Is there such a thing as “evil people”?

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.

5 thoughts on “Is there such a thing as “evil people”?

  1. The Laughable Cheese May 2, 2017 at 22:09

    This post hits on some of my personal beliefs that I would like to share with you:
    I think of culture and people’s actions also as a long list of things that came before. That also for me, to some extent both does take some responsibility away but also maintains some as well.
    As it is always up to those now to try to do the right thing despite that we all have I think some negative behaviors ingrained in us that harm others. (anything that we do that numbs our pain/makes us feel better then we would otherwise is a weak spot).

    The study with the mice and the carrying of traumatic memories through genes is particularly interesting to me in this way.
    The reason why I say it takes some away, is because looking at things as a long chain, for me at least, makes me realize that while we can always strive to be our best, we can probably not be able to achieve a perfect result at the point we are at now.

    Another interesting thing I have been thinking about lately, is that within each family group, people have different sorts of potentials, being grown within the family, that the children can come to develop.

    • Francois Tremblay May 2, 2017 at 22:18

      “I think of culture and people’s actions also as a long list of things that came before. That also for me, to some extent both does take some responsibility away but also maintains some as well.
      As it is always up to those now to try to do the right thing despite that we all have I think some negative behaviors ingrained in us that harm others. (anything that we do that numbs our pain/makes us feel better then we would otherwise is a weak spot).”

      Yeah, absolutely! While I don’t necessarily subscribe to the philosophical argument that our past selves are completely distinct from our present selves, I do think that we have some small part of responsibility in what we are in the present. It’s a complicated issue because then you can get into mental illness, addiction dynamics, and so on and so forth. Certainly some people are more at liberty to change than others.

      “The reason why I say it takes some away, is because looking at things as a long chain, for me at least, makes me realize that while we can always strive to be our best, we can probably not be able to achieve a perfect result at the point we are at now.”

      Yes, and of course we were all damaged as children, we all have physical and mental issues as adults, and so on.

      “Another interesting thing I have been thinking about lately, is that within each family group, people have different sorts of potentials, being grown within the family, that the children can come to develop.”

      It all depends how we’re raised. I do think in my case that I had the potential for some things which remained undeveloped because of how my parents handled my education. Well, that’s all bygones now.

  2. chandlerklebs May 3, 2017 at 06:06

    Reblogged this on Relevant Philosophy of Chandler.

  3. unabashedcalabash May 6, 2017 at 08:56

    I agree with you, Francois. This always brings to mind “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” in which Arthur, the hapless protagonist, discovers that the Earth is a 10,000,000,000 year computer simulation designed to answer a question.

    The truth is, you don’t have to be religious (in fact, just practical) to admit there are many, many things we don’t understand about the nature of the universe–many of which are outside of our grasp–which may be acting upon us, as well. Imagine that “this story of Earth” is just one run; in another multiverse things may have turned out very differently. If, in fact, say there were, for argument’s sake, one universal principle (not “Earthal” principle) and that is that self-aware species are culturally and therefore morally plastic, then basically all societies of self-aware species would be giant experiments (and within our own large-scale experiment, there have been smaller experiments–tribes and cultures that have come and gone, subsumed by the crush of agriculture, imperalism, and industry–that turned out very differently than what we see now, globally, under capitalism and patriarchy).

    Say we were the only self-aware species in the entire universe (highly unlikely, IMO, but possible); still, if string theory is correct, there could be multiple possibilities of outcomes that are all simultaneously existing parallel to one another. Small historical differences could lead to very different outcomes (even entirely different species).

    So, we can examine and nitpick over what led our species down the road of patriarchy, class warfare, and tribalism. We can find out that what really led to our downfall, perhaps, was agriculture, for a number of reasons (it codified a dominance/submission hierarchy between men and women based upon invalid logical premises, which made it easier to rationalize the subjugation of other “inferior” humans and justified imperalism/racism for the outgroup and classism for the in-group); the human propensity for “othering” exists side-by-side with the human propensity for inclusion, but it became a more adaptive trait after widespread cultural adoption of agriculture (before agriculture, several things were true: societies were much smaller, and, as they tended to move around to maintain a constant food source, also didn’t try to own territory; men as well as women were valued, as women, in some cultures, did some hunting, and in other cultures, their foraging, gathering, and building while men hunted and they created/gathered/did childcare amounted to more of a food source than the meat gained from hunting, as well as the labor they did in building and maintaining living structures, and caring for children; after the advent of agriculture became widely adopted, health actually became poorer, as the human body was more adapted to periods of feast and famine, and to a diet that was high protein and simple carbohydrate, not to a grain-rich, nutritionally poor diet; men had the physical strength to plow and plant, and with poorer nutrition women had to have many children to have some survive to adulthood; furthermore, with a static living situation–owning land, a settlement–there were larger and more complex dwellings to maintain, without any modern convenience; women therefore were confined to home life and childcare, unable to help with the business of working outside the home to feed the community, and totally dependent upon men for their food sources; men, then, took advantage of this to take “ownership” of women, and women’s labor in the home, and also to declare that women were “inferior” due to lack of evidence for their contribution to society, based on the invalid premise that women’s labor in the home is not a contribution to society–that “society” means only the public sphere–and based on the false premise that women are innately inferior for not contributing to this rather than that they had not contributed for lack of opportunity. Agriculture also led to the idea of owning land, and wanting more resources to bring back to one’s own land and build up larger settlements, with more conveniences, and wanting to gain more territory, and so spreading out and attacking others, on the basis of their “inferiority” or “barbarism” in order to gain resources and territory; and then within the homeland into class stratification–those particularly successful in conquering resources and territory could assign those less successful “inferior” status based on that accident of fortune, and assign them to work for their masters in order to gain access to some of their resources, thus creating class)…

    Basically we can see how one simple thing (settling down and growing crops and raising animals for meat) spiraled out of control. On the one hand, it allowed the population to grow, which led to larger communities and greater innovation, and technologies, as people working together are always better at making discoveries; on the other hand, no one did anything about the unchecked hierarchical violence, and the world became imbalanced. We also did not stop to use our imaginations (or even common sense) about the consequences of grave actions or new technologies. Power became an end in and of itself, once people began competing for resources and territories; and power was also assigned to masculinity and the masculine sphere, as it was men who controlled the public sphere while women were stuck in unpaid, grueling domestic labor in the home, and had been designated an inferior caste under the ownership of men (power is no more inherently desire by any kind or person over another, or not provably so).

    The end point of this accident of history (one factor among many, no doubt) is that this “life” experiment on earth will result in self-annihilation (the ultimate irony, as we were supposed to be the most “adaptive” species so far by being so intelligent, but ended up, with our short-sightedness and wrong turns, destroying our own environment and throwing the balance out of whack–mainly due to the imbalance in our own societies).

    Could this be corrected? Certainly. I agree with you, Francois, that people tend to go along with what they are presented with as a model (egalitarian thinking/egalitarian societies/sustainable thinking/sustainable societies=just as possible as the opposite situation we have now). Is it going to happen before disaster strikes? Unlikely.

    Will some humans survive (and animals repopulate after the anthropocene)? Barring too catastrophic a climate disaster, likely, yes. Maybe we’ll rethink our ways, change our societies, and return to a simpler kind of living, with a balanced and nuanced view of social governance and how to live in harmony with each other and the planet.

    My one quibble is that you are mixing up the terms psychopath and sociopath. Psychopaths are the few who might be born but not created (with brain differences). Sociopaths are said to be products of their environments (hence the “psycho”–brain–vs. “socio”–environment). Many in the psych fields have scrapped both terms in favor of Anti-Social Personality Disorder, as it’s hard to tell how much nature or nurture has played a role when looking at brain imaging (though we can infer that when populations from one geographic area that is, say, underfunded and crime-ridden, or in the midst of civil war, tend to display a higher aggregate of ASPD it’s probably cultural rather than genetic in origin).

    The BBC recently ran an article about the adaptive nature of what we’d call “evil” within other species, of plants and animals, and how what’s remarkable is how hard human beings have worked against what appears to be an adaptive strategy. I think the endpoint of selfishness, manipulation, and violence appears to be not adaptive for us as a species, however, which perhaps intuitively “non-evil” people can sense (or there would be a higher prevalence of genetic tendencies toward “Dark Tetrad” qualities of psychopathy, Machiavellianism, narcissism, and sadism). All of these qualities in small amounts carry with them some positives (apart from, perhaps, sadism), and most people have some of these qualities to a healthy degree (risk-taking and fearlessness, for example, from psychopathy, or manipulating others, which we all engage in, from Machiavelliansim, or healthy self-confidence, a form of narcissism); it’s when they’re pathological and marked by lack of conscience and empathy that they become problematic.

    Indeed, considering how adaptive a psychopath, narcissist and Machiavellian can be in terms of short-term mating strategy (with many different women), it’s a wonder there aren’t more people genetically predisposed to such selfish and destructive behaviors in society (that most people who act in selfish and destructive ways do so because of systems of power into which they have been inculturated and indoctrinated, and through the mechanisms of which they are acting)…that there aren’t more people acting individually this way out of genetic predispositions; this means that there have been counter-evolutionary strategies (apparently “the creeps” is a real phenomenon) to avoid these types of predators, which means that society, as a whole, knows they are not good for us…there is still evidence that they disproportionately rise to positions of power, however, as long as they are high-functioning; we tend to admire them for being all that we can’t be, hampered as we are by conscience and empathy (the whole Objectivist philosophical position is about trying to “embrace the inner psychopath” and being unshackled by the constraints of a moral compass). So are many other movements designed to short-circuit empathy for selfish purposes (the PUA movement, designed to mimic narcissistic and psychopathic mating strategies, disregarding the harm to women and girls, is one such example). There are those within society who will admire these types, and these types who will act as “gurus” to influence their followers. But yes, the fact that, even in spite of how the relative few of them may have influenced our societies for the worse (in most cases)–after all, without real connection or real empathy, all that’s left is a desire for power and control–we don’t have more of them around (in spite of their mating strategy which could lead to many children with many women); people stay away from “individually evil” people (that is, people who are not simply working for immoral institutions, but people who treat all others in their lives in a callous, brutal, calculating and selfish fashion), so there must be something within us that eschews this as destructive…

    That’s a tangent though. Fact is, in this particular universe, our little experiment got derailed the last 6000 years (or maybe fast-tracked is the better train metaphor–fast-tracked, with no brakes), and it another universe maybe it would have turned out entirely different. So no, most people are not inherently one thing or another–not most of the time. (Studies of the rates of psychopathy show them to highest in the U.S.–around five percent of the population–and lowest in Japan–around 1 percent of the population; this shows that an “innate,” “genetic” condition can be highly culturally influenced, by whether the society rewards dominance at all costs, or collectivism and putting the group ahead of oneself).

    Sorry for my terrifyingly long response again. Good post!

  4. […] For a refresher on the three main categories of explanations for human behavior (adaptationism, constructionism, anti-causalism), see these entries: Three categories of explanation of human behavior. How can we explain human behavior? Where does individuality come from? Is there such a thing as “evil people”? […]

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