The Ordinariness of Evil

The Ordinariness of Evil

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.
Free Market Fueled Evils

Free Market Fueled Evils

The free market is praised as the best way to organize human activities and the best way to ensure that progress is made in important fields. If we want to solve climate change, then we need the free market to fuel new technological innovations for clean energy. If we want to reduce poverty, then we need the free market to run at full power to ensure everyone can find employment. If we want better justice around the globe, then we need the free market to operate without borders so that everyone everywhere is competing in the same economic system which values good governance.
 
 
But the reality is that the free market doesn’t really care about all these good outcomes. The free market is indifferent. It is happy to exist and fuel great advances as well as great evils. Yuval Noah Harari uses the slave trade in his book Sapiens as an example of the indifference of the free market to human morals and values. He writes, “the slave trade was not controlled by any state or government. It was a purely economic enterprise, organized and financed by the free market according to the laws of supply and demand.”
 
 
A free market is great, and we can benefit from the efficiencies and effectiveness of the free market, but we have to realize that it doesn’t come with a pre-defined set of values, except for maybe supply and demand plus efficiency. The free market doesn’t care about biodiversity. It doesn’t care about climate change. It doesn’t care about slave labor and exploitation. It simply cares about supplying product to meet the demand in the most efficient way possible. This means that free markets can be subject to abuse, inequality, fraud, and worse. Harari continues, “this is the fly in the ointment of free market capitalism. It cannot ensure that profits are gained in a fair way, or distributed in a fair manner.”
 
 
For human societies, morals, equity, fairness, and other ideas and concepts are very important. We certainly could have a world with subjugated humans dominated by a few who are able to wrangle free market capitalism for their own benefit, but few would say that our species would truly be flourishing in that system. We could have a planet where all resources were available to the engine of free market capitalism, but when we have killed off almost all plant and animal species besides the select few we have decided are valuable to us, then we might not like the climate consequences or the consequences of not having new plants and animals to study for medicines and science. “Capitalism has killed millions out of cold indifference coupled with greed,” writes Harari. This has been our reality, and could continue to be our reality.
 
 
However, human societies have decided there are things that are more important than pure free market capitalism. For humans to survive and flourish, it is important that we continue to recognize concepts like liberty, equality, and global security in the face of free market capitalism. We can strive for efficiency, but we have to recognize that is not the only thing that matters for us. We cannot allow the world to be burned by free market capitalism, or we won’t like where we end up. The free market has fueled many evils, and it is up to humans as a collective to decide how we will continue to have a functioning market economy and prevent such evils from continuing in our lifetimes.

Transformation and Opinion

In many sections of his writing in, Meditations, Marcus Aurelius comments on how we react to things around us, and how we can recognize that the outside world does not truly affect who we are, but that our reactions and thoughts are what shape us as human beings.  Aurelius writes,

 

“But among the things readiest to thy hand to which thou shalt turn, let there be these, which are two.  One is that things do not touch the soul, for they are external and remain immovable; but our perturbations come only from the opinion which is within.  The other is that all these things, which thou seest, change immediately and will no longer be; and constantly bear in mind how many of these changes though hast already witnessed.  The universe is transformation; life is opinion.”

 

In this quote Aurelius is explaining the stoic idea that we can chose how to react to the world and events around us, and that we can control our emotions to better behave and think throughout our days and lifetime.  There are few things which truly change the brain and shape the way in which the brain functions, and for the most part, how we experience life will be determined by the decisions we make, and how we allow our choices and experiences define us.  We can label things as good or bad, but nothing truly is good or evil unless we decide in our mind that it is.

 

Aurelius is also speaking about the brevity of so many of our experiences in life.  It can often be hard to imagine being someplace else, or having different experiences, but whatever our current state is, we likely will live in a massively different state in the future. There are things such as chronic disease or the loss of family which will be permanent and unchangeable, but the way that those things affect us can be temporary and bearable.  Aurelius is reminding us that good or bad, we can change our lives and how we experience life through our thoughts and opinions. When we chose to bring a better perspective to our lives we can shape the lens through which we perceive our experiences, and we can chose whether things have positive or negative outcomes for ourselves.  Recognizing that things don’t shape us as much as our own mind shapes us shows the importance of mental fortitude, and remembering how quickly life transforms helps us build the grit needed to maintain our thoughts and positivity.