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3rd April, 2012:  Michael Robertson  The Problem of Evil

The problem of evil has confounded moral philosophy since antiquity. At best, evil can be construed as the opposite of good, although in the light of contemporary neuroscience, evil could now considered as a meta-phenomena of disorders of empathy. Taking Hannah Arendt's observations of Adolf Eichmann as a starting point Michael expanda the concept of evil from that of failure of moral reflection to a more integrated model that considers perspectives from neuroscience, moral relativism, psychoanalysis and social contract theory. He argues that evil is a contextual phenomenon which is most clearly understood as empathic failure in a particular setting at a particular point in history.

Michael Robertson is a psychiatrist and Clinical Associate Professor of Psychiatric Ethics at the University of Sydney. His PhD examined ethics in relation to psychological trauma .His current research interests focus upon involuntary psychiatric treatment. He has appeared on "The Philosopher's Zone", "All in the Mind" and "Background Briefing" on ABC Radio National. He is currently working on his third book, a communitarian approach to ethics in mental health care" 


The Problem of Evil


In his memoirs of the Pacific War, former US Marine Eugene Sledge noted many of his comrades perpetrated gratuitous acts upon Japanese soldiers, both alive and dead. This behaviour included body mutilations and the souveniring of body parts. One famous Life Magazine photo from 1945 shows a woman sitting with the skull of a Japanese soldier, a “gift” posted to her by her Marine boyfriend.


Sledge wrote of one incident:

“…the Japanese wasn’t dead. He had been wounded severely in the back and couldn’t move his arms; otherwise he would have resisted to his last breath. The Japanese’s mouth glowed with huge gold-crowned teeth, and his captor wanted them. He put the point of his kabar on the base of a tooth and hit the handle with the palm of his hand. Because the Japanese was kicking his feet and thrashing about, the knife point glanced off the tooth and sank deeply into the victim’s mouth. The Marine cursed him and with a slash cut his cheeks open to each ear. He put his foot on the sufferer’s lower jaw and tried again. Blood poured out of the soldier’s mouth. He made a gurgling noise and thrashed wildly. I shouted, “Put the man out of his misery.” All I got for an answer was a cussing out. Another Marine ran up, put a bullet in the enemy soldier’s brain, and ended his agony. The scavenger grumbled and continued extracting his prizes undisturbed”


Contrast this with the sadistic crimes of John Bunting or Ivan Milat, depicted in the repulsive Australian films “Snowtown” and “Wolf Creek”. Sledge’s comrades were greeted as heroes and accorded social status, whereas Bunting and Milat, quite rightly, rot in jail.


Whilst the term “evil” has been readily used in describing the crimes of Bunting and Milat, no such quality has been applied to the behavior of the  Marines of Sledge’s regiment. How are we to understand this distinction? Is this a false dichotomy or an indication of the problematic nature of the construct of “evil”?


The first problem is the definition of evil. Biblical accounts place evil in contrast to a benign God, although questions of what makes an act evil turn on the causes of harms or suffering, which are not always human in origin. Manichean views acknowledged the dual presence of equipotent good and evil, with human nature being the product of the constant conflict between them. Augustine defined evil in terms of the absence of good, adopting the term “privatio boni” (the privation of good). Aquinas later qualified that this was a relative consideration i.e. evil is only evil in relation to a good. This is also the essence of the position taken by Spinoza on the question of evil. What is clear is that evil is a relative concept that has a social and cultural context. Nietzsche rejected the dichotomy entirely and condemned moral systems which were based upon the distinction. To Nietzsche, the qualities of evil such as aggression, wordliness and self-centeredness were at the core of exceptional people.


There have been numerous formulations of the problem of evil. Logical and evidential versions of the problem grapple with the seeming contradiction of an omniscient and benign God co-existing with evil. This is best stated by Hume”:

"Is he (God) willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then is he impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then is he malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil?"

Logical arguments tend to be circular and unconvincing whereas complex arguments about the coexistence of evil with an omnipotent God, called ‘theodicies’, attempt to reconcile the problem in terms of assuming that human free will is an intrinsic good, and that evil is the price paid for this. This would seem to tie with notions of Original Sin in The Book of Genesis.


I seek to situate my consideration of the problem of evil beyond theodicy, by describing evil in terms of it being a naturalistic quality or disposition to a lack of empathy, and then recasting evil as a social construction.


First, to establish the relevance of social context. We cannot legitimately approach problems in moral philosophy, such as the problem of evil, in a vacuum. Are evil acts universally seen as such, or must they be contextualized? During the Edo period in Japan in the Seventeenth Century, it is reputed that swordsman would test out new samurai swords on passers by in the street – this was the practice of “tameshigiri” translated as “trying out one’s new sword”. Whether this is apocryphal is not clear, although it is established that swordsman butchered live prisoners to test the soundness of newly manufactured swords. Whilst not an evil act in seventeenth century Japan, tameshigiri would clearly be seen as one in the post-industrial West. The philosopher Mary Midgely used tameshigiri as a proxy for an argument focused upon the moral justifications of the genital mutilation of infant girls in some Islamic nations in Africa and the Middle East. This segues into the slippery area of moral relativism. This is the notion that mores or values cannot be understood external to a cultural context. Critics of what philosopher Bernard Williams called “vulgar moral relativism” argue that it is an intellectually sloppy acceptance of “anything goes”.


There are, however, better formulations of moral relativism, the best being American philosopher David Wong’s concept of “sophisticated moral relativism”. In this construct, Wong argues that actions, customs or values must be seen as valid in terms of their instrumental value. In other words, if a greater good, such as the maintenance of social order, is served by a seemingly evil act, then this is justifiable. In this way, one could distinguish between public beheadings of homosexual men in Saudi Arabia and extrajudicial executions in Saddam’s Iraq.


So, in evaluating the moral status of an act, considering the social and historical context in which it is performed, is a critical step.


What does a psychiatrist have to say about this? Well, very little I am afraid, and it is entirely probable that the psychiatric discourse over evil complicates rather than resolves the matter. In psychiatry, evil resides in the construct of psychopathy. This is a term that has become mainstream, through the somewhat superficial application of the construct by inexperienced non-clinicians, to certain forms of malfeasant behavior attributed to multinational companies or white collar criminals. The essence of psychopathy is a gross lack of empathy, coupled with a behavioural repertoire including deceitfulness, exploitativeness, impulsiveness, superficial charm or glibness and a propensity to violation of social norms and laws. Psychopaths are, as was said of Lord Byron, “mad, bad and dangerous to know”. Psychopaths kill, maim, defraud and deceive their victims without remorse. Such behavior would conform to the folk conceptualization of evil. Psychopathic acts are frequently criminal, but psychopathy is by no means sine qua non of criminality. Remand centres and prisons are populated by inter alia, drug addicted, mentally ill or intellectually disabled people. Psychopaths make up maybe 10-15% of prison populations. Psychopathy is not, however, an account of evil and I would submit, psychiatry has little to contribute to resolving the problem of evil.


This issue came into sharp relief with the publication of the book Joe Cinque’s Consolation by Helen Garner in 2004. Garner’s account of the murder of Joe Cinque by his girlfriend Anu Singh, and subsequently Singh’s criminal trial, tells of a miscarriage of justice which serves as an indictment of the psychiatric constructions around the concept of evil. For reasons only known to Singh, she murdered Joe Cinque by poisoning him with a cocktail of opiates and sedatives. Her trial was characterized by the kind of dueling expert psychiatric opinion which has become the source of discontent in the community. In essence, Singh was convicted of a lesser offence in relation to the death of Joe Cinque, primarily due to the testimony of a psychiatrist, preferred by the presiding judge. The evidence of the psychiatrist in question averred that Singh was not criminally responsible for her behavior, due to a specious argument that her eating disorder and depression served as the basis of a so-called “diminished responsibility” plea. After the inconvenience of a few lost years in prison, Singh is now a law student at Sydney University, whilst, as Garner constantly refrains in the book “Joe Cinque is dead”. Garner questions the validity of the psychiatric discourse in regards to evil by asking “what happened to simple wickedness? Did such a thing exist, or did it disappear with the advent of psychiatry?”


So, it would seem that a psychiatrist can do little to enlighten us as to the problem of evil. If fact, psychiatric discourse on this area may cloud the issue with problematic questions of criminal responsibility and psychopathy, both of which are, ultimately, social constructions. 


My starting point is Hannah Arendt’s assertion of the “banality of evil”. Arendt travelled to Israel to attend the trial of Adolf Eichmann, the architect of the Final Solution. Eichmann presented as a somewhat unremarkable figure, and whilst much of his testimony is chilling, Arendt’s overall impression is that the man was little more than a highly efficient functionary. Arendt wrote that Eichmann was not Iago and not Macbeth, and nothing would be farther from his mind than to determine with Richard III to prove a villian. Except for an extraordinary diligence in looking out for his personal advancement, he had no motives at all…He merely, to put the matter colloquially, never realized what he was doing”.


Arendt’s formulation of evil has been criticised as being methodologically weak. Her earlier romantic relationship with Heidegger, whose Nazi sympathies are constantly invoked, has also been the origins of criticisms that she had “gone soft” on Eichmann. Regardless, the essence of Arendt’s analysis of Eichmann’s evil acts provides us with an archetype. Eichmann’s intention was to achieve an end as efficiently as possible. Arendt argues that despite his sense of exhilaration at the task, Eichmann took no pleasure in the suffering of the millions who went to their deaths in Birkenau, Sobibor or Treblinka. The core failing in Eichmann’s evil was that he did not reflect upon the nature of his acts and the suffering and ultimate annihilation of his victims. The Russian writer Vassily Grossman had witnessed the unrestrained evil of the genocidal war waged by the Nazis in the east, and saw this murderous cruelty as being distinct from a quality of simple human kindness. Whilst this appeals on primary consideration, we cannot term Eichmann or the members of SS Einsatzgruppen as merely “unkind”.


This is not a question of mere thoughtlessness or lack of reflection, but the failure to mentalise the experience of another. A failure of empathy.


This is the critical point in my thesis. If we take the archetype of evil as a failure of empathy, then we must consider empathy as being an innate or naturalistic quality of humanness.


How to define empathy? Most definitions acknowledge empathy as being the process of “knowing the experience of another”. Is such a thing possible? One can speculate or reflect upon how another may feel or experience, but this is not empathy, rather it is being empathic. In the final analysis, being empathic is the projection of one’s speculations of what it might be like to be another person in a situation or state of being, but this is not truly empathy. In psychoanalysis, empathy is achieved through a process termed “projective identification”, where the patient projects their experience onto the therapist in a complex pattern of interaction in an intensely intimate therapeutic relationship. Such interactions occur elsewhere in life and this may provide an account of the origin of empathy. A capacity to experience projective identification and recognize it as an intrinsic quality of humanness is a plausible, indeed compelling account of empathy. It would follow that an Eichmann or a Milat is in some way impervious to this process and this is an account of the empathic failure that manifests in their evil acts.


The current dominant paradigm in psychiatry and cognate disciplines is neuroscience. In a process of abiding reductionist approaches to traditional dilemmas in ethics, there is an emerging discipline of neuroethics. Neuroethics is the ethics of neuroscience and the neuroscience of ethics. Whether this is a distinct discourse in bioethics or merely old wine in new bottles remains to be seen. What is clear, is that there are several useful contributions from neuroscience that may assist in the understanding of empathy and empathic failure.


American psychologist Michael Gazzaniga described altruism and its empathic basis as emerging from a neurological process akin to
mirror neurons. A mirror neuron is a neuron that fires both when an animal acts and when the animal observes the same action performed by another. This clearly has a survival value for behaviors which are adaptive. In an analogous process described by Gazzaniga as "Simulation theory", the witnessing of the travails of another activates the observer’s brain’s limbic system, the circuitry of the brain which mediates emotion. In other words, the limbic system of an observer of another’s distress activates in the same pattern as if it were happening to them. In Gazzaniga’s theory, empathy and the subsequent moral agency that emerges from it can be redefined in terms of self-interest - moral action arises as the need to abolish the pain of the mirrored activation of the moral agent’s limbic system.


The other significant contribution from neuroscience is the work of Simon Baron-Cohen, whose research in the field of autism has inspired a theory of evil as being apropos of empathic failure. Baron-Cohen described an empathy circuit of numerous anatomical regions in the cortex and subcortex of the human brain. Like all phenomena in nature, there is a bell-curve distribution of the degree of activity of this circuit, varying from gross lack of empathy to those who literally feel the pain of others. Baron-Cohen described a taxonomy of empathy, with most of us being possessed of empathy circuits that distribute 2 standard deviations about a mean. Baron-Cohen argues that there may be a survival benefit in the suppression of the empathy circuit, in circumstances of threat or the need for pragmatic action for a greater good, however there is a baseline tone to the empathy circuit. Of interest here are those Baron-Cohen deems as having “zero empathy”. He distinguishes two types of zero empathy – positive and negative. The “zero positive” group are those who suffer autistic disorders and who are unable to develop a theory of mind. By contrast, the “zero negatives” are the psychopaths, whose empathic failure merges with other characterological flaws to create “evil”. Are the zero negative group intrinsically evil? If so we have a problem which strays into the free-will determinism dilemma. That is to say, Eichmann or Milat are evil through an accident of birth – they have not developed or are not possessed of a functional empathy circuit. What are the forensic implications of this?


Well, Gazzaniga saw this as a problem with the neuroethics discourse on evil and criminal responsibility. Gazzaniga puts it simply that questions of evil and criminal responsibility are socially constructed; the naturalistic assumptions of neuroscience have no place in resolving these and to do so represents a category error.


So, what of the problem of evil? I will construct my argument thus:

1.    Evil acts emerge through a process of empathic failure;

2.    Empathic failure is, in one regard, imperviousness to the process of projective identification;

3.    Empathy appears to have a neural substrate which has a bell distribution throughout the population;

4.    Those possessed of the zero negative empathy category lack empathy and have a propensity to perform evil acts.


Does this make these people intrinsically evil? By all indications, Eichmann was not conduct disordered as a child nor was he criminal in his dealings outside of his role in the Holocaust. This was also the case in the recently deceased war criminal John Demadjuk, who outside of his role as a guard at Sobibor vernichtslager, was an “ordinary man”. Milat, however, had a life-long history of behavioural disturbance and a propensity for sadistic violence. All of these men would meet the folk definition of “evil”, but in the case of Eichmann his evil acts are borne of his suspension of empathy to achieve an end. Milat appears to be intrinsically incapable of empathy, yet could be argued to be of diminished responsibility for his evil as, putatively, he has a dysfunctional empathy circuit, presumably coupled with other neurological dysfunctions. What of the comrades of Eugene Sledge who are brutal on the field of battle, but ordinary men elsewhere? What of rugby players, who are little moved by injuring opponents in tackles or other legitimate acts of violence on the sporting field?


Like the dilemma of free-will and responsibility, these are social constructions. Any account of evil appears to be predicated upon evil acts and their consequences of harms or suffering in specific social and historical contexts, as the origin of evil appears to be naturally determined. If you accept neuroscience, then the quality of evil is naturalistic and may serve as an argument against the responsibility for evil acts. But even the most elaborate neuroscience argument will not see the posthumous acquittal of Eichmann or the release of Milat or Bunting from prison.






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