Morality is concerned with evaluating values and actions. Ethics is concerned with evaluating rules and institutions. Neither of these fields could exist without the basis of the individual as a moral and social agent, but they are not concerned with evaluating individuals. An individual cannot have a moral or ethical status because individuals are organisms, facts of biology, therefore beyond evaluation (even when we talk about natalism or antinatalism, it is the existence of individuals, not individuals themselves, which is evaluated). Properly speaking, there is no such thing as a “good person” or an “evil person.”
This does not stop people from making such evaluations routinely. And it is so ingrained in the way we talk that it’s easy to make statements of that nature. However, it’s important to remember that such statements are generalizations or metaphors, not literal truth. If we say “the nazis were bad people,” we’re basically saying that they did bad things routinely and that therefore they could not be trusted to do good. It does not entail that there was literally badness inside of them, like some kind of gremlin or metaphysical substance, because that would be silly. No such substance exists.
However, anti-causalism (i.e. the belief in a soul, free will, or some other anti-causal form of volition) and adaptationism (the belief that evolutionary causes are sufficient to explain human behavior) both present a challenge to that position. Anti-causalists believe that people do good or evil things as a consequence of the kind of volition that they have. Adaptationists believe that people do good or evil things as a consequence of their biology. In both cases, the evaluation of actions implies an evaluation of the individual actor: doing evil means that you are evil, because you have some quality of evilness either in your soul/volition or in your brain.
First, let me get the issue of validity out of the way: I don’t believe that either of these positions are valid, as I’ve explained before. The concepts of soul, free will, and specialized brain modules, are all without merit. Not only are they invalid, but neither anti-causalism nor adaptationism are able to give a coherent account of how human behavior arises. If they fail at explaining human behavior, then we cannot use them to evaluate anything related to human behavior, including individuals.
I’ve already discussed these points. What I do want to discuss here is that the view that people are “good people” or “evil people.” For one thing, this is a reactionary view. Radicalism by definition seeks the roots of social problems in institutions and the basic principles they implement in our societies. It is this identification of institutions as roots of social problems which leads to the desire to change society. But institutions are only relevant because they influence human behavior. If people are innately good or evil, and are not influenced at all by institutions, then radicalism cannot be true.
Neither can egalitarianism be true. If some people are innately good and some are innately evil, then egalitarianism is a hollow farce. It is no wonder, then, that advocates of anti-causalism and adaptationism think egalitarianism is a hollow farce. The only alternative is conservatism, which is basically the view that some people are inherently better than others and deserve power within a set of “traditional” structures. One may disagree in what criteria should be used to judge people as inherently better (Libertarians, for example, believe that the economic arena is the only proper space to judge people, as opposed to most other conservatives), but any such disputes would still take place within the conservative framework.
Furthermore, the view that people are innately good or evil is at odds with the desire to change society, which is based around a view of human nature that is both knowable and changeable. Under anti-causalism, human nature is not knowable, since it exists in some unnatural, mystical realm. Under adaptationism, human nature is not changeable, and changes in the way society operates should be futile in the long run (e.g. from monarchy to democracy). Nothing but the one correct way to organize society around our biology should be “successful” at all. Yet clearly this is not the case, since a wide variety of cultures are “successful.”
I have commented many years ago on the fact that the belief that people are innately evil is reactionary. The belief in people being innately good or evil is merely an extension of that view. But in their case, “good people” usually means “people who are like me” or “people who agree with me.”
Still, there are plenty of people who use these terms without necessarily wanting to be reactionary. For example, one can believe that the Nazis were evil, or that cops are evil, and believe that this is not a reactionary belief. I would agree with such statements, but they are not literally true. No Nazi was an “evil person” and no cop is an “evil person.” The reality is that they are morally depraved and untrustworthy. But they are not “evil people” who have “chosen to be evil” or who have a “corrupt soul.” This reflects a superstitious attitude towards the world, that is to say, attributing material form to a concept (a process which philosophers call reification).
By and large, when we are talking about social behavior (what is usually referred to when we talk of “good people” and “evil people”), people are motivated by incentives, because incentives provide people with the physical and psychological benefits of living in a given society. People will ignore incentives if they have an even more powerful reason to do something, but usually this is not the case. These incentives are created and sustained by institutions, and aim to perpetuate an institution’s actual purpose. Since institutions can be at odds, incentive systems may also conflict, in which case other factors will influence behavior as well.
It is difficult to speak about incentives in general terms, so let’s talk about specific examples. Even though we live in a supposedly liberated era, most people still get married and have children. From the contra-causal standpoint, people simply do so, with no causal reason at all. But with all the lifestyle possibilities that exist, how would most people just randomly do the same thing? So the contra-causal explanation makes about as much sense as flipping 100 dice, getting 80 of them rolling a 6, and then doing this again and again. Surely the possibility that the dice are weighted makes more sense than the absence of any cause.
The adaptationist explanation also doesn’t work, because we know of societies without monogamous marriage, or without marriage as we understand it (including Western societies, where pair bonding is generally temporary). If the adaptationists were right and we are biologically made for lifetime pair bonding and child-raising, such societies could not exist at all, or at least they could not last very long. There could also never be such a thing as childfreedom or antinatalism, any more than there exists people who preach freedom from food (breatharians notwithstanding) or freedom from social norms (although many statists like to pretend that Anarchists are like this).
So why do people get married and have children? States have a keen interest in keeping population numbers up in order to receive more taxation revenue, unless they are indisputably overpopulated. Therefore States offer numerous privileges to married people and lucrative economic rewards to parents. Proselyting religions, which also depend on numbers, strongly encourage their believers to breed, and have in the past used strong-arm tactics (and some still continue to do this, like the Catholic Church) to ensure breeding within marriage. Generally, people who are married and with children are seen as having a higher social status, and are given more attention than those who do not (e.g. in the workplace or in health care).
These are all very powerful incentives, but they are magnified many times over by the fact that children are raised by their parents to want these things. Parents do this because marriage and having children are considered to be part and parcel of the life blueprint. Parents raise their children to be “normal” and “successful” (the alignment paradigm).
The Nazis are the usual example people trot out to explain “evil people,” so let’s look at that. At its peak, the Nazi Party’s membership included 10% of the German population. Why were people members? Well, many jobs required party membership, which in itself is a powerful incentive. Also, the Nazi Party fueled German people’s hopes through strength and fear of the Other, like all right-wing regimes do in times of economic and political crisis. The general point here is that people didn’t join the Nazi Party because they were evil. They, by and large, did so because they thought it was the right thing to do, for themselves or their country.
And this is a point that’s really important to understand when it comes to “evil people.” The adaptationists are correct insofar as there are some people who are sociopaths, and who have no intention of doing good. But this is a tiny minority of the population. Generally, people who do evil do so out of a misdirected desire to do good. Studying cults for a long time has shown me that people who end up doing tremendously evil things don’t do so because they are mendacious. They usually join cults out of a desire to do good, to find some higher truth, to help themselves grow, to help others. They end up doing evil because they are brainwashed into believing that their actions are for the greater good. Like cults, institutions mislead us constantly on the nature of good and evil, although in a much less coercive manner, especially if they can count on parents or the media to do the dirty work for them.
Now, I know some people will read this and think that I am trying to excuse “evil people,” to rationalize their evilness. This is what people always say when you look at the causes of evil behavior. They fail to grasp that understanding something and rationalizing it are two very different things. The goal here is not to divest people of their responsibilities, quite the opposite. The anti-causalist cannot explain responsibility, because whatever is making “choices” (whether a soul or some supernatural agency) is not “me” in any meaningful way. Adaptationists, on the other hand, can justify responsibility, but only some of it: they can justify a person being responsible for their own actions, but they cannot justify collective responsibility, so they only have one small piece of the picture.
On the constructionist account, the individual is responsible for their actions because the individual is the last link in the causal chain that led to the action. To make an analogy, we may say that “Paul made the pie” insofar as Paul put the pie together and cooked it. But his actions were only the last link in the causal chain that led to the existence of the pie, a causal chain which extends towards the beginning of time (as Carl Sagan famously said, if you want to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first create a universe). The beginning of time, however, is of little interest to us. The point here is that both positions vastly underestimate the scope of responsibility by excluding the collective responsibility contained within any action. As it turns out, and contrary to common belief, it’s the adaptationists who reject large swaths of responsibility. As reactionaries, it is their job to reject collective responsibility as a concept.
To address another common objection, to acknowledge collective responsibility does not mean supporting cultural relativism. Actually, it’s exactly the opposite. Cultural relativism holds that all cultural practices are equally valid. But the only way this could possibly be true is if we divorce evil actions from the incentive systems of culture. To a constructionist, this makes no sense: evil actions are perpetrated because of the incentive systems present in our society, which includes culture. Because it rejects the causality between incentives and actions, cultural relativism is closest to the anti-causal position, and it is people who preach about choice, free will and agency who are most likely to be cultural relativists. Radicals are by and large not cultural relativists.
Besides, “culture” is not some kind of entity that rises ex nihilo from a community or a society. Culture evolves from, and is inextricably linked to, the material, psychological, political, and spiritual condition of its people. A lot of this is itself the result of incentive systems. It’s always important to remember that when we talk about systems this complex, we are talking about feedback loops. Not simple “this caused that which caused the other thing,” but systems constantly re-creating and molding each other. Institutions, cultures, ideologies, human actions, all cause each other to some extent, change each other to some extent, and evolve in parallel.