16 April 2012

Qualities of Evil

No, I have not fallen off the face of the earth.  I've just been bogged down with a severe case of writer's block and who gives a crap.  I think I may have finally vanquished my blahs and am writing again.  At the moment my writing priority is a class for the Grey School called "Concepts of Evil."  This is a total re-write of an old class written by Elizabeth Barrett.  Since she and I have rather different approaches to the subject I'm starting from square one.  Here is a lesson from the class called "Qualities of Evil."  Enjoy.

There are certain qualities of thought and action that seem to always be present when the term “evil” is justified: lack of empathy, dehumanization of the other, selfishness, and cruelty.  Let us explore each of these qualities.

Lack of Empathy

Empathy is the ability to recognize what someone else is thinking or feeling and, to a certain extent, to share those thoughts or feelings; it is what allows us to respond appropriately to the emotions of others.  In effect, empathy is what allows us to care for others.  When someone lacks empathy they do not accurately recognize or value the emotions of others.  Someone who lacks empathy may not recognize that another person is experiencing a particular emotion, or that person may recognize that someone else is experiencing an emotion but attaches no value to that fact.  People who lack empathy are often called “insensitive” because they don’t respond to the emotions of others the way most people think they should.  

Imagine that Sally and Jim are sitting in a cafe and Sally tells Jim that she her grandfather has passed away and she begins to cry.  If Jim had an average amount of empathy he would recognize that Sally was sad and might feel awkward watching her cry or feel moved to comfort her.  If Jim lacked empathy he might not realize that Sally was upset or he might see that she was upset but not really care.  Rather than feeling badly for her, he would act the same way as if Sally had said she bought a new pair of shoes.  

It is perfectly normal for people to lack empathy some of the time.  Everyone has days where they are stressed out, angry, distracted, tired, etc., when they just don’t have the mental or emotional energy to be terribly empathetic.  A temporary lack of empathy doesn’t make someone evil.  Lacking empathy all the time doesn’t necessarily make someone evil either.  There are people with certain neurological disorders who lack the ability to empathize with others; they cannot understand the emotions of others but it doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t care.  People can lack empathy, but still care how other people feel even if they don’t understand those feelings.  A tendency to evil arises when someone just doesn’t care what other people feel, when they attach no value to the emotions of others.  People who don’t care what other people feel with never see the wrongness in hurting others and that can lead to evil.

Dehumanization of the Other

Dehumanization is the process of making a person less than human.  When a person dehumanizes someone he mentally turns the other into something less than human, such as an animal, object, or enemy.  This usually happens when someone sees another person, “the other,” in negative ways which over time leads that person to see “the other” as undeserving of the consideration and kindness usually given to another person.  

Dehumanization is the process that allows someone to look at another human being rationalize doing terrible things to him.  Dehumanization can be personal (one person turning another into “the other”) or group (one group turning another group, or anyone not in the group, into “the other”).  For example, Jerry doesn’t like Lori.  In his mind, Jerry starts to think of Lori as a parasite, someone whose sole purpose is to get in his way and make his life difficult.  He ceases to think of Lori as another person, but as an enemy, something that needs to be defeated.  As a result instead of talking to Lori and trying to reach an agreement with her, Jerry goes out of his way to get in Lori’s way and make her life difficult because Jerry can’t “win” unless Lori “loses.”  This type of thinking also leads to feuds between groups of people.   If group A feels that its members have been wronged by group B, the members of group A may start thinking of the members of group B as a nebulous enemy, rather than individual people with their own unique thoughts and feelings.  This may lead members of group A to retaliate against random members of group B for the perceived wrong.  It is this sort of dehumanization that leads to feuds, hate crimes, and war.  Dehumanization takes away the soul and identity of another person and turns him into “the other.”


Selfishness goes hand in hand with lack of empathy and dehumanization.  As we all learned as children, selfishness is putting one’s own needs and desires above those of others.  As with lacking empathy, everyone has times when they act selfishly.  This is perfectly normal and, at the right times and in the right amounts, can even be healthy.  It is when selfishness is chronic that it becomes a problem.  We all know someone who always has to do things his or her own way and will always take what they want whenever they can, regardless of how it affects others.  Those who consistently put their needs and desires above those of others are unpleasant and often mean, but selfishness alone does not make someone evil.  It is when selfishness is combined with a lack of empathy and a tendency towards dehumanizing others it has disturbing implications.

Selfishness makes someone consider their own needs and wants to be more important than those of anyone else.  Couple that selfishness with a lack of empathy and the selfish person will not see the affects of their actions on others as being important or meaningful.  Combine that with a tendency towards dehumanization and anyone who stands between a selfish person and his or her goal becomes “the other,” a less than human obstacle with no value and no rights.  When they obstacle to someone’s goals is an object with no value and no rights, anything act against that object is justified and incredible harm is often a result.  When acted upon, the combination of lack of empathy, dehumanization, and selfishness is what leads to evil.  


Cruelty is a tendency to inflict pain or suffering on others due to indifference to or enjoyment of that pain.  Cruelty is seen as morally wrong in just about every culture on earth.  When you combine a tendency towards cruelty with the qualities above you have evil.  Any act that combines cruelty with a lack of empathy, dehumanization, and selfishness is going to be horrible - likely beyond horrible.  We will go into examples of this in subsequent lessons.

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