Pity for Evil

But who prays for Satan? Who in eighteen centuries, has had the common humanity to pray for the one sinner that needed it most, our one fellow and brother who most needed a friend yet had not a single one, the one sinner among us all who had the highest and clearest right to every Christian’s daily and nightly prayers, for the plain and unassailable reason that his was the first and greatest need, he being among sinners the supremest?
– Mark Twain’s Autobiography.

Some of the most tragic biographies I’ve ever read are those of criminals and tyrants. Sometimes, the perpetrators of evil deserve as much sympathy as their victims.

I used to a social experiment in which I’d tell people the story of a nameless figure who often times abused, mistreated, sickly, and in constant suffering throughout their early lives. My listeners would react with sympathy until they found out that such a figure turned out to be Adolf Hitler or Joseph Stalin.

This isn’t to say these men weren’t monsters. I’m not apologizing for the tremendous horror and agony they wrought upon the world. I’m merely contemplating what sort of factors lead some individuals to become senselessly evil on that level (or any level, for that matter). Evil doesn’t emerge in a vacuum. What sort of things corrupt people in this way?

Usually, the evil-minded are either the product of lifelong trauma – such as poverty, abuse, social oppression, and lack of familial support – or the consequence of genetic and psychological factors that are beyond their control (think of psychopaths).

This leads me to wonder how different history would be if Hitler or Stalin were born into loving families within stable societies, without any mental problems. How many criminals would have been upstanding members of society was it not for an accident of birth placing them in awful conditions.

Indeed, evil actions are rarely intentional in the way most people imagine. That is to say, no one ever believes that what they do is wrong. Humans have a way of rationalizing or self-justifying every action, regardless of how clearly heinous it may seem to everyone else

Some people grew up in a world that was always cruel, so why not behave accordingly? Others never had a chance to understand certain moral and ethical concepts, so how are they to know right from wrong? And many have poorly understood behavioral problems that they cannot help.

In any case, evil for its own sake is a myth, and the few individuals who have ever claimed to do bad things for no good reason are mentally abnormal to begin with.

I sometimes ponder how would’ve turned out if I was born and raised in more negative circumstances. What if I was regularly abused? What if I never knew love, or never received moral and ethical guidance? What if all I ever experienced was hardship, hatred, and apathy? What if I was born with the same neurological abnormalities that lead some people to lack empathy or self-control? Would I have ended up as the person I am now?

It’s highly doubtful; although that’s not to say everyone who experiences these things is guaranteed to be immoral and dysfunctional. We have no choice but to work with the cards we are dealt. We’re mostly shaped by forces beyond our control – the culture, society, time period, and socioeconomic level we are born and raised into at random. All we can do is adapt, and even then, some people are better equipped psychosocially than others.

This leads me to wonder: to what degree can we blame immoral people for their actions? If they never had anyone to guide them properly, or were born with a biologically embedded inability to reason or feel, are they really at fault for what they turn out to be? If their minds were warped by deterministic influences, can they really be said to have any control over their fate?

If so, to what extent – what’s the subsequent solution to the problem of evil, and how do we treat the delinquents of our society? Regardless of evil’s origins, or what solutions (if any) there may be to address it, I think we can agree that the greatest tragedy of evil is that exists in the first place, and that otherwise decent people fall into it for any number of reasons. Will it always be a scourge of the human condition forever? Is it an intractable part of human nature, if there is such a thing.

As always, thoughts and suggestions are welcomed.

3 comments on “Pity for Evil

  1. Pingback: good news « JRFibonacci's blog: partnering with reality

  2. Pingback: What is Proper Justice for the “Unintentionally” Evil? | Sarvodaya

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