Good vs Evil
Ignorance vs malice.
It is often assumed that people who are evil know what they’re doing. We assume that they know that what they are doing is wrong. We assume that they know that they could have made a better choice. We believe that they know that they’re going to be punished for their sins.
At the same, much of civil society is confident that if they could just make prison hell on earth, then it would punish the evildoers, and it would deter anyone else from breaking the laws or violating the human rights of another person. If they could make the punishment awful enough, then they could be sure that few if any of us would break the laws we have made for ourselves.
I disagree with the punitive, confrontational culture that I live in. I’ve never seen punishment solve a problem. I’ve never seen a positive outcome from punishment. I’ve never seen or heard anyone explain how punishment teaches the skills people need to avoid behavior that is prohibited.
I don’t believe for a minute that punishment is an adequate deterrent that would dissuade criminals from doing evil. A friend of mine once showed me a video of a man who had been crucified in the middle east after being convicted of murder. He knew that he could be hanging dead on a cross for his crime long before he committed the deed. Yet passion had its way with him. So there must be something else going on.
I don’t believe that compliance with norms and mores in a civil society is purely a question of motivation. I believe that the success of civilization has more to do with skills and capacities than it ever had to do with motivation. I believe that people are already motivated to do well among their brothers and sisters, and that compliance has more to do with skills than motivation. I believe that most assumptions about good and evil are silent on this point.
Evil assumes that there is profit to evil acts. If I commit an evil act, is that an efficient allocation of effort? Will I get what I really want by engaging in acts of evil like cruelty, deceit, or offense? Am I better off alienating my brothers and sisters in my community by engaging in evil against them, or am I better off helping them so that they are more likely to help me to get what I really want? Am I better off if I have to look over my shoulder for the rest of my life?
All of these questions boil down to knowledge. In every example cited above, We can find that evil demonstrates a lack of knowledge about a better choice. Evil is, in essence, ignorance. He coulda, shoulda, woulda. More assumptions. We assume malice before ignorance because we want to believe that evil is original sin. We want to believe that evil is a motivation in and of itself, without any other primary cause.
We can learn from pop-culture here. I’ve watched all 4 seasons of Lucifer on Netflix (I’m looking forward to more). I have enjoyed it for all of the uncomfortable moments of silence that Lucifer has to endure with a woman he cannot help but fall in love with. I have found that television series to be a very interesting exploration of philosophy. But what I really like about the show, as a concept, is that the writers inform us that Lucifer is not evil. He is the punisher of evil and he’s the warden of Hell. He is the jailer of a prison that anyone could leave if they wanted to, but everyone there is ignorant that they have a choice to leave. Such a beautiful irony. Such an accurate assessment of the condition of man.
Still, much of our knowledge of evil assumes that it comes from nowhere, that it is dispossessed of man, and that it can possess a man and can be forced to leave if enough punishment befalls him. Our cultural conception of evil amounts to a supernatural attribution to challenging behavior in people. It is assumed to come from some other source and that we must beat the evil out of people or kill them off to ensure our own safety. Evil is a symptom, not a cause.
I believe that restraint is an appropriate response to people who are dangerous. I’m not here to argue the merits of the penal system. I’m here to argue that people commit heinous acts out of ignorance. People commit petty offenses out of ignorance. People insult each other out of ignorance. People commit acts of deceit, revenge, and theft out of ignorance.
A man robs another man because he lacks the skills or capacity to make a living by his own labor. A man steals from another man because he lacks the capacity to support himself by his own labor. A man discriminates against another man on the basis of skin color because he lacks knowledge about the other person. It is amazing to me that in this day and age, there are still people who feel that they have the right to determine the fate of another person with impunity.
But there really is no such thing as impunity. It is simply not possible for one man to hurt another man without hurting himself, for when he does so, he betrays the community or society he lives in. We are all one. Everything and everyone is connected. He might even get away with the offense for a time, but they are almost always discovered, and even if he is not discovered, he still has a conscience eating at him night and day.
Not too long ago, I watched the Irishman, a story of a truck driver who becomes a hitman for the mob. What I found so interesting about the story was the ending, how Frank Sheeran, living in a retirement home, always wanted the door left open just a little when he went to sleep. In his old age, he was still living with paranoia, his life devoid of inner peace. This is the cost of ignorance, a life without peace.
When kids have behavioral issues, parents will often take their kids to a psychiatrist, a counselor, or therapist. Then they try to diagnose the kid. He has ADD, or OCD, or Oppositional Defiant Disorder. All of these labels tell us very little about who the person is and the trouble he’s going through. Instead of learning the cause of the disease, we try to treat the disease. All of these terms describe development disabilities and delays. They don’t really tell us how to help the person labeled so.
I see the same thing in people we call evil. Yes, there are people who have committed heinous crimes, but they learned to behave that way from someone somewhere. This is not a defense of their actions. This is an exploration of the root cause of their behavior. For once we label someone, we objectify them, and once a person is reduced to an object, there isn’t much need to investigate further. We can then go down the path of behavior modification.
Where is all this coming from? Child abuse. When I see evil, I see child abuse acted out. Evil people act out the fate of their childhood or they impose the fate of their childhood on someone else. Adolf Hitler was beaten mercilessly by his father every day to the point where he bragged to his sister that he could take a spanking without crying. Nicolae Ceausescu lived in a family with many siblings and imposed strict prohibitions on contraception and abortions in his country. Charles Manson had a mother who refused to name him as a baby and wanted nothing to do with him. He was shipped from home to institution to jail and abused all along the way. It is not a defense of these people to say that didn’t know better. I am merely saying they were ignorant of a better way to live their lives because no one taught them a better way to live.
I know this is not a popular opinion. But when I think of people who are evil, or just plain mean, I think of them on a biological level. From a purely biological perspective, these people gained nothing from their behavior. They reduced their prospects for reproduction, they were killed or died in prison or obscurity. They had no peace in their lives, no trust, and they could never rest. I believe that evil arises from child abuse.
Child abuse introduces developmental delays. Child abuse teaches no survival skills, no social skills, and no humanity. The scientific literature is replete with a strong correlation between crime and child abuse. In one study, I found that 68% of all felons reported physical abuse. Another study showed that child abuse and neglect doubled the probability that a child would later engage in teenage or adult criminal behavior. The correlation is so strong that it is not easy to miss if you’re looking for it.
Developmental delays indicate a lack of knowledge, an inability to learn, and lagging skills. Dr. Ross W. Greene, Ph.D, has been working with kids for 40 years and he's found that if kids could do better, they would. If kids had the skills to do better, they would. His work has been a major influence in my philosophical thinking now for years. His books, his studies, and other scientists who replicate his findings all say the same thing: Kids present challenging behavior when they lack the skills to solve problems they encounter as they grow up.
To put it differently, kids present challenging behavior when they lack the knowledge or skills to do better. They always want to do better. Dr. Greene has never seen motivation as a problem when it comes to child behavior. After reading his books and watching a few of his videos, and testing his ideas out myself on my own kids, I’m convinced that all challenging behavior is a result of a lack of knowledge. Ignorance is a lack of knowledge. Ignorance is what lands most of us into trouble, or just difficulty with life.
Once I began to see challenging behavior through the lens of ignorance, I came to a place where I never have to take anything anyone does to me personally again. Anytime I see someone trying to slight me, insult me, threaten me, go passive-aggressive on me, I see that kind of behavior as an indication of a lack of knowledge, a lack of capacity to do better, an inability to live in peace.
Most of just want to live in peace. We want to know that we can get our needs met and still live in peace. It’s really difficult to live in peace if you lack the capacity to get your needs met, or problems solved if you lack knowledge.
When I see people engaging in offensive, delinquent, or criminal behavior, I see them in terms of capacity, skills, and knowledge. I assume ignorance before malice. I assume that they have been abused in some way, somehow. I assume that challenging behavior is learned from someone.
I’ve tried many other ways to consider why humans can be mean to each other, violent to each other, or just plain abusive to each other. I’ve tried assuming that they know better, but the consequences of abuse, for both parties are so awful, that ignorance appears to be the most plausible explanation of evil.