Who Is Really Evil? We Must Go beyond the Age-Old Rhetoric of Projecting Evil onto Others to Explain Human Actions That Do Harm. Concepts of Evil-And Consequent Conflict-Will Remain Part of the Human Condition until We Recognize Our Own Evil Acts and Learn Empathy and Understanding for Others

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Although we live in a modern world dominated by science and technology, age-old beliefs in good and evil are still widely held and continue to be part of our daily lives. Political leaders and media pundits bombarded us with the rhetoric of evil to explain the events of September 11, 2001, and the motives of the perpetrators. "This is a new kind of evil," U.S. President George W. Bush said, "and we will rid the world of evildoers."

Many view recent American actions as justifiable, perfectly understandable, and rational acts designed to destroy evil. But the efforts to destroy members of al Qaeda and the Taliban regime in Afghanistan also killed and injured civilians, demolished homes and places of work and worship, and created still more innocent victims.

And what of Osama bin Laden, his al Qaeda followers, and other violence-prone Islamic fundamentalists? Do they see themselves as evil incarnate? Hardly. They see themselves, just as we see ourselves, as righteous, moral, and sincere as they try to destroy what they regard as evil in the world. Their thinking, like ours, is held hostage by the rhetoric of evil.

What seems clear is that the peaceful resolution of conflicts requires that we go beyond the rhetoric of evil as the interpretation of conflict. This is not to say that there is no evil in the world. But people can learn to restrain their evil acts, and some principles of futures studies can help them.

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* Foresight to encourage people to consider the future consequences of their actions.

* An inclusive ethic to invite an objective appraisal of those consequences without demonizing one's opponents.

* Critical realism to lead people to be skeptical--especially to question their own beliefs.

The belief that we are always good and morally right and that our enemies are always totally and irredeemably evil is a belief that serves neither truth nor justice. It is often self-delusional and can lead us to commit horrible acts against others without recognizing the evil that we ourselves do. It has no place in a world of reason, much less in a world of peace and understanding, a world in which, we can hope, our grandchildren may one day live.

Understandable Evil

The pervasive view of the world as a struggle between good and evil is a major force in motivating and shaping human action. In every society on every continent, political, religious, educational, and other leaders urge people to seek good and to oppose evil. Everywhere, judgments of what is good and what is bad are the most important judgments that people make and the most central to their lives. Moreover, this overall view of the world as a mighty struggle between good and evil encourages people to believe in the evil of others.

But what is evil? Following Roy F. Baumeister's definitive work, Evil: Inside Human Cruelty and Violence, I define evil as human actions or in-actions that harm other people. Think of evil as a continuum, ranging from those acts that are horribly grotesque and monstrous in the harm and suffering that they cause to those that are relatively minor. Think of evil, too, as a choice that people make, even though the choice is frequently situated within a context of group pressures and social conventions.

Thus, evil involves the infliction of harm, sometimes intentional, on people. But its causes have been obscured by the myth of pure evil. Evil is not generally driven by some force or person relentlessly seeking to inflict harm, with no positive or comprehensible motive, deriving enjoyment from the suffering of others. Rather, evil is often the result of understandable acts of well-meaning, decent people.

The most terrible deeds are often done while people are engaged in the mundane tasks of everyday life. During his trial in Jerusalem, Adolf Eichmann was depicted as a monster for his role in the Nazi extermination program. …