Knights or Knaves, Angels or Devils? 1

Evil is real, and it does matter.

In interacting with our readers over the course of years, we at Scragged have found that there are profound disagreements over the fundamental nature of man.  Some of our readers argue that all men are inherently evil and have to be taught to do good.  Others don't seem to believe that evil exists at all, or if it does, it's because men and women who are inherently good are corrupted by society.

The fact that many people doubt the existence of evil was hammered home by Ingrid Betancourt, a kidnapped Colombian politician who was rescued from her FARC captors by the military.  She had been held captive for six years; her scars from being chained to trees give evidence of the cruelty of her kidnappers.

The Age quoted her as saying that she knows that every human being has an animal inside.

In any situation like the ones I experienced, perhaps any of us could do those kind of cruel things. For me it was like understanding what I couldn't understand before, how for example the Nazis, how (things like that) could have happened.  [emphasis added]

Right after her rescue, we wrote that Mrs. Betancourt had been treated badly.  The Tribune quoted what she said about her treatment by FARC:

"It was not treatment that you can give to a living being," Betancourt told France 2 television Thursday. She added: "I wouldn't have given the treatment I had to an animal, perhaps not even to a plant."

The New York Times follow-up reported that Mrs. Betancourt had been tortured and quoted her as saying that her captors had fallen into "diabolical behavior," adding, "It was so monstrous I think they themselves were disgusted." [emphasis added]

To name but one example, a couple of months after she was kidnapped, she was given her meal wrapped in a newspaper.  This was the first reading matter she'd seen since being snatched; she absorbed it eagerly.  It was the newspaper account of her father's funeral, brought especially to her for her reading pleasure.

Yep, even cartoon people have 'em.

Is Evil an Obsolete Concept?

Mrs. Betancourt said that she had not been able to understand what the Nazis did until she experienced evil treatment, up close and personal.  Having been mistreated for six years, however, she came to believe that evil men and women exist.

This seems strange because Mrs. Betancourt is a Catholic.  Ever since the days of St. Augustine, one of the early church fathers, Catholics have taught the doctrine of Original Sin which holds that all men and women are inclined to do evil from birth.  This concept is based on writings from the writings of ancient Hebrew prophets:

The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it? I the LORD search the heart, I try the reins, even to give every man according to his ways, and according to the fruit of his doings.

 - Jeremiah 17:9-10

The idea that deep down in their hearts, people were by nature wicked liars goes back at least 3,000 years.  The concept of original sin was amplified and clarified by the Apostle Paul around 50 AD:

As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one: There is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God. They are all gone out of the way, they are together become unprofitable; there is none that doeth good, no, not one.

 - Romans 3:10-12

When Paul wrote "as it is written," he was referring to much earlier teaching that by God's standards, all men were incurable sinners:

And enter not into judgment with thy servant: for in thy sight shall no man living be justified.

 - Psalm 143:2

For the Catholic church, these writings are authoritative in the sense that Catholics should accept them as received truth.  My Catholic friends assure me that the doctrine of original sin is taught extensively to young Catholics.  Thus, the Catholic church has believed and taught that men are inherently evil for nearly 2,000 years.

Given that she was presumably taught the doctrine of original sin while a child, why did Mrs. Betancourt have to undergo six years of torture in order to be able to understand the evil the Nazis did?  Why did she have to experience evil treatment before she could believe that any person, including herself, could do evil under the right circumstances?

It seems that to her and to most Europeans and Americans, the lessons about original sin were too abstract.  She didn't feel herself to be evil; why then should anyone else be evil?

Europeans are 60 years removed from the evils of WW II and the witnesses are dying out.  Given that they've experienced two generations of prosperity, why shouldn't today's young and middle-aged people feel optimistic about human nature?  We know that few Americans seem to understand evil.   In the aftermath of the assassinations, the New York Times quote of the day for Jan 14, 2011 was:

"It's hard for kids to understand that something like this could happen, and it's hard for me."

  - Mary Palma, at a roadside memorial to the victims of the Tucson shootings.

Have Americans completely forgotten history?  The Nazis murdered millions, Stalin and Mao tse Tung murdered tens of millions, and American's can't understand that a crazy leftist would murder 6 people?

Opposing Viewpoints

In the marketplace of ideas, original sin has encountered a competing explanation for human behavior called "secular humanism" which describes itself:

Secular humanists hold that ethics is consequential, to be judged by results. This is in contrast to so-called command ethics, in which right and wrong are defined in advance and attributed to divine authority. “No god will save us,” declared Humanist Manifesto II (1973), “we must save ourselves.” Secular humanists seek to develop and improve their ethical principles by examining the results they yield in the lives of real men and women.

What of good, evil, and sin?  The secular humanism web page states that evil in the religious sense of being inherent in human nature, does not exist:

To position themselves to make contributions to international justice and global ethics, philosophers should not only distance themselves from religious senses of evil, but also, they should abandon the idea of evil entirely and focus on injustices.  [emphasis added]

Politicians should heed that advice as well, for the concept of evil makes them see dangers when there are none and to ignore injustices where they are rampant. Further, politicians should turn to the complexities of international legal codes rather than to the oversimplifications of theological pronouncements.

Secular humanism states that the word "evil" is strictly a religious term which people should forget and instead concentrate on fighting "injustice."

Starting with the "noble savage" idea which originated in 1580, this long-term devaluation of the concept of evil has resulted in Americans and Europeans believing that humans are basically good by nature and that they're corrupted only by corrupted societies.  The meme of the "noble savage" combined with the devaluation of evil made it impossible for Mrs. Betancourt to understand Nazism, even though it had devastated her ancestral country of France not too long before she was born.

In his Harvard commencement address of June 8, 1978, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn warned of "an atmosphere of moral mediocrity, paralyzing man's noblest impulses" and a "tilt of freedom in the direction of evil ... It stems primarily out of a humanistic and benevolent concept according to which there is no evil inherent in human nature.”

Having spent more years being tortured in the Soviet Gulag than Mrs. Betancourt spent being tortured in the jungle, it would have been utterly impossible to convince Mr. Solzhenitsyn that evil was an obsolete concept and that we should focus on injustice.  Alas, the Harvard graduates, who were about to take their places on the first rung of the ladder which leads to the pinnacles of power of our ruling establishment, were not ready to believe that their liberal ideas could possibly lead to evil outcomes.  They booed him roundly.

Given that Mrs. Betancourt's recent experience demonstrates the reality of evil, one wonders what it will take to convince well-meaning Harvard graduates that evil is indeed abroad in our land.

Why it Matters

We've introduced two basically incompatible views of human nature.  Original sin, the far older idea, holds that men and women are inherently evil by nature.  Babies are born utterly selfish and have to be taught to behave honestly and ethically one at a time.  To people who believe this, most people are knaves and the welfare system is evil incarnate because it makes it possible for people to avoid work and urges them to become drains on society.

The competing "noble savage" view is that people are basically good and all suffering is brought about because of an unjust distribution of goods and services.  To this school of thought, people are knights seeking to do good.  Welfare relieves the injustice of poverty and is therefore an expression of all that is good in humankind.

The next article in this series explores some of the real-world consequences of these two views.

Will Offensicht is a staff writer for and an internationally published author by a different name.  Read other articles by Will Offensicht or other articles on Society.
Reader Comments

I might argue that humans are inherently both. Each human is born with character traits and instincts that, under various circumstances, can lead to both evil and good.

Humans that are allowed to always follow their own selfish desires (which are to be distinguished from self-interested desires) will become evil - as evil could be defined as complete and total selfishness.

We are born with great capacity to do good, but have a natural tendency to do evil that must be individually conquered on a daily basis.

February 9, 2011 10:30 AM

I agree, Fennoman. This black and white thinking of humans as "evil" or "good" is simplistic. Humans have a set of inherited traits that are designed to maximize the survivability and spread of their genes. Sometimes, these traits lead them to "good" behavior, and sometimes they lead them to "evil" behavior.

I would go so far as to say that humans are naturally amoral. Morality is defined and taught by society and accepted or rejected by the individual depending on a wide variety of factors.

February 25, 2011 9:17 AM

The New York Times is confused by the soldier who killed Afghan civilians.

When the Good Do Bad
No one of us is fundamentally evil. Neither are we fundamentally good. The perennial shock at tragedies like the Afghan massacre shows our confusion about human nature.

It’s always interesting to read the quotations of people who knew a mass murderer before he killed. They usually express complete bafflement that a person who seemed so kind and normal could do something so horrific.

Friends of Robert Bales, who is accused of massacring 16 Afghan civilians, have expressed similar thoughts. Friends and teachers describe him as caring, gregarious and self-confident before he — in the vague metaphor of common usage — apparently “snapped.” As one childhood friend told The Times: “That’s not our Bobby. Something horrible, horrible had to happen to him.”

Any of us would be shocked if someone we knew and admired killed children. But these days it’s especially hard to think through these situations because of the worldview that prevails in our culture.

According to this view, most people are naturally good, because nature is good. The monstrosities of the world are caused by the few people (like Hitler or Idi Amin) who are fundamentally warped and evil.

This worldview gives us an easy conscience, because we don’t have to contemplate the evil in ourselves. But when somebody who seems mostly good does something completely awful, we’re rendered mute or confused.

But of course it happens all the time. That’s because even people who contain reservoirs of compassion and neighborliness also possess a latent potential to commit murder.

David Buss of the University of Texas asked his students if they had ever thought seriously about killing someone, and if so, to write out their homicidal fantasies in an essay. He was astonished to find that 91 percent of the men and 84 percent of the women had detailed, vivid homicidal fantasies. He was even more astonished to learn how many steps some of his students had taken toward carrying them out.

One woman invited an abusive ex-boyfriend to dinner with thoughts of stabbing him in the chest. A young man in a fit of road rage pulled a baseball bat out of his trunk and would have pummeled his opponent if he hadn’t run away. Another young man planned the progression of his murder — crushing a former friend’s fingers, puncturing his lungs, then killing him.

These thoughts do not arise from playing violent video games, Buss argues. They occur because we are descended from creatures who killed to thrive and survive. We’re natural-born killers and the real question is not what makes people kill but what prevents them from doing so.

People who murder often live in situations that weaken sympathy and restraint. People who commit massacres, for example, often live with what the researchers call “forward panic.” After having endured a long period of fear, they find their enemies in a moment of vulnerability. Their fear turns to rage, and, as Steven Pinker writes in “The Better Angels of Our Nature,” they “explode in a savage frenzy.”

Serial killers are often charming, but have a high opinion of themselves that is not shared by the wider world. They are often extremely conscious of class and status and they develop venomous feelings toward people who do not pay them sufficient respect.

In centuries past most people would have been less shocked by the homicidal eruptions of formerly good men. That’s because people in those centuries grew up with a worldview that put sinfulness at the center of the human personality.

John Calvin believed that babies come out depraved (he was sort of right; the most violent stage of life is age 2). G. K. Chesterton wrote that the doctrine of original sin is the only part of Christian theology that can be proved.


March 20, 2012 7:23 AM

Sam, that's because it allows them to be victims. If humans are never fundamentally bad, they can blame something else when they do bad things.

"Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me"

March 20, 2012 7:31 AM
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