187. Natural and Moral Evil

Evil, after many years of neglect in ethics, has returned as a topic of interest since at least 9/11. One of the things that characterizes this return is the use of science. Traditionally, evil has been understood as a phenomenon that entails free will, choice, moral responsibility, sin, and guilt. If we construe it this way then we are talking about moral evil. If evil is approached as an amoral phenomenon to be studied by the natural sciences then we would have natural evil and treat it more as an illness or malfunction of some kind. In this post I explore these two approaches and argue they both have something important to offer our understanding of evil. Let’s begin with natural evil.

Simon Baron-Cohen, Professor of Developmental Psychopathology at the University of Cambridge and author of The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty (Basic Books, 2011), claims evil acts are the result of a malfunctioning “empathy circuit” in the brain. He writes: “In chapter 1 we surveyed many types of “evil” acts. We can assume that whatever the nature of the act (be it physical unempathetic acts [physical violence, murder, torture, rape, genocide, etc.]), or nonphysical unempathetic acts [deception, mockery, verbal abuse, etc.]), at the very moment of the act the empathy circuit “goes down”” (170). This leads Baron-Cohen to the conclusion that those who do evil acts have no free will and shouldn’t be punished: 

“First, the moral issue: If zero degrees of empathy is really a form of neurological disability, to what extent can such an individual who commits a crime be held responsible for what they have done? This gets tangled up with the free will debate, for if zero degrees of empathy leaves an individual to some extent “blind” to the impact of their actions on others’ feelings, then surely they deserve our sympathy rather than punishment.” (160)

Thus it is no surprise when Baron-Cohen tells us that, while imprisonment is sometimes necessary to protect society, show disapproval, and offer justice to a victim and/or a victim’s family, he also supports treatment rather than prison in many cases and is against the death penalty. To be sure, he still uses the term ‘evil’. But, as you will notice in the above quotation, he put the term ‘evil’ in quotations – “evil” – and certainly doesn’t construe evil as moral evil. 

This natural approach to evil can be detected in other recent works. Michael Stone, Professor of Clinical Psychiatry at Columbia University and author of The Anatomy of Evil (Prometheus, 2017), claims that a small and malfunctioning amygdala can prevent someone from “putting on the brakes” to regulate their evil actions. Robert Sapolsky, professor of biology at Stanford and author of Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst, claims “It seems impossible to view the full range of influences on our behavior and conclude that there is anything like free will.” Sapolsky goes on to use epilepsy as an example: for centuries epileptics were burned at the stake for being evil beings in league with Satan. Now, of course, we don’t punish epileptics because there is nothing moral about their seizures which are determined processes in the brain over which they have no control. Sapolsky argues that we should “reach this mindset for all other sorts of behavior” – presumably, evil behavior as well (see the Vox article “A Stanford Scientist on the Biology of Human Evil”). And Sam Harris, in his best-selling book Free Will, argues there is no free will. In his blog “The Illusion of Free Will” he wrote: “Without free will, sinners and criminals would be nothing more than poorly calibrated clockwork, and any conception of justice that emphasized punishing them (rather than deterring, rehabilitating, or merely containing them) would appear utterly incongruous. And those of us who work hard and follow the rules would not “deserve” our success in any deep sense.”

All these cases move in the direction of replacing moral evil with natural evil. Rather than seeing evil as something bound up with free will and moral responsibility, evil motives, actions, and/or consequences are amoral effects of disabilities that can or can’t be treated. Thus it is not surprising when, in a 2011 Spectator article entitled “The End of Evil?”, we read: “Is evil over? Has science finally driven a stake through its dark heart? Or at least emptied the word of useful meaning, reduced the notion of a numinous nonmaterial malevolent force to a glitch in a tangled cluster of neurons, the brain? Yes, according to many neuroscientists, who are emerging as the new high priests of the secrets of the psyche, explainers of human behavior in general.” 

To be sure, the scientific approach is indispensable to any serious inquiry into evil. And sometimes what we think is morally evil is indeed just a matter of malfunctioning neurophysiology: evil isn’t always what we think it is despite our intuitions. But is the natural approach to evil enough? Well, we can certainly raise objections to certain proposals and show how they fail. For example, in his book Evil: A Philosophical Investigation (Oxford, 2014) Luke Russell points out that Baron-Cohen’s 

“empathy erosion “will not work as a substitute for “evil” as applied to actions. Nor will it serve the purpose that Baron-Cohen appears to intend; namely, that it replace “evil” as applied to persons. Not every person who lacks empathy should be morally condemned as evil, as some might fall below the bounds of moral responsibility, and others might be emotionally flat but not strongly or fixedly inclined to extreme wrongdoing. Baron-Cohen’s proposed substitution contentiously would rule out the possibility that some extremely harmful actions, such as those performed in a Milgram scenario, are evil even though the perpetrators feel empathy for the victim.”

But there appears to be a more fundamental challenge to these natural approaches. In his book A Philosophy of Evil (Dalkey Archive, 2010) Lars Svendsen claims it is not:

“The concept of evil evaporates in scientific debate. Human misdeeds are not considered sins, but are instead effects of various causes. However, Hitler was not simply the sum of a certain set of causes, but also a person who acted freely. There is always something else, something irreducible, something that doesn’t simply vanish without a trace into the chain of cause and effect – something that allows us to make choices, a thing we can call free will. Without free will, moral evil simply doesn’t exist….Thus, our attempts to explain away evil, to rationalize it, have never been completely successful. The fact that an individual is free means that in a given situation they could have acted differently; it follows then, when we commit evil, that we can be accused for not having acted differently.” (23-24)

Many agree with Svendsen that the natural approach to evil is insufficient because it leaves out free will. But how can we argue for the existence of free will? It is important to do so in light of all the science that denies its existence. Obviously the issue of whether or not we have free will is a contentious and complicated one which I cannot adequately address here. But I will share one argument for free will which starts from the fact that it is forced upon us by the very fact that we relate to each other as persons and not mere objects. Philosopher Sir Roger Scruton explains in his An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Philosophy (Penguin, 1999):

“The concept of the person….denotes potential members of a free community—a community in which the individual members can lead a life of their own. Persons live by negotiation, and create through personal dialogue the space which their projects require. Such dialogue can proceed only on certain assumptions, and these assumptions show us what persons really are: 

1) Both parties to the dialogue must be rational—that is, able to give and accept reasons for action, and to recognizes the distinction between good and bad reasons, between valid and invalid arguments, between justifications and mere excuses. 

2) Both parties must be free—that is, able to make choices, to act intentionally in pursuit of their goals, and to take responsibility for the outcome.

3) Each party must desire the other’s consent and be prepared to make concessions in order to obtain it. 

4) Each party must be accepted as sovereign over matters which concern his very existence as a freely choosing agent. His life, safety and freedom must therefore be treated as inviolable, and to threaten them is to change from dialogue to war. 

5) Each party must understand and accept obligations—for example, the obligation to honour an agreement.”

And in On Human Nature (Princeton University Press, 2017) he writes:

“From the standpoint of biological science, freedom too may seem like a metaphor: but the concept is forced upon us by life itself, as we strive to relate to each other as human beings. It is, in my view, the greatest of Kant’s insights to have recognized that we are compelled by the very effort of communication to treat each others not as mere organisms or things but as persons who act freely, are rationally accountable, and who must be treated as ends in themselves.” (139-140)    

Here Scruton follows Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) who, in his Foundations for the Metaphysics of Morals (see the third section entitled “Freedom Must be Presupposed as the Property of the Will of all Rational Beings”), claims we are required to postulate free will in order to make sense of our moral agency and responsibility. After all, how can we be morally praised or blamed if we don’t assume we have the capacity to freely choose? If people are determined by biological and social forces it would be senseless to morally condemn them for acting the way they do, punish them for chosen deeds, praise them, etc. But we do in fact relate to each other as persons and thus exhibit the moral relations of personhood Scruton outlines above…don’t we? To be sure, we might call these relations illusions or try to explain them away as a vestige of an inaccurate “folk psychology” out of step with science. But if this extreme stance seems implausible then in some cases free will should be accepted in order to make sense of our interpersonal existence. If we find this line of reasoning sensible then we can build on Kant’s account and offer the following rationally acceptable (not rationally compelling to be sure) argument for the existence of free will:

Premise 1: If we are morally responsible then we have free will: without free will the whole notion of choosing and being responsible for a choice would be nonsense. Indeed, ethics, which makes prescriptions or “oughts,” must assume people can choose. 

Premise 2: We are indeed morally responsible as the practical aspects of our lives show: our personal relations, legal system, and political realities are infused with concepts and experiences of choice, regret, guilt, accountability, violations, responsibility, autonomy, punishment, and so on. 

Conclusion: Therefore, we are free.

Thus we may want to preserve a dimension of freedom in order to explain, rather than explain away, aspects of our interpersonal lives that illuminate moral evil. Obviously, such free will would help us make sense of real accountability and guilt. But it would also help us make sense of certain terrifying forms of evil that a natural approach might overlook. Let’s briefly look at two examples.

Kant maintained that the spontaneity of free will was the most fundamental characteristic of human beings. Without such spontaneity we would have neither freedom nor reason. But he never considered the possibility that such free spontaneity could be eliminated. However, Hannah Arendt, in her Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), argued that totalitarian regimes attempt to do just that: deliberately and systematically remove freedom and thus the humanity in people. This is a form of “radical evil” that can only be understood if we presuppose the reality of free will as something to be destroyed. And, since totalitarian regimes and tendencies exist right now, we would be foolish to not take freedom and its evil enemies seriously.

For another example we can turn to chapter 4 of Soren Kierkegaard’s 1844 work The Concept of Anxiety (Princeton University Press, 1980) where he claims the demonic person has “anxiety about the good” which means he is both repelled by, and attracted to, the good. This ambivalent anxiety gives rise to defiant actions which are evil insofar as they intentionally seek to undermine the good in order to escape from it. But what is the good?  The good, for Kierkegaard, is freedom. Thus demonic evil is about freely undermining freedom; it is “unfreedom that wants to close itself off” (123). Since freedom is established through, among other things, sincere interpersonal relations and communication, demonic people shut themselves up in isolation and seek to undermine anything that offers redemption, salvation, love, and so on in order to stay alone. Kierkegaard denies this freedom-based approach can be understood as a natural phenomena due to the spontaneous and sudden withdrawals from others that mark the demonic: “If the demonic were something somatic [i.e., bodily, physical, natural] it could never be the sudden. When a fever or the insanity etc, recurs, a law is finally discovered, and this law annuls the sudden to a certain degree. But the sudden knows no law. It does not belong among natural phenomena but is a psychical phenomenon—it is an expression of unfreedom.” (130) So here again we have a powerful account that explains evil by presupposing free will rather than denying it. And it is an account we ignore at our peril since, as Kierkegaard notes, “the demonic covers a much larger field than is commonly assumed” (122).

In any case, if we assume there is plenty of sense in both moral and natural approaches to evil then we can ask: do we have to choose between the two? Well, some who approach evil outside of science are quick to dismiss groundbreaking research as irrelevant. This is certainly the case in many fundamentalist religious approaches that appeal primarily to scripture for moral guidance. Conversely, many think approaching evil without science inevitably lands us in obscure and illogical religious explanations. We are often confronted with a dilemma: either evil is a religious, supernatural phenomenon full of irrational nonsense or a scientific one. A good example of this thinking can be found in Baron-Cohen’s The Science of Evil where he claims that “religion has been singularly anti-inquiry on the topic of the causes of evil. For most religions, the existence of evil is simply an awkward fact of the universe, present either because we fall short in our spiritual aspirations to lead a good life or because such forces (i.e., the devil) are in a constant battle with divine forces for control over human nature” (147). He then offers us his agenda: “If I have an agenda, it is to urge people not to be satisfied with the concept of “evil” as an explanatory tool, and if I have successfully moved the debate out of religion and into the social and biological sciences, I will feel this book has made a contribution” (148). Here Baron-Cohen conveniently overlooks centuries of theological inquiry into evil from the various world religions. But assuming for the moment the truth of his description of religious explanation, it is not surprising many people agree that science is the only way to go. 

The dilemma being offered, however, is a false one: there are other options. We can inquire into evil in ways that include, but don’t reduce our inquiry to, science. And we can do so in ways that avoid ineffective and irrational explanations. For example, we can employ the humanities and draw, on the one hand, upon literature that imaginatively illuminates paradigmatic cases of moral evil (for example, Goethe’s Mephistopheles and Shakespeare’s Iago) and, on the other hand, upon philosophy which can logically examine and defend such visions. This would allow us to include both the amoral descriptions of science and the moral prescriptions of ethics. By allowing science to join hands with the humanities we stand a better chance of reducing the devastation of evil in its various forms.

For a post that explores Soren Kierkegaard’s account of demonic in detail, go here.

For two posts on Hannah Arendt’s theories of radical and banal evil, go here.

For a three post series on the privation theory of evil, go here.

For a post that explores the suggestion that we drop the concept of evil altogether, go here.

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