Magazine article The Spectator

The Evil That Men Do

Magazine article The Spectator

The Evil That Men Do

Article excerpt

For personal reasons that it would be tedious to explain, my entire adult life, at least in its professional aspect, has been a search for the source of man's evil. Besides this question, all other questions - at least those pertaining to mankind - seem to me almost trivial. But I cannot say that I have answered the question to my own satisfaction, let alone to anyone else's. I am still mystified.

I do not mean that all men are evil; far from it. Most men are not, or at least not habitually. But all men are capable of evil. Evil is always lurking in the lair of man's heart, including my own, awaiting its chance to pounce; and if man were a computer, which of course some believe that he is, I believe that his default setting, as it were, would be to evil rather than to good.

I have seen evil on large scale and small: massacres in civil wars and the cruelties wilfully inflicted upon one another by men and women in the privacy of their homes. Evil, however, is not to be measured on a linear scale, like height or weight, but against a man's opportunity to commit it: a man who murders four people is not necessarily one fifth as evil as a man who kills 20, though the evil he has done is only one fifth as much. This explains why people who have committed the worst crimes are not necessarily the worst people, and why evil may inhere in petty deeds.

Sometimes I think evil exists only because we should be thoroughly bored without it; what literature or drama could there be without evil? Some men, though, are evil methodically, pedantically, boringly. They go about their evil as auditors go through accounts. They are conscientiously, not flamboyantly, evil.

In my youth I believed, along with Rousseau, that man was born good but had been corrupted by civilisation: in other words, that a social environment could be created in which, if man only had enough hot and cold running water and other such conveniences, amenities and benefits, he would be entirely benign. Indeed, in so far as I believed that man was the product of his environment, I believed that, in the right circumstances, he could not be other than benign, for such was his essential nature. I did not concern myself with such subtleties as to whether a being without the choice of evil could in any sense be said to be good. There would come a time, or so I thought, when arrangements would be so perfect that evil was impossible. This is clearly hogwash, however. Even the Swiss can be, indeed often are, evil.

Could evil be the result of what some of my patients, eager to exculpate themselves, call 'a chemical imbalance'? Would a little more serotonin transmission in the brains of the people of the world eliminate evil? There have been scientific conferences on the neurology of evil that suggested as much. If only we doctors prescribed enough Prozac, or ensured that babies had enough oxygen during childbirth, all would be sweetness and light: the householder would lie down with the burglar, the victim with the perpetrator.

No, this won't do. Evil is not banished by Prozac or more oxygen at birth. Perhaps we should look to evolutionary biology for our explanation. It is certainly fashionable to do so; the selfish gene's drive for replication, for example, is said to explain why stepfathers are much more likely to kill and abuse children in their household than biological fathers are. They want to clear the path, or reduce competition, for their own offspring. …

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