Where is Mankind Headed? Part 3: Evil and the future of Man
Charles Mathewes, a professor at the University of Virginia recently recorded a series of lectures for the “Great Courses” company. This course provides a sweeping overview of what various writers have thought about the nature and origins of evil. Mathewes starts with one of the world earliest civilizations and goes all the way up to recent times, including what writers, philosophers and theologians have said about 9/11 as it relates to the concept of evil.
I am including it in my series dealing with “Where Mankind is Headed” because evil is such a large part of the human experience and seems likely to play a large role in our future.
 Charles Mathewes, “The Origins and Nature of Evil”, Great Courses, 2013.
What is evil?
On one level, evil is easy to define. It is a set of behaviors and/or thoughts that are against the moral order. In this definition we often find the words, “immoral; depraved; habitual offender.” This definition focuses on shared written or unwritten rules or laws that have been broken.
Another definition focuses on the intention behind the actions or ideas. Evil refers to intentionally or willfully going against the moral order. Definitions often include the idea of intentionally causing harm, be it pain, suffering or even death.
Evil can exist on the personal level, as when an individual purposefully commits murder. But evil can also exist at a societal level, such as an entire society decides to enslave or eliminate another society or group within society.
There is an assumption of great intensity associated with the concept of evil. That is, there is a difference between “bad” and evil. A person might rob a bank, for example, clearly breaking the law and the idea that stealing is wrong. But if such a person only robbed one bank and then never did again, we’d probably say that what the person did was bad, and perhaps the less forgiving among us might say that the person was bad…but we probably wouldn’t say they were evil. We reserve that moniker for people whose actions are particularly egregious and persistent.
The mental state of the evil-doer is worth mentioning. While often the evil-doer is well aware of what they are doing--breaking the law or the moral order--there are times when this isn’t the case. They may be so immersed in their culture that they don’t realize that what they are doing is evil. From their perspective even if they are engaged in murder or genocide, they might well see this not as rebellion against a moral order, but exactly the opposite--“doing their job” and carrying out the will of the moral order they subscribe to.
A final component of the definition has to do with whether or not a person has enjoyed what they have done or whether they show remorse. If a person has done something seriously against the moral code and show no remorse and perhaps even enjoyed it (e.g. psychopaths, sociopaths and sadists), Mathewes refers to this as the “terrible sincerity” of evil. He recognizes that for some people doing horrible acts provides them joy and this, it might be argued, makes them even more evil.
Why does Evil exist?
This is a very challenging subject, and a very deep one. However, we will not get into it here as it will lead us away from our main point of understanding how evil might impact man’s future.
Origins of Evil
Throughout the many cultures, writers and philosophers that Mathewes reviews, conceptions of the origins of evil can be grouped into a small handful of categories. We’ll take a look at each of these and then later discuss their implications for the future of Man.
Evil arises from natural forces
Evil is a “gift” from the Gods
Evil is a part of humans’ DNA
Evil is a part of humans’ psychology
Evil is a result of civilization
Evil arises from natural forces. Many writers have claimed that evil is simply a part of world, or a part of nature. Whether built-in by some unknown combination of chemical, electrical or geological forces, the behaviors we call evil are seen as being an integral part of our universe, our world, and our being.
Evil is a “gift” from the Gods. Many other writers say that evil isn’t simply a natural force. Rather it is a character quality that was implanted in us, or is encouraged in us, by some kind of superhuman entity—an evil God or demon. Our earliest written stories, from ancient Sumaria, contain the idea that evil is larger than humanity…that evil is a transcendent force or power or person. The word Satan, Mathewes says, means “rival” and this is often associated with an evil rival to God. In this view, Man is buffeted between cosmic/theological forces of good and evil. A related view argues that ancient aliens created or modified the human species and that their blueprint contained evil proclivities—perhaps because they made us in their image and THEY are partially evil.
Evil is a part of humans’ DNA. This perspective views evil as something that bursts forth from urges that are somehow wired into our cells, our bodies, our DNA. We are impelled to these behaviors by proclivities that exist at the electro-chemical level in our bodies and minds. Whether a hold-over from our animal ancestors, or something new that came wired in to the human species, this origin theory says that evil acts emerge from urges inherent in the physical make-up of Man. This view is different from the previous two in that it makes evil a “human-sized” problem, and not one that exists beyond humanity.
Evil is a part of human’s psychology. Writers holding this view say that evil emerges not from what comes wired into our bodies but from ideas that form in our minds as we experience and react to life. Some writers, like Plato, have argued that evil occurs when there is a breakdown of rational thinking. But others, like Aristotle don’t buy it. They point to many instances where evil is highly planned and clearly pursuing specific, if nefarious, goals. Some, like Calvin, say that it is Man’s great imagination that is the root of evil because Man can think of all kinds of ingeniously-perverted ways to rebel against the moral order. If we weren’t so imaginative, we presumably wouldn’t break the laws so often and act so evilly.
Hagel’s view was that man’s self-consciousness is the root of original sin and evil. Being self-conscious separates us from our natural environment and estranges us from it. That is, being able to think of ourselves as an object separates us from natural unity. We’re not able to be in the moment the way animals are. This separation is sin in his view, because he thought we consciously chose to become self-aware. He says we have a dim memory of an earlier time, when we weren’t separated and this makes us sad. He somehow thinks we will mature and transcend this sadness….but he doesn’t say how.
Of the various psychological perspectives Mathewes covers, those which ring particularly true to me are the ones that note that people who are severely abused or neglected may develop ideas of right and wrong that lead them to what we call evil behavior. Another is that evil is often self-rewarding. That is, even when evil actions seem to make no outward sense, there can be inner sense--psychic gratification. Some people can enjoy doing evil for evil’s sake and for no other purpose.
Freud, toward the end of his life, posited the idea that man has a death drive. He thought it was more powerful that the drive for happiness. He found it much more mysterious because it was self-destructive. While this idea was and remains very controversial, Mathewes points out that at least it spotlighted for examination the portion of human nature that is capable of being cruel. This capability, he says, clearly aides the committing of evil deeds.
Evil is a result of civilization. This perspective is related to the psychological perspective above. Proponents of this idea say that there is something inherent in civilization--particularly modern, materialist civilization--that causes people to think evil thoughts and do evil deeds. The lust for power, money and material items that so often accompanies “advanced” civilizations, encourages people to do whatever it takes to be “winners”, even if it means committing horrible, evil acts.
Machiavelli brings out another aspect. He says that there are times when a person needs to make the tough decision to do clearly bad things in the short term in order to save the State, maintain the stability of the community, and to bring about in the long run the moral good.
Hobbes said evil is a social construct. Man’s nature was what it was before there were civilizations, so there can’t be any inherent good and evil. Man did what he needed to do to survive, so in a sense these actions were “beyond” good and evil. Hobbes argued that the categories of good and evil only emerged once there were large numbers of people living together and there arose agreed-upon rules of behavior to maintain order in the community.
Freud, as well as talking about a possible death drive in humans (see above), said that a lot of evil comes from civilization frustrating our libido…our desire for love and happiness. Civilizations need stability and they need people obeying laws. Thus they need to restrict sexuality. This can be frustrating and lead to self-destructive behavior to relieve the frustration, but it can also lead to resentments against society. Such resentment often ends up manifesting in destructive behavior directed towards others.
Hannah Arendt pointed out that one of the innovations of modern civilizations is that they are able to get people to do evil things that they would not ordinarily do. Individuals become actors in a horrible play. Totalitarian states are able to do this by completely controlling the environment of the individual. They can even get people to think that they are not doing evil….just doing their jobs. Leaders of modern civilizations have learned that it is possible to annihilate the psyche of individuals before their bodies. They can even be made to want their own annihilation. The massive evil perpetrated in every war since World War II has shown that there are many among us willing to put these horrible insights to use in furthering their political ambitions.
Quite recently, Stanley Milgram’s shocking experiments came to the same conclusions and Philip Zimbardo’s make-believe prison experiment had to be stopped because it created a condition which fostered make-believe guards getting excessively cruel and abusive to their make-believe inmates. It is now clear that environments be quickly and rather easily manipulated to fundamentally change people’s ideas of good and evil. Good people in a bad environment can easily become bad. At a more general level, this indicates that behavior is more a result of one’s situation than of one’s internal character.
Can we control or even eradicate Evil?
As we think about where mankind is headed, we need to push beyond defining evil and investigating its origins, and get to the very practical issue of whether or not Man will ever be able to control or even eradicate Evil.
Mathewes points out that the answer to this question differs greatly depending on whether one views evil as either “transcendent” or “mundane.” Transcendent evil emerges from the first two origin-of-evil categories previously discussed. That is: Evil arises from natural forces or that evil comes from a demonic or alien entity. It is transcendent in the sense that it is bigger than us. Being bigger than us implies that we will likely not be able to control it. Many writers have said that we may think we are in control of our fate, but that is just Satan fooling us. We are not in control, we are at the mercy of God and Satan and, more generally, transcendent forces. This does not bode well for the future of mankind.
The “mundane” view of evil incorporates the last three origin perspectives (it emerges from our DNA, our psychology or our civilizations). Here evil is more human-sized, and because of this there is more of a chance that we will be able to control, if not eradicate, it.
In the writings of rabbinic Judaism around 300 CE, Mathewes notes that some authors observed that you need to master evil or it will master you. In particular, you need to fight evil when it is small and mundane. If you don’t it will grow and become familiar and a part of your life. When this happens it can lead you into situations that are so big that they really do overwhelm you and it’s very hard or impossible to call a halt to whatever has been set in motion.
But Mathewes also notes that Jewish writers, after the holocaust, say that the above may be true but is inadequate to cover the mass-manufactured, institutionalized evil that came upon the Earth in World War II. This evil, they say, was of such a magnitude that the above approach would not have made any difference. They say that if anything would be able to control this type of evil, it would have to be something much more powerful than an individual’s resolve.
Mathewes concludes that we haven’t learned much about containing evil. Since WWII it is clear that weapons have become more and more destructive. Terrorism and cruelty appear to be on the rise. For all our advances in technology, biology and even psychology, we have yet to make any significant breakthrough in containing evil.
Whether one views the roots of evil to be transcendent or mundane, it is clear that evil behavior has been around since man first arrived on Earth. And while we perhaps have not specifically set out to evolve greater and greater evil behavior, our technologies, worldwide media and political organizations have unfortunately had that effect. At the same time, our abilities to control evil have not kept up.