On Good and Evil

Rowan Jaines

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.  


Can The Weather Control Our Mood?

Helen Alford

The answer to the question “can the weather control our mood” is most definitely: yes. Scientists have been researching this topic for decades and a majority of findings support the notion. As to what effects different kinds of weather can have… That’s a bit more complicated.

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Image Credit: Pixabay

The effects of sunlight on mood are perhaps the most studied. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD for short) is a well-known disorder affecting about 30% of the UK population. SAD sufferers experience depression in the autumn and winter months as the days get shorter. That’s not to say that the depression is non-existent in spring and summer – but the symptoms may be more subdued. The accepted theory is that the hypothalamus – the part of the brain which controls thirst, hunger, fatigue and sleep – is prevented from functioning properly without sufficient levels of sunlight. Levels of serotonin (a hormone generally thought to control mood) drop, causing symptoms of depression. So, there’s proof that the weather can have a direct biological effect on us.

For other types of weather, the links are correlational. That is, we know there’s a link between weather and behaviour, but it’s not clear if weather is the cause of mood changes, or just a factor in a bigger picture. There’s plenty more research to be done.

The temperature of the environment is known to have an effect on us. Warmth is beneficial as it lifts people’s moods. However, it seems there’s a threshold. Once the temperature gets too high, its effect becomes negative. A study done in 2013 showed that when it was very hot, numbers of group conflicts and individual conflicts rose by 14% and 4%, respectively.  The USA’s Department of Justice has found that crime rates rise in hot weather.

Muggy days have also been proven to impact our mood. High humidity is when the air is saturated with water vapour, meaning that it’s harder for you to cool down. Lethargy increases when it’s muggy, which is unfortunate as high humidity also makes it more difficult to sleep!  Studies looking into humidity showed that participants felt a lack of “vigour, elation, and affection” in muggier conditions.  Usually mugginess disappears after a thunderstorm and things feel fresher. It’s possible our moods improve after storms too, giving us a fresher state of mind.

Rainy days have a reputation for being pretty dull and slightly melancholy. They’re days for cuddling up inside with a cup of tea. Perhaps the media is to blame for this image. Films and TV shows tend to portray rain as a pensive kind of weather. In contrast, scientists have found that heavy rain might actually make us more aggressive. People also seem to have lower life satisfaction on rainy days versus on dry days. Of course, getting wet from the rain won’t help things either. Take an umbrella when you go out to avoid an even worse mood!

Research indicates that men and women respond to weather differently. Men are more likely to be flexible and change their plans to suit the weather. Women tend to view their plans as more ‘set in stone’, and are less likely to change despite unfavourable conditions. This may make for a less optimistic outlook. Of course, this won’t be true for everyone, but it’s interesting to consider how gender could determine our response.

New research might bring a new perspective to the topic. A recent study, done on a small group of Dutch teenagers, indicated that people might have “weather personalities”. 52% of the group expressed preference for certain seasons or weathers. Their moods decreased when the opposite weather occurred. For example, people who dislike summer were happier in winter. There’s not much research on this, and the study mentioned can’t be generalised. However, it’s an interesting line of inquiry and could well be at odds with previous research. For example, would a person who loves winter be less likely to develop SAD? There are plenty of questions to be asked.

So yes, weather can affect our mood. Aside from sunlight, there aren’t any concrete theories as to how the biology works. However, with research on this topic showing no sign of stopping soon, it’s only a matter of time until we find out the answers.