members for reasons other than basic survival. I have to be careful with what I go on to write about here, because I do not want to sound like I am demonising other animals. As I said, I do not believe in evil. I believe that individuals will do what they believe to be right at the time. In other species, we cannot really say they do what they believe to be “right”, as we do not know if animals other than us have a moral sense of right and wrong.  Neither do I aim to use animal behaviour as a model to justify human behaviour. All I am trying to point out is that animals do engage in behaviours that will ultimately benefit them at the time.

Take chimpanzees. They are known for being a territorial, aggressive bunch. They also quite regularly kill infants. Here’s the shit you don’t see on National Geographic. Our closest primate relatives mindlessly killing (and often eating) children of their own species?! WTF? That’s shocking! Evil! It’s enough to drive one to creationism.

Let’s take a closer look. Infanticide is mostly carried out by males. Why? Here’s an interesting point: Males are highly unlikely to kill their own offspring. Also interesting: They are just as unlikely to kill the offspring of their brother or another close relative. This makes sense: Why destroy an infant that is carrying a significant amount of your own genes?

Another point: When a female chimpanzee has a baby, she will not be able to have another one for three to five years. Imagine you are a young male chimp who is currently in the position of alpha male. You are probably only going to be in this position (and therefore have full access to all the ladies) for perhaps a year or two. All the females have infants. This causes you problems: You are not going to be able to father any children during your time of dominance, because there are no fertile females to mate with. What’s the solution? Kill some infants, the females in the group will stop nursing, she will become fertile again, and you can attempt to successfully mate with her. Huzzah: You have passed on your genes while you can.

(Note: Infanticide by females is also becoming more well documented, but is more complicated to explain here: For more information click here)

Infanticide is also common in various monkeys, rodents, lions and birds.

There are many more examples of such acts  in animals that we may interpret as evil but, when you break it down and look at them from a completely different perspective (e.g. the perspective of the male chimp who may only have one chance to pass on his genes), the behaviour is difficult to describe as “evil”. It’s just different.

Again, I am not using this post to excuse the behaviour of people. A human killing another human is not right. But we have to be consistant in this view in order for society to function. I am not comfortable with it being acceptable for one group to kill and it be celebrated, and for another group to kill and to be condemned.

Take two points from this ramble.

1. Think about what “evil” is before you describle something or someone as it.
2. We are not a bad or “evil” species. Can you imagine a city like London if the humans were replaced with big cats or gorillas?! On the whole, we are a relatively peaceful species. And sometimes we should give ourselves more credit.

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12 thoughts on “We are not evil.

  1. Nell Rawlison says:

    Excellent stuff 🙂

  2. John D. Nguyen says:

    Do not take this as criticism. OK. Take it as such. But it’s the constructive kind and not an attack. From your bio, you are a student in an MSc program. I deduce you’re still quite young, yet I won’t go into an old-person-berating-young-person, when-you-get-to-my-age mode. But if you are going to write about evil, you need to have more life experience.

    Yes, apes and chimps kill for biological, territorial, and (to us sometimes) capricious reasons. The big cats commit infanticide often enough for us to notice. But they’ve never rounded up 6 million (or 6 thousand or 6 hundred) members of their group or neighboring groups and systematically kill them. “Systematically” is the key word here. Only humans did that: Hitler with 6 million, Stalin with 10 million, and Pol Pot with 2 million. Yes, people throw around the word “evil” or “evildoer” willy-nilly and at trivial things. So much so that it loses its strength and effectiveness. I think you are turned off by that, and that is perfectly understandable.

    Humans can be evil, however. By pointing evil out when we see it for real, we are not saying “that’s just the way it is” or “we can’t do anything about it.” Sensible, intelligent people are saying, “Beware. Be aware. See it for what it is. Look at history, let us change course and prevent evil from taking place.” That’s all. Now, I will step down from my soap box. Please, no tripping. –John @jdnATL

    • psychogeek07 says:

      Thank you for your comments. I absolutely welcome any criticism or feedback, it would be pointless writing blog posts if one did not expect opposing views or comments. That’s what sparks debate and makes things interesting, and I’m always looking for people to challenge me and even to change my mind about something.

      However, as others have already said, I don’t think age is a factor here. I know plenty people younger than me who believe in evil things and evil people, and many older people who do not. I think it’s a personal thing that can or cannot change throughout the lifespan, just like all attitudes and beliefs.

      True no animal has rounded up 6 million members of their own group and killed them. But neither do they live in the complex societies we do, paired with the complex cognition and meta-cognition that we as humans have. I am not saying that what Hitler et al did was not absolutely despicable, it was, but we cannot ignore that he had many supporters and followers who agreed with his motivations at the time. Are each of those people “evil” too? Like Nell has already said, I just think labelling people or acts as “evil” is over-simplifying the situation and achieves little. What we need is to understand where certain beliefs and attitudes come from and when they are dangerous, look for ways to change them in order to stop things like genocide happening in the future.

      I think my other commenters have covered most of the other points I wanted to come back to. Thank you for all your comments folks, keep them coming!

      • John D. Nguyen says:

        I readily concede that age is a wrong thing to attribute to one’s moral compass (or lack thereof). Sorry I didn’t make it clear. My intention was not to make that one of the factors. My point was that as you live longer perhaps you’d see more and gain more perspective. Language is not a perfect means to convey one’s thoughts, unfortunately. All words I use here, however, have *no* religious undertone.

        I’m not using the term “evil” to label or write anybody off. That’s a categorical “no.” It’s just a way to refer to something unspeakably horrible and barbaric. No, the people who followed Hitler were not evil. Despicable, craven, venal, immoral, or misguided perhaps, but not evil “evil.” Maybe we’re just stuck on the semantics, but not on the idea. We’re in agreement on the idea that there are very horrible people. So I propose we use the JBS (John’s Badness Scale). Please allow me the liberty to make that up for this discussion. 🙂 On the JBS, 1 is the least bad and 10 is the worst. I hope we can agree there exist / existed people who are / were 10 on the JBS.

        I don’t think people are born a 10 on the JBS. Their genetic predisposition *and* environment turn them that way. If other people are careless and throw the word “evil” around for every bad act, then it’s their fault for not using their noggins, not ours. We cannot deny JBS-10 people walk among us.

        So if we rational people can agree on that, then we’re A-OK, regardless of the word we use to describe it. Thanks for reading, Lauren and Nell.

  3. Szwagier says:

    I’m an old goat, too, and I have no idea what evil is. Every culture has its own idea of right and wrong, and these are not as compatible as we in the west would like to think.

    This is not to say that I support cultural relativism. I don’t. I can’t. I think, generally, a culture which allows dissension, disagreement, piss-taking, and so on, is way better than one that doesn’t. There are a lot of those about. There’s even a good deal of it in Western culture. A large proportion of Americans won’t hear anything bad said against their religion and country. A majority of Brits still think a hereditary royal family is a good idea. The French are so gung-ho about their secular state that they won’t allow girls to wear a headscarf to school.

    All cultures are potty, but some are pottier than others.

    And no, animals can *NOT* be evil, any more than humans can. *Evil* is a useless religious construct that has no place in a rational world.

  4. John D. Nguyen says:

    To expound further on my earlier reply, I use the word “evil” neither as a religious construct nor subtext. It is intended to be taken in its secular sense, for which no other word could be strong enough to express succinctly the state of our inhumanity and acts of barbarism.

    I agree that animals can’t be classified as evil; I disagree that humans cannot. If history has taught us anything, it is that given the right circumstance and environment, it can definitely germinate.

  5. Nell Rawlison says:

    @John: your points are valid and well articulated, but I can’t agree with them. I’ll try explaining why.

    First of all, the question of age. I’ve been all too aware that people are capable of evil, hurtful acts that cannot be undone (they can be forgiven, but that’s a different topic) for a long time and certainly since I was about 8. Some people are lucky in that they don’t experience evil acts until later in life, but I’d guess that many are not; in any case I don’t believe age is a barrier to being aware of and understanding evil acts. (I guess I’m aged somewhere between you and the author.)

    Which brings me onto my second point. I absolutely agree with the cliché that there are no evil people, simply evil acts. I can’t and won’t accept that humans can be born evil, and find the construct far too absolute anyway. There are too many factors driving people to doing bad things – desperation, addiction, mental illness, social pressures and so on – that I really think it would be impossible to categorise anyone as actually being inherently evil. I am of course not trying to make any excuses Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot or George W. Bush, but I do think writing them off as evil is oversimplifying the matter. There is also the question of self-awareness, and while the people above were almost certainly aware of their atrocities, many aren’t or can be quite easily coaxed (as shown by the Milgram experiment and the Stanford Prison experiment for example).

    None of this changes the fact that people do commit evil acts; they murder, rape, abuse, steal from their own families. Sometimes we are able to prevent those acts; sometimes we can learn from them to stop them from happening again; sometimes we can understand why people commit them; sometimes we can’t. I definitely think we should try (and that’s something we seem to agree on!).

  6. Nell Rawlison says:

    Sorry if that post is rather long and pompous!

    • John D. Nguyen says:

      Your post is neither. Thank you for your reply to my reply. Please see my response to Lauren above, which I hope to address both your and her comments.

  7. I never thought of it that way, well put!

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  9. Perspective of Computer Engg-
    A system is healthy if it functions ,gets better and continues functioning.
    we are alive systems, so anything that helps towards better life is good and whatever degrades life or destroys is evil.
    So murder or death is not evil, the fact that whether this helps for better life or worse makes it good or evil. You can say who decides better life, well! combined intelligence of humanity is a capable candidate, which is only possible if we promote truth ,transparenncy and integrity.

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