Teaching Our Children about Evil

By Victor, Jeffrey S. | The Humanist, July-August 2002 | Go to article overview

Teaching Our Children about Evil


Victor, Jeffrey S., The Humanist


Responding to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, George W. Bush asserted that Americans are fighting "evil." His way of thinking is reminiscent of Ronald Reagan's assertion that the Soviet Union was an "evil empire." What can we humanists understand about "evil" in the light of our recognition of the cultural relativism of values? What can we teach our children about the moral issue regarding killing thousands of innocent people? And in what sense, if any, is this kind of behavior "evil"?

My purpose here is to propose a preliminary outline for a view of evil derived from humanist philosophy and behavioral science, rather than from traditional religious preconceptions. I use the term evil merely to acknowledge an extreme opposite of what we conceive to be valued as good. My basic assumption is that there can be no genuine understanding of goodness in human behavior unless we also understand evil. And we need a clear understanding of evil in the world in order to be able to teach our children humanist values and have a meaningful rationale for fighting injustice and changing society for the better.

Humanists should avoid light-headed thinking that focuses on goodness in human behavior and ignores maliciousness. There is "evil" in the world and we need to struggle against it. The problem is in knowing what is truly "evil."

Creative and Destructive Potentials

We can begin with the recognition that neither good nor evil exist outside the human personality. Humanist morality can be anchored in sociobiological realities of the natural world. (In that sense, humanist morality is at least as "absolute" as a morality anchored in religious beliefs about the supernatural.) In the broadest sense, there are two essential dispositions for action: one that enhances human life; the other that destroys life. Our creative potential is to nurture, enhance, and enrich life. It is the impulse to comfort others and rejoice in their pleasure. The opposite disposition is our destructive potential to threaten, harm, impoverish, and destroy that which sustains life.

Such destructive potential arises out of a fundamental desire for self-preservation--to protect ourselves from material deprivation or the harm others might cause us, whether physical or emotional. In its extreme form, some philosophers have termed it the "will to power"--a desire to control other people as if they were mere physical objects in our environment to be manipulated solely for our personal satisfaction. This will to power is expressed in self-centered egotism and an indifference to the pain of others.

Our creative potential arises out of our human ability to empathize with others, to feel care and concern and a desire to nurture and help. (In an evolutionary sense, this need may be a prerequisite for group survival of families and other associations.) It is expressed in the various ways people reach out and enjoy life, in curiosity about our environment, and in the creation and appreciation of beauty.

These creative and destructive tendencies are merely potentials for action embedded in our ways of thinking and feeling. Only our actions, in the form of our behavior and communication, have any effect on other people and the world around us. Hostile thoughts and angry feelings can only frustrate the person experiencing them. Internally, the destructive potential is activated by the stress reaction. It is activated by the perception of a threat, particularly from other people.

In order to understand the psychodynamics of our destructive potential, it is useful to employ the concept of the "shadow" developed by psychoanalyst Carl Jung. The shadow refers to aspects of our self that we try to hide from others and often from our own self-awareness. It is that part of our self that we would rather not recognize because to do so would cause us emotional pain. …

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