The concept of evil is often understood to be the polar opposite of being morally good. Marcus Singer referred to the term “evil” as the worst possible term of criticism imaginable. He argued that evil is a human phenomenon since evil deeds must flow from the will to do something evil. In other words, Singer claims that if only humans are moral agents, then it must follow that only humans can perform acts of evil.
Perhaps because of the way in which morality has been entwined with religion and superstition over history, there are branches of thought that state that concept of evil is problematic due to its association with dark spirits and its subsequent denial of explanatory and contextualising factors. Critics of the concept of evil see this denial as dangerous when used in moral, political and legal contexts.
Some, however, believe the term evil is very useful and important in understanding the human world. Back in 2006, Philip Zimbardo, of the famous Stanford Prison Experiment, claimed that “it’s time we [psychologists] asked the big questions like the nature of evil.”. In his famous talk, The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil, he claimed that the right conditions, often conditions designed to elicit obedience as we see in military situations, can create the potential for evil actions in any and all human beings.
The debate over whether evil is something some are born with or a potential we all have within us has raged through the centuries, however, in the early 1990’s the murder of two-year-old James Bulger rendered that question newsworthy.
In 1993, two-year-old James Bulger was led away from a shopping centre by two ten-year-old boys Robert Thompson and Jon Venables, who proceeded to torture and murder him. Bulger suffered so many injuries that none could be isolated as the fatal blow. Terry Eagleton, critical theorist, uses the Bulger case as a way to illustrate our contradictory thinking with regards the nature of evil in his book On Evil. Like Zimbardo, Eagleton is firm that evil does exist, following Augustine and Aquinas in seeing evil as an “absence” rather than any kind of object.
Both boys in the Bulger case came from difficult backgrounds. Thompson’s mother was an alcoholic who frequently left her seven children alone at home, whilst Venables’ mother suffered from severe depression and repeatedly hit him. Accounts state he was afraid of her, arranging his toys on his bed for protection. It’s very common for those who commit unspeakable crimes to have had abusive and neglectful childhoods, but how can we understand this when equally some who have had loving childhoods still commit unspeakable acts?
It may be a question of empathy. Although for most people the development of empathy is something that begins in infanthood, both developmental trauma and genetic abnormalities can mean that a person develops into adulthood with a lack of empathy. The ability to imagine another person’s experience is a cornerstone of what we imagine it is to be human and takes a central role in much of our moral coding. This makes more sense of Singer’s claim that evil is the worst insult one can level at another person, since the will to perform an evil act indicates a lack of humanity. This also dovetails with Zimbardo’s argument. His examples of conditions which are seen to encourage acts of evil are all conditions where people are stripped of their individuality and their humanity.
It makes sense to consider that although we all have the capability to make moral choices, making a socially responsible decision may be more difficult for people with genetic or developmental barriers to empathy. Considering the concept of evil in light of all we have learnt in modern neuroscience, more shades of grey appear and allow us to develop a more subtle and nuanced understanding of phenomena that previously we needed strong terms such as “evil” to describe. Here we have an excellent example of the power that modern science has in transforming age old moral debates and hopefully allowing us to develop more empathy even towards those who have performed “evil” atrocities in order to understand and grow as a species.