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March 04, 2006


It's somewhat tangential to your point, so I'm not clear if you're just coming new to this case, or not, but news of it has been going on for weeks; I didn't get around to posting about it until after a couple of weeks, myself, a couple of weeks ago.

I actually linked here on ObWi to this post some time ago, as regards the David Irving part, but I imagine you were busy with trip preparations, or perhaps it was while you were traveling.

My objection to calling evil "evil" is a pragmatic one: it doesn't get us anywhere in terms of prediction or prevention. "Evil" has too many metaphysical overtones: something either unpredictable or the work of a malevolent force, and therefore not accessible to human intervention.

I no longer believe "all people are basically good," but that some people (what percentage, I have no idea) are born sociopaths. Something's missing from their brains; the thing that makes a conscience, the thing that enables empathy. Missing, or - a missing base, perhaps; a chemical mismatch; an axon misfiring - twisted in on itself, into an anti-compassion, an anti-empathy, which translates not merely into indifference but sadism.

The conundrum is, if that kind of pathology is indeed physical - if it can be tested for, and found - what ought we to do about it?
Should we screen and test for it? And if so, what do we do with the people thus discovered? The basis of Western liberal philosophy, and of most Western legal codes, is that people are not the mere sum of their biological parts, and you don't imprison people until they've committed a crime (and been tried and convicted for it). Even clinically insane people are no longer automatically institutionalized; they must act on their insanity before some authority may deprive them of autonomy and liberty.

Please don't mistake my mental meanderings for overly high-minded Pollyanna-ism. Monsters such as the ones in this story are among the few individuals who damned well ought to be executed.

My point is that, as I've said, calling something, someone, "evil" doesn't get us any further along than dealing, post facto, with that particular act or person. And I like to think there's a better way.

"It's stories like this that convince me that there are genuinely evil people, and that it's important to be able to say so."

Wow. Whole books or even philosophical systems and religions have been developed to support the idea that there are evil actions, not evil people, and that good and evil actions follow a scale or continuum, not a bright dividing line.

It strikes as extremely important that the actions in Guantanamo, while not identical to Auschwitz, are related or closer to Auschwitz than Virgina Postrel giving up her kidney. This Manichaean "either evil or not evil" is, to me, evil in itself. Sorry, hilzoy. The guys in France are different from the dudes in Gitmo in degree, not kind and both are different from me in degree, not kind.

"I no longer believe 'all people are basically good,' but that some people (what percentage, I have no idea) are born sociopaths. Something's missing from their brains; the thing that makes a conscience, the thing that enables empathy. Missing, or - a missing base, perhaps; a chemical mismatch; an axon misfiring - twisted in on itself, into an anti-compassion, an anti-empathy, which translates not merely into indifference but sadism."

What makes you believe it's present at birth and physical? Is there usefully a single category of such people?

"Even clinically insane people...."

What do you mean by that term, "clinically insane"? It's not medically based; you won't find it used at or by any clinic; at best it's an arbitrary legal term of extremely dubious usefulness. Who should and shouldn't it be applied to, absent a jury? Is it a useful term, or more a way of confusing and misinforming people? (Now, that's a leading question.)


Are you certain that you are not Charles, posting from a different account?

Just asking.

"And it's always harder to fight what you cannot even name."

I just don't get it. You can name it cruelty. And there is more usefulness in having a continuous heirarchy of cruelty than in having an exceptional category. Thus we have arguments against the people who would call sleep deprivation and force-feeding "not torture." Sleep deprivation is not as cruel as waterboarding but is still cruel. And "good" people are sometimes cruel.

Now I am not a professional philosopher and maybe there is a problem with saying "evil" is contained in actions. Actions don't have intent. School me.

But we mostly don't punish people for who they are but for what they do. We contradict that in both directions, e.g sentencing hearings and character witnesses, and OTOH, sentencing guidelines, but that is not our general philosophy.

bob: I did not say, or imply, or mean to imply, that there was a bright dividing line, as opposed to a continuum. Black shades to gray shades to white, without bright dividing lines. For all that, some things are black, and some are white, and saying that in no way implies that nothing is gray. Most things are.

Nor does the claim that there are evil people seem to me to imply that someone's being evil is immutable, or something the person was born with. On the contrary: evil is a moral term, and it is applied to the results of choices.

Robert: what about this strikes you as uncharacteristic of me?

I'm with Casey on the use of the E-word.

CharleyCarp and CaseyL, correct me if I'm wrong, but SFAIK no physical characteristic has ever been identified that would serve as a predictor of criminality, right? Which means we are always dealing ex post facto with the person who has committed the deed. So in a case like this, what's wrong with using the term "evil?" Of course it's not scientific. Of course it's a moral judgment. Are we as a society not allowed to make such judgments?

CaseyL:"The basis of Western liberal philosophy, and of most Western legal codes, is that people are not the mere sum of their biological parts, and you don't imprison people until they've committed a crime (and been tried and convicted for it)."

-- At the risk of getting too far into philosophy, I think the two halves of that sentence aren't related. About being 'the mere sum of our biological parts': this might mean that there's nothing interesting to say about us outside biology, which is plainly wrong. It might also mean that we are biological (or: physical) beings, and that all our properties depend on our physical properties in some way. That is not so clearly wrong.

(To see the difference between these two, consider the claim that a painting is 'more than just paint (and varnish, etc.) on a canvas'. Someone who said this might mean: there's more to say about the painting than listing the position and composition of its paint molecules. There is, for instance, its beauty. You could say that and still think that its beauty is a function of its molecules and their arrangement; that there is, so to speak, no other substance to the painting outside the paint, the canvas, etc, and in particular, no thing that is its beauty, hovering over its brushstrokes.) The only thing, you might say, is the material object, made of canvas and paint; but it is beautiful.

That's what I want to say about people.)

But claims about whether we are or are not more than the sum of our biological parts are distinct from, and (as far as I can see) don't imply, claims about whether we should be imprisoned before committing crimes.

Similarly, the claim that there's nothing interesting to say about us outside natural science would imply that moral responsibility either doesn't exist or is not interesting, but the claim that we are (in the second sense I used) biological beings, without any further non-biological thing being part of us, is consistent with moral responsibility. Or so I think. Unfortunately, the argument took a whole book to make ;(

So in a case like this, what's wrong with using the term "evil?" Of course it's not scientific. Of course it's a moral judgment. Are we as a society not allowed to make such judgments?
I'm not one who has ever had a problem with this, either. I have no problem with saying that, say, Hitler was evil.

This doesn't mean he was all evil. Adolph Hitler was still a guy, like everyone else, who liked dogs, drank water, breathed air, was nice to people at times, cracked jokess, etc., etc. Everyone has some good in them, and much gray, even when they're a Hitler, an Eichmann, a Saloth Sar, a Manson, and I expect that this Fofana guy was nice to some people at some times in his life (though I don't know, of course, and it's also possible for people to be almost uniformly horrible at pretty much every moment of their existence, I suppose).

But in the sum total of life, some of us come out pretty clearly sufficiently over on one side -- having accomplished such great evil, such as contributing or instigating or organizing mass murder, or genocide, or having accomplished great great good, overall -- that even though everyone has some grey and some black and some white and some in between shades in them, and even though much of the time it's important to look more at what people do than to think we can look into their soul, or think we know that their soul (which I mean, myself, more or less in the metaphoric sense, not in a supernatural sense) is unchangeable or irredeemable, since I am, myself, not a deity, nor do I pretend to be one, nor even a lesser authority, I don't have any qualms about loosely saying, when speaking without twenty minutes to outline a more complicated version, that someone has done sufficient evil in their life that I can regard them as "evil."

Mind, it has to be a pretty clear case, such as a Himmler.

We use shorthand in language all the time. If we have even a faint degree of wisdom, this doesn't make us obscure to ourselves or others the fact that matters are more complex, far more complex, than we summarize in a word, a sentence, a paragraph, or in endless cases, less than a book or an encyclopedia. Use of shorthand doesn't lead to compulsive mental simplification, and I don't see why we should act as if it does, as if using shorthand, appropriately, at appropriate times and places, will give us Simple-Mind-Cooties. It doesn't. Not inherently, at least, and that's what matters if it's the accuracy and nuance of our own conceptions that are at issue.

So if I say that Hitler, or Stalin, or whomever, was "evil," I'm not wiping out the nuanced part of my brain, and magically preventing myself from being aware of the complexities involved in evaluating anyone. It's just speaking simply and clearly, when appropriate. And when it's appropriate to discuss the complexities, I can do that, too.

It actually turns out to be remarkably easy to speak at different levels of complexity in different, appropriate, situations. Neither speaking simply nor speaking with greatly long in-depth complexity actually prevents speaking of the other, or of any level of appropriateness. Why should it, unless one really is just simple-minded?

And I'm certainly not going to advocate that we either must always speak in simple language, or that we can never speak in simple language, just because someone much more simple-minded might be confused by it. I don't believe in acting as if language always is going to be, or has to be, used at the lowest common denominator. That would be a way to lose all ability to speak with nuance or complexity.

Nah, if I am getting the point of this post, you don't own the language, hilzoy. Especially the powerful, emotionally-laden, "big words" as Joyce once called them.
Now, during the 90s Fox showed a poll of its viewers that placed Clinton midway between Stalin and Hitler in terms of 20th century badness. So many of his critics might have been completely sincere in calling Clinton evil. So lets look at the ones that weren't. They would be, presuming they did, calling Clinton "evil" for rhetorical and political purposes, precisely intending to outrage and offend, intentionally being inaccurate and hyperbolic in order to inflame their base and demoralize their opposition. It is hard for me to even call them "irresponsible" because they had their goals and if the rhetorical overkill succeeded they were being responsible. Politics is not committed by philosophers with throw pillows.
Another example would be Palestinians using the word "Holocaust". If that use offends you (and me) in its inaccuracy and irresponsibility, if it devalues the event, it is because that is part of their intention. It certainly in many quarters is more powerful and effective than:"Israel is doing bad stuff."

I might join you in your fight against these mis-usages. I would recognize it as a political fight over control of language. I would be less clear as to whether it was a moral fight, and that my opposition was being immoral for using the most effective tools at their disposal.

In any case, a concern for the precise use of language would not be my primary goal in a political battle with real consequences for actual people. I am not going to get into an extended argument on the definition of torture, unless that discussion is the most effective way to remove the torturers from positions of power.

Actually, there have been some studies on brain development and injury, and how sociopathy results from faulty brain function. Here's a link to an article discussing Shore's study of infants, which is germane to what I was talking about:


- and other studies, the cites of which I don't have, confirm that lack of nurture in very young infants can result in certain areas of the brain not developing properly, among them the "social" functions, like empathy.

SFAIK, nobody's done serious post mortem analyses of monsters' brains, possibly because, once the brain is dead, you can only study its structure, not its chemical function.

Also, for obvious ethical reasons, no one's done a long-term study on brain development from newborn through adulthood, to see if any malfunctions or malformations detected at birth eventually translate to sociopathy.

Most of the monsters who've been caught and interviewed had godawful childhoods - but there are any number of people who also had godawful childhoods who never became monsters, or who turned their trauma inward rather than outward. Which begs the question of what makes the difference between someone who's severely dysfunctional to themselves and someone who acts it out on others.

There are also studies on non-humans that trace entire behaviors to the presence or lack of specific bases in DNA. A species of songbird, if a single base is missing in its genetic structure (not an entire gene, not even an entire chromosome), cannot sing - can't learn to sing, can't understand singing, and so cannot participate in any of its normal social behaviors, all of which require song. A single replication error can do all that.

If a single replication error in the DNA can wipe out the capacity for an entire, complex social behavior in birds, why can't the same thing happen to humans?

Further, genetic studies indicate that much of what we consider learned or unique personality traits are genetically based. You've all heard the stories of twins and triplets, separated and birth and raised in very different family situations, who wind up all having the same likes and dislikes - from something as trivial as taste in cars to something as vital as professions, and preferences in romantic partners.

There's also the anecdotal, but universal, recognition by parents that their newborns come spring-loaded with complete personalities, long before the infants have had a chance to learn anything, or make decisions based on learning - personalities, moreover, completely unlike either of the parents'. (I know of one little girl, whose mother is about as anti-girly girl as you can get, who was born a frills-and-petticoat-loving flirt.)

What this says to me is that a lot more of what we are - the way we act, the things we like, the way we think - is genetically and chemically based than is comforting to acknowledge. I'm starting to wonder if the only "sapient" thing about us is the fact that we can ponder what we do, that we can analyze ourselves, but that the actions and desires and compulsions and so on that we ponder and analyze are not themselves consciously chosen but biologically determined.

As you can imagine, I find this notion deeply disturbing. But the more we learn about how our brains work, and the more we learn about how DNA shapes us, it's getting harder to dismiss.

It is in that context that I wonder about the true nature of "evil."

An evolutionary proof for predestination?

Biological Calvinism?

To quickly extend the second example with the use of a hypothetical...my facts can be wrong yet still useful, I could make up an imaginary...if the Palestinians were yelling "Holocaust" during the attack on Jenin, my primary response if I were Sharon or whoever would not be to object to the use of the word "Holocaust" but to justify the Jenin operation by saying we (the Israelis) were cleaning out the terrorist camps.

Rhetoric is not in the service of science.

Now if the post is limited to the one French example and a general abstract discussion, forgive my going off topic.

NeoDude, I don't like the idea any more than you do. Really. I don't like reductionism at all.

But ignoring the possibility is not a good option, IMO. Esp. when we're trying to figure out the nature of "evil," and if there's anything we can do about it besides pick up the pieces and bury the dead afterwards.

Let's say serious replication errors, or serious brain chemical dysfunction, does cause monstrous sociopathy. Just for the sake of argument.

And let's say those types of replication errors, or serious brain chemical dysfunction, occur in a set percentage of births. Let's even say it's a vanishingly small percentage, like one in ten million births.

How big is the world's population? 6 billion?

So even if we're talking one-in-ten-million born monsters, that's... 600 of them in the world right now.

600 Ted Bundys, 600 John Gacys, 600 Fofana-and-Accomplices, 600 [insert name here]s.


Theologically, I’m closer to a Calvinist…so my comment was not meant to be a sign of dislike.

Just an observation that evolutionary biology seems to share some things with philosophies built around “fate” and “destiny”.

I'm not really sure what is at issue here. (so I'll wade in)

I think what we are talking about is 'flattening of affect' which is supposed to be a symptom of schizophrenia, but which Phillip Dick took as a motif in several of his novels.

Generally, in Dick's novels, the characters were wrestling with the notion that they were suffering from this, but (and I add that this is not a clinical observation) I think that Dick's insight is a good way of trying to make sense of this. If you think of people as having a flattening of affect that deals with a particular group of people (or their image of a certain group, I should say) and they have been indoctrinated enough (and it is perfectly possible to indoctrinate oneself), they are not going to feel any emotion at the suffering of people in that group. I'm not sure why we have to locate the locus of the problem within some conception of 'evil'.

Neodude and I must have been programmed similarly, by God, our genes, or both. (I'd say both).. My background is Calvinist and much as I dislike it, I think there is at least some truth to the doctrine. But then I would think that.

I'm also fascinated by evolutionary biology and philosophical arguments about free will and determinism and when I waded through Dennett's "Elbow Room, the varieties of free will worth wanting" many years ago, it struck me that I'd finished a secular Calvinist tract.

CasseyL: Personally, I am a materialist, not in the first sense I discussed above (the only properties of things worth discussing are those found in natural science), but in the second sense (whatever interesting properties we might have, they are properties of material beings). For this reason, I'm willing to see your worries and raise them: I think that for all I know, our behavior is entirely a function of chemicals in our brain.

OK, so I just bit the bullet. What follows?

First, it means that I have to reject this part of what you wrote: "the actions and desires and compulsions and so on that we ponder and analyze are not themselves consciously chosen but biologically determined." We are capable of deciding what to do. If we are material/biological beings, then decisions (and thought, analysis, etc.) must be possible for such beings -- that is, they must be, or be functions of, biological processes. So the claim that they are 'biologically determined' would not imply that they are not 'consciously chosen' (or analyzed, etc.) That would follow if we -- the ones who choose -- were non-material beings somehow attached to bodies and brains that could autonomously; in that case, the more of our behavior turned out to be biologically explicable, the less would be due to 'us'. But since I deny that, the conclusion doesn't follow.

Next, about sociopathy: most accounts of moral responsibility except the truly insane, where that's defined, roughly, as those whose mental dysfunction makes it impossible for them to exercise real moral agency, however hard they try. They are just missing some relevant part, or something. Similarly, there are exceptions for the severely retarded, on the grounds that people who can't appreciate the long-term consequences of what they do, or work out reasons for doing things, aren't responsible for their actions. (Note the 'severely' in that last sentence.) But this is precisely because there is something we can do -- namely, think about what we're doing and decide whether or not to do things differently -- that is necessary for responsibility, and that they can't do. So these examples don;t carry over, I think.

(That's one reason why I put in the qualifier about learning further details about this case: I can imagine concluding that this guy was missing some essential part.)

But note: what does the work here is not: that there is a physical (neurological, etc.) explanation of why the person is that way, but: that that explanation is such that it either makes self-control impossible or (as in severe retardation) makes the person unable to use it effectively.

About hereditary character traits: nothing I've ever read suggests that most of these traits are not just hereditary but involuntary -- that is, that what's inherited is not just, say, a tendency to get angry more easily than other people, but a tendency that no amount of self-control allows us to resist. We have known for ages that some people are quicker to anger than others, but we used to think that it was due to a difference in the balance of their humors; now we think it's genes. I don't see that this changes the picture as far as moral responsibility is concerned: a person who is quicker to anger will have to exercise more self-control on some occasions, is all.

The real problem comes from the idea that the outcome of our choices and analyses themselves depends on brain chemistry, and thus has biological causes that determine their progress and their outcome. About this I can only say (if I want to avoid doing the book-length version of this comment): it's not clear either that this precludes moral responsibility, or that any alternative (e.g., non-material selves) does better.

Slightly OT, but hil, I wonder what you think of the 'X-phi' that was discussed in this Slate article.

lj: I was just writing about that. Short version: Ha ha ha ha ha.

I think personal responsibility, or free will, or the power to make moral decisions--whatever you want to call it-- is sort of like Voltaire's statement about God: if it doesn't exist we will have to pretend it does. ( yes, paraphrased).
Imagine the utter chaos of human affairs if we decide people can't make independent moral decisions and are just a set of chemical reactions! Even if true, it is better to pretend it isn't.
I do, however, think it is worthwhile to view human decisionmaking within the context of mammalian instincts. People, especially in groups, are predictable and quite frequently make the same sort of decisions that a group of wolves might make. An awful lot of otherwise inexplicibly evil human group behavior becomes comprehensible is one substitues "Our Pack" and "Their Pack" for nationalities or ethnicities.
Which doesn't make it less evil or less a matter of group decisionmaking, only predictable.
Speaking of Our Pack vs Their Pack, the headline on the Yahoo news says that Iraq violence blocks the formation of a new government.

hilzoy, I absolutely agree with you about moral agency.

Even if our propensities are coded in our genes, in our brains, we are responsible for the decisions we make in how we assert/exhibit those propensities. The first responsibility would be to know what those propensities are, to identify the warning signs, and to stop the bad-behavior cycle at the very start.

People with, say, genetic predispositions to chemical addiction, usually have a set of emotional cues that make them reach for the drug. It's not enough to just say "I won't drink/smoke/whatever." They also have to recognize how anger, frustration, depression or boredom start a mental/emotional cycle that erodes their ability to "just say no," and develop a different set of cue responses.

But when I talk about genetic/biochemical sociopaths, I'm talking a whole different category of predisposition: extreme psychosis. Extreme psychoses are forms of sociopathy in that the people who suffer from them are incapable of socially and emotionally normative behavior - and therefore lack the capacity for true "moral agency." (That's why there are such things as insanity pleas.)

Consider schizophrenia. If the schizophrenic is "merely" someone who hears voices, and the voices tell them to do terrible things, it's not as if we say "Gosh, you can't help yourself, so I guess we just have to let you keep doing those terrible things" but neither do we say "You're an evil person and should fry for that." We institutionalize them. Maybe there are chemical therapies which can help them.

And they may never be de-institutionalized. Depending on what kind of terrible things they were doing, the risk of them going off the medication, or the medication not working anymore, may be too great.

But no one (well, no one with any sense) says they're evil. They're... well, they're broken and can't be fixed. Their own safety, and society's safety, demands they never be turned loose. But they're not "evil," because most people recognize they don't have moral agency. It is at that point society's responsibility to deal with the matter, because they can't.

I'm saying monstrousness, the Grand Guignol monstrousness we're discussing, might be another form of extreme psychosis. Maybe it's latent and something later on in life triggers it; maybe it's there from the start - but, like any other form of psychosis, the idea of moral choice, moral agency, is irrelevant. You don't tell someone with schizophrenia to "just get over it!," so why - if monstrousness is another form of psychosis - would we expect someone who has it to "just get over it!"?

If monstrousness is a psychosis, it can be detected. If monstrouness is a psychosis, calling it "evil" is wrong, because you can't be "evil" if you have no moral agency. That doesn't mean we pat them on the head and send them on their merry way. We lock them up; damn straight we lock them up!

But it also doesn't mean we throw up our hands and say "Well, evil exists and we'll ever understand it." If monstrousness is a psychosis, we can study it, we can learn how it operates, what might trigger it, we can possibly treat it.... and one of these days, when we can do genetic redaction, when we can fix dysfunction at its source, when we can actually and really and truly heal psychotics - not just drug them, not just rely on chemical cocktails or physical restraints, but repair what's wrong - then the debate over evil will seem as quaint and cruel on that day as tales of Bedlam seem today.

CaseyL: I tend to distinguish two things: on the one hand, serious insanity, which (if it precludes self-control) makes someone not responsible; and on the other, immorality, which people are responsible for. I also assume that people have the capacity to be hugely immoral, and (offhand) I'd assume that given how many people there are, how different their choices tend to be, at least some non-insane, fully responsible agent will be not just immoral, but immoral enough to be called evil.

This might be predictable and treatable. If so, I don't think it will alter the fact that the person in question is responsible for being evil; it will just add one more way of dealing with it. And while treatment would (I assume) alter the question what to do about evil, it would not alter such other questions as: what counts as genuine evil? That, I would think, is always worth asking.

I should probably also say: I assume that evil is a human possibility, not a property of some other kind of being entirely (one way to take talk of 'monsters', though I don't mean to attribute this view to you.) If it's a human possibility, then we never get to think we're immune (though we might think that we're unlikely to end up with some particular variant of it. I, for instance, really don't think I'm at all likely to become a child molester.)

Oh, I by no means use the word "monster" to mean "other kind of thing than human." Most emphatically not. They're humans, they're just severely, deeply, hopelessly broken humans.

I don't mean that to sound sympathetic. I mean it as a statement of (possible, probable) fact. It's actually a rather cold statement, and meant to be, because it admits of no cure, no repentence, no rehabilitation.

(Not yet, anyway. I keep coming back to that: we don't know. Maybe we should find out.)

And whether we all have the capacity to become monsters, I think has to be answered in the affirmative. The merest glance at human history proves that over and over again - though that's a rather different phenomenon from individual monstrousness, since mob psychology and tribalism enter into it. And even in those situations, there are people who refuse to go along with the mob, who defy the mob to save the victims, even unto sacrificing their own lives.

We don't know how or why that happens, either. But I like to remind myself there are such people, and I like to hope there are more of that kind than monsters.

hilzoy and CaseyL,

And whether we all have the capacity to become monsters, I think has to be answered in the affirmative.

I wanted to make this point but of course you both beat me to it. Given this, though, what can we do about it?

I don't expect to see a single-point genetic explanation for this in my lifetime. Even if such a thing exists and science eventually reaches such a level of knowledge, I doubt we will fully understand how that process unfolds or the side effects of tampering with it.

So, what can protect us from monsters and the broader human potential for evil? It is the societies we establish. It is the environment that can act to suppress or enhance the chance for such acts to occur, on small scales and large. We must deal with those that arise, and also try to arrange a world where they are less likely to arise. We must also take care that we do not ourselves become monsters in the process.

Right now the primary tool our government seems to be employing on the large scale is fear. Fear encouraged among our own people, and fear instilled in our enemies of severe consequences ("all necessary means", which includes nuclear weapons).

I don't mean to say that we (as a society) should totally abandon fear and punishment as tools, but they are inherently limited and are counterproductive when overused.

Yes, kids have personalities from the start. My three kids are all very different and sometimes even opposites.
But there is a difference between what they feel and what they do. I cannot change the rigid one in a flexible easily adepting person. I CAN try to teach the rigid one the skills to adapt to a rapidly changing environment. He'll never be as good at it as his brother, who rejoices in change, but if he doesn't panick or explodes with frustration I'm pretty pleased.

Are we back to the old nature/nurture discussions yet :) ?

I am not sure wether empathy is a very natural feeling to humankind. Most of our history shows a lot of appreciation for public cruelty. I DO believe that one can learn things like putting yourself in someone elses place, though it will come more naturally to some than to others. Ego, id, superid and such - and mentally ill people are exceptions of course.

Maybe Blairs supernanny is the answer... :)

"If monstrouness is a psychosis, calling it 'evil' is wrong, because you can't be 'evil' if you have no moral agency."

Sure I can. I assume you don't mean "can," but some form of "shouldn't." But if I want to call HIV or ebola virus "evil," I certainly can. And I'm not at all clear why I shouldn't. Why shouldn't I, if I feel like it? Am I going to mislead someone into thinking I'm saying that a virus has volition? Only if that person is an idiot. So what's the problem?

"If monstrouness is a psychosis, calling it 'evil' is wrong, because you can't be 'evil' if you have no moral agency."

Sure I can. I assume you don't mean "can," but some form of "shouldn't."

Sorry, that came out all wrong, somehow. Somehow I seem to have quickly misread what you said as "you can't call it evil," which is not at all what you said. So strike everything I said. Sorry. :-(

Hitler was a really nice and swell guy, if you got to know him closer.
You can ask anyone that knew him close.

WDT- Well I heard that he was just the kind of guy the average German wanted to have a beer with. Maybe thats what you mean?

WDT, are you thinking of this?

CaseyL: "Further, genetic studies indicate that much of what we consider learned or unique personality traits are genetically based. You've all heard the stories of twins and triplets, separated and birth and raised in very different family situations, who wind up all having the same likes and dislikes - from something as trivial as taste in cars to something as vital as professions, and preferences in romantic partners."

A lot of twins "separated at birth" are actually raised by different branches of the same family or by separate families in the same town. The ones who actually have completely different backgrounds and never met each other until adulthood are few and far between.

I also find some of the similarities that get touted more in the Ripley's category of wild coincidence than anything else; I don't think there's a genetic preference for models of cars or for marrying women with the same name.

And the director of the Minnesota Twins study, which claims high, high genetic links for just about everything, says the study shows that twins are no more alike in romantic choices than non-twin siblings.

So I find your genetic assumptions dubious (without getting into questions as to whether sharing a womb environment may explain some of the similarities between twins as much as genes do).

And I think sociopaths, bad as they are, contribute a comparatively small portion of the evil done by "normal" people. Small enough that I don't think they offer much insight into the nature of evil.

Hilzoy, I greatly agree with your analysis (John Searle covered some of the same ground in a recent book on philosophy of mind). It reminds me of a post on another site, regarding rape, and making the point that even if men are genetically predisposed to it (which the writer didn't buy), it doesn't follow that they can't resist the impulse. Consider Thomas Kinkade in your other post: We all have a biological imperative to urinate, but we do have a choice whether we pee on Pooh or not.

Somehat tangential to this topic, but part of the reason why calling people 'evil' and 'bad' is perhaps now a less useful term than when these terms first arose is the general fragmentation of small communities in the last few hundred years. If I'm living in a small unchanging community (100-200 people) with someone it helps me on a day-to-day level to be able to tag them. If I identify certain individuals as 'evil' based on small unpleasant actions they have committed, then what I am actually saying is these guys are substantially more likely to do me harm than the average and I should use maximum safeguards in my dealings with them, even if they have not yet committed an act which would enable the community to punish them. This practical application of an general tag of 'evil' disappears in an anonymous liberal society (where severe punishment and 'tagging'only follows severly bad bad action), although it accosionally crops up in science-fiction (David Brin, in his 'Sundiver' has a system whereby approx 1% of the population are tagged as biologically pre-disposed to be violent/aggressive/unempathetic, and need to be kept away from aliens)

Incidentally and sadly, the ability to usefully tag someone as 'good' (and therefore someone who should be dealt with reasonably and usually given the benefit of the doubt) also disppears in this system. For example, in a village society someone like Virginia Postrel who donates a kidney to a friend would not just receive moral and spiritual benefits from their good act, but would also gain a general reputation as a good person which would be of practical benefit to them.

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