“Am I evil? Yes, I am. Am I evil? I am Man, yes I am”, Metallica’s James Hetfield growled a contemplative accusation at the human race in the bootleg favourite from the late 80s. As the unending ticker tape of news feeds underscore the surge in violence within the last two decades, we are left asking where has humanity gone? As a sign of the times, Mahatma Ghandi is remembered to have said, “You must not lose faith in humanity. Humanity is an ocean; if a few drops of the ocean are dirty, the ocean does not become dirty”.
Well, we have all read about the foul state of the 7 seas.
Setting aside acerbic analogies for a moment, one is left to ponder the millennia-old question of whether human nature is painted in a lighter or darker shade; of whether there lurks within each of us a capacity for unspeakable evil.
Is the Concept of Good and Evil Natural?
Society has a pretty good idea of what constitutes right and wrong, good and evil. Does that make it a construct of a human mind, or are there natural laws of morality that apply universally? To answer that question, studies have been conducted on babies and with animals.
The best way of analysing our fundamental characteristics is to study a version of ourselves at our most untainted – as babies. Without the prejudice of cultural influence, not having read books, watched television or even having any friends, the minds of babies are authoritative showcases of human nature. These studies, at “The Baby Lab” at Yale University have shown that babies as young as 3 months old are able to discern good from evil. Bucking the often-held belief that babies are “blank slates”, the tests used puppets performing good and bad behaviours, and showed that in more than 80% of the times that the scenarios were played out, babies chose the “good” puppet over the “bad” puppet. Yale’s professor of psychology, Paul Bloom wrote in his book, “Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil” that, “Humans are born with a hard-wired morality, a sense of good and evil is bred in the bone”. Paul goes on to further emphasise that, “We are naturally moral beings, but our environment can enhance — or sadly, degrade — this innate moral sense”.
A similar investigation probed the possibility that animals too possessed a sense of good and evil. This time, mammals with a high degree of intellect such as elephants and chimpanzees were the test subjects. A Prof Marc Bekoff, an ecologist at University of Colorado, observed that all mammals innately understand morals and it tempers the behaviour of aggressive and competitive animals enough to allow social cohesion. In his 45-year career, he has collected evidence that shows how different species of animals appear to possess an understanding of fairness, empathy and altruism. In his book, “Wild Justice”, he details instances of dolphins helping humans to escape from sharks and elephants that have assisted antelope break out of their enclosures. In more controlled tests, Diana monkeys were trained to use coins or tokens to obtain food. When new monkeys were introduced that had not learnt how to procure a meal in this way, the more experienced ones where shown imparting this knowledge to them.
Coaxing Evil from Within
Having established that a moral benchmark exists in the natural world, we are faced with the unsettling question of what then brings out the worst in us? Is it herd instinct, a natural predilection to chaos or some mental and physical anomaly? Under what set of circumstances will an individual act without regard for morality?
World War 2 brought out darkest face of mankind on a scale not seen before or since. Names like Dr Josef Mengele, his Japanese contemporary Dr. Shirō Ishii and Heinrich Himmler are associated with unspeakable atrocities but war crimes also frequently occurred on both sides of the warring factions. Allied forces have also been found guilty of rape, torture or outright murder. For those who were brought to trial, the defense of “just following orders” became so commonplace that it was named the “Nuremburg Defense” – named after the post World War 2 war crimes tribunal. Similarly, the National Socialist propaganda and the prevailing social climate of the time has been blamed for stirring up an aggressive or at least ambivalent attitude towards Jews and others deemed as undesirables. On the part of the victors, perpetration of war crimes was justified in the minds of the culprits on the grounds of revenge, victor’s privilege, survival or just because of a sense of impunity.
In a more recent social experiment, performance artist Marina Abramović subjected herself to the whims of her audience for 6 hours. She laid out 72 items on a table and invited the public to use them on her in any way they saw fit. Some of the items were harmless; a feather boa, some olive oil, roses but others, such as a loaded pistol were deadly. Her treatment progressed from innocuous but progresses towards one of a sexual nature and culminated in her walking out in blood and tears.
If nothing else, it can then be said that humans are opportunistic. It takes the removal of societal opprobrium and an assurance of impunity to induce the emergence of Mr. Hyde from Dr. Jekyll. This is documented in what is known as the crime opportunity theory.
As social creatures, systems of government, laws and religion have emerged to keep our dark side in check. John Armstrong, a philosopher at the Melbourne Business School sees a chasm between human aspiration for justice and ethics and the laws of nature. From an evolutionary perspective, the traits that many would consider bad or even evil now are the ones that provided an advantage in survival or propagation. Consider the example of an aggressive or ruthless individual such as the sadistic ruler, Vlad the Impaler that rises to prominence over his enemy in a campaign of fear and intimidation. His calculated displays of gore and torture so shocked his adversaries that the gut wrenching sight of his tactics would stop armies in its tracks. On a less extreme scale, cheating to get ahead or promiscuity both in the animal kingdom and the human world has brought advantages if the transgressions were not discovered. We only have to look towards prominent figures that have fallen from grace, such as Lance Armstrong and Bernard Madoff to see how ill gotten gains can provide a strong motivation for bad behaviour. However, although there is an reason for the varying instances of “evil” observed in everyone of us, we have to strive towards our better judgment to keep ourselves in check.