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.  


What Do Bees Do For Us?

Jack Maxfield

There are three main different types of bee: honeybees, bumblebees and solitary bees. Honeybees live in large colonies of up to 60,000 workers, they tend to make their nests in the cavities of trees and buildings. They have been domesticated by man and, obviously, make honey! Bumblebees, like honeybees, are also social bees, living in smaller colonies of between 40 and 400 workers. Bumblebees sometimes nest in buildings and trees but also nest underground. Solitary bees live on their own, but do sometimes nest near to others. They, too, make nests in trees, buildings and underground. Whilst honeybees are a single species, there are many species of bumblebees and solitary bee.


Image Credit: Pexels

All three types of bee are pollinators. In the UK, 70 crop types are dependent on, or benefit from bee pollination. Globally about a third of all the food we eat depends to some extent on pollination by animals, including bees. It’s estimated crop pollination by animals contributes $170bn to the global agricultural economy. While honeybees are used commercially to pollinate crops, wild bees are also important to crop pollination. Wild bees pollinating alongside honeybees increase the pollination efficiency fivefold. In Brazil there is an example of what can happen if the wild pollinator population drops too low, where passion fruit farming requires labour intensive hand pollination.

As well as food crops, bees are important pollinators for wild plants. There are over 250,000 species of flowering plants and trees. Over half of these rely on insects, mainly bees, to ensure pollination. This makes bees important for biodiversity in general. Managed honeybees aren’t as effective as pollinators as bumblebees and solitary bees (which are up to three times better), so it’s important that there is a diverse selection of wild bees, as well as managed hives.

The number of bee colonies had been in decline since 1945, from 400,000 managed hives to an estimated 275,000 managed hives currently, although the number of beekeepers is thought to have increased slightly in recent years due to the increased coverage of bees in the media. There are 250 wild British bee species, of these, half are either nationally scarce or are on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. In Britain in the last century 18 species of solitary bee and two species of bumblebee were lost. General wild bee diversity and distribution have also been in decline, especially amongst specialist bee species. So what’s killing bees?

The intensification of agriculture in the past 50 years has been one of the main causes for bee population decline. Changes in land use have caused the destruction and fragmentation of their natural habitat, e.g. 97% of flower rich meadows in England and Wales have been lost since the 1930s. The use of herbicides causes weeds and plants along the borders of crop fields to die, which are food and home sources for bees. Flood irrigation also causes the drowning of species which nest underground. Honeybee hives have also recently suffered from Colony Collapse Disorder. This is where most of the worker bees leave the colony, causing the remaining colony to die. The causes of this mysterious phenomena are yet unknown, though it’s been linked to mites and pesticide use.

Bees do a lot for us, both for food and for general wildlife, so we should care about their decline and try to prevent it.