Reading Bob Brockie‘s excellent World of Science opinion piece in the Dominion Post (Aug 8, 2011) highlighted an idea I’ve been exploring for a while. That the word “Evil” is used to end any and all debate. Put simply, if you were to say that Norwegian mass murderer, Anders Behring Breivik, is evil, there is nothing further I can say without suggesting he is anything but evil. In the minds of some, that would be the equivalent of defending the actions of such an individual. Unfortunately that doesn’t help us understand why these events occur and stifles discussion on how to prevent future catastrophes.
“I’m not satisfied with the term ‘evil’,” says Simon Baron-Cohen, a psychology and psychiatry professor at Cambridge University and one of the world’s top experts in autism and developmental psychopathology. “We’ve inherited this word.. and we use it to express our abhorrence when people do awful things, usually acts of cruelty, but I don’t think it’s anything more than another word for doing something bad. And as a scientist that doesn’t seem to me to be much of an explanation.”
Baron-Cohen is right. We use the word evil to describe, what is in our minds, the most horrendous, incomprehensible, deed imaginable. Often we are unable to fathom what could possibly drive a person to commit such an act. Ours is a complex species. Many branches of science are dedicated to understanding why we behave the way we do. Is it any wonder we are unable to quickly identify and label offenders appropriately?
Wikipedia: Evil, Noun: Profound immorality, wickedness, and depravity, esp. when regarded as a supernatural force.
The word evil has religious connotations – a supernatural force. Religion requires one to have faith, which essentially means to believe without question. Faith is a central tenet of Religion. When someone uses the word evil, they are invoking the age old religious ethos of “no further discussion required”. It is quite a stubborn, closed ended response – “I do not wish to discuss any further, unless you agree with me”. Additionally, evil says there is nothing that can be done about this person and their behaviour. It is the work of a supernatural force. Religion doesn’t help us much in this modern age with its faith based answers.
The next time someone uses the word, consider the subject in a different light. Substitute “evil” with something more appropriate, more meaningful. You may have difficulty in doing this. No other word may adequately fill the void. This is exactly the point – alternative words may not suffice because we don’t fully understand the situation. We don’t fully understand how a human being could behave in such a way. Remembering that they are still human beings. They are one of us and we all share the same potential. History reminds us of this regularly.
I look forward to obtaining Baron-Cohen’s new book “Zero Degrees of Empathy” (or “The Science of Evil” in the US) and getting a better understanding.
- Zero Degrees of Empathy – a reflection (melissahogenboom.com)
- The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty (lifeissublime.wordpress.com)