I think we generally underrate certain brain systems and processes that lead us to make sub-optimal decisions. There are a lot of things that we do which are perfectly logical and reasonable, but have very negative consequences. Examples include the use of single-use plastics, failing to help those who are in the greatest need, or driving polluting vehicles. We all know these things are not great, but various institutions and structures make it hard to change our behaviors, and our brain systems reinforce the decision-making processes that allow us to dismiss the harm we do or rationalize our decision not to make a change. We generally understand and accept this, but what we fail to realize is that this ordinary negativity isn’t that much different from great evil. The ordinariness of evil is something we don’t acknowledge, so consequently we fail to see how ordinary negativity is in line with the ordinariness of evil.
“Certain brain systems can cause both the best and worst in human behavior,” writes Steven Pinker in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature. Humans are naturally tribal and we are generally altruistic toward members of our own tribe. People who we think of as being on our team, as similar to us, and as our allies are likely to be the recipients of our benevolence and generosity. But our tribal nature can also make us xenophobic, racist, and oppressive to those who are different or who compete against us. We can be actively cruel to people who are different from us (even while pretending we are not – as in providing economic arguments for racist policies like redlining in real estate) or absentmindedly cruel (as in supporting NIMBY-ism in much of the United States today). What is important to recognize is that common thinking systems, bounded rationality, and either active or passive self-interest can perpetuate evil.
“Evil … is perpetrated by people who are mostly ordinary, and who respond to their circumstances, including provocations by the victim, in ways they feel are reasonable and just,” writes Pinker.
Most of the people who commit evil in this world are not like the movie villains we think about when we picture true evil. Most people are more or less average and have the capacity to be nice, generous, and kind as well as evil. This goes for those who actively commit atrocious evil and those who passively perpetuate evil. Quite often we are reacting to the world around us in understandable ways. This doesn’t mean we are always reacting in justifiable, healthy, or good ways, but we are reacting in human ways. There are some people who are pure evil, but most people who commit great atrocities are doing so in response to a range of factors. If we want to address the evil in the world today, we have to recognize the ordinariness of evil and change our approach. We have to continue to improve and adapt the institutions and structures which incentivize evil or passively allow evil to take place. We have to recognize that those who commit evil are not pure monsters, but were influenced by sometimes ordinary and banal factors. We have to accept that the way our brains work can make us great, but can also make us terrible.