Does evil exist?
Or are human beings inclined to right… presuming that they know what the right thing is?
And then, there is the question of evil people.
Are some people so evil that they must be removed from human society? Are some people so irredeemably evil that we should never have dealings with them? Are some people so evil that they must be destroyed?
Also, are our motives all infused with so much evil that we will never do the right thing, except under threat of force?
All of these questions quickly become murky. If we are all capable of doing ill, then we become evil by doing ill consistently and habitually, without regard for the good of other people.
In psychological terms, people who are evil have no conscience and no feeling for others … they are in it for themselves, to the point that they get off on watching others suffer the pain they have inflicted.
But then, what if the pain is punishment, inflicted on someone who needs to pay for his misdeeds? Are those who inflict it evil?
And then there is this question: what is the difference between having the capacity to do ill and having a propensity to do ill?
Doing good has no sense and no value if we do not have the capacity to do something other than the good. But, are we more inclined to do the right thing than the wrong thing… assuming that we know the difference? Or are we really inclined to do ill?
Philosopher John Gray has been defending a rather bleak view of human nature, one that derives in part from Freud and that shares his abject pessimism about our species. Gray has proposed that human beings are naturally prone to do evil.
Recently, he explained the basic Western view of evil:
… destructive human conflict is rooted in flaws within human beings themselves. In this old-fashioned understanding, evil is a propensity to destructive and self-destructive behaviour that is humanly universal. The restraints of morality exist to curb this innate human frailty; but morality is a fragile artifice that regularly breaks down. Dealing with evil requires an acceptance that it never goes away.
If we all contain a propensity for evil and if all of morality is a necessary constraint on our will to act on the propensity, as Gray believes, he is clearly on the side of a bleak and tragic view of human nature.
But he is also laying down predicates that would justify forcing people to do what we tell them.
Surely, there is more to morality and ethics than the need to tamp down, to restrain and constrain a will to do evil.
Much of ethics is about doing the right thing. One suspects that such precepts are even more prevalent than those that tell us not to do the wrong thing.
Besides, there is more to doing the right thing than not doing the wrong thing.
Those believers in the human propensity to do evil have latched on to what are called the Milgram experiments. They seemed to demonstrate that students have an innate will to cause other people to suffer.
Melissa Dahl explains:
You might have heard of another famous study involving electric shocks, in which people did not act so kindly toward each other; that study, done in the 1970s and led by Stanley Milgram, found that people obeyed an experimenter's instructions to send what appeared to be increasingly painful shocks to a stranger.
Dahl brought up the Milgram experiments because a new set of experiments, performed by another group of scientists has arrived at a radically different conclusion.
They have shown that college students, under the right circumstances, are willing to lose more money in order to spare strangers from pain than they were willing to lose to spare themselves the same pain.
Dahl summarizes the study:
Participants were paired with partners, though they never saw each other, and seated in front of separate computers. One of each pair was named the "decider," meaning they got to choose how many shocks to deliver to either themselves or their partner. Sending fewer of the jolts meant less money, while sending more of them meant a profit that ranged from $0.15 to $15 (which the decider always got to keep, no matter who got the zap). On average, the deciders were willing to lose about $0.30 to give themselves fewer shocks. But they gave up double that, $0.60 on average, to save their partner from the pain. (In a write-up of the paper, Science compared the pain of the shock to holding your wrist under a stream of 122-degree water.)
So, maybe it’s not quite as bleak as some people thought. Maybe human beings are not irrationally inclined to hurt each other.
This suggests that, in many cases we can appeal to people’s wish to do the right thing. Even in what has been called a narcissistic age many of us are still sufficiently considerate to be more inclined to suffer ourselves than to cause others pain.
If we do well not to draw outsized conclusions from the Milgram experiment, we do well not to jump to an overly optimistic conclusion from the latest study.
If anything, these experiments signal the danger that lies in giving too much credence and in drawing too large a conclusion from a single experiment.
The problem does not lie in the experiments, but in the conceptual tools the researchers are deploying. Being scientists they are not overly familiar with the art of defining concepts. Thus, they tend to jump to the conclusions that prove their own preconceptions.
The question remains: if evil exists, is it a human propensity, a fundamental drive that needs to be kept in check by Herculean restraint or is it a human capacity that can be tempered by learning how to do the right thing… habitually?