Evil, The Mask of Free Will

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9780312312817Some time ago I read a book titled Evil: A Primer: A History of a Bad Idea, from Beelzebub to Bin Laden, and while I’m not a particularly philosophical man, I found the underlying point to be intriguing.[1]  The author, William Hart, explores the nature of evil as an idea, and in light of the horrible events of this past week (the Boston Marathon Bombing, poison being mailed to government officials and the West Texas fertilizer plant explosion) it seems a relevant topic for discussion.

The book in question, described as a primer, is understandably thin, though it didn’t have to be.  Hart goes through the motions of identifying the archetypal characters of evil, from the ultimate evil entity Satan or the Devil to the more esoteric streak of evil that hides within all of us.  He provides the reader with a comprehensive listing of evil in all its various forms.

His overarching point was that evil, as an idea, is ultimately subjective.  That evil is untenable and is the hiding place of bigotry, oppression and fear.  I think Hart to be right, but to my mind, he didn’t take his conclusions far enough.

I will posit today, that evil does not exist.  This will be an unpopular notion, but with some thought, it may just prove to be correct.

First, what is evil?  As an adjective it means profoundly immoral and malevolent, and this is frustratingly vague.  In religious context, evil is often perceived as a supernatural force that sits in contrast to the divine.  In Eastern spirituality, evil is the antagonistic counter-part of good, balancing the Yin and Yang.  But without the linguistic gymnastics needed to fully explore what evil is in philosophical terms, its simpler to say that evil is an idea, a judgement of the actions and attitudes of others.  And in that simple definition may lay the key to understanding that evil does not exist.

Actions, whether evil or not, are the product of life experience and mental conditioning, they are the outcome of choices.  These are the countless choices with which every person on earth is faced on a constant basis, each one holding the potential to be judged good or evil.  But what if our choices aren’t really our own?

Sam Harris free willIn another small but powerful book, Sam Harris, noted atheist, neuroscientist and celebrated author, explores the concept of free will.  The book titled, aptly enough, Free Will[2], presents a somewhat unorthodox view of the issue of free will.  Instead of trotting out the usual destiny or fate tripe, Harris offers a unique perspective on the notion that our choices are not really our own.

Harris posits that free will is an illusion, but not the product of perceptual limitations; he says simply, that any given person’s choices are dictated by their neurochemistry, which is in turn moulded by their genetics, their life experiences and their environment.  They make choices based on the perfect storm of neurochemistry found in their brains at the moment the choice is presented.   Even deliberate choices, ones we carefully measure are subject to the make-up of our brains.  This goes beyond mere influence, as the neurochemistry of our brains is the actual stuff of our thoughts.

Harris argues that free will is negated by the fact that any persons with the same neuro-chemical make up, drawing on the same life experience and mental conditioning would make the same choice as any other.  That is to say that a person who chooses to, say, plant and detonate a bomb, has been led to that decision by an inescapable litany of causal events that ultimately led to the mental conditions necessary for making that decision.  And that any other person who had undergone the same conditioning would inexorably make the same choice.  This inevitability of neurology seems to disprove the idea that we, as sentient beings, are in control of the progression of our lives.

If our choices are the cumulative effect of our experiences coupled with the specific neurobiology of our brains at the time of choosing, then what control do we really have over our will, our free will?

To make it perfectly clear, I am not saying that we are not responsible for the decisions we make, but the idea that our choices are dictated biologically rather than through the careful (or not-so-careful) deliberation of facts and outcomes does cast a different light on the notion of evil.

No one person views themselves as evil, their actions and motives, as known only to them, are the product of that same neural conditioning.  As observed from the perspective of another person, their choices and hence their actions can be judged to be good or evil, but isn’t that judgement voided by the notion that any other person, given the same neural conditioning, would make the same choice?

As Newton said, for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction, and our choices do have consequences.  Those consequences have an impact on our neural conditioning and therefore they have an impact on our decision making process in the future.  But at the moment of the choice, we may not be as free to guide our own lives as we thought.

Evil is a perspective, the person who chooses to do an evil act is drawing on their own life experiences and their choice is the inevitable culmination of countless states of matter over time, that ultimately become the person in question, making the choice in question.  Basically, if you were to walk a lifetime in their shoes, you would be making the same choices, and therein lays the problem.  If the choice to set and detonate a bomb is one we are all capable of, given the right circumstances, we can hardly call it an act of evil.  As I said, evil is a matter of perspective and from the perspective of the offender, the act or the choice is justified, if not selfish, and skewed by cultural or personal idiosyncrasies, but it is not evil per se.

In the end, I’m not sure I made any sense here, this is a subject my mind has wrestled with for years and I anticipate that the battle will rage on for many more.  Again, I do not condone or support the actions of the people responsible for such tragedies, and I believe that the consequences of such action should be swift and severe, but I’m not entirely sure that they (the people or the actions) can be labelled evil.

I invite anyone and everyone to voice their opinion on the above in the comment section below.



[1] Hart, William. Evil: A Primer: A History of a Bad Idea from Beelzebub to Bin Laden. Thomas Dunne Books. ISBN 10: 0312312814.

[2] Harris, Sam. Free Will. Free Press / Simon & Schuster. ISBN-10: 1451683405.

1 Response

  1. Martin J. Clemens says:

    To further my point: “There are no moral phenomena at all, but only a moral interpretation of phenomena.” – Friedrich Nietzsche

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