What exactly is evil?

“Evil begins when you treat people as things.” — Terry Pratchett

Every once in awhile you find a good quote that dovetails into everything you planned on talking about. Some might call it serendipity. Others might call it planning. It all just depends on how much credit you want to give to anyone on any given day.

Some people are more fascinated with evil than others. The biggest rage in the office is the series “Dahmer” on Netflix. Everyone has been trying to get me to watch, but I’d be watching solo at home. I don’t necessarily want to see evil or watch it described, but the idea of sociopaths and psychopaths interests me as someone that has a masters in counseling and has dabbled in some abnormal psychology.

I picked up a book at Barnes and Noble a few weeks ago and was finally able to crack it open. Mind you, I haven’t finished it but I found Science of Evil by Simon Baron-Cohen to be a fascinating read so far. The biggest breakthrough was in the terminology itself. He doesn’t use terms like good and evil. Instead he talked about empathy. Some people have a lot of it and some people have a little or zero real empathy.

As someone interested in mental health, this revelation brings a number of questions that I hope he has answers for. For instance, is empathy something innate that some people simply lack or is it something learned from our environment? For instance, he was able to show different parts of the brain and explain what was happening on a physiological level when someone’s empathy was impaired. Can we successfully teach empathy? Can we develop an empathy pill for those that have biological reasons for a lack of empathy?

What strikes me most of all is that terms like “good” and “evil” come with significant value judgments attached. Empathy can be measured. We may not have a perfect measurement, but we can certainly do better than “evil”. One can say that they are doing something for the good of mankind and yet conduct themselves without a shred of human empathy.

Cohen described it like a spotlight. Those that have empathy have two or more spotlights. One is on them and their thoughts and needs. The other spotlight(s) are on others and their thoughts and needs. Those with zero to no empathy have only one spotlight. There are times in all of our lives when we are down to one spotlight. It happens. Something horrible happens or we feel more vulnerable for one reason or another. However, that condition is just temporary. When our lives stabilize or the crisis abates then our empathy returns to normal.

Yet, what we are seeing is an increasing amount of people that are stuck on one spotlight. Again, I wish I knew whether this was learned behavior or somehow organic. What I do know is that this is a more substantial description of potentially dangerous people than simply calling them evil. After all, a person with a single spotlight can seem good as long as their ends seem in line with everyone else’s. When their interests and the interests of others collide then watch out. Until we can get a pill at the local pharmacy we need to make sure we don’t give those folks too much power.

Author: sbarzilla

I have written three books about baseball including The Hall of Fame Index. I also write for thefantatasyfix.com. You can follow me on twitter @sbarzilla.

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