What a loaded question! Although I’m a bit more knowledgable after this first week of class, I think I might be even more confused. Defining evil isn’t an easy task, I do know that. The only certainty I have come to the conclusion of thus far is that evil consists of a variety of different components. Let me outline the components that my classmates and myself were able to conjure up in Wednesday’s class and explain them (to the best of my current knowledge).
Victim & Perpetrator
In order for an evil act to occur, it could be said that both a victim and a perpetrator need to be involved. Although it may seem basic, it is something that I think is important to note. We could choose to look at this component a bit deeper – What constitutes as a victim? In the most obvious sense the main scene that comes to mind is two human beings that create the victim/ perpetrator relationship. However, does the victim have to be human for a harmful act to be considered evil? Could the victim be a dog, rat, or a forest full of trees? I think most people would agree that the people that let their two dogs starve to death in a locked shed in Peterborough would be considered an evil act. What about the psychological experiments that are done on rats, monkeys, or rabbits in which mental and physical suffering are inflicted. Are they victims to evil acts conducted by perpetrators? Considering the environment, the forests that burned due to an individual intentionally setting them on fire – does it take the role as victim? Or would the victim be the animals that lost their habitat or the individuals that lost their homes? Is that even an evil act?
What I believe at this point in time is that in some way, shape or form there must be a victim and perpetrator for evil to exist – “evil exists in the eye of the beholder” (Baumeister, 1997)
Empathy (Erosion), Objectivity & Otherness
This idea of ’empathy erosion’ that Baron-Cohen writes about in his book “The Science of Evil” really resonated with me. Although there are more components to evil then just empathy (erosion), I think this concept allows us to have a better grasp on evil in the sense of understanding how “people are capable of causing extreme harm to one another” (Baron-Cohen, 2011). Corrosive emotions, personal beliefs, fear (particularly of power) are all areas that the ability to cause empathy erosion. The ability to turn another individual into an object is another dangerous recipe for empathy erosion. We look at people as objects when our empathy is switched off, or nonexistent which gives us the ability to completely disregard their emotions (Baron-Cohen, 2011). This also relates to the idea of “otherness”. We spoke in class about this being a “what came first, the chicken or the egg” scenario. If we are objectifying someone, we are then making them the “other” and vice versa. When an individual is able to view someone as an object/ ‘other’ then they then loose empathy towards them.
For example, when a man at a supermarket in Kenya cut off a woman’s finger while she was waiting in line – he wanted her wedding ring. He was able to completely objectify the woman and viewed the ring being on her finger as an inconvenience with a fairly easy fix (Baron-Cohen, 2011). This leads into my next point – motivation.
The majority of examples that I have read of things I would consider to be evil include the perpetrator having a motive. These motives obviously vary greatly, but it seems as though there is almost always something that is motivating the perpetrator. I would consider fear a motivating force that I have come across in a few examples in the readings. For example, a women cut off her partner’s sex organ in fear that he was going to continue to rape her. Although both acts are terrible, it could be said that she was motivated out of fear.
Intention and Action to Inflict Harm
For evil to occur in most cases, the perpetrator is completing the task with intent to harm the victim. For example, bumping into someone accidentally causing them to fall to the ground is unintentional. Approaching someone and shoving them down demonstrates the perpetrator having the intention to hurt victim. That being said, having intention and suggests that the individual has an understanding of their actions. What if the said perpetrator isn’t mentally capable of understanding the full impact of their actions? Does that mean that the action isn’t evil, that that individual isn’t evil, or both?
Power & Egotism
Evil seems to also exist when the relationship between the perpetrator and the victim demonstrates the perpetrator being in the position of power. I think that this position of power takes several different forms from such as physical, economic or government hierarchy to name a few. This also contributes to egotism (the negative, conceited/ arrogant type). Having power in a situation allows an individual to think highly of themselves. Baumeister (1997) explains that violence is often committed by those that think highly of themselves and feel that this view of themselves is being threatened. A highly inflated self-esteem = vulnerable ego = amplified possibility for violence.
Loss of Self-Control
A loss of self-control is what Baumeister (1997) states as the immediate cause for violence. Regardless of what the root causes or reasons are for people to be violent, they lash out when their inner restraints, or self-control, are weakened. There are countless reasons why an individual may loose their self-control but they aren’t relevant. All that matters within this component is that people are vulnerable to committing an evil act when they loose their self-control.
Where draw the line of what is evil and what isn’t? In terms of victims, I think it would really depend on the person that you are talking to. Different people, depending on a variety of different variables, would draw different lines of who or what would be considered a victim in an act where harm is inflicted. Human? Dog? Snake? Fish? Also, where is the line drawn for the magnitude of harm – when is it considered evil? Does a certain amount of pain or discomfort need to be present for the act to be evil? Then there is also this concept of the “magnitude gap” that Baumeister introduces to us. For the same event, the victim an the perpetrator usually have different ideas on “how bad” the situation was. This difference is considered the magnitude gap (Baumeister, 1997). I came across an article “Victim-perpetrator differences in reports of hurtful events” that relates to this component. It was discovered through this study that there were several differences in how each role reported a ‘hurtful’ event ( For instance, it was found that victims rated incidents as more intentionally hurtful and rated the perpetrator as being less remorseful compared to the ratings from the perpetrator.
Baron-Cohen, S. (2011). The science of evil: On empathy and the origins of cruelty. New York, NY: Basic Books.
Baumeister, R. (1997). Evil: Inside human cruelty and violence. New York, NY: W.H. Freeman and Company.
Jail for trio who let dogs starve to death. (2014, December 15). Retrieved from http://www.torontosun.com/2014/12/15/jail-for-trio-who-let-dogs-starve-to-death
Fenney, J., & Hill, A. (2006). Victim-perpetrator differences in reports of hurtful events. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 23(4), 587-608. doi:10.1177/0265407506065985