On the 22nd July 2011, Anders Breivik killed 77 people in Norway by detonating a bomb in the capital Oslo and then hunting and executing attendees of a youth camp on the island of Utøya. He showed little reaction and no remorse as he shot dead victim after victim with a rifle over a period of more than an hour.
Press from around the world reported on the atrocity and the subsequent trial and conviction, and during this time, the word evil was repeatedly used to describe Breivik.
But is this man, who ended the life of 77 others, really evil and does evil even exist in this world? That’s what this article will aim to answer.
Is Evil Ever Inherent From Birth?
To trace a perpetrator of terrible acts back to their beginning, you’d find a helpless newborn baby. The question you will then be faced with is whether or not this baby, at the time of its birth, has that awful act pre-programmed within them. Are they just a ticking time-bomb waiting to commit unspeakable crimes?
Or, is it more true to say that this baby is pure and innocent at the point at which it enters this world and that any subsequent events are not inherent in it?
While it may seem like a straightforward choice (most people assume babies are free from evil), the reality is a little more complicated.
Our actions come from our brains and while the brain is plastic in that it can be shaped and molded by life, there is also a hard-wired element that comes from our genes. While few things are set in stone, a baby’s genetic makeup – and the brain that develops from it – will increase the propensity for certain behaviors and decrease the propensity for others as the child grows.
Think of each behavior as a die that has been loaded so that each outcome has a different chance, with some far more likely to come up that others. The brains of two unrelated children at birth will be very similar at a macroscopic level, but zoom in to a more detailed view and you can identify the differences.
One baby might have a brain structure that increases the odds of it growing into an adult with aggressive behavior patterns. Should this baby grow up to commit a heinous crime in adulthood, is it right to consider that person evil or are genetics enough of a reason to explain their actions?
Well, no; genetics alone cannot make a healthy person carry out a crime of any magnitude. There is another factor at play, which has just as big of an effect – potentially even more so: environment and experience.
From the moment a foetus becomes aware in the womb to the day a person dies, the world and everything in it can and does influence the way we behave. From major factors such as the quality of parenting you receive, to something small such as falling over in the school playground, your brain – and thus your personality – experiences change.
Expose a child to enough violence as they develop and they will be more likely to grow into a violent adult. The ability to commit abhorrent brutality and cruelty can be learned over time as the brain rewires itself and the shifts in brain structure can be sizeable. Eventually a person may have undergone such a monumental change that they carry out thoughts and desires for violence in the real world.
But take that same baby – regardless of its genes – and have it grow up in a different, more loving environment, and it is far more likely you will one day encounter a kind and loving adult.
With this in mind, can the violent adult be held any more responsible for his behavior than the loving adult? Can the former really be considered evil if the same person might have grown up so differently given alternate life experiences and opportunities?
In the end, it all boils down to the question of free will and whether humans are moral beings or whether they are merely conditioned to think and act in a certain way. This is not an easy question to answer and it is one that science is still grappling with.
Does Evil Exist In The Animal Kingdom?
To decide whether evil really exists in the world, perhaps we should look beyond humans and ask whether there are any truly evil animals out there.
It is possible to find examples of animals doing what might appear as evil to a human onlooker. Domestic cats will, for example, play with a mouse by trapping it, releasing it, and then chasing it again and biting or clawing it until the mouse lay dead or dying. It won’t then eat the mouse; it will just deposit it on the owner’s kitchen floor.
Dolphins are thought to be intelligent and kind creatures that have been known to protect humans from sharks in the open ocean. They can also be cold-hearted killers that torture porpoises for fun, leaving them with horrific, deadly wounds.
Even our close cousins the chimpanzee will kill others of its species in violent attacks involving gangs of multiple males. They don’t eat the victims, but rather kill to assert territorial ownership.
From a human perspective, these actions – and others like them – would be considered crimes. And yet, because other species carry them out, we talk about it in terms of being the natural order.
But aren’t human beings simply more evolved animals with larger brains capable of more complex thought? If so, is some level of violence and depravity not natural?
If this is not the case, then we are suggesting that our larger brains are reason enough for a new force – that of evil – to have evolved into existence. But if evolution comes from nature, then it surely must follow that evil comes from nature too.
You are left with two options – to assert that human beings fall outside of nature and are therefore able to embody such a concept as evil, or that our acts of heartlessness are nothing more than nature doing what nature has always done.
Which option do you take?
Are Natural Disasters Evil?
If you want to talk about the death and suffering of people, you need look no further than the never ending series of natural disasters that befall humanity. Millions have died as a result of flood, storm, earthquake, tsunami, and a whole host of other events.
If killing is evil, then surely natural disasters are the most evil things out there. But you probably don’t consider them as such do you?
You’d probably think of them as events without malice and without thought, and you’d be right to do so. Perhaps this is where human acts of depravity are different; perhaps carrying out such acts in a cold and calculating way distinguishes what is merely a natural occurrence from what is evil incarnate.
Natural disasters are the result of complex mechanical systems where small differences in initial conditions might avert disaster or make it more deadly. But, as was discussed earlier, different newborn brains that experience different things, can result in utterly distinct adult individuals.
So once again the question of responsibility and determinism comes into play. Are our brains and the very consciousnesses contained within them something that we have control over, or are we destined to live our lives in a certain way?
Are we just embodiments of the natural world that can vary from kindness to cruelty with just the smallest of changes in initial conditions?
Is Society Evil?
Let’s turn away from the individual for a moment and consider the role that society has to play in the existence of evil or lack thereof.
Take the modern world and the wealth and opulence that can be found in all corners of it. This wealth – in money, in food, in raw materials, in possessions – sits alongside utter desperation and unimaginable poverty.
Many believe that death from malnutrition, poor sanitation, and curable disease is completely avoidable; that society could alleviate all such suffering if it really wanted to.
If this is true – and it almost certainly is to some degree – then we, as a species, are willfully turning a blind eye and allowing people to die needlessly. And yet, nobody is accusing humanity – as a collective – of being evil.
Just because these callous actions are not carried out by a lone individual, does it make the result any different?
Similarly, not only are we neglecting to prevent death, we are now actually beginning to cause it too. Early deaths attributed to air pollution, climate change and smoking, among other things, have their roots in human culture.
We know smoking kills and yet we continue to allow the sale of cigarettes. We know the air in our cities is causing illness and death and yet we allow industry and motor vehicles to pollute. We know that climate change is starting to affect crop harvests, water supply, and forest fires, but we do little to halt the emission of greenhouse gasses.
Our society – made up of people just like you – is culpable for these and other forms of avoidable death. Does our collective thoughtlessness make us any different to those who actively take life? Are we superior merely due to the fact that we kill from a distance?
Perhaps we can fall back on the psychology of a society or of any group for that matter. Researchers have found that belonging to a group can make people abandon their personal moral devices and adopt behaviors that they would otherwise condemn.
Anonymity and a diminished sense of responsibility are among the reasons why groups act the way they do, but can we really look upon the actions of a group any differently than those of an individual?
Indeed, can society actually cause individual people to commit acts of immorality? It would appear so if you look at historic experiments such as those conducted in the 1960s at Yale University by psychologist Stanley Milgram.
In brief, Milgram convinced regular people from a wide variety of backgrounds to administer what they thought to be extremely painful electric shocks – as much as 450v – to other participants (who were actually actors).
65% of the participants administered the maximum electric shock, despite the actors being told to stop screaming once the shocks reached 330v. Essentially, then, the participants must have continued to shock what they believed were unconscious, incapacitated, or dead people.
This is social obedience at its extreme, but society and the people within it can greatly influence the behavior of ordinary members. Ask yourself whether you’d follow the instructions of a police officer even if they didn’t feel right.
Similarly, society makes us think in terms of different roles and the mentality of “us and them” can and does proliferate among most populations. Just look at the way that migrants are often viewed among native populations or the way that religious minorities are persecuted simply because of their faith.
To demonstrate this, professor Philip Zimbardo conducted an experiment which has come to be known as the Stanford prison experiment. In it, 12 volunteers played out the role of guards while a further 12 became their prisoners and Zimbardo himself took part as the prison’s superintendent.
After only 6 days, the experiment had to be halted because of the behavior being exhibited. The guards demonstrated an authoritarian approach to their mock prisoners and even subjected them to psychological torture and routine degradation.
And these 24 participants were chosen by Zimbardo out of an initial group of 75 volunteers because of their psychological stability!
This just goes to show the impact of group dynamics on human behavior and, in a way, goes to show how similar we are to our animal ancestors. We become like the chimpanzees discussed earlier by defending our own and attacking others.
This raises the question as to whether any activity carried out by a group can be blamed upon the individual members of that group.
Take, for example, the behavior of those involved in running Nazi concentration camps during WW2. These barbaric and brutal places are rightly considered as one of the most horrific creations man has ever thought up, but they were also large operations staffed by many people.
Could it be said that all such staff would have accepted or endured the plights of the prisoners had they not been a part of the groups in command? If these same people were picked up before the war and dropped somewhere else in the world, would they have watched as camps were liberated and been any less appalled by what was discovered?
For many people, such questions might be considered an affront to the suffering of those who lived and died in the camps, but they do raise an interesting point. After all, such camps were not the last mass atrocities ever carried out by human upon human – do such events actually go to show the power of group dynamics in committing acts of immorality?
Can Brain Trauma Make Someone Evil?
In the discussion above, a link between the brains of individuals and their violent, sometimes deadly, behavior was made. But this link need not come about through genetics or environmental factors alone.
There are various ways in which the brain can experience trauma and during these times, the personalities of such people can change in the most dramatic of ways.
Take the case of a devoted husband in the UK who, after 42 years of marriage, murdered his wife by repeatedly stabbing her at the home they shared. In 2006 he had fallen down the stairs and seriously damaged part of his frontal lobe. It took him months of therapy just to regain his speech and other language skills, but something else had been taken from him that day.
His wife and other family members had noticed a complete change of character from the warm, kind, and caring man he had been. His brain trauma had turned him into an aggressive, paranoid, money-obsessed person quite unlike his former self.
This tragic case demonstrates the connection between brain and personality; it shows how delicate the balance between the physical and mental world can be, and how lives can be changed by trauma to the brain.
The question, then, is whether this man who stabbed his wife multiple times until she was dead and then calmly phoned the police to admit his guilt, can be considered evil or whether his is just an unfortunate case that shows how anyone is capable of deplorable things given specific circumstances.
And this is not an isolated case by any means; there have been many crimes committed by people who have suffered brain injuries or trauma in one form or another.
It might even be worthwhile extending the brain trauma argument to those people with mental illnesses who are guilty of carrying out horrible acts upon others. Such people have brains that function abnormally and this can lead to outbursts that include violence and aggression. Many people have been killed, hurt, or abused at the hands of a perpetrator with a mental illness, but are these the acts of an evil force or merely another example of illicit behavior governed by our brains?
If Evil People Don’t Exist, Do Good People?
The idea of good battling evil is something that is woven throughout history into religion, literature, film, music and many other forms of expression. And this begs the question: do good and evil come together as a package or can you have one without the other?
Based upon all of the arguments so far, is it possible to suggest that there are people in this world who are inherently good, or are they simply those people who have brains and personalities shaped that way by their genes, environments, and life experiences?
Did Mother Teresa, for example, have goodness given to her by some outside influence or did she just develop that way? And can she even be universally considered as good? After all, she was a somewhat controversial figure who many would claim could have done more to alleviate suffering and promote peace than she did.
Proving the existence of good might, then, be just as difficult as proving the existence of evil. Can you think of anybody who is or was universally thought of as good?
Has The Word ‘Evil’ Been Blown Out Of Proportions?
Interestingly, the word ‘evil’ was not always used in the same context as it is today. While the modern use is typically to refer to some person or deed as abhorrent and morally reprehensible, when it first came to prominence, it was just a way of saying something was bad or expressing your disapproval.
In fact, the root of the word means “exceeding proper bounds” and has no affiliation with the wickedness we associate with evil today.
Down the centuries, evil would come to be used for more extreme cases of immoral behavior until it started to take on a meaning that had religious associations. Many people would now, when asked, define evil as having a root in the other-worldly; as a manifestation of the devil or some other demon of religious heritage.
As the meaning of the word has changed, has society become more open to the idea of the existence of evil as a something incarnate? Could the popular use of the word in the English language have perpetuated such a belief? Perhaps, but perhaps not; let’s not forget that they burned and drowned witches many centuries ago for supposedly possessing spirits – long before evil meant what it means today.
Maybe the ‘evil’ we are debating here is not something that we can attach a definition to; it might be something beyond our understanding. The word might just be our best attempt at describing the indescribable.
Either way, perhaps “does evil exist?” is not a sufficiently precise question. Perhaps we should, instead, be asking “is there an external force that drives people to commit such unspeakable deeds?”
Or perhaps we should not be asking if evil exists, but whether there are people who are evil incarnate or if it is merely their acts that can be described as evil. It is likely that many more people would be willing to accept the presence of evil in this world if it were attached to the act and not the person. If we return to the story of the man who murdered his wife after suffering brain trauma, for instance; it could be argued that while the murder was a truly evil act, the perpetrator was, in this case, as much a victim because he lost his freedom and liberty through no fault of his own.
One might even suggest that the forces that sculpt this world are the true sources of evil. The environments and events that people experience – particularly at a young age – shape their futures. Accidents or medical emergencies that lead to brain trauma cannot always be foreseen or controlled for. The fabric of society and the influence of others is not always in our control (as much as we might like to think otherwise). Could these be the things we should attach the word evil to?
With all this in mind, can an individual person ever be looked upon as evil or is life so complex with so great an impact on us, that our freedom to choose good from bad is taken away from us?
My personal view: after spending a great deal of time contemplating this article and researching it, I have come to the conclusion that evil is not a word that we can use to describe any single person. There are simply too many other factors to consider for me to accept that evil can be an inherent characteristic. For one, this would assert that a newborn baby can feel malice and hatred which I simply do not believe.
Instead, evil, if it does exist, can only do so in the acts and deeds of people, groups and society as a whole. There is no question that the brutality and depravity that is present in the world can be considered as utterly awful, but whether there is some indefinable force at work, I’m simply not sure.
While I could never rule out the presence of a purely evil element, I err on the side of this being unlikely.
What do you believe in? Does evil exist? Can people ever be thought of as evil? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.