DO HUMANISTS NEED THE CONCEPT OF EVIL?
A submission to the SPES Prize Essay Competition, 2007
TO answer the question of the necessity of the concept of evil a secular society, we
must address what is meant by the term `evil' and to what the term can be applied. In
this essay the concepts of an evil in an individual, a group, a belief, an action and in the
natural world are all discussed. Although it is often one's gut reaction to label any of
the above we dislike `evil', it can be seen on closer examination that this term is not a
useful one. The word `evil' suggests, even at an unconscious level, that some other-
worldly force is involved and as such there can be no rational explanation, that any
attempt to investigate it is pointless.
When one considers individuals such as Harold Shipman or any mass murderer
it seems clear there is something extremely abnormal in their psychology. They may
not have been `insane' in the traditional sense as they were aware of what they were
doing. However a total lack of empathy for others suggests that they were affectionless
psychopaths, incapable of both meaningful relationships and guilt. A possible cause of
affectionless psychopathy is maternal deprivation; Bowlby's research found a
correlation between these two factors in a retrospective study. An experiment where
monkeys were reared in isolation showed they became very violent when placed
An explanation or cause of affectionless pychopathy is not meant to excuse
psychopaths or pass the blame to their early carers. However it does give us insight and
help prevent future problems. For example, Bowlby's research prompted
improvements in the care of children in institutions and highlighted the need for
emotional care. Rather than labelling an individual as evil one can attempt to find out
what is wrong with them and what caused this abnormality.
There are cases where larger groups of individuals participate in brutal,
unjustifiable horrific activities. A well-known example of this is the holocaust. To make
s such mass brutality possible many thousands of ordinary people took part - some
directly, others indirectly. Many are quick to say Nazis were evil and looking at their
actions this seems justified. We cannot assume each individual Nazi was a psychopath
unless we assume Germans as a race have some latent psychopath gene! In times of
war it is often the assumption that the opposition, as a people, are inherently bad. Such an idea does not add up. If we think along those lines almost every population in the world would have the `evil gene' as we look back over history at some of humanity's less wholesome activities.
How can we explain the horrific behaviour of a large group without looking at
evil as a force unto itself, capable of `possessing' individuals in the right circumstances or perhaps as a contagious disease? A rational scientific view would refine such an idea.
When brought to trial, Nazi Adolf Eichmann famously stated he was `following
orders'. No one considered this to be an excuse for his behaviour (he was director of deportation of Jews to concentration camps). Again, many assumed that Germans must be different to follow such orders, as if they were some kind of evil race or members of a highly authoritarian culture where freethinking was discouraged. Psychologist Stanley Milgram was not satisfied with `evil' as the explanation of the atrocities committed in the holocaust and set out to investigate obedience -`the abdication of individual judgment in the face of some external pressure,' as a possible explanation. Milgram and his colleagues assumed American populations would not follow orders
they knew to be immoral.
Milgram set up an experiment, carried out at Yale University, in which
participants were told they were taking part in an investigation into punishment and
learning. They were told they had been randomly selected to play the role of teacher
which involved administering electric shocks to the `learner' as punishment for wrong
answers. The `learner' was an actor and the shock generator was fake. 100% of
participants continued to shock the `learner' despite screams of agony and pleading for
release. Most continued to shock even after an ominous silence suggested the learner
had died. Participants showed obvious anxiety, indeed horror at their own actions and
yet Milgram used only prods such as `It is absolutely essential that you continue' and
nothing more to persuade participants to continue.
Although Milgram's experiment is a clear indication of how little it takes for
someone to commit immoral acts in circumstances where an authority figure is present
to take the responsibility for their acts. Imagine how this effect is magnified in
circumstances where there is not only reward for obedience but real personal risk for
disobedience. In Milgram's experiment, the pain due to electric shocks was gradually
increased until it became dangerous - this is part of the explanation for its effectiveness.
When does an individual cross the line into `evil'?
George Bush describes anti-American terrorists as 'evil-doers' on a regular basis.
This is a statement that the terrorist is motivated only by `evil', the desire to bring pain
and destruction on innocent people. This is not the ultimate goal of terrorists, who are
only using violence as a rebellion in the hope of bringing about change or drawing
attention to their cause. This by no means suggests that terrorists are justified in killing
innocent people or that their cause is necessarily a noble one. However, looking at a
terrorist's motivation is still important. It may raise many awkward questions for the
government which explains their eagerness to throw the term evil out as if that were an
This brings us back to the idea that there is always something behind those
actions which our gut reaction labels evil. Acts of terror, murder and genocide must be
questioned and investigated rather then simply labelled as evil. Suggesting there was a
reason for something is by no means the same as saying there must be a good reason
for something. Obedience is not a good reason for doing a bad thing; it does not justify
an immoral act. On the other hand it is important we do not underestimate the power
and the effect of hierarchy; it is a reminder that we must always question before we
obey. If something is defined as evil then straightway there is an assumption that `no
good can come of it' whereas by questioning and investigating everything that happens
we may find the knowledge and understanding to prevent future disaster.
Can a prejudiced belief be defined as evil? A simple label of evil on a belief alone
suggests that it sprang from nowhere, which it did not. Ideas or beliefs are all human
creations. Some ideas are categorically untrue and can be proved to be so. Such beliefs
can be described as false rather than evil. It is more useful to be able to define ideas as
true or untrue than to define them as good or evil, given the assumption that truth is
Immoral actions such as individual murders are sometimes called evil, for
example `the act of murdering a child is evil' . However, this does not help us find out
why the act may have been committed and leads to the assumption that to knowingly
commit an evil act the person must be evil. Is the act more excusable if the person
thought they were doing good? In some ways it is less excusable since there can be no
remorse. The consequence is the same. The word evil suggests the involvement of an
other-worldly power or thoughts other than those the brain itself created. Indeed in a
war situation many become murderers who would not otherwise have been.
We cannot call all these people psychopaths. However, if agency theory is true we
can still trace the `orders' back to an individual. They were created by a human brain.
We cannot dissociate the action or the outcome of the action from the person who
committed it and the motive behind it. Manslaughter in a drunken brawl would indeed
not be considered `an act of evil' in the same way a cold blooded murder or racist attack
would. Either way could have resulted in an untimely death.
Consider the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). It is capable of entering a
human cell, attaching its own DNA to human DNA and taking control of the cell to
reproduce itself. The virus uses the cell's own ribosomes and proteins to do this. The
process not only destroys the cell but creates up to 1000 new viruses to repeat the
process on more cells. It's like sneaking into someone's house and killing them with
their own bread knife. HIV causes serious illness and much pain and suffering
throughout the world.
Horrible as its effect on the body is, HIV is simply a complex molecule. How can
you call HIV (the viruses themselves) evil? They are not conscious. Looked at
objectively, all viruses (and pathogens) have merely evolved to survive and reproduce
just like you, me and all living things.
If the HIV virus were originally man-made, would this make the virus itself a
consequence of evil? If HIV is man-made would it be possible to blame someone?
Would it be fair to call the scientists who made it evil? The government that funded it
evil? What about the public that voted for that government? The blame can be spread
If one avoids the concept of evil one can break down the problem more
objectively and come to more useful conclusions. As a society we could boycott any
government or organisation the funds the development of biological weapons. As
individuals we could help prevent discrimination against those with AIDS. The list of
positive actions that need to be taken to reduce and prevent human suffering is endless.
The behaviour of certain individuals is inexcusable and must be punished. It
would be justified to call the murderers mentioned above despicable and their actions
horrific. The label of evil is both too vague and too sensational. It suggests evil is a
force beyond our control and leaves us powerless. To label an individual as evil is to
suggest there is no other explanation to their behaviour, no further investigation is
Bowlby J(1951) Maternal Care and Mental Health, Geneva: World Health Organisation.
Milgram S (1963) Behavioural study of obedience, Journal of Abnormal and Social
Ethical Record, June 2007