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From the archives

The March of the Cheezie

Our snacks as a history of ourselves

Model Behaviour

A Haida village as seen in a windy city

Beyond the City Limits

Diversity and rural Canada

Here, No Evil

Are there bad people or just bad deeds?

Joseph Heath

Evil: The Science behind Humanity’s Dark Side

Julia Shaw

Doubleday Canada

320 pages, softcover, ebook, and audiobook

Evil has always been a problem. Obviously it is a practical problem, in the sense that we would like people to be less evil. But it is a conceptual one as well. In fact, for over two thousand years theologians and philosophers have been puzzled by what they call “the problem of evil.”

One can see how the difficulty arises just by contemplating the traditional Christian view that God is perfectly good and infinitely powerful. If so, then it becomes a bit hard to see how so much suffering and woe managed to find its way into the world. If God is so good, why did he not create a world without evil?

The contradiction is obvious enough that it is often noticed by children. Parents usually respond by telling them that “God works in mysterious ways,” and that what we perceive to be evil may actually be good, when seen from a broader perspective. This is usually enough to silence children, but it’s not an answer that has satisfied many theologians. The more sophisticated view, first proposed by Saint Augustine, is the privation theory, which says that evil was not created by God, because it is not a thing — it is merely an absence, as darkness is an absence of light.

The very concept of “evil” is under attack.

U.S. Printing Co. (c. 1899) / Library of Congress

Human freedom, in this view, also involves a type of radical negation. It is our capacity to act contrary to nature that gives us the power to choose evil. What follows from this, however, is the somewhat peculiar view that evil actions are literally uncaused — because if evil acts belonged to the causal order, then they would be part of God’s creation, and so we would be back to wondering why God had created them.

This medieval metaphysics may sound like ancient history, but such ideas play an important role in contemporary society. Indeed, it has become a standard talking point of conservative politicians to insist, whenever someone goes on a shooting spree or commits some other particularly brutal crime, that the act was “evil” and, as such, does not admit of any explanation.

The idea that evil defies explanation is what motivated Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s strange response to the murder of fifteen-year-old Tina Fontaine in 2014: “I think we should not view this as a sociological phenomenon. We should view it as a crime.” Many people were puzzled by this. After all, isn’t crime a sociological phenomenon? What Harper meant was that we should not seek to understand the circumstances surrounding Fontaine’s death, we should simply focus on finding and punishing her killer.

Needless to say, this rather peculiar Christian aversion to explaining crime is not something that has stopped modern social scientists from investigating it. If you want to stop fires from occurring, the best way is to figure out what causes them, and then intervene before they begin. Similarly, if you want to stop evil actions, it stands to reason that you would want to find out what causes them too, and then intervene before they occur.

Sociologists have spent a great deal of time investigating these questions (indeed, criminology is a subdiscipline of sociology). Psychologists have also had a lot to say, especially when it comes to understanding the motives, or the states of mind, that drive people to perform evil deeds.

It did not take psychologists long to realize, when they began to study evil in earnest, that it is not a unitary phenomenon. Trying to sort humanity out into the “good ones” and the “bad ones” is a fool’s errand, since there is no single psychological trait that people who would conventionally be considered evil, such as murderers, all share.

As a result, conservatives are certainly not wrong to think that the concept of “evil” is under attack from modern social science. Most psychologists who work in this area do not use the term, mainly because it lumps together, unhelpfully, a number of very different psychological phenomena.

There are, correspondingly, a number of different theories. Simon Baron-Cohen, in The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty, argued that a lack of empathy is the central phenomenon. Roy Baumeister’s Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty offers a more pluralist perspective and questions the usefulness of the term. To the extent that Baumeister has a theory of evil, it is one that focuses on deficiencies of self-control.

To these we can now add Julia Shaw’s Evil: The Science behind Humanity’s Dark Side. Shaw, who earned her PhD in psychology at the University of British Columbia and now teaches at University College London, aims her book at a more popular audience. Her major objective is to show that evil cannot be explained by any specific motive, because the motives that drive people to commit evil deeds are far too commonplace.

This is a point that has been familiar since Sigmund Freud, who in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life made the important observation that people who suffer from neuroses are not all that different from everyone else, they just have more extreme manifestations of psychological propensities that we all share. In other words, we’re all crazy — it’s just that some people are a bit more so.

Shaw’s view of evil is approximately the same: we’re all evil, in that we all experience the same range of anti-social and violent impulses. The difference lies not at the level of motive but rather in how we deal with these impulses. Although Shaw does not draw this conclusion explicitly, the implications of the view put her roughly in the same camp as Baumeister. If we all have evil thoughts and desires, yet most people don’t act on them, it follows that what we call “evil” will be associated primarily with failures of inhibition. In other words, it’s all about self-control.

Shaw has another reason, however, for thinking that the term “evil” should be retired, which pushes her discussion beyond the claims made by Baron-Cohen or Baumeister and illustrates another reason that modern conservatives are extremely distrustful of the scientific approach to evil.

To put it in philosophical terms, Shaw thinks that causal explanations of actions undermine attributions of moral responsibility. The idea is that if scientists can provide a causal account of why you did what you did, and the causes are ones that are obviously beyond your control, then the action as well must be beyond your control. It follows (according to this view) that you cannot be held responsible for your action, and so it cannot be good or evil.

It is this line of thinking that explains why conservatives are so suspicious of people who look for “root causes” of crime, and why they describe sociology as “the science of excuses.” (Harper picked up on this refrain several times, repeating the somewhat hackneyed joke about not wanting “to commit sociology.”) The usual response to these accusations, from social scientists, has been to insist that the empirical question, of why people do what they do, is totally separate from the normative question, of whether they should be held responsible, and it is important not to confuse the two.

Shaw, however, seems happy to confuse them. Indeed, her book provides a perfect example of the tendency that conservatives worry about. She wants to retire the concept of “evil” partly because she thinks that we will be more reluctant to blame people for their actions once we better understand why they do what they do.

This idea — which is more of a presupposition than a claim — shows up at numerous points in Shaw’s discussion. Consider her chapter on pedophilia, which is by far the strongest in the book. As a psychology professor, she considers it important to distinguish the underlying paraphilias in a way that the law does not. There is, she notes, an enormous difference between those who are attracted to sexually mature individuals who happen to be below the legal age of consent and those who are aroused by prepubescent children. Only the latter are pedophiles, strictly speaking. Other famous “pedophiles,” such as Humbert of Lolita fame, are actually hebephiles, those who are sexually attracted to children undergoing puberty (typically ages eleven to fourteen).

Most people, she observes, experience their sexual preferences as involuntary. It is somewhat easy to forget, in this day and age, that the overwhelming majority of adults are teleiophilic and heterosexual, which means they have an exclusive sexual interest in mature individuals of the opposite sex. And, as most people who are like this can attest, at no point did they choose to be this way. The majority of pedophiles are, in this respect, exactly the same — they experience their sexual orientation as involuntary and unchosen.

Men also show a pronounced bias toward sexual attraction to young women. Since our brains are the product of evolution, it is not difficult to imagine an explanation for this. But then, as one would expect with any biological phenomenon, there will be a certain amount of variation around the mean. This has the predictable consequence that some men (and, Shaw claims, women) will exhibit chronophilias of various sorts: attraction to individuals outside the statistically normal age range.

This sober analysis is extremely helpful, given the current moral panic over pedophilia. When Shaw says that “throughout this chapter, ­calling someone a ‘paedophile’ is not an insult, it is ­simply a description of their sexual preference,” she is exhibiting appropriate scientific detachment. Unfortunately, she goes a step further. She ends the chapter with a call to “humanise” pedophiles, on the grounds that “if these interests have an innate, genetic root beyond any individual’s control,” she says, “can we really call them evil?”

One answer would be to say, “Yes, of course we can.” Shaw’s inclination, however, is to think that the biological origins of the propensity somehow mitigate responsibility, so that something can be evil only if a person chooses it. This carries her deep into “science of excuses” territory.

To make things even more confusing, Shaw’s willingness to make excuses for people is not unlimited. This is noticeable in her discussion of male aggression and violence. If we are looking to find the “genetic roots” of evil, one obvious place to start would be with the fact that most evil is perpetrated by people whose genome includes a Y chromosome. It has always been the case, everywhere and at all times, that the overwhelming majority of crime — not just violent crime, but all crime — is committed by men.

Following Shaw’s reasoning, it would follow that, since males do not choose to be born male, we cannot really call the violence they inflict upon others “evil.” And yet Shaw specifically refrains from drawing this conclusion. The problem, she says, with biological accounts of male violence is that “they can quite readily be used to argue ‘Well that’s just how men are’ ”— in other words, that they can be used to excuse this sort of evil, in precisely the way that Shaw is prepared to do with others throughout her book.

In order to get herself out of this difficulty, Shaw proceeds to argue (in what is undoubtedly the book’s weakest chapter) that the relevant differences between men and women do not have a biological basis but rather are due to socialization. There are several things wrong with this assertion, the most obvious being that Shaw is allowing her moral views, and in particular the range of her sympathies, to drive her assessment of the scientific evidence. Pedophiles deserve our understanding, by her account, because they’re struggling to deal with the hand they were dealt by fate; but men do not, because of some recent studies showing that the relationship between aggression and testosterone is more “complex” than initially thought.

This feels a lot like cherry-picking the scientific evidence in order to avoid confronting an obvious contradiction in her moral view. Shaw would have been better off avoiding these difficulties, by sticking to the science and leaving the free will problem to the philosophers and theologians.

Joseph Heath teaches philosophy at the University of Toronto. He is a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada.