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Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty
R F Baumeister, W H Freeman and Co, 1996

The Heart of Darkness
Buried deep in the human psyche is a conviction that evil forces, powerful and subtle beyond our understanding, pervade human society. These hidden spectres seem to spring without warning into horrible life in individuals, groups and nations from time to time. When pure evil takes hold, businessmen cheat and steal, sadists do terrible deeds, governments oppress their citizens and nations slaughter each other.

Throughout its history Christianity has perceived the life, death and resurrection of Jesus as a unique event which has, as it were, put the powers of evil on the defensive and promised an end to this tenuous and elusive source of human suffering. Perhaps it is this belief which had fuelled the hope of some that we are, however falteringly and slowly, moving upwards on a ladder of perfection - that some time in the future our descendants will rest easy as the conspiracy of evil withers away in the face of sheer goodness. Perhaps, they say, then we will see the "kingdom of God".

The problem with this hopeful outlook is a rising perception, unbearably sharpened in the 20th century, that instead of drawing near, God's kingdom seems to be receding with every so-called advance of Western "civilisation." Never before has humankind witnessed so great a slaughter of innocents as in the years following 1900.

As Baumeister points out, during that century we witnessed only 26 days of peace - and that calculation takes no account of internal repression and cruelty by governments. Apart from the massive slaughter of the wars there has been genocide on a huge scale.

Meanwhile, it seems that the fabric of many societies is constantly under threat from mindless violence of many sorts - private armies, powerful mafia, street gangs and the like. In South Africa some 65 murders are committed every day. Africa as a continent is wracked by civil strife, civil war, AIDS and starvation. Even though they account for a tiny proportion of deaths in Western nations, it seems as though paedophiles, serial killers and other sadists secretly prowl our streets for opportunities to satisfy their cruel lusts.

Is it surprising that we tend to think of the powers of evil invading our lives, secretly working out ways of tormenting humankind, and bringing fear and insecurity ever nearer to the ordinary person who desires only to lead an ordinary life? Witness the many conspiracy theories which have surfaced in this century.

The Myth of Pure Evil
Is evil a real if hidden force? Baumeister thinks not and advances what seem to me sound if not irrefutable arguments to support this view.

A natural bias towards empathy has resulted in an almost universal identification of evil from the victim's perspective. This book produces many examples of events which if one sets out to be even-handed cease to appear intrinsically evil. Few if any perpetrators ever do an "evil" deed without good reason - from their viewpoint. Very, very few groups or individuals "name themselves in positive affirmation of evil … Most of them regard themselves as good people who are trying to defend themselves and their group against the forces of evil".

It's not as though Baumeister does away with the concept of evil. Far from it. He explains that he has tried to understand evil as "an extraordinary human phenomenon" and that his venture has required the temporary suppression of moral judgement of evil deeds. "It is too easy to forget that we had to take a one-sided view of things in order to understand them, and to escape the intuitive tyranny of the victim's view … It is a mistake to let moral condemnation interfere with trying to understand - but it would be a bigger mistake to let that understanding, once it has been attained, interfere with moral  condemnation".

Our society in the West has, quite literally, an investment in perpetuating the myth of an evil force. Without it, movies and writing would be less interesting because evil villains represent in some powerful manner the way many people perceive the world. 

Baumeister makes the interesting point that evil in the early part of the 20th century tended to be represented as werewolves, mummies, witches and invaders from outer space. Hitchcock's Psycho in 1960 marked the introduction of the human villain and the relegation of the spine-chilling monster to cheap horror movies and sci-fi.

A feature of recent written and screen fiction is the villain who appears to be motivated by an apparent enjoyment of hurting their victims. Sadism has become of the essence of the contemporary evil person. "Thus," says Baumeister, "it is not enough to perform harmful acts. The truly evil villains derive pleasure from inflicting harm".

Baumeister thinks that religion is "…probably the best place to learn how people think of evil" because of the way religious people tend to view good. It appears that religions world-wide have come to similar conclusions about the nature of evil - that it does not exist by itself, but emerges as the opposite of what is termed good.

There has been constant debate in Christianity about how God can choose to permit evil or fail to prevent it. One solution adopted by some religions but condemned by Christians (as the heresy of Manichaeism) has been to suppose that Satan - evil's spiritual representative - is somehow the equal of God, or at least his inferior by only a small margin. 

Despite its attempts to avoid it, the Christian faith seems to have adopted a form of dualism tempered only by a belief in the assured victory of supernatural good over supernatural evil in the longer term. The net result, however, is a powerful motivation to preserve the notion of evil in general, and the person of Satan in particular, in order to also retain the structure of Church teachings.

After all is said and done, what is one to do with traditional teaching about Jesus vanquishing the powers of evil (as C H Dodd would have it, "now but not yet") if the concept of supernatural evil is failing and fading?

What has happened in the West says Baumeister, is that "…the issue of the relationship between good and evil is usually phrased in terms of human nature" instead of supernatural forces at war. One strand of this movement has been to perceive people as intrinsically good and to blame social structures for making them evil. 

The result? Many utopian causes which, like the disaster of Communism, have failed to obliterate human evil. 

Another strand is to perceive human evil in terms of bad upbringing. From Freud to the present day, psychologists and sociologists have done battle in their disciplines with limited success. "The final victory of the good is not in sight. Not by a long shot", writes Baumeister.

The myth of evil is perpetuated by the means we use to teach our children about the nature of reality. The fairy tales and stories of the past have been largely supplanted by the TV cartoon. Both portray "…stark and simple battles between the forces of good and evil … villains have no clear reason for their attacks. They seem to be evil for evil's sake, and they have been so all along. They are sadistic …" It may be that such portraits of evil succeed because that's how children's minds work in earlier stages of development.

Nevertheless, this simplistic view of evil persists into adulthood, extended into more complicated but essentially unchanged perceptions rather than being transformed into something closer to reality.

Another source of the modern image of evil is a "popular paramilitary culture" which can be traced back to Clint Eastwood and Dirty Harry. In such depictions the ideal North American culture is pitched against a form of evil so pure that it can be conquered only by counterbalancing violence. It gets sexual joy from killing, desires the destruction of the American way of life and is most often personified in the foreigner who is unable to control himself - in contrast to the cool, detached rectitude of home-grown defenders. These stories are "…simple allegories of battle between those who have self-control and those who lack it …"

Baumeister selects eight characteristics comprising the myth of pure evil:

  1. It involves the deliberate infliction of harm on people;
  2. Gratuitous pleasure is the motivation for inflicting harm;
  3. The victims of evil are innocent and essentially harmless;
  4. Evil people are outsiders, not part of the group;
  5. Evil is as old as creation.
  6. Evil promotes chaos conflict and thus pits itself against good order and peace;
  7. Evil people are driven by egotism;
  8. Evil people can't control themselves, especially when they get angry.

Roots of Evil
If the age-old concept of all-pervading, supernatural of human evil is a myth, what can take its place? As Baumeister shows, the reality of evil is very different.

He begins with the most obvious motivator - evil as a means to an end. He puts forward the case of the Mongols, personified in Genghis Kahn, as one of the most ruthless groups of killers in history. The evidence is clear: the Mongols wanted to exercise power and through that gain respect, and they desired material wealth. To their victims they were evil. But in their eyes "…they were merely pursuing a rational, sensible strategy for getting what most people want: wealth and respect".

This is "instrumental activity", hurting which is not done for its own sake but rather to further goals. As Baumeister points out, the fact is that the Mongols passed the test of instrumental violence because they abandoned it as a means whenever another way was possible. Their cruelty was, in other words, not gratuitous.

Nevertheless, the question presents itself: Why should anyone adopt evil means when ordinary "good" means are available? Why beat up an old woman for her purse when it's possible to earn the money? Research and history indicate the following:

  • Evil means are perceived as quicker and easier - attractive reasons for some people;
  • Legitimate means may appear difficult or impossible - like getting a job in difficult times or if one belongs to a group which is discriminated against;
  • Effectiveness is a factor. Crime may seem less risky than long term ventures;
  • It can be more exciting, producing a high which contrasts with daily drudgery;
  • If legitimate authority is weak or absent, evil actions may have little or no downside.

Despite evidence which indicates that there are large and successful groups of criminals in all societies, it seems clear that evil does not pay. In all its common instrumental forms - robbery, organised crime and drugs, political murder, government repression and torture, warfare and the like - gains are short-lived and quickly dissipated.

But evil means do pay in one respect: they are effective in creating suffering and, if judiciously and effectively applied, are "…a useful and effective way to establish dominance over another person or to defeat another person's dominance over you. In simple terms, violence is a tool for taking power."

One of the most pleasing aspects of this book is the way in which Baumeister uses stories to illustrate and enhance the lessons of history and research. His tale of the Zulu king Shaka is a gripping instance of the motivation of egotism and revenge in evil acts. The Christian Crusades show how idealism provides a licence to hate and hurt: "…the record suggests that holy wars are often dirtier, more brutal, and fuller of cruelty and atrocity than ordinary wars. The usual effect of religiosity is to make war more brutal, not less".

Over the centuries the debate in Western societies has been fierce: do ends justify means? Is it possible to achieve good through evil? Baumeister's study is conclusive. "Idealism leads to evil primarily because good, desirable ends provide justification for violent or oppressive means. Evil is not likely to result when people firmly believe that ends do not justify means. If they evaluate their methods by the same lofty standards by which they judge their goals and purposes, evil will be held in check".

Example after example demonstrate that ideology demands that we perceive the enemy as evil. It is license to hate. How do idealists - particularly Christians idealists whose ideal person said "Love your enemies" - avoid feeling guilty when they harm others either directly or by underhand means?

Idealists are most convinced that they are opposing evil when their victims closely resemble the myth of pure evil. Baumeister sums it up: "Two prominent features of that myth are the fundamental otherness and innate wickedness of the enemy. Evil people commit bad actions for their own sake … Moreover, they are fundamentally different from us and belong to a totally different category of being, so we need feel no empathy for them". In the final analysis, no matter what Jesus said, the idealist needs feel no guilt about hurting or killing such people.

The famous studies by Stanley Milgram on authority and obedience in 1975 yielded one less-recognised result. A crucial factor in persuading people to give apparently painful electric shocks to subjects was "…the presence of a fellow human being assuring them that their actions were justified and, indeed, were their duty".

All Christians, and indeed all religious people, need to pay attention to this important aspect of evil. For what is the case when "God" has been invoked as the assurance of rectitude? Surely nothing less than absolute justification for what is really absolute evil

It would not stretch the point too far to propose that the more certain a Christian is that he or she has access to absolute, unique truth about reality, the more likely it is that others can become a justifiable target for abuse or violence. In direct contrast are those with a frame of mind which is sceptical, open and questing. Perhaps this explains the apparent ease with which certain groups of Christians use disparaging, vicious language to vilify their brothers and sisters in the faith.

Another reason for ongoing evil is the discontinuity effect, a "…pattern by which a group tends to be more extreme than the sum of its individual members". The effect is strengthened when, despite the highest goals, the "…group becomes an end, a positive value, in itself". Then, to protect the group whether at a high level like the Papacy or at the low end like the congregation, "…what is good for the group becomes right, almost regardless of whether it has any clear positive link to the group's original goals". Then the outsider, the apostate, must be killed.

Perhaps the most compelling, even startling conclusion about the roots of evil relates to that part of the myth of pure evil which supposes that evil people enjoy inflicting harm. Not only do the vast majority of perpetrators suffer terrible emotional trauma but most of those called to inflict suffering on others - whether gang members, soldiers or fraudsters - seek to avoid it at all costs. Did you know, for instance, that some 25% of Allied soldiers in Word War II could not aim to kill?

What is true, however, remains distressing - even if it contributes nothing to the myth of evil. And that is that hurting others can be enjoyed by a small minority of those who inflict such harm, perhaps 5 percent or so. The enjoyment is, however, only "…gradually discovered over a period of time involving multiple episodes of dominating or hurting others" during which normal empathic responses are extinguished.

The process of habituation is subtle. Humans have the capacity to replace initial feelings of shock and disgust with a backwash of compensating good feelings, rather like those bungee jumpers report when their voluntary ordeal is over. As Baumeister remarks: "The thrill of killing may be closer to the thrill of parachute jumping than to the thrill of taking drugs: The pleasure is in the backwash".

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